A Season to Remember (Part 1)

Editor's Note: This is Part 1 of a two-part story on the 1999-2000 Pacers season. Read Part 2 »

The memories of the dark moments that go into a great season fade over time, leaving behind the glow of the end result to command the attention of future generations. It's never as easy or fun as it looks, though, because real life doesn't work that way. No great achievement comes without the burdens of expectation, disappointment and discontent along the way.

The Pacers team of the 1999-2000 season had that sort of experience. Looking back now, it's easy to bathe it in glory for doing what no other team in franchise history has done: reach the NBA Finals. But that's not fair, really. Any team that reaches such an extreme height, just a couple of wins short of a championship, has to endure some pain and suffering along the way, and this one was no exception. But that makes the journey all the more exhilarating. In hindsight, at least.

This group of Pacers wasn't necessarily the best team in the franchise's NBA history. And it wasn't the best team of the 1999-2000 season, as the Lakers proved. But it was a great – or very good, your choice – team, filled with a remarkably diverse and dedicated cast of unique characters.

It was the last, and, probably, the least-talented of the three teams Larry Bird coached, but it was blessed with the best timing and fate. The first one took Chicago to seven games in the conference finals in 1998, only to suffer an agonizing loss at the United Center in Michael Jordan's final season. The second group, freed from the grip of Jordan's dominance by his retirement, was widely predicted to win it all, but fell to New York in the conference finals after two controversial games in Madison Square Garden.

Jess Kersey's famously botched call and a bizarre group officiating effort helped end that dream. Kersey had wrongly allowed Larry Johnson a game-turning four-point play late in Game 3 in Madison Square Garden. Johnson had drawn a bump from Antonio Davis, then dribbled to his left and hit a 3-pointer. By rule, the dribble should have negated the 3-pointer because Johnson was no longer in the act of shooting. If called correctly, the Pacers likely would have taken a 2-1 lead in the series and negated their homecourt loss in Game 1.

"I'm going to carry that game to the grave," Bird said before training camp began for his final season. "I'm still pissed off about it. I'll be pissed off all year. And when I'm out of here, I'll still be pissed off about it. It was a bad call by an experienced referee. And he knows it was a bad call. He knew it a second after he called it."

Kersey's call was a stake through the heart, one blow that cost the Pacers a game. Game 6 felt like an ambush. The Pacers scored more field goals and outrebounded the Knicks that night, but were called for 19 more fouls and attempted 24 fewer free throws in an eight-point loss that ended their season and sent eighth-seeded New York to the Finals. It was one of those moments that gave NBA conspiracy theorists ammunition for charging the league office with favoritism toward big-market teams.

That series was just one of the reasons training camp opened without the fanfare and bold ambition of the previous two seasons. The shock and awe of Bird's arrival in 1997 had dissipated after the first season, and the widespread hopes for a championship had disappeared after the second. What had been a group of frisky and hungry veterans now more closely resembled workmanlike professionals – still ambitious, but starting to run on fumes and uncertain of their future.

You couldn't blame them, either.

The hangover from the loss to the Knicks was difficult to shake, if for no reason other than people wouldn't let them. Chris Mullin recalled running on the beach that summer and being taunted about it by a boy of about 10 years old. Some media members and no small number of fans had turned against them as well, calling for the team to be broken up so a serious rebuilding effort could begin. If Bird's first two teams couldn't get it done, they figured, why should anyone believe this one, basically an even older version built around a core of 30-plus veterans, would be any better?

Larry Bird was adamant that the 1999-2000 season would be his final year as head coach of the Pacers. (Photo: NBAE/Getty Images)

Bird didn't exactly rekindle optimism when he announced via a book in August this would be his last season as the Pacers' coach. It surprised nobody. He had signed a three-year contract in the first place, and gone on to state repeatedly his belief that the standard shelf life for an NBA coach was three years. Still, the finality of it and the roundabout manner in which it was made official, made some of the players feel abandoned by the coach they had felt honored to play for when he came to try to lead them to a title.

Bird said he had grown to love coaching more as he grew into it, but judged himself to be "very average" at it despite winning 69 percent of his games the first two seasons.

"I have my moments," he said. "Some nights I'm really good and some nights I'm not."

Contract issues were bubbling beneath the surface, too. Reggie Miller and Mark Jackson – starting guards, best of friends and team leaders – had wanted extensions in the off-season but were denied by team president Donnie Walsh. He respected them, and said he hoped to re-sign them after the season, but wanted to see how it played out and who would be retiring before making long-term commitments. It was a pragmatic decision, but disappointing for the two veterans who hoped to finish their careers together.

Rik Smits, Jalen Rose and Austin Croshere were in contract years, too. Smits had already said he was leaning heavily toward retirement, but Rose and Croshere were young and eager to earn a life-changing deal. Would their individual needs detract from the team concept?

Dale Davis added to the intrigue, at least temporarily, by skipping media day in Indianapolis and the first two days of training camp in Orlando. He had switched agents over the summer, claiming his first representative, Steve Kauffman, had missed the deadline to opt out of his contract and file for free agency. Kauffman said Davis had said he didn't want to do so. Davis, 30 years old at the time, admitted he had no recourse, but made a statement with his absence. His tardiness drew a fine, but didn't create an uproar because Walsh and Bird accepted it as part of the business of basketball.

"I want to try to get as much as I can when I can get it, and I'll play as hard as I can to get it," Davis said upon his arrival.

The roster makeup was potentially problematic, too, with a built-in generation gap and varying agendas that threatened to collapse the framework. There were seven past-their-prime veterans in Miller (34), Jackson (34), Smits (33), Davis (30), Mullin (36), Derrick McKey (31), and Sam Perkins (38). Rose, Croshere and Travis Best, meanwhile, were hoping to establish themselves as the next generation of go-to guys. One-year vet Al Harrington (19) was full of raw talent and energy, and was eager for minutes. Rookies Jonathan Bender (18) and Jeff Foster (22), both first-round draft picks, were exceptionally athletic but not likely to find playing time on a loaded roster. The remaining player, free agent signee Zan Tabak, was a center with NBA experience who had been brought in to replace popular veteran Antonio Davis, who had sought and received a trade (to Toronto) to seek more playing time.

Could these guys rally one more time around a common cause, or would they stray off onto separate paths?

One thing was certain: expectations wouldn't be an issue. Nobody was picking them to win a championship this time around, and some preseason predictions sank them as low as fifth in their eight-team division. But they persevered. They figured it out as they went. They got a break or two. And they had the most successful season in the franchise's NBA history.

I followed them every step of the way as the beat reporter for the Indianapolis Star. I had no days off that season, from the start of training camp to the end of the Finals and beyond. I didn't write every day, but I worked at least a few hours on the days I didn't. It was grueling, but it was fun, and the opportunity of a lifetime – certainly far better than working half as hard to cover a losing team.

Fifteen years later, here are the 15 steps that took the Pacers to within two games of a championship.

Conseco Fieldhouse opened in November 1999 to universal acclaim and hosted the NBA Finals at the end of its first season. (Photo: NBAE/Getty Images)

1. Given how the previous season had ended, the Pacers needed something fresh, something energizing to start the season. They got it with Conseco Fieldhouse, as it was called then. They closed down Market Square Arena with their final home preseason game against Utah. Foster scored the last field goal in the game, a breakaway dunk, but Slick Leonard scored the last basket in the building. Bird, in a nod toward the franchise's history, invited the man who had coached three ABA teams to championships to attend the final practice and hit a layup after everyone was finished. Equipment manager Joe Qatato grabbed a ball and ran out to hit one after Leonard, just for laughs, so Leonard had to do it again. After showering, Miller walked to the center circle and kissed the floor before heading home.

The new home was so much nicer, though. The Pacers opened their regular season on the road, winning in New Jersey and losing in Charlotte, then broke in The Fieldhouse – a hip retro building unlike any other in the NBA – against Boston on Nov. 6. The top 50 players in the state's rich basketball history were honored at halftime – including Bird, John Wooden and Oscar Robertson – and the Pacers won, 115-108. If you're scoring at home, Vitaly Potapenko scored the first basket in a game in the building, and Smits scored the first Pacers basket.

2. The glow didn't last, though. The Pacers stumbled to a 6-6 start after losing at home to Detroit on Thanksgiving. Clearly, something was missing from the previous two seasons. Defense, for example.

"It's disappointing, because I thought this year they would come out and get after it," Bird said after the eight-point loss to the mediocre Pistons team. "They have at times, but it's been very inconsistent." Rose called the defeat "awful," "unacceptable" and "garbage." The Pacers weren't getting to the foul line, an indication of a passive offense, and Miller wasn't shooting well – just 30-of-92 in the previous seven games.

"We're obviously struggling to find an identity, even in victory," Rose said. "Obviously we're not playing like a team that's going to win the championship tomorrow."

The 1999-2000 Pacers were a mix of accomplished veterans like Mark Jackson and talented young players like Austin Croshere. (Photo: NBAE/Getty Images)

3. They got things righted by winning 15 of 17 games from the end of November through the first week of January. The highlight of that stretch was a visit from boxing legend Muhammad Ali for a game against Utah on Dec. 17. Ali had purchased 20 tickets for his son's youth basketball team, and watched the game from the front row across from the team benches. The Pacers met him before the game and were thrilled – "like kids at Christmas," Rose said.

Kids at Christmas don't show poise, though, and the Pacers lost theirs in Ali's presence. They hit just 11-of-40 shots in the first half, and shot less than 40 percent for the game. Fortunately Utah – which entered the game with a seven-game winning streak – was even worse, shooting 12-of-45 in the first half. The Pacers won, 89-74, and got another visit from Ali afterward.

"What an emotional boost, to have him in our locker room," Miller said. "He was doing magic tricks and shadow-boxing with guys. It was wonderful. We had to win in front of The Greatest."

4. This Pacers team, though, was far from The Greatest. It made a habit of relaxing whenever things were going well, whether in the course of a game or the season. They frequently blew comfortable leads, and had lapses within the schedule, too. After winning 15-of-17, they went 4-6. Then, after winning 13-of-15, they won just eight of their first 15 games in March, arousing concerns all over again. Their defense had slipped dramatically, and at times they looked like an old team that was a step slow. And maybe a bit bored with mid-season games.

Their 111-106 loss at New Jersey on March 28 brought their second three-game losing streak of the season. They had gotten within a point in the fourth quarter after falling behind by 21 points, but couldn't close it out. Miller, who had been called for a technical foul by referee Tim Donaghy before the fourth quarter, began scolding Donaghy for engaging in dialogue with Jackson's heckling mother, who was watching from courtside. Three seconds into the period, referee Monty McCutcheon ejected Miller, who would have been nice to have around to help finish off the comeback.

"We'll see what we're made of now," Davis said afterward. "This will be a true test to see if this ballclub is a championship caliber team. And I think it is."

Bird, meanwhile, tried to remain positive. But he couldn't contain his honesty, either. "We've got 11 games (left in the regular season) to find a groove," he said. "We'll be all right. But if we play like we are now we won't last long in the playoffs."

The New York Knicks continued to be a thorn in Rik Smits and the Pacers' side during the 1999-2000 regular season, but Indiana would exact its revenge in the playoffs. (Photo: NBAE/Getty Images)

5. The three-game losing streak was followed by a four-game winning streak, but that was followed by
two more losses. The second of those, however, provided a bad memory that came in handy later.

The Pacers lost at New York on April 10, 83-81, in a game reminiscent of the previous season's playoff nightmares. Once again, Johnson got away with something when Patrick Ewing got away with goaltending his three-point attempt from the right corner with 21.7 seconds left.

The Pacers had chances to overcome the blown non-call, but Smits missed two free throws and Miller missed an off-balance three-pointer at the buzzer. Still, it stung.

Just like Kersey had done, referee Joey Crawford took the blame after viewing a replay following the game.

"The tape doesn't lie," Crawford said. "I screwed up the call."

"Nothing else is new," Miller said. "They cheated us (last year) and they cheated us now.

"I don't know if it's a small market thing or not, but we never get the benefit-of-the-doubt calls like New York, LA, Miami and the big market teams. That's just the way it is."

Added Bird: "We're used to it."

6. Maybe the anger was good for them. The Pacers won their remaining five games, a stretch that included three consecutive road games. The last of those, a 92-90 victory at Philadelphia on April 17 in the second-to-last game of the regular season, turned out to be a season highlight.

Philadelphia was fighting to earn a No. 4 seed that would bring homecourt advantage in the playoffs, and was going all out to win it. The Pacers, though, had locked up the conference's No. 1 seed, so Bird gave Miller and Jackson the night off and shuffled the lineup.

Rose got to start at his preferred position, point guard. Mullin, who had fallen out of the playing rotation, started at shooting guard. Croshere started at small forward. Smits and Davis filled out the lineup. An equipment malfunction kept them from watching the usual pre-game video, which added to the loose atmosphere.

The result was probably the most impressive, most joyful, regular season victory in Bird's tenure. Rose harkened back to his Fab Five days and let it all hang out. He pulled the drawstring out of his trunks and let his shorts dangle. He tugged his jersey out of his trunks as far as he could without violating the league dress code. He jabbered with fans and referees throughout the game, too. But, he finished with 20 points and nine assists. Mullin, in a retro performance of his own, played 38 minutes and scored 21 points on 8-of-13 shooting, including 5-of-8 3-pointers. Smits finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds and Croshere with 14 points and nine rebounds.

The starters jumped to a 14-point lead in the first quarter, but another lineup had to overcome a 10-point deficit entering the fourth period. Rose, Mullin, McKey, Perkins and Best played the entire period and held the 76ers to 2-of-15 shooting. McKey, who had torn his tendon in March 12 at Miami, sparked an offensive resurgence by hitting two 3-pointers.

It was the feel-good win of the season, just what they needed six days from the start of the playoffs. Like the opening of The Fieldhouse and Ali's visit, it brightened the mood and lifted their confidence.

"This is one of the guttiest performances I've ever seen – by far," Bird said. "We've won some big games in the playoffs, but when you have nothing to play for and you get a performance like that, it says a lot about them."

Despite the lulls, the Pacers finished the season with a 56-26 record. Their defense had slipped some, but they usually shot their way out of trouble. They led the NBA in 3-point percentage (.392), free throw percentage (.811) and were third in field goal percentage (.459).

Editor's Note: You just finished Part 1 of a two-part story on the 1999-2000 Pacers season. Click through to read about the team's memorable playoff run. Read Part 2 »

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