by Conrad Brunner
May 9, 2001
INDIANAPOLIS, May 9, 2001 - Unsolicited testimonials generally don't appeal to Donnie Walsh. He's not a pitchman, not a campaigner, not a tub-thumper.
Just this once, he couldn't help himself. He gladly climbed on top of the soapbox to trumpet the praises of Reggie Miller.
''I've probably waited 14 years to say this: Reggie Miller deserves special recognition beyond what recognition he's gotten before,'' Walsh said. ''I think, if you're going to define what being a pro is, that's Reggie Miller.''
This was not the most productive individual regular season of Miller's career; in fact, it leaned toward the low end of the scale. Nor was it particularly memorable in terms of team success; the Pacers needed a strong finish just to reach .500 and qualify for the playoffs.
Rarely, however, has he performed with more honor. With the roster re-built around him, with his two closest friends in the locker room (Mark Jackson and Dale Davis) moved to other teams, with seasoned veterans replaced by unproven youth, Miller found himself thrust into a very different role, on and off the court. He had to carry the usual portion of the offense, but while doing so also took on the task of directing his teammates on the floor, pointing out their mistakes, getting them into the right places.
And he did so without the hint of complaint, which was enormously significant. Had Miller copped even a mild attitude about the rebuilding movement, the team could've splintered. Instead, he stayed with the program and helped keep the players united through some trying times. In many ways, he became a legend-in-residence.
When the playoffs rolled around, he let the world know he's still a force to be reckoned with. He hit the game-winning shot with 2.9 seconds left in the opener against Philadelphia, then averaged 36.0 points in the next three games - but because he received precious little help from his teammates, the Pacers lost all three and were eliminated in the first round for the first time since 1996 (when he was hampered by an eye injury).
''There wasn't a player who I interviewed (after the season) that didn't say to me that they wished they could've played better because, after watching Reggie elevate his game to the heights that he did in this playoff, they felt terrible that we ended up losing,'' Walsh said. ''I would echo that. This guy not only showed what kind of player he was, but also what kind of person he was by the way he came into this season, by the way he dealt with the whole year. He ended up guarding the best player in the backcourt most of the time, he ended up taking all the last shots, he ended up really doing everything, as well as trying to tell players during the game where they should be on the floor. I really haven't gotten up and talked about Reggie like that before but, after 14 years, seeing the guy do what he did, he deserves whatever recognition is out there.
''I know he's going to make the Hall of Fame, but that's after he's done playing. He really made this season. The way he approached it allowed us to get through some tough times and allowed some of these young fellas to get into a groove and get to the point that they played real good basketball at the end of the year. Not only has he been part of our big successes here, getting to the final four five out of seven years, he's a gigantic part of what's going to happen to this team in the future.''
Therein lies the quandary at the shooting guard position. Miller has been the starter since 1988, and likely will be for the remaining two years on his contract. But he played this season largely without backup and wound up with his highest minutes-played total (3,181) since his third season. And there is no certain successor in the pipeline.
This should be where Jonathan Bender comes in.
The team has a lot invested in Bender, the fifth pick in the 1999 draft, acquired in a trade for Antonio Davis, who became an All-Star center in Toronto. Nine of the top 10 players drafted in '99 finished last season as full-time starters. Bender wasn't even a regular reserve. He made one memorable start, scoring a career-high 20 points in a Christmas Day victory over Orlando, but scored in double figures just twice more.
It was hoped that Bender would be able to step into a backup role this year, but the 6-11, 196-pound, 20-year-old wasn't quite ready. His arrival time has been pushed back to next season, when he already has been penciled into the rotation with the expectations of great things to come.
''I think next year Jonathan will play a lot for us,'' said coach Isiah Thomas. ''I think out of all the young guys we have, Jonathan has improved the most, although you didn't get a chance to see that out on the court. When I watch him every day in practice, the things he's picking up, the way he's approaching the game, his mental outlook on the game, out of all the guys that we have, I think he's going to end up being the best of all the young guys. He's immensely talented. I think he's tough-minded enough to play. But he just turned 20. He was 19, and you don't want to rush it. You don't want to break it, because when he steps up on stage, he's going to be a guy who averages 15 to 20 points every single night.
''He could've done that this year, the only problem was on the defensive end he wasn't savvy enough, therefore the 20 points he would've got, he probably would've ended up giving 40 to the other guy. 'He'll be able to score in this league. He can score in this league right now. But we want him to be complete, and we won't roll him out until he's complete.''
Walsh echoed Thomas' evaluation of Bender's improvement.
''Since I go to every practice and watch all the practices, I can assure you that Jonathan bender has improved beyond 100 percent,'' Walsh said. ''And I look for next year, for him, to be a breakout year. I was very proud of and admired the way he approached the year. He came in every day, he's a very serious young man, worked very, very hard and is learning how to play in this league. I think he's got terrific talent, as well.''
For the time being, the position will remain in the able hands of Reggie Miller. Whether Bender can eventually take the handoff remains to be seen, but will come into much clearer focus next season.
Contact Conrad Brunner at Cbrunner@pacers.com