Pritchard Finds His Way Back to Pacers
by Mark Montieth
September 18, 2012
In a literal sense, Kevin Pritchard still qualifies as new to Indianapolis and his role with the Indiana Pacers. In a basketball sense, it's as if he's been associated with the franchise for decades.
Pritchard grew up in Bloomington, Lawrence Township and Noblesville before his family moved from Indiana to Kansas, and he finished high school in Tulsa, Okla. He attended college at Kansas, then played for five NBA teams over four seasons, a journey interrupted by a stop in the CBA. He finished his playing career for teams in Spain and Germany, then worked a miserable year as an investment analyst for a mutual fund company. He got back into basketball by running an ABA minor league franchise in Kansas City, then broke back into the NBA as a scout for San Antonio. Eventually, he worked his way up to become Portland's general manager.
Throughout this extended road trip he has experienced the influence of some key figures in the Pacers' history, which has helped him slip quietly and smoothly into the general manager's office a few paces from where team Donnie Walsh presides as president. He attended Pacer games at Market Square Arena as a kid, played for former Pacers coach Larry Brown in college and was briefly a teammate of Larry Bird's in Boston. It could be said that Pritchard is now back home again in Indiana, but he's had so many homes he's more a vagabond with a knack for landing on his feet
Pritchard's first exposure to the Pacers franchise came when he was a junior high school student in Noblesville. His mother purchased a season ticket package for seats in the remote hinterlands of MSA and dropped him off with a couple friends for several games. His favorite player, the one he laid claim to in pickup games at the Noblesville Boys Club, was Don Buse, the steady, defensive-minded guard who made his second tour of duty with the franchise from 1980-82.
His father's career as a country music agent (representing Roy Clark, the Judds and Merle Haggard) kept the family on a fastbreak. The family moved from Indiana to Kansas before Pritchard could start high school in Noblesville, and later to Tulsa, Okla., where he finished high school. He then accepted Brown's scholarship offer to play point guard at the University of Kansas in the fall of 1986.
Brown at that snapshot moment in a peripatetic career had a Hoosier connection as a former ABA point guard who had fought many skirmishes against the Pacers at the Coliseum, and been voted MVP of the ABA's first All-Star game at Hinkle Fieldhouse. He also was seven years shy of becoming the Pacers' coach and advancing them to NBA title contender. Their two seasons together would have a lasting impact on Pritchard, not the least of which was winning the NCAA championship in 1988, when he started for a Cinderella Jayhawks team led by Danny Manning.
Brown is notoriously tough on point guards. Pritchard felt the wrath as times, but he also discovered the influence. He wrote a letter to Brown about 18 months ago to thank him for the experience.
"You can't fool him," Pritchard said. "I remember being a freshman or sophomore point guard thinking, That's not right. But he's got a memory that's amazing. You can go up and down a few times, and he can tell you where every single person was at every second. He'd say, 'You should have gone backdoor three plays ago,' and you'd say, 'No, I was over here,' and he'd say, 'No, No.'
"He's a perfectionist."
Pritchard also learned fundamental principles and patience from Brown. Kansas struggled throughout its championship season, setting an NCAA record with 11 losses. Three of them came at home, a cataclysmic occurrence for the fans who had watched 58 consecutive victories there.
Brown made major changes to his starting lineup, but didn't bail on his players.
"Coach Brown kept saying, 'I see it, we're gonna be all right, you have to trust in me,'" Pritchard said. "We got a little better and a little better."
Pritchard was a second-round draft pick of Golden State in the 1990 draft, and kept his career on life support for five teams through parts of six NBA seasons. He played 11 games and 136 minutes for Boston in the 1991-92 season, Bird's last as a player. In that brief time, he saw a lot of what had made Bird successful.
"Just how it came so easy, and what a masterful player he was," Pritchard recalled.
"If aliens were coming down to the earth and they said, 'Listen, we'll give you one shot to make one free throw. If you miss it, we destroy the earth.' "I'd hand the ball to Larry Bird, he'd make the free throw and he'd say, 'Where we going to lunch?'
"He's got the ability to take all the clutter out, all the noise out, and just play basketball."
Pritchard must have made an impression on Bird as well, because Bird hired him as the Pacers director of player personnel a year ago, and as the general manager earlier this year. That followed seven successful seasons as Portland's general manager, during which the Blazers improved from 21 to 32 to 41 to 54 victories. He was fired by owner Paul Allen an hour before the draft in 2010. The two have not spoken since, and the source of the conflict remains a mystery. Pritchard professes no hard feelings, and blames himself for not having established a stronger relationship with the owner.
"I don't look back on it and think, Oh, why did I get fired?" Pritchard said. "I've gotten past that and I think I've gotten better."
Although he was hired by Bird, Pritchard appears to have established an early chemistry with Walsh, thanks to their shared bloodlines. They're basketball cousins in a sense, tracing their heritage to former North Carolina coach Dean Smith. Walsh and Brown were roommates in college and played for Smith at North Carolina. Pritchard, in college, played for Brown and Roy Williams, another Smith protege.
"We have the same syntax," Pritchard said. "You get in Donnie's office and you have a couple of things you want to get accomplished, and suddenly it's four hours later and you're still talking basketball. We break out the pads and start diagramming plays.
"He's been through all the wars. I lean on him. When I was younger the biggest thing for me was, I was going to prove to everybody I could do it all by myself. That's a trap. Because ultimately you don't do anything well."
Older, wiser and well-traveled, Pritchard is back where his NBA "career" began, as a fan. But it's not as if he never left. More like he was meant to be here.
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