Where Are They Now? Steve Stipanovich

Steve Stipanovich, shown battling Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, has his career cut short by a rare knee injury.
(Pacers photo)

Editors Note (06/26/12): This article was originally published in late 2001 or early 2002

Indianapolis - The knee still bothers Steve Stipanovich, and always will. But it's strictly a physical discomfort now, a part of daily life to be tolerated. The mental anguish of a career cut short has long since passed.

Still, every once in a while, he can't be blamed for letting his mind wander, like when the Pacers recently waived Sam Perkins. A veteran of 17 NBA seasons, Perkins is just nine months younger than Stipanovich, who turns 41 in November. Perkins' career began the year after his, yet lasted 12 seasons longer.

But there's little time for such thoughts. Life after basketball has been good for the man called ''Stipo,'' even if it began a little sooner than he would've liked.

After a mysterious knee condition forced his retirement in 1989, Stipanovich took his family to Oregon, where he farmed, dabbled in real estate investment, and generally enjoyed life. But as the family expanded - he now has four daughters, ranging from 5 to 12 years old - he realized the need to settle down.

''Our kids were young and it was a time to just do some fun stuff (in Oregon),'' he said. ''It was a great seven years but we had to make a decision: do we stay out there the rest of our lives or do we move back? We decided to move back, and it's been a great move.''

Both natives of St. Louis, Stipanovich and his wife moved the family back to their hometown, where they've lived the past four years. He is the owner and operator of what he believes to be the only coal mine in the state of Missouri. That much closer to his only NBA home, Stipanovich has rekindled his connections with the franchise. He attended an NBA Finals game in 2000, and brought a group of 12 girls - his daughters and their friends - to a Fever game during their inaugural WNBA season.

He plans to return to Conseco Fieldhouse when time allows, though he expects his daughters will push for another Fever trip, since they're big fans of former Southwest Missouri State star Jackie Stiles, now with Portland.

''I figure that'll be a tough ticket to get,'' he said, ''but I'm sure I can call (franchise president) Donnie (Walsh). He's always given me good seats.''

Stipanovich came to the Pacers as a consolation prize in 1983, as the franchise lost a coin flip with Houston for the No. 1 pick in the draft. The Rockets' prize was Ralph Sampson, and they reached the NBA Finals in his third season.

The Pacers, meanwhile, averaged 25 victories in Stipanovich's first three seasons. But when Walsh took over the front office in 1986, hiring Jack Ramsay as head coach, things began to change. The team won 41 games and reached the NBA playoffs for just the second time ever that season, which proved to be a major step in the franchise's climb to prominence.

But Stipanovich missed most of the ride. He played just two more seasons before the degenerative knee disorder became apparent. The Pacers pursued every possible medical opinion, and Stipanovich endured multiple operations, all to no avail. His career ended after five seasons with averages of 13.2 points and 7.8 rebounds.

''I think I had two operations after I left Indiana and it's pretty stable right now,'' Stipanovich said. ''I have to really exercise the muscles around the knee a lot in order to be pain-free. I can't run much, but I do run on a treadmill once or twice a week at the most. I can't do a lot of hard physical activity but other than that I'm able to do pretty much whatever I want. But it's still problematic to some degree.''

Though Stipanovich remains a fan of the Pacers and the NBA, his old-school mindset doesn't jive well with the present state of the game. The NBA has changed dramatically in the 12 years since he retired, and it has evolved away from the game he knew. One example: the salary cap in his final season was roughly $6 million per team. This season, five Pacers players will earn at least that much.

''It's a lot different animal than when I was playing,'' he said. ''Obviously, the economy is different. I think in the '80s, it was a great time to be in the NBA. I might be prejudiced because I'm more familiar with those types of teams and the players back then, like the Celtics, the Lakers, the Sixers early on, then Detroit at the end of the '80s and early '90s, then Chicago coming on strong in the early '90s.

''The players were big, they were good and there was a lot of teamwork. I'm just old-fashioned. When I played, the socks were high and the shorts were short. I'm not saying it was better, but it was definitely different.''

Stipanovich also can't remember ever playing with a teammate who had a tattoo. Now, they are commonplace.

''Even (Dennis) Rodman, when I was playing, he didn't have any tattoos,'' Stipanovich said. ''When I think of the NBA, I think of (Larry) Bird, (Kevin) McHale, (Robert) Parish, James Worthy and (Kareem) Abdul-Jabbar, the guys that were classics. There's great basketball being played, and I still enjoy watching it and following it, but it's just a different attitude, I guess.''

As a proud alumnus of the franchise, Stipanovich is pleased to see Walsh has been able to build a team that has been among the most competitive in the NBA over the past decade, but has done so with players who represent the community well.

''That's the thing about Donnie and the Pacers,'' he said. ''They've always had good people, and that starts with the owners on down through the franchise, with Reggie Miller being around so long as a stabilizing force.

''With the success they've had, I'm happy for the Pacers.''