Courtesy of Mark Montieth
Storen Got Pacers Up and Running Toward Championships
The early survival and ultimate success of the Pacers in their formative ABA seasons owes to several fluky factors.
Getting Roger Brown out of a factory in Dayton was one. Getting Mel Daniels in a trade for a mere $100,000 because the Minnesota Muskies were moving to Miami and needed a quick infusion of cash was another. Getting Bob "Slick" Leonard to coach the team early in the second season because he happened to be living just up the road in Kokomo while selling high school graduation supplies was yet another.
The impact of landing Mike Storen as the franchise's first general manager was as crucial as any of them, however.
Storen, more than anyone, laid the groundwork for the Pacers by establishing an aggressive, confident, and optimistic culture that factored into every positive development over their first three seasons. And, his arrival happened to be every bit as fateful and fortunate as the others.
Storen grew up in Michigan City and graduated from Notre Dame in 1957. He then entered the Marine Corps and was sent to Officers Candidate School in Quantico, Va., where he fatefully met Dick Tinkham, a DePauw University graduate. They hit it off and established a relationship that would prove mutually rewarding 10 years later after Tinkham became involved with the founders of the Pacers.
The Pacers' first choice for general manager, Bob Young, accepted the job but quickly backed out, realizing he lacked a strong enough background in basketball to do it well. Tinkham then turned to Storen, whose basketball background included front office stints with the Baltimore Bullets and then the Cincinnati Royals, where he worked as director of ticket sales and promotions. Tinkham convinced him to take the plunge into uncharted territory with the rest of the Indianapolis pioneers, and Storen, just 31 years old at the time, got down to business.
With just seven months remaining before the season-opener, there was plenty of business to be done. The Pacers had no players, no office, no employees, nothing but an ownership group and a dream. But Storen, calling upon his Marine work ethic and leadership skills, raised a franchise from bare concrete. Office space was located at 638 E. 38th St., replacing a jewelry store. It was barely big enough to accommodate the six full-time employees Storen had hired, but he had them operating at a fastbreak tempo.
It's unclear who came up with the nickname "Pacers," as more than one person took credit for it — including Storen. At the very least, he approved it. He more certainly chose blue and gold as the team colors, primarily because they are the colors on the state flag. As a bonus, they are the colors of his alma mater. He also had the Pacers wear low-cut black shoes in their early seasons, copying both Notre Dame and the Boston Celtics, a franchise he tried to emulate.
Most of all, he assembled the core of championship teams.
Brown might have been signed regardless, as he had already been brought to the attention of the Pacers' ownership group by Oscar Robertson, who had played with him in pickup games. One of Storen's first acts upon signing his contract, however, was to drive to Dayton, knock on Brown's door, and convince him to take a chance on a new team in a new league.
Storen knew Freddie Lewis because Lewis had just completed his rookie season in Cincinnati, where he was stuck behind Robertson at point guard. Storen sat with him at the kitchen table at his house in Cincinnati and outlined an agreement on a yellow legal pad.
He signed third-round draft pick Bob Netolicky, beating out the San Diego Rockets, who had Netolicky's NBA draft right. And, he made aggressive runs at former Indiana high school and collegiate stars such as Tom and Dick VanArsdale, Terry Dischinger, and Jon McGlocklin, all of whom opted for the security of the NBA.
Storen also helped engineer the incredibly one-sided trade for Daniels following the first season and then convinced Leonard to take on the challenge of coaching the team nine games into the second season — on a part-time basis at first.
Storen's hard-nosed approach was accentuated by a flair for promotion. And if truth had to be shaded now and then to bring a positive result, so be it. He could have been nicknamed "Slick" just as easily as Leonard. He knew how to work the media, feeding them rumors to maintain their interest and even offering to pay for seats on the team's commercial flights so the newspaper beat writers could cover road games. The Star and News took him up on it for a while during the first season, a blatant ethical violation but one that helped introduce the team to the city.
He also was adept at creating a positive impression of the games by "papering the house" when necessary. He had honed the skill while working for the Royals, handing out tickets to civic organizations and youth groups to avoid the embarrassment of a small crowd for a big game. His best effort with the Pacers came in their season opener in October of 1967 against the Kentucky Colonels. Wanting to create as much excitement as possible, he passed out tickets to local organizations and offered special promotions for fans.
He overdid it, as more than 2,000 fans were turned away from the inaugural game. But that made for a bold newspaper headline — "Pacers Soar And Over 10,000 Roar" — and helped create the impression the Pacers were a big deal before they were.
Storen also faced up to the challenge of volunteering to host the first ABA All-Star Game. A first-year league had never put on an All-Star Game, and it was a massive challenge for his minimal staff. It was conducted professionally, with a banquet that included guest speaker Bob Richards, an Olympic gold medalist as a pole vaulter who was a nationally renowned commercial spokesman, gift bags for all the participants, and a new car for the Most Valuable Player.
It was a tough sell to the public, however, because of a snowstorm the day of the game and competition from college games involving both Indiana and Purdue that evening. Storen claimed the game drew more than 10,000 fans, and the figure was repeated in wire service stories throughout the country. He also said he expected it to turn a slight profit. The truth was that, despite his best house-papering effort, only about 7,500 fans attended and only 2,500 paid for their tickets. The Pacers took a financial bath, losing about $27,500, but viewers across the country — most of whom were getting their first look at the funny league with the red, white, and blue ball — didn't have to know that. The game was competitive and well-played, providing a major publicity boost for the new league starved for attention.
True to his Marine roots, Storen was a thick-skinned leader who kept pushing forward. His unique brand of light-hearted aggression helped maintain a positive relationship with media members and Pacers employees, even the players with whom he might have financial disagreements.
One example came in his contract negotiation with Brown following the first ABA season. The rule at the time was that if a player had signed a one-year contract, as Brown had, and couldn't reach agreement on a second season, he had to play that season for 90 percent of the original deal and then become a free agent. When Storen and Brown were having trouble reaching an agreement and considering the 90 percent option, Brown asked what they would do about the car the Pacers had provided for him.
"You get to keep the car; that's the 90 percent," Storen said. "And I get to keep the keys."
It all worked out. Brown signed another one-year deal.
Storen always seemed to sign the players he wanted ultimately, including Purdue All-American Rick Mount. Storen negotiated a deal with him before the NBA could conduct its draft and Mount's signing was announced just two days after he played his final game for Purdue. In another example of Storen's promotional flair, the signing was televised live by Channel 13, pre-empting the 11 p.m. newscast.
Storen left the Pacers after their 1970 championship, taking an offer from the Kentucky Colonels that included partial ownership of the franchise. In what would have been a classic display of his creative management approach, he liked to tell the story of mailing a letter to the general manager of the Colonels on Pacers stationery proposing a series of exhibition games before clearing out his desk in Indianapolis. Upon establishing his office in Louisville, he responded with a letter to the Pacers general manager on Colonels stationery, accepting the offer.
The following fall, the Pacers and Colonels played five exhibition games against one another as well as two rookie games in various locations throughout Indiana and Kentucky, both saving expenses.
Storen's career was wide-ranging following his three seasons with the Pacers. He bounced from the Colonels to ABA commissioner to part-owner of the Memphis Sounds and then to other leagues and other sports. He finally settled in Atlanta, operating his consulting firm, but always considered his time with the Pacers to be his personal highlight.
It also should be remembered as a highlight for the Pacers, whose early survival hinged on his performance.