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10 Most Memorable Openers in Franchise History

by Mark Montieth Writer

Sometimes they're an indication of what's to come, a first page that gives away the plot. Sometimes they leave a false impression, turning out to be a one-of-82 sliver that misrepresents the whole.

NBA season-openers, such as the one the Pacers have with Opening Night presented by Kroger on Oct. 23 against Detroit, can go either way. But they do have an outsized aura about them. Even most of the bad teams take optimism into the start of the season, and the anticipation that builds from the summer vacation and training camp magnifies the outcome. A good result casts a positive glow, for a while at least, and a bad one can create instant doubt.

The Pacers have had some momentous opening nights in their 52-season history. Some of the adrenaline-charged games have brought promising fresh starts, others have featured outstanding individual performances, and one even included a bomb threat that evacuated the building.

You just never know.

Here are 10 of the Pacers' most memorable season-openers, in chronological order:

Roger Brown

Photo Credit: Pacers Sports & Entertainment

1. Oct 14, 1967 (Box Score »)

How do you top the first game in franchise history?

The debut of all debuts for the Pacers came in the American Basketball Association's inaugural season, and it was a smashing success both artistically and commercially. They dominated the Kentucky Colonels, 117-95, and an estimated 2,000 fans were turned away — largely because general manager Mike Storen made sure enough free tickets were handed out to ensure a sellout. So, perhaps the commercial aspect of it wasn't so great after all, but at least the game helped spark an interest in the team.

Mayor John Barton executed the ceremonial opening tip, the players ran through a paper hoop commonly used for high school games in those days, and a group of young gymnasts from Hamilton, Ohio were imported to entertain at halftime. ABA commissioner George Mikan, a major basketball figure at the time, was on hand, as were several local politicians and business leaders.

The game lived up to the hype. The red, white, and blue ball and 3-point shot proved to be popular innovations, and the Pacers had been well-prepared by a full-fledged training camp and preseason schedule. According to the game story in the Louisville Courier-Journal, they "gave the Colonels a few lessons in showmanship, shooting, savvy and sound defense."

Future Hall of Famer Roger Brown led the Pacers with 24 points, eight rebounds, and four assists and "showed all the makings of a genuine superstar" according to one newspaper account.

The game, however, provided an accurate forecast only for the short term. The Pacers built a 13-3 record to start the season, inspiring hope for championship contention, but finished 38-40 and were swept in the first round of the playoffs as other teams caught up.

Better to have been the tortoise rather than the hare.

Mel Daniels

Photo Credit: Pacers Sports & Entertainment

2. Oct. 15, 1970 (Box Score »)

The Pacers have never had a season-opener that better combined the forces of momentum from the previous season and anticipation resulting from offseason acquisitions than this one.

They had dominated the ABA on the way to winning the 1970 league championship, and were coming back with what potentially was a dramatically improved team. Lebanon native Rick Mount, the most publicized high school player in the state's history and a two-time first-team All-American from Purdue, had been signed the previous Spring. The transaction was of such magnitude that Channel 13 pre-empted its local newscast at 11 p.m. to carry it live.

And then, shortly before the season began, the Pacers acquired via trade one of the ABA's most talented, intimidating, and controversial players: Warren Armstrong. He had been voted the league's Rookie of the Year in 1969 when he led Oakland to the championship over the Pacers. He had suffered a major knee injury and undergone surgery the following season, however, and had somehow managed to wear out his welcome without ever playing a game for Kentucky in this season.

Still, he was regarded as an elite player, and seemed a worthwhile risk.

"His ability is unquestioned," one newspaper story claimed. "If he hits it off with the Pacers the rest of the league my just concede."

The 1970-71 season-opener, then, warranted some hype. A championship banner was unveiled and rings for the previous season's championship were passed out in a pregame ceremony. Miss Indiana Debbie May sang the national anthem.

Just as in that ultimate opener three years prior, the game didn't disappoint, either.

The Pacers beat Kentucky, 127-95, still their largest victory margin in the first game of a season. Mel Daniels, who would be named the ABA's Most Valuable Player for a second time at the end of the season, led with 31 points and 17 rebounds. In the process, he delivered a crash course in professional basketball to Colonels rookie Dan Issel, who like Mount had been voted a first-team All-American the previous season. Issel would become a Hall of Famer as well, but was a natural forward playing out of position at center as a rookie.

Brown added 22 points, six rebounds, and eight assists, and all five Pacer starters scored in double figures. Mount, slowed in training camp by a pulled hamstring, entered the game midway through the second quarter and received a standing ovation. He finished with 10 points in 21 minutes.

Armstrong, still getting acquainted with his teammates, scored seven points and gave no hint of the rebellion he had displayed with other teams. "I think the prospects here are real good," he said. "I like the opportunity to try and be a part of a winner."

Another less-noticed debut occurred that night. David Craig worked his first game as the head trainer, a role he would continue for 35 seasons.

For those in attendance, however, the most memorable part of the game occurred at halftime. Just a few minutes before the third quarter was to begin, public address announcer Bill Donella announced a bomb threat had been phoned in to the Fairgrounds Coliseum. Fans were asked to slowly leave the building while it was investigated. After about 10 minutes they were invited back inside. Before play resumed, however, they were asked to look under their seats and notify an usher immediately if they saw something unusual. "And do not touch it!" Donella warned.

The threat had heightened impact because the memory of a tragic explosion seven years earlier remained fresh in the minds of many. On Halloween night in 1963, an explosion resulting from a propane gas leak at a Holiday on Ice show had killed 74 spectators and injured nearly 400.

Newspaper accounts didn't make a major issue of the threat, however, noting that the actual explosion that evening came when the Pacers scored 40 points in the third quarter to take control of the game.

The Pacers went on to win their first six games and finish the season with a league-best 58-26 record. They followed up by sweeping their first-round playoff series with Memphis, but then fell behind Utah 3-1 in the second round. They fought back to force a Game 7 at the Coliseum, but the Stars shot 74 percent and scored 41 points in the third quarter to overcome an 11-point deficit and pull off a 108-101 victory before a rabid crowd at the Coliseum, where capacity had been exceeded by more than 2,000 fans.

"I think we beat the best team in the ABA," Utah forward Willie Wise said afterward.

Utah went on to win the league championship, defeating Kentucky in seven games in the finals.

The Pacers had been the league's dominant team that season, and the season-opener was a warning shot. But it was all negated by that third quarter against the Stars.

Darnell Hillman

Photo Credit: Pacers Sports & Entertainment

3. Oct. 18, 1974 (Box Score »)

The Fairgrounds Coliseum remains a warm memory for fans who saw the Pacers play there, but that doesn't mean they never wanted to leave. A lot of people enjoy grade school, too, but at some point it's time to move on. Talk of building a new arena for the Pacers had begun in 1970, and finally became reality four years later with the construction of Market Square Arena.

The opener for the 1974-75 season broke in the building that would be the Pacers' home for 25 seasons, and yet again the game lived up to the anticipation of Pacers' fans — except for the outcome. Their 129-121 double overtime loss to San Antonio was appropriate for a season in which a dramatically retooled team fell just short of a championship.

Three core players — Mel Daniels, Freddie Lewis, and Roger Brown — from the three championship seasons had been traded in the offseason, along with the starting guard from the 1973 title team, Donnie Freeman. Suddenly, the ABA's most dominant team of the previous five years had been turned into a lovable underdog built around the lone returning starter, George McGinnis.

The overhauled collection of Pacers began the season 4-11 and 14-21 before hitting stride and reaching the league finals, where they lost to Kentucky. Theirs was a season full of drama, featuring a late surge and emotional playoff series wins over San Antonio and Denver. The opener set the tone, but the initial skepticism of the fans was evident by their half-hearted attendance.

Only 8,473 turned out for the long-awaited debut in the downtown arena, about half of capacity.

Guard James Silas turned in one the greatest performances in the history of Pacer opening nights, scoring 40 points on 15-of-20 shooting. Future Hall of Famer George Gervin added 24 points and 13 rebounds. George McGinnis, meanwhile, tipped his hand on the co-MVP season that was to come with 37 points, 14 rebounds, and six assists. Darnell Hillman added 18 points and 12 rebounds.

The outcome was largely determined at the foul line, where the Spurs hit 33-of-43 attempts and the Pacers just 13-of-21. According to the Indianapolis Star, the work of referees Ed Middleton and Joe Belmont was "slipshod and woefully inept."

Still, it was a great evening's entertainment. And, ultimately, foreboding.

Billy Knight

Photo Credit: Pacers Sports & Entertainment

4. Oct. 21, 1976 (Box Score »)

As much pride as fans had in the Pacers' ABA success, they were thrilled to get out of the league alive in the summer of 1976 when four teams were absorbed into the NBA for a cool $3.2 million and forfeiture of a first-round draft pick.

That set up a dramatic moment the following season when the Pacers made their NBA debut against the Boston Celtics at Market Square Arena. They had played NBA teams in preseason games during some of the ABA seasons, but now it was all for real. The game marked the city's return to the NBA after a 23-year absence, dating back to the moment Olympians folded in 1953.

Having finally hooked up with a more stable and financially sound organization, the city was ready to move on from the ABA. The only indication of its past was the 3-point line, which was not part of the NBA game at the time, still gracing the MSA court, as useless as a rack of red, white, and blue balls. Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut addressed fans before the game and called it "a night when we enter the NBA and become a truly big-league city."

A more fitting opponent could not have been selected. The Celtics owned the best brand name in the NBA at the time and happened to be the defending league champion. Their best brand name player was John Havlicek, and he happened to be the one who led them to a 129-122 victory before a capacity crowd of 16,178 with 32 points — eight in the overtime period.

Billy Knight, who was not expected to play because of a severely sprained ankle, refused the offer of pain killers and finished with 29 points, nine rebounds and four assists for the Pacers.

The Pacers, who would finish the season 36-46, led by as many as 16 points but collapsed under the weight of the Celtics' superiority and poise. Still, the game was regarded as an indication the Pacers belonged in their new league. And, even in defeat, it provided an opportunity to play the small-market victim.

"There were a lot of people out there who thought we were going to get killed," Leonard declared.

"We haven't spent time in training camp to be a patsy just because the New York press says we're nobody."

Havlicek, 36 years old and entering his 15th (and second-to-last) NBA season, gave the ultimate nod of approval.

"They gave us all we could handle," he said.

For a season destined to end with a 36-46 record, that would have to be enough.

George McGinnis

Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images

5. Oct. 10, 1980 (Box Score »)

Slick Leonard coached the Pacers to three ABA championships and had them in the finals two other times, accomplishments that got him inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. His final five seasons coaching the team, however, produced losing records. It wasn't all his fault, because the ownership was inadequate financially, and therefore the talent simply wasn't good enough to win.

Still, fans didn't exactly riot when Leonard left by mutual agreement with ownership and a new coach, Jack McKinney, was brought in. McKinney had begun the previous season coaching the Lakers, but a bicycle accident in which he suffered a major concussion ended it after 13 games. The Lakers went on to win the championship under Pat Riley, so McKinney was cast aside. Some believe Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who had a financial interest in the Pacers and was guilt-ridden over his shabby (but practical) treatment of McKinney demanded that he replace Leonard.

McKinney's first game as the Pacers' coach resulted in a 110-91 victory at New Jersey. All five starters scored in double figures, as did Dudley Bradley off the bench. Point guard Johnny Davis led with 24 points and center James Edwards added 22. McGinnis, who had returned to the Pacers for their final 28 games the previous season, added 15 points and 10 rebounds.

It wasn't a work of art, unless one would classify it a Jackson Pollock painting (look it up). The Pacers committed 29 turnovers, and the Nets 28. But it was a victory.

"I'm so happy with this club," McGinnis said. "We're going to surprise some teams."

And they did just that. The Pacers started the season 8-3 and finished it 44-38, reaching the NBA playoffs for the first time in their five seasons in the league. Never mind they were quickly swept aside by Philadelphia in the best-of-three first-round series (look that up, too). Fans were so excited they had merely qualified for postseason play they gave the team a standing ovation as it left the court after the Game 2 elimination.

The opening game had indeed foretold the future. For that season, anyway.

Larry Bird

Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images

6. Oct. 31, 1997 (Box Score »)

No coach's debut in the history of the Pacers franchise was met with more anticipation than that of Larry Bird, a worldwide legend born and raised on Indian's basketball tradition.

Many people were skeptical of Bird coaching the Pacers. Was he doing it merely to break the boredom of retirement from his playing career, five years earlier? Had he been hired as a publicity stunt to boost attendance? He hadn't seemed the coaching type during his Hall of Fame playing career and great players had rarely made even competent coaches, so why would he be any different?

Bird's debut, and the games that immediately followed, didn't calm doubts. The players had shown great enthusiasm for working under him and had won their final five preseason games. None of that had carried over to the opener at New Jersey, however, which they lost, 97-95, after leading by 11 points in the third quarter.

His presence overwhelmed the game.

"Pacers collapse in Bird debut," the headline in the Indianapolis Star read.

Rik Smits missed a free throw with 0.4 seconds remaining that could have forced overtime. Reggie Miller led the Pacers with 35 points but scored just five in the fourth period when the Pacers squandered their advantage.

Bird took the defeat calmly, but seriously.

"I hate to lose more than I like to win," he said.

The Pacers won their home opener against Golden State the following night but started just 2-5. They hit stride from there, winning nine of their next 10, with the only loss coming by one point to Charlotte. They went on to finish 58-24, the best record in the franchise's NBA history, and reached the conference finals, where they lost a seven-game series to eventual champion Chicago.

Bird was voted Coach of the Year, providing indisputable evidence he was cut out for the job, regardless of how things had looked in the season-opener.

Rick Carlisle

Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images

7. Oct. 29, 2003 (Box Score »)

Bird, having taken a three-year hiatus after coaching the Pacers in the 2000 NBA Finals, returned to the franchise as team president in the summer of 2003. His first major act was to fire coach Isiah Thomas and hire his former assistant, Rick Carlisle.

Carlisle had just led Detroit to a pair of 50-win seasons but was let go because he clashed with ownership. It was either appropriate or ironic then that his debut as Pacers coach come in Detroit. The Pistons raised a banner to honor the team's division championship the previous season and put a spotlight on Carlisle while the public address announcer heaped praise on his coaching job during the pregame celebration.

The normally stoic Carlisle choked back tears while fans at the Palace of Auburn Hills gave him a standing ovation. The Pacers followed with an emotional victory over the Carlisle-less Detroit team, 89-87, a show of supremacy over the team that had finished two games ahead of them the previous season.

Leave it to Ron Artest to take a verbal jab at his coach after the game.

"I thought he was going to cry like a little girl," Artest said. "I should have gotten him a napkin or something."

Also leave it to Artest to create disorder by missing the flight to Detroit because, he said, he had taken his son home from school and was five minutes late to the team plane. But the Pacers displayed the overall talent that would take them to a franchise-record 61 victories.

Artest, who flew to Detroit on his own, scored 21 points. Jermaine O'Neal, headed for his finest NBA season, finished with 22 points and 15 rebounds. Reggie Miller scored 14 points on just eight field goal attempts and hit three-of-four 3-pointers.

"I thought Reggie played a masterpiece of a game," Carlisle said. "His defense was great and he hit big shots."

Ultimately, the Pacers lost to Detroit in the conference finals in a six-game series that season. But they had served notice in the opener they were to be taken seriously.

Pacers vs. Cavaliers in 2004

Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images

8. Nov. 3, 2004 (Box Score »)

The Pacers came back the following season with essentially the same team and were favored by some to win the NBA championship. That seemed a realistic possibility after their impressive season opener in Cleveland.

Not only did they pull out a double-overtime 109-104 victory, they did it without Miller, O'Neal, Jeff Foster, and Anthony Johnson, all of whom were injured. Five players scored in double figures and two others scored nine points, a by-committee effort that overcame second-year Cavs forward LeBron James' 28 points.

Artest wasn't supposed to play, either, having been bothered for a few weeks by a kneecap that was out of alignment. But Cleveland's team doctor, Richard Parker, examined him before the game, checked the X-rays and confirmed the green light that had been given Artest by the Pacers' medical staff.

Artest had not practiced the previous few days, so Carlisle left it up to the other players to decide whether he could play in this game.

"We needed bodies," said Scot Pollard, who started at center in place of O'Neal and finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds. "When you've got an All-Star, what are you going to say? 'No, let's not play him?'

Artest outplayed James in their head-to-head battle, scoring 31 points, grabbing nine rebounds and committing just one turnover in 50 minutes. He also forced the 20-year-old sensation into an 8-of-19 shooting night. He had plenty of help, though. Replacement starter Austin Croshere scored 20 points and hit the game's biggest field goals in both regulation and the overtimes. Jamaal Tinsley finished with 15 points and 14 assists. Jonathan Bender, who had sat out the preseason with a bruised heel, scored 11 points off the bench. Stephen Jackson had nine points and 10 rebounds. Fred Jones had nine points and hit the game-clinching free throws with 12.1 seconds left.

"We weren't concerned," said O'Neal, who watched the game from the bench along with Miller and Johnson. Maybe you all were concerned. But we're a veteran team, a deep team. This is what makes us one of the top teams, if not the top team, in the NBA."

Nobody could have offered a valid argument against that opinion. Sixteen days later, however, the Pacers played a game in Detroit and everything changed.

David West, Paul George, Roy Hibbert

Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images

9. Oct. 31, 2012 (Box Score »)

The Pacers were trending well when the 2012-13 season began. They had snuck into the playoffs two seasons prior after Frank Vogel took over as head coach on Jan. 31 and led an about-face, and they had followed up by winning 42 games and reaching the second round of the playoffs the previous season.

Their season-opener in Toronto backed up the impression they were growing into an elite team by yanking a 90-88 victory out of the Air Canada Centre. David West scored 21 of his 25 points in the second half and hit the game's biggest shots, setting the tone for a season that extended all the way to Game 7 of the conference finals in Miami.

This Pacers team was long, athletic, and physical, and West set the tone with his poised and professional approach.

"He's a man-child," Pacers guard George Hill said of West. "Anytime you have a player like that who can put his whole team on his back and play with that type of physicality, we can't do nothing but follow his lead."

Paul George, beginning what would turn out to be his first season as an All-Star, flashed his versatility by scoring 14 points, grabbing 15 rebounds, and passing out five assists. Center Roy Hibbert added 14 points, nine rebounds, and five blocked shots. Third-year guard Lance Stephenson played just 12 minutes, 50 seconds off the bench, but entered the starting lineup in the season's seventh game to complete the starting lineup that would make two consecutive trips to the conference finals.

The Pacers started the season sluggishly — they were 10-11 at one point — but finished 49-32. This game showed a glimmer of what was to come — not only for the season, but the next two.

Victor Oladipo

Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images

10. Oct. 18, 2017 (Box Score »)

George shocked the Pacers in the summer of 2017 by requesting a trade through his agent. Kevin Pritchard, the President of Basketball Operations who had been given no hint of George's dissatisfaction, called it a "gut punch."

Given two options for a deal, Pritchard chose the one that sent George to Oklahoma City for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Derided by many as a steal for the Thunder at the time, it has turned out to be the far better arrangement for the Pacers. George now plays in Los Angeles for the Clippers, while Oladipo and Sabonis are vital elements of the Pacers' future.

Their first regular season game with the franchise signaled the beginning of a move forward from the previous season, when an underachieving team managed 42 victories. The 140-131 victory over Brooklyn included a couple of caveats — the defense needed plenty of improvement and the Nets were far from an elite opponent — they would go on to win just 28 games.

Still, it meant something. The Pacers displayed the balance, chemistry and energy that would enable them to exceed general expectations the next two seasons and appears to exist with a rebooted roster today. Eight players scored between 11 and 22 points, led by Oladipo who also had five rebounds, four assists, and four steals in 24 ½ minutes. Sabonis scored 16 points off the bench, hitting all seven field goal attempts and grabbing seven rebounds in 19 minutes.

Oladipo played in the All-Star Game that season and was selected to the All-Defensive first team. Although injured most of last season and still rehabilitating, he is widely acknowledged as an elite performer. Sabonis was one of the NBA's best sixth men last season and was the Pacers' clear-cut leader in advanced analytics such as Player Efficiency Rating and Win Shares.

Sometimes an unexpected gut punch results in a counterpunch that has even more impact. The first hint of that came this night against the Nets.

Have a question for Mark? Want it to be on Email him at and you could be featured in his next mailbag.

Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.


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