Secret to Pacers' Success? It Starts with Sharing
In the Pacers' version of democracy, they don't just share the ball on the court. They share interviews, jokes and underarm deodorant in the locker room and they share food on the airplane.
There's no leader in the locker room, just a consortium of old and young alike who pitch in when and wherever needed. They are, in fact, a working model for any corporation or organization looking to escape the sort of mediocrity last season's team displayed.
If there's a mantra for a season in which they won 48 games, six more than last season and about 16 more than generally was expected of them, it has been "collective." That word, or words to that effect, came up on Media Day before training camp began and continued to echo within the locker room throughout the season.
On Media Day: "We're going to play hard each and every night," Thad Young said. "We're going to continue to fight and be there for one another."
Before Tuesday's regular season-ending game: "These guys come out and give you everything they have," Nate McMillan said. "There's not any egos. They work together. They seem to enjoy playing together. Everything we've asked them to do, they've tried to do that."
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The Pacers have a classless society, one that interacts with one another freely and openly regardless of status. Interview one player in a postgame locker room and another is likely to join the conversation. Tuesday, it was Alex Poythress leaning in on Darren Collison's interview. Earlier in the season, Victor Oladipo chimed in on one of Myles Turner's conversations. Lance Stephenson might be heard shouting out a "contribution" to Glenn Robinson III's interview. Al Jefferson routinely sits in front of his locker like a majordomo, both the source and butt of light-hearted insults.
Players often walk to a teammate's locker to borrow deodorant or other toiletries without bothering - or needing - to ask. An online photo showed Stephenson bringing food for the team flight to Denver, hardly a rare occurrence. Post-game dinner plans are sometimes overheard, too – if they can be heard above the din of the music coming out of Oladipo's wireless speaker, which he carries with him like a teddy bear to and from the shower.
"Great group of guys, man," Collison says. "Everybody is great people. It's one thing to have great players, but I've been on a lot of teams. When you play with great people, it makes everybody's job easier. Everybody's listening. Nobody has egos. You come in the locker room and everybody's smiling. It's positivity.
"We trust each other. The biggest thing about this league, you can't have egos if you want to have success."
Thad Young and Turner were voted co-captains by the players before the season began, but they are not the team leaders. They're just part of a consortium that includes nearly everyone on the team, all the way down to Jefferson and Joe Young, who are usually out of the playing rotation.
Jefferson and Joe Young, in fact, get major credit from McMillan for helping establish the team culture. As guys who have been around awhile – Young three seasons, Jefferson 14 – they could find reasons to complain about their playing time, or at least distance themselves from the group. They haven't.
"That doesn't happen often in this league," McMillan said.
Jefferson, in fact, has taken it a step further by providing leadership and mentoring for the centers who play head of him, Turner and Domantas Sabonis.
"Al Jefferson came here to play," McMillan said. "When we made the trade for Damos and Victor, Al all of a sudden was dropped out of the rotation. I would say he's probably the most important player on the team because of his approach and his sacrifice in allowing these young guys to play and develop, and working with them and keeping himself ready, because there were teams we needed him to be ready and we won games. That guy's been unbelievable."
Jefferson took an objective viewpoint when McMillan told him before training camp began he would be out of the regular playing rotation. Having seen Sabonis in informal workouts, he understood.
"I said it all year, if I had to sit for Sabonis …that's a guy to sit for," Jefferson said. "You put somebody in front of me that I feel like I'm better than, I'll have a problem with it. But Myles and Sabonis are the perfect bigs for the way the game is played now, and I have to respect that.
"Like I always said, this is my 14th year. I have nothing to complain about. I'm going to help the young guys as much as I can."
Donnie Walsh has seen a lot of Pacers teams over the years. He was an assistant coach for two seasons before taking over as general manager in 1986, and aside from a three-season run as the Knicks general manager and one season off, he's been with the franchise more than 30 seasons.
He considers this version "one of the happiest teams" he's ever seen.
"We've had others, but never right off the bat," said Walsh, who watches virtually every practice and game as the basketball operations consultant. "This team just got put together this year. You've got a lot of young guys, middle-aged guys and older guys. And they were like that from Day One.
"You could tell when they were just playing without coaches (before training camp began). They seemed to get along at first. And then when we got with more structure, they were playing hard on every play."
They've continued to play hard. Not every play. Not every quarter. But in virtually every game they have eventually gotten around to putting forth a solid effort, even when they haven't played well. The teamwork has been equally consistent.
"They just do what you say," McMillan said. "You let them know they're not working hard enough, they give you more. Tell them they're not working together, they play together. They've really been a joy to work with."
And now they can share one more thing: credit.
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Mark Montieth's book, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," covers the formation and early seasons of the franchise. It is available at retail outlets throughout Indiana and online at sources such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
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