Winning the Battles in the ''War Room''
Team president Donnie Walsh (R foreground) is surrounded by the team's scouts in the war room Wednesday.
INDIANAPOLIS, June 27, 2001 - An hour before the NBA Draft, the atmosphere in the Pacers' draft conference room is relatively relaxed, the calm before the storm.
Not a shot has been fired, but the war room is ready. Before the night is through, the Pacers will have won both of their battles.
Scouts, coaches and team officials wander in and out of the room, some grabbing a bite to eat, others stretching their legs and getting a last bit of fresh air before settling in for the long evening's proceedings.
For the scouts, a year of work is culminating on this night, a year of traveling around the country, seeing hundreds of prospects play in locales from small-town high school gyms to major college campuses to European towns you can't pronounce, filing and updating reports and adjusting their complex rating system.
At this moment, you'd think they'd be nervous. In this room, at least, they are not.
''We feel confident we've done our jobs,'' said scout Steve Yoder, a former head coach at Wisconsin and Ball State. ''But until we've made our pick, we know we're not finished. Until then, we'll be anxious.''
Al Menendez, a veteran whose NBA career as a coach and scout has spanned three decades, puts it in perspective.
''You're not nervous when you're picking 41st and you have two hours to wait,'' Menendez said. ''If we were picking first, I'd be nervous.''
The room itself is a combination of old-school research and new-age technology. Each scout has a 5-inch binder with hundreds of pages of scouting reports and profiles on every player who might be drafted, as well as a separate booklet with hundreds of pages of primarily biographical information. The scouts also bring their own personal ratings systems, including some who use index cards. All, however, have laptop computers so they can be plugged into the scouting program.
A huge conference table with no less than seven telephones dominates the middle of the room, surrounded by leather chairs filled with the personnel from the team's basketball operations department. Team President Donnie Walsh is flanked by General Manager David Kahn and Senior Vice President David Morway. Scouts Menendez, Yoder, George Felton, York Larese, Mel Daniels, Jimmy Powell, Misho Ostarcevic and Joe Qatato are all present. So is the coaching staff, head man Isiah Thomas and assistants Brendan Malone, Jim Staak and Dan Burke.
At one end of the table sits Scott Hornaday, a computer consultant who designed the team's scouting program, which is projected on a large screen in one corner of the room. In the other corner is a more traditional draft board, with the first-round projections hand-written with erasable markers, along with the 10 picks just prior to the Pacers' selection at No. 41.
Also on the board is a Pacers depth chart, with circles indicating blank spots at two critical backup positions: center and point guard. Time will tell if either, or both, of those circles will be filled.
From left, scouts Al Menendez, York Larese, Steve Yoder, Misho Ostarcevic and George Felton at their seats in the war room
The phones are ringing regularly, but not constantly. Not all are with trade offers, though the Pacers have spent much of the previous week actively trying to trade into the middle of the first round in order to acquire Iowa State point guard Jamaal Tinsley. Those talks have cooled, leading Walsh to enter the draft skeptical that the move will be made.
Agents also call to see if their clients are still being considered. Scouts and coaches from other teams check in to cross-check information and share the buzz.
Fifteen minutes before the draft is to begin, the marker board is erased by Larese, leaving nothing but blank spaces next to the numbers one through 28. Everyone has settled into his appointed seat, and the room is growing quieter until Brendan Malone breaks the tension.
''Put your helmets on, hit those beaches and stay down,'' says Malone, drawing a laugh.
At 6:30, Commissioner David Stern steps to the podium and the draft begins.
Walsh rolls up his sleeves, looks around and says, ''We've got cigarettes; we've got diet cola; we're ready to go.''
The first few picks move relatively quickly and quietly, with few surprises. When Golden State selects Jason Richardson of Michigan State at No. 5, a few eyebrows raise, however. ''Things are happening now,'' Thomas says.
Soon, the phone rings, this time for Kahn, who hangs up and makes an announcement to the room: the Bulls have traded Elton Brand to the Clippers for No. 2 overall pick Tyson Chandler. The reaction in the room is a stunned silence, broken by Morway, who says only, ''Wow.''
As the first round moves along, the phones heat up as it becomes clear Tinsley is slipping and could be available at a lower pick, which means the Pacers have renewed hope of acquiring him. Only one guard - Richardson - is taken in the first 20 picks, which plays well into the Pacers' plans. Portland at No. 19 is a possibility but opts to keep the pick when Zach Randolph, a forward from Michigan State, is available.
One by one, it appears the possibilities are slipping by as teams opt to hold onto their picks. Though TNT analyst Peter Vecsey reports between the 18th and 19th picks that Cleveland will deal the No. 20 choice to either the Pacers, New York or New Jersey, it comes as a surprise in the war room. Kahn leans back in his chair, parts his hands, and says simply, ''It's not us.''
Then comes a blockbuster.
''Announcement,'' Kahn says, hanging up the phone at 8:20. ''Houston has traded all three of its picks (13, 18 and 23) to New Jersey for Eddie Griffin.''
That throws a wrinkle into the proceedings for the Pacers. All of a sudden, the Nets may be in position to draft Tinsley at No. 23, which means another phone call has to be made. There is palpable tension when Stern steps to the podium to announce Boston's pick at No. 21, but it isn't Tinsley. It's another guard, Joe Forte of North Carolina. Then comes Orlando, and the scene is repeated, silence as Stern steps to the mike. When the choice is Jeryl Sasser, Morway pumps his first.
Iowa State point guard Jamaal Tinsley was the Pacers' target all along
Tinsley is still out there; the game is still on.
The TNT feed is not interrupted for commercials in NBA war rooms. Everything the announcers say during the commercial breaks is heard. Just before Sasser's name is called, Charles Barkley offers an impromptu commentary. ''I really love this kid Tinsley,'' he says.
Hearing this, Walsh leans back, pulls the phone from his ear, looks at Barkley's face on the screen and says, ''Shut up, will you?''
But the run continues when the 23rd pick is Brandon Armstrong, a guard from Pepperdine. That brings up Utah, which is also interested in a young point guard. But they take Raul Lopez from Spain.
Now, Walsh, Kahn and Morway are all on the phones, talking to every team that comes up, trying to set up a deal that will land Tinsley. Bad news arrives when Kahn learns Atlanta, with the 27th pick, intends to take him. That means the only two options are Sacramento at 25 and Philadelphia at 26, with time running out.
Just when all appears lost, the phone rings, and the urgency in Kahn's voice instantly silences the room.
''Yes, we want it,'' he says, ''we absolutely want it.''
The Hawks have called, and the 27th pick is on the table. The Pacers have offered a future first-round pick, protected against the lottery.
Chicago is also on the phone, offering the 30th pick, the first in the second round. There is a chance the Pacers could still get Tinsley there, but as the seconds tick off the clock, Walsh makes the snap decision.
''We want the kid,'' he says. ''Do the deal.''
And so it is done; the Pacers have gotten their man.
No champagne is uncorked. In fact, the mood in the room is one of stunned surprise. Thomas breaks it up when he rises, reaches across the table, smiles broadly and shakes Walsh's hand.
There is one small glitch. Because the 27th pick was originally part of the Vancouver-Atlanta trade involving Shareef Abdur-Rahim, it can not be announced until July 18 because of salary cap rules. Though Hawks general manager Pete Babcock already has gone on national television to discuss the deal, the Pacers must first get permission from the NBA to announce the trade to the local media. The league allows the announcement, but the team can not bring in Tinsley until the deal is official.
That means he'll miss the team's rookie and free agent camp from July 11-15, and the first two days of the Shaw's Pro Summer League in Boston. But, as Kahn says later, ''it's a small price to pay.''
Immediately, the focus shifts to the second round. The Pacers have targeted Jamison Brewer, a 6-4 point guard from Auburn who was a relative unknown until catching the eyes of several teams with a strong showing in the Chicago pre-draft camp. But they also have him projected to go at No. 34, to Atlanta, so it is time to hit the phones again and see if a suitable pick can be acquired.
And so the game begins anew.
Arenas goes quickly, to Golden State at No. 31, so the Pacers' sights are set squarely now on Brewer. When Atlanta passes him to take Terrance Morris of Maryland at No. 34, both Morway and Menendez thrust their arms into the air. They also fear Detroit at No. 38, but the Pistons also passed on Brewer, as did New York and Seattle with the next two picks.
Once Seattle announced the selection of another point guard, Earl Watson of UCLA, it took the Pacers about 15 seconds to tell the NBA operations department their choice. They spent four hours waiting for the moment, they weren't about to delay it any further.
The draft is done, and the Pacers have gotten the two players they had hoped most to obtain; when it began, they were skeptical about being able to acquire either.
Menendez summed up the evening well. He leaned back in his chair, smiled and said, ''It couldn't have been a better day.''Contact Conrad Brunner at Cbrunner@pacers.com