Pacers Visit Notre Dame

by Eddie White

October 27, 2012

On paper it was just the last preseason game for the Indiana Pacers. But, in reality, it was much more.

It was an in-state game, a road game against the rival Chicago Bulls. The Bulls moved the game to the legendary campus of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend partly because team president John Paxson played for the Irish back in the day and the Bulls wanted to satisfy a large legion of fans in northern Indiana. But the sold out game was not all filled with RED; many Pacers fans were in attendance.

The Pacers closed their 2012 preseason with a loss to the Bulls in the Joyce Center on Notre Dame’s campus but it wasn’t just any ordinary preseason contest.

See Photos from the Pacers Visiting Notre Dame »

For instance, at the Pacers shoot-around on game day both of Notre Dame’s ultra-successful basketball coaches – men’s mentor Mike Brey and women’s coach Muffet McGraw spent the entire hour watching practice and taking notes. In fact, after practice, McGraw, not once but twice spent one-on-one time with Pacers Head Coach Frank Vogel talking strategies and isolated plays.

“Coaches love to feed off other coaches and I first met Frank at a Fever game, so it was great to talk basketball with him,” said McGraw, who in ‘01 led the Irish to the national championship. “I also expressed to him how proud I was of the Fever, Coach Dunn and her staff and what a great job they did in bringing a WNBA title to our state,” added McGraw, who has taken her teams to four Final Fours.

Brey, who like McGraw attended the game that night, said he also talked hoops with the Irish staff. “I think Frank Vogel is one of the bright, young minds in the game and it was really good to talk shop with (Pacers assistant coaches) Brian Shaw, who I have admired for years and catch up with good pal Jim Boylen,” offered Brey, national college Coach of the Year in 2011.

Vogel, a student of sports history, wanted to make the most of the trip to Notre Dame and he led a Pacers delegation on a tour of famed Notre Dame Stadium and the Irish home locker room after the shoot around.

“When you think of sports dynasties and history and tradition. And winning. Are there any better than Notre Dame,” said Vogel. “Our guys wanted to see it all. I wanted to see it.” The team spent time in the Irish locker room, looking at Heisman Trophies. Each touched the famous “Play Like a Champion” sign that hundreds of Irish gridders have touched before taking the field. The Pacers went down the team steps and out through the tunnel to the field. Just like the Irish do on game days.

“I felt like Rudy,” said Pacers guard George Hill, referring to the famous Notre Dame walk-on and the movie made about his time in South Bend. “For an Indiana guy to see this and feel this. It was great.”

David West was also impressed, ”I got my photo with Touchdown Jesus,” said the Pacers forward about the Notre Dame library with it ultra-famous mural. Vogel even got his photo with the Knute Rockne statue just outside the team’s locker room door.

For at least one member of the Pacers traveling party the visit to the stadium brought back some memories. “Over 30 years ago, I was recruited by Notre Dame and Digger Phelps and they brought me here to see the stadium,” said Pacers VP of Player Relations Clark Kellogg. “The tradition here is real. It is a special place.”

Another member of the Pacers group with more recent memories of Notre Dame chose not to make the tour of the stadium. He was back at the Joyce Center still doing interviews with South Bend and Notre Dame media. Pacers guard Ben Hansbrough, the 2010-11 Big East Player of the Year at Notre Dame, was back home on campus and was greeted by many friends and well wishes on the trip. “It’s always good to come back home to a place that means so much to you,” said Hansbrough.

Vogel hopes the trip means much more to the team when the Pacers season ends. “I hope we can all look back in June and say it started when he touched the ‘Play Like a Champion’ sign.”