Reggie Miller, Jack McKinney
NBAE/Getty Images

How the Pacers Flipped Bad Luck To Good Fortune in the 1980s

The 1980s were a trying time for Pacers fans, but the team's rebirth at the time is still bearing fruit today
by Mark Montieth Writer

Judged by wins and losses, the 1980s were the worst decade of all for the Pacers. It featured just one winning season, two playoff appearances, one playoff victory and four consecutive seasons of 20, 26, 22 and 26 victories.

Viewed from a distant perspective, however, it was the decade when the franchise was reborn and the foundations for lasting success were laid. All it took were a few momentous developments that remained in place when the Pacers reached the NBA Finals in 2000: (1) The Simon brothers bought the team. (2) Donnie Walsh became the general manager. (3) Reggie Miller and Rik Smits were drafted.

The Pacers began the decade with a 44-38 record in the 1980-81 season under first-year coach Jack McKinney and reached the playoffs for the first time since joining the NBA in 1976. But that turned out to be a false start. They slipped to 35 wins the following season, then 20 in 1982-83. By then the California-based ownership of Sam Nassi and Frank Mariani lacked the financial wherewithal and/or interest to absorb more losses, and put the franchise up for sale.

How does "Sacramento Pacers" sound to you? A deal to sell the team to Sacramento developer/contractor Gregg Lukenbill was on the verge of going through in April, 1983 when Mel and Herb Simon answered the call to civic duty and purchased the franchise, with help from a grant from the Lilly Endowment to the Capital Improvements Board to take over Market Square Arena. (Lukenbill settled for purchasing the Kansas City/Omaha Kings and moving them to Sacramento two years later.)

The Simons might as well have purchased an expansion franchise and started from scratch. Not only had the team finished 20-62 the previous season, only 1,255 season tickets had been sold. But they knew what the franchise meant to Indianapolis, having lived in Indianapolis since 1960. They had seen the Pacers serve as an electrifying and unifying force for the city in the early 1970s when they won three ABA championships, spur downtown development with the construction of Market Square Arena in the mid-Seventies, and the community rally to the franchise's support during a franchise-saving telethon in 1977.

1980s CENTRAL: Learn More About the Decade at »

The absentee ownership of Nassi and Mariani wasn't going to be persuaded by sentiment, however. They wanted out of their liabilities, estimated between $7-10 million, and some upfront money. Mayor William Hudnut and a team of civic leaders, including current Pacers Vice-Chairman Jim Morris, sought out potential buyers, but Indianapolis wasn't overflowing with potential buyers at the time. They visited Wendy's founder Dave Thomas on his yacht in Florida, but were turned down. The family of former Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman also rejected their inquiry. Other moneyed sources were approached, without success.

The Simon brothers, who had built an international mall and retail center business, were the last hope. Herb's initial desire had been to simply be part of an investment group, but it came down to him and older brother Mel to save the day.

Hudnut recalled meeting with Herb and his chief accountant for about an hour, at which point Herb smiled and said, "Well, I've got to do it, don't I?"

"Yeah, Herb, for civic pride," Hudnut said.

"We just really backed into it," Herb Simon said years later. "We did it as a civic responsibility.

"It wasn't, 'I've got to do it.' It was, 'We should do it.'"

Owners don't win games, though, players do. And luck was not with the franchise in the beginning. The Pacers lost a coin flip for three-time college player of the year Ralph Sampson in 1983, and drafted Steve Stipanovich instead. They had no first-round pick in '84 because of an ill-fated trade made in 1981, thus losing out on the chance to draft Michael Jordan. They finished second in the lottery drawing for Patrick Ewing in 1985, and took Wayman Tisdale.

TICKETS: Secure Your Seats for the 1980s Decade Game »

By the end of the 1985-86 season they were still foundering. They had won just 94 games over the previous four seasons and their best player, Clark Kellogg, had suffered a knee injury that would end his career after the first four games the following season. That desperate situation, however, brought another lifeline when Herb Simon sought a new general manager.

Walsh had been an assistant coach with the Pacers on George Irvine's staff for two seasons when the job opened. Armed with a law degree, along with major college playing experience and college and professional coaching experience, he had set his sights on a general manager's position for several years. This turned out to be his opportunity.

He got a crucial recommendation from fellow University of North Carolina alum Billy Cunningham, who interviewed with Herb Simon for the job but was planning to join Miami's expansion franchise. Cunningham essentially told Simon he already had the right man for the job on his staff in Walsh.

Walsh, though, faced a daunting challenge. He was going to have to build the roster through draft picks and an occasional trade, and he knew it was going to take time.

"We had four power forwards who were good players, but we really didn't have the other positions manned at that time," he recalled. "I knew it was going to be a rebuilding job.

"After I studied it, I said to myself, 'I think I'm an interim guy.'"

He wasn't, because he made a series of savvy moves that became the first steps toward lasting success. He selected Chuck Person with the fourth pick in the 1986 draft, throwing a head fake at other GMs who might have wanted to maneuver ahead of him by telling everyone he was going to "go big" in the draft. Fans booed the selection at the draft party at Market Square Arena, the start of a misguided trend.

Walsh also hired Jack Ramsay to coach the team, and added veteran John Long to fill a shooting guard role. The combination of his moves and the talent of some of the holdovers resulted in a 41-41 season and trip to the playoffs. The Pacers lost to Atlanta, 3-1, but had taken a major step forward. Person led the team with an 18.8-point scoring average and was voted Rookie of the Year, still the only Pacers player to achieve that honor.

PACERS VOTE: Pick Your Starting Five from the 1980s »

Walsh had the 11th pick in the 1987 draft. His first inclination was to take Kevin Johnson, a point guard out of Cal-Berkeley, but when he realized Johnson would not be available he turned his attention to Reggie Miller, a shooting guard out of UCLA. Fans booed that pick, too. New Castle native Steve Alford had just led Indiana University to the NCAA championship and earned All-American honors, so was understandably the people's choice.

Walsh, however, wasn't swayed by sentiment. Miller was four inches taller than Alford, more athletic and had wide-ranging skills beyond shooting.

"He wasn't just a scorer," Walsh said. "He played the whole team game."

He also contributed intangibles.

"He was driven to make this franchise viable," Walsh added. "He worked so hard that the other guys had to work hard."

The Pacers missed the playoffs after Miller's rookie season, in which he averaged 10 points as a backup to Long. Their 38-44 record would not have earned one of the top draft picks, but for the only time in franchise history they got lucky in the lottery and wound up with the second choice. After the Los Angeles Clippers took Danny Manning, Walsh jumped at the chance to draft 7-4 Holland native Rik Smits.

Kellogg's career had ended early because of injury, and Stipanovich's was about to. If any franchise deserved a lucky break, surely the Pacers did.

"The guys who won the championships will tell you they were lucky (at times)," Walsh said. "That's just part of this business."

The record didn't immediately reflect roster improvements, however. The Pacers slipped to 28-54 in the 1988-89 season as a coaching change and trades impacted chemistry, seemingly leaving them no better off than when the decade began. But the seeds were in the ground, and the next decade would bear fruit.

The Pacers became a .500 team for four seasons beginning in 1989-90, but Walsh's steady roster tweaking, including drafting Dale Davis in 1991 and reluctantly trading Person in '92, and Larry Brown's arrival as head coach in 1993 pushed them toward the top. They reached the Eastern Conference finals five times between 1994 and 2000, and the NBA Finals in 2000. Miller and Smits were the top two scorers, respectively, six times during that stretch, and still were the second-and third-leading scorers in the 1999-2000 season. Miller wound up playing 18 seasons and stands as the franchise's all-time leading scorer. Smits played 12 seasons and is the second-leading scorer.

Nobody would have predicted all that when the final season of the 1980s ended with the team 16 games under .500. The franchise, however, had capable ownership and management and the building blocks for a winning roster in place. It hadn't been such a bad decade after all.

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

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.


  • Facebook
  • Twitter