Throughout the Pacers' history as an NBA franchise, all 43 seasons of it, eight teams have reached the Eastern Conference finals. One of them stands above the rest for intrigue and what-ifs, even more than the one that played for the championship in 2000.
The group that took Chicago to seven games in 1998 and nearly unplugged the Bulls' title run at the United Center in Game 7 might have been the best of them all. It's open to debate, of course, and there's no definitive answer, but that season stands out for its fresh enthusiasm, chemistry, veteran leadership, and raw talent.
It fell just one game and six points short of advancing to the Finals, where it would have had a legitimate opportunity to win the championship Chicago ultimately won. Instead it had to settle for a lot of happy memories and the knowledge it came closer than any other to knocking out a Bulls team with a healthy Michael Jordan once they began winning championships in 1991.
The season is as much discussed and fondly remembered today as any in the NBA, including the team that beat New York two years later to reach the Finals. Larry Bird shook up the league by jumping into the head coach's seat and defied the doubters by winning Coach of the Year honors. His players on the whole were thrilled to have him as their coach and responded to his calm, trusting approach with the enthusiasm of Little Leaguers.
That Pacers team is back in the news this weekend because it will be featured in the next episode of "The Last Dance," ESPN's Michael Jordan-centric documentary on the Bulls' sixth and final championship. There will be plenty of highlights to show from the seven-game series in which the home team won each game, but the entire season was a highlight for Pacers players and fans — until it ended so abruptly and agonizingly on May 31 in the United Center.
The team was coming off a disappointing 1996-97 season, Larry Brown's last, in which it failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 1989. The core of the team had been to the conference finals twice under Brown, however, so it had tasted success. It was in a sense in a dead heat against Father Time. Returnees Reggie Miller (32 years old), Mark Jackson (32), Rik Smits (31), and Derrick McKey (31) had passed the threshold of 30, as had trade acquisition Chris Mullin (34) and free agent signee Mark West (37). Antonio Davis (29), Dale Davis (28), Travis Best (25), and Fred Hoiberg (25) were beyond their break-in period.
Jalen Rose had been cast off by Denver after two years and spent a frustrating season riding Larry Brown's bench with the Pacers. He was in need of career rehab but showed the potential of a player who had been drafted 13th overall. Even the two rookies were experienced. First-round draft pick Austin Croshere (22) had played four years at Providence and second-round pick Mark Pope (25) was coming off a five-year collegiate career that included a transfer and a season in Istanbul, Turkey.
That group won a then-NBA franchise record 58 games and breezed through the first two rounds of the playoffs before meeting the Bulls in the conference finals in a classic seven-game series.
Here's how it unfolded.
Bird returns to the nest
The 1997-98 season unofficially began for the Pacers in May, when Larry Bird was introduced as the next head coach at a press conference at Market Square Arena that was attended by media from around the nation. It was a homecoming of sorts for the Indiana basketball legend who needed no introduction to anyone except as a coach, given the skepticism surrounding his hire. Was this a publicity stunt to sell tickets after a losing season? Was it a hopeless grab at nostalgia?
Fact is, Bird won over everyone once he met them, players included, with the thought he had put into the job and his sincerity about executing it.
Donnie Walsh, general manager: I had observed Larry for a long time as a player and I knew the personality and everything that made him go. And it was all really positive. And then when I met with him...there was one meeting I had that lasted two hours. I asked him, "Tell me what you would do with this team, Larry." He took me from the first practice to the finals of the NBA, and I mean in detail. So, I knew then he could do it. I thought it was a home run.
He just gives off the vibe. I checked it to myself a lot, just to reassure myself. Every time I did, I thought, "Yeah, he's got it."
Fred Hoiberg, guard: I went to the press conference. Reggie was there, too, and maybe someone else. We were in town and working out that day.
I was excited. He was a guy I idolized growing up. Just watching those great Celtics teams as a kid and seeing a guy from a small town go in and at times completely dominate the league...and now I get the opportunity to play for him.
Donnie Walsh introduces Larry Bird as head coach of the Pacers in a press conference at Market Square Arena. (Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images)
Travis Best, guard: I was elated. The Larry Brown situation was not one of the best for me my first two years. His expectations of me were the total opposite of what kind of player I was. Had he been there for another couple of years, I probably would not have re-signed with the Pacers after my contract was up. The last year had left a bad taste in everybody's mouth. At that point everybody had tuned him out. Guys were ready to start fresh.
When Larry Bird was hired? To hear that? He was one of my favorite players, a guy who played professionally in the same state where I grew up, where I watched every game before cable was popular. I grew up watching those Celtics teams. To hear he was going to be coaching us, I was elated.
The very first time I talked to him he started our relationship on the best note I could have asked for. He said he had watched film, had watched me, he liked the decisions I made. He said I had the green light in terms of looking to score but thought I could pass the ball as well. He wanted me to be more aggressive and come to camp in tip-top shape. That was huge for me to hear because offensively I felt I had taken a step back under Larry Brown.
Rik Smits, center: Anything after Larry Brown was easy. I liked Larry as a person but he was a bear to deal with on the basketball court. Nothing was ever good enough. It was obvious we were ready for a change and Bird was the complete opposite. He knew what it was like for the players. He realized the situation we were in. He said, "I'm going to get you in the best possible shape. You know what you're doing on the court." He didn't try to teach us like Larry Brown used to do. It was a good fit at that time. Everybody was excited about it.
Antonio Davis, forward: Larry Brown was a stickler for doing things the "right way," but you always felt it was a moving target. You were thinking, "What is the right way? Every time you come in here you explain the right way differently." At times you wanted to throw your hands up and say, 'Man, I don't want to hear that today."
Best: I didn't even know what that meant. I had been hearing that for two years.
Antonio Davis: Don't get me wrong, I loved Larry Brown. But he was a control freak. He wanted to control every single possession.
Mark Jackson, guard: Larry Brown is a Hall of Fame coach, a brilliant basketball mind, but he had a different style of coaching than Larry Bird. Both did incredible jobs for the Pacer organization, but Larry Brown was going to stop and talk and make corrections, then make more corrections. His style was trying to max out our ability. It did work, but it ran its course.
Both guys trusted me; the difference was, with Larry Bird, anything we decided to run, he still had ultimate trust in a quarterback audibling at any point. Larry Bird just had a different approach and it was a much-needed vibe for us.
Bird got his whistle wet coaching the Pacers rookie and free agents in a mini-camp, then took a team to the Atlanta suburbs for Summer League play. His debut there was national news but the group representing the Pacers didn't perform particularly well. Jalen Rose participated as a show of good faith after a frustrating season under Brown but arrived late and didn't play well. Erick Dampier, the previous year's first-round draft pick, had borrowed a van the previous night and then overslept the next morning, arriving late for a morning shootaround. He was traded to Golden State the following month for Chris Mullin. Bird insisted the two events weren't connected. But a warning had been sounded.
Dan Burke, video coordinator: That trade was probably already in the works, but from the outside it looked like, "You're late, ok, if you don't want to be here we'll send you somewhere else." That stuff was built into our discipline.
Larry's thing was, you be on time. And on time for him was 15 minutes early.
Chris Mullin, forward: Golden State was on a different trajectory and I had an open dialogue with them. They were going to rebuild. I wasn't 100 percent against rebuilding, but I wanted to know if I was going to be here when I retired. I was willing to bite the bullet and go through it, but it didn't seem to be working out.
When Larry got the job, it became really appealing to me. Those guys (Miller and Jackson) were my age and I knew them really well. I had known Donnie forever, and he had been with them so long. He's a New Yorker through and through. I had heard stories about him since I was a kid with (coach Lou) Carnesecca. It was really appealing.
That team hadn't changed a lot. They had been together trying to get to that next level. It was like walking into a well-oiled machine I just had to fit in and find a way to contribute and hopefully take it a step further.
The Pacers took their training camp to Orlando for the first time that season, preparing for the season at the Disney World complex. The players stayed in their private bungalows and each had a golf cart for transportation. There, Bird backed up his promise to make them the best-conditioned team in the NBA. The players responded with enthusiasm to his demands, and bonds were formed quickly. But for the rookies, it was an eye-opener.
Burke: When Larry got hired, we had that rookie/free agent camp right away. Our first practice was at Market Square, and Reggie showed up to watch that first practice. He saw Larry's commitment to conditioning and that sent a message right away. From what I understand, Reggie contacted some of his teammates and said, "Boys, we better come in shape."
That started the attitude of training camp: This isn't some novelty, hiring Larry Bird. This guy is all business and he's going to expect your best effort. We're here to win.
We had a lot of new guys on the team then. Just the freshness of something different and being by ourselves (in Orlando). That brought a lot to it. Watching veterans like Chris Mullin and Reggie Miller and Mark Jackson — they loved it. It was basketball. They liked being together, it was obvious. It was work, but I never felt like these guys thought it was work. Larry's practices, we worked. It was "do your job." That was Larry's battle cry and that's what everybody did.
Best: There was enthusiasm, there was energy; guys were willing to run through a brick wall for him. We wanted to win, not only for ourselves and the city and the fans, but for Larry as well.
Hoiberg: It was a fun camp. Larry Bird's practices were as demanding as any coach I've played for. He always wanted us to be the best-conditioned team and that was a huge part of his philosophy; that we would be in better shape than the opponents. Not a lot of NBA teams flat-out run sprints. He would get us on the line, and we would run a lot. It wasn't fun at the time, but It certainly paid off.
Mullin: We worked our (butts) off, no question.
Dan Burke: It was for them. It was for the players. That's what I learned from Larry. Larry had won championships. It wasn't about winning one as a coach, it was winning one for these guys. That was obvious the way he coached them and managed them. He was definitely, 'I've had my time.' He wanted them to have theirs.
The games begin
Contrary to the productivity and spirit of training camp, the Pacers lost their preseason opener at the University of Dayton to Cleveland. Even worse, Croshere broke his left wrist when he was smacked on a rebound attempt two minutes and four points into his debut. He would miss the next six weeks and not play against until Nov. 20.
Eleven days later, another notable preseason event occurred. Travis Best and Dale Davis missed the team's 3 p.m. flight to Nashville for a game against Charlotte. They were on the tarmac, walking toward the airplane, when the stairs went up, the door was closed and locked and the plane pulled away. Best contends it was only 2:50, but apparently that wasn't early enough. Davis picked up the tab for their commercial flight to Nashville, via Atlanta.
In both cases, Bird displayed the toughness he was trying to instill in the team.
Austin Croshere, forward: I went over to the sideline and told (trainer) David Craig I thought I might have broken my hand. He looked at it and said, "Yeah, you broke your hand." And Bird said, "Go make your ------- free throws." I made my free throws and then left the game.
Best: I guess we needed to get there a little sooner. We thought we had another 10 minutes. We didn't think much of it. It was an odd thing to see the team pull the stairs up and pull off. Me and Dale, we put our tail between our legs and had to buy our own ticket.
Mullin: I remember David Craig saying, "Coach, what do you want to do?" Larry said, "What time is it?" David told him. And Larry said, "Let's go then."
That was the last time anyone was late. That was the last time in my three years with the Pacers anything was askew. In the NBA, that's insane. It's impossible. That was a tight ship."
Mark West, center: I thought that was great. He was saying, "I don't care what your status is." The rules were for everybody, not for the few.
Mark Pope, forward: I'll never forget Ike (Dale Davis) standing there by the side of the plane as we started to roll out. I thought, "This is something."
Burke: One of our expressions for defending screens is "lock and go." After that happened, Reggie would be up front when it was time to leave and yell, "lock and go!" You had this awareness and accountability from within. We were disciplined and that carried over to what they accomplished.
The discipline might have been established by then, but chemistry and cohesion had not. The Pacers lost the regular season opener in New Jersey, 97-95. They followed by winning their home opener over rebuilding Golden State, but two weeks in were just 2-5. There were no hints of panic, however, and they went on to win nine of their next 10 games. After losing the final two games of a Western road trip, they didn't lose consecutive games the rest of the regular season.
The chemistry remained strong throughout the season and the team continued to improve. Miller had perhaps the best season of his career, hitting a running stream of clutch 3-pointers, while Jackson reveled in the freedom awarded by Bird. The players gradually grew comfortable with assistant coaches Dick Harter and Rick Carlisle being defensive and offensive coordinators, respectively, while Bird managed the operation with a deft touch.
Antonio Davis: We lost some games early. We just had to keep at it. The message we got from the coaches was, this works. The timing is a little off, just stay with it.
Jackson: He did not disappoint. He came with no ego. He was a team leader. He embraced what he had accomplished already as a player and took us to the next level.
The thing he emphasized to Reggie and me was how desperately he wanted us to get to the NBA Finals. He told us it was a whole different experience, and given how much work we had put in it was something we truly deserved. He wasn't a coach who was afraid to allow his leaders to have a huge voice. He understood the advantages of it as a coach. And embraced it. He kept on top of the pulse of the team and got it directly from the leaders.
Best: Larry did a great job of delegating responsibility. I thought he did a great job as a head coach with the situation that was given to him, this being his first time coaching. He took the reins and never relinquished them. He was very honest with us and made us work. He taught us his way of trying to win: everybody getting involved, being in better shape than other teams and having an easy-going feel around the locker room.
Walsh: Larry was like an orchestra leader. He felt the team the whole year. Sometimes he would let things go and sometimes he wouldn't.
Larry Bird quickly won over Indiana's veteran locker room in his first season as head coach. (Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images)
Larry always knows what he doesn't know. And when he knows it, he really knows it. He doesn't get into areas he doesn't know and he's very confident in the areas he does know.
Mullin: It was the most low-maintenance, no BS place ever. It was just basketball. The priorities were set in stone. The way Larry and Donnie constructed that roster from Day One was to get to the Finals.
Larry early in training camp was talking about getting homecourt advantage. He wasn't in there to see if he could coach, he wanted to win a championship. I hadn't been in a situation where I started the season thinking going to the Finals. We would think about going to playoffs and then scratch and claw round by round.
Hoiberg: We were up pretty big in a game one time, maybe in San Antonio. They went on a little run and Dick Harter and Rick Carlisle were yelling, "Call timeout!" Larry turned around and said, "Listen -------, I'll call all the timeouts! When was the last time you played in a meaningful game?" We went on a 12-0 and the other team had to call a timeout.
Mullin: I remember early on he said, "I'm not going to ask you guys to do anything that hasn't worked for me. We're not going to overdo anything." There was no deviation there. You look at the record and it speaks for itself. There were no hidden agendas.
Hoiberg: We would hang out as team, go to dinners...it was a team that genuinely liked each other. That team and my first year in Minnesota with Garnett, Sprewell, and Cassell — those were the teams that stood out for unity. Sprewell was one of the greatest teammates I ever had. He bought lunch for the team every day. He was a great teammate.
Jackson: The chemistry was incredible. Certainly the best I had experienced. The camaraderie, no cliques...we laughed, we joked, we embraced each other's role, we supported one another. It was a tied-together basketball team and it started from the top.
Pope: I was a dumb rookie. I didn't know anything. I had no reference points. After that I was blessed to bounce around the league a long time and I've been in basketball almost every year since. It's after the fact I recognize what a monumental blessing it was for me as a really bad-playing rookie to learn what the league was supposed to be like from Reggie Miller and Mark Jackson and Chris Mullin and Larry Bird and that whole crew. Dale, Antonio...there's a lot of rookies that come into the league and they come into places where they don't do it like that, and those rookies think that's how you carry yourself as a pro.
I tell people all the time, I don't know if I've ever been around a better leader than Reggie Miller in terms of him being a pro, him coming and competing every single day.
Antonio Davis: That whole team, man...looking back, I took it for granted. That's how you thought it was going to be everywhere. Then I go to Toronto (for the 1999-2000 season). You could live in the same building with a teammate and you didn't even know it. It was just so different.
Guys had birthday parties for their kids and every guy was there; would show up for a little bit, drop off a little present. Even if guys didn't have kids they showed up. It meant a lot. So when you get out on the floor it's more than teammates, you feel like you know this guy. He's part of your family and you're part of his family. You have that bond. We really clicked. It was the sense of us against the world.
West: I still look at that as one of the great experiences of my career. I had played on quite a few teams. Just the overall way they were and how they accepted me was special.
Mark Jackson was there and of course Reggie. I had never seen it quite the way they did with their rookies. We'd win a game and if one of those guys was "Player of the Game" and got a watch or a gift certificate or whatever, right away they would give it to one of the rookies. I thought, "Wow, this is pretty special." It was the attitude that "When I do good, we all do good."
Having been around the league for a while, I thought that was different and special.
Burke: There was always excitement, there was always camaraderie. I remember being on a back-to-back road trip and riding from the airport to the hotel and going right by the FleetCenter (in Boston). These these guys start singing. They're making up their own lyrics about not wanting to have a shootaround. They were laughing. I thought it was bringing them together.
Jackson: We'd be on the bus and (Bird) would announce we're having practice tomorrow and we'd break out in our own version of "Kumbaya." He would be up there dying laughing.
Or we would be in the middle of a shootaround or practice, and if we thought we had no business being there we would be singing songs or making subtle jokes about, "Why are we here?" Larry Brown would have put us on the line. Larry Bird thought it was hilarious.
Burke: Larry had said from the beginning we were going to have as many shootarounds as possible. We taped (ankles) for them. We didn't kill them, but we had some pretty brisk drills based on what we were going to see that night.
We sweated in those shootarounds. We worked. We did "Pacer layups," where you're constantly running fullcourt. He told them, "These are going to be 25 or 30 practices other teams aren't going to do. But we're going to get better.
I definitely saw a build-up to that team, coming closer together and becoming tougher, along with the physical improvement. It started with him being calm and confident and being driven.
Mullin: He coached like he played 100 percent dedicated, focused, no drama. He was funny without even knowing it. For me, for the older guys, he was like a teammate guiding us, encouraging us.
He would say, "If you guys don't play the first five minutes, I'm taking you out. Get your ---- going or I'm taking you out." That was his halftime speech.
I remember a game, I wasn't playing terrible, maybe I was 3-for-7 or something like that. He said, "Mully, you going to make a shot or not?" It was like older brother talking to you, saying, "Come on, let's get goingl"
Burke: Larry stayed after and rebounded for everyone. I remember thinking, "I can't leave because Larry's still out here." That was the care he showed. Doing your job meant doing extra. If you're not doing your job well, you need to stay after.
Hoiberg: When you have one of the greatest players of all time in your corner...I remember a game, I was running down in transition in front of the bench and had a 3-pointer. As soon as it released from my hand, Larry Bird yelled, "Money." It's so much easier to shoot the ball when you're not looking over your shoulder.
It did go in. When you have that kind of belief behind you, it makes the game a lot easier.
Jackson: Every once in a while, he would tease us by taking shots in practice. You're sitting there thinking, Larry Bird is shooting the ball and stroking shots. It was fun.
Croshere and Pope were old for rookies, but still rookies, and experienced the growing pains all rookies have. Croshere played in 26 games for 243 minutes in a hard-luck season that began and ended on the injured list. Pope played in just 28 games for a total of 193 minutes but was given the role of inbound passer when Derrick McKey was not available and later was awarded the task of giving the fire-up talk in the players' huddle before they took the floor. Both recall a season of naivety and tough love.
Austin Croshere: Everything was new to me. I had to get everyone's gear and take it to the trainer and then pick it up (after it had been cleaned) and drop it off at everyone's bungalow. I was just trying to work hard and fit in.
But it was a dream come true. It took me a good quarter of the season not to be in awe of Larry Bird. He would rebound for me after practice, be chasing after the ball and passing to me. I was like, What is happening here?
Pope: The first preseason game at home was one of the worst/greatest experiences of my entire life. Clearly in a million years I don't belong with this group, right? We're playing Cleveland. I'm playing pretty good. I haven't embarrassed myself and he doesn't check me out. Every timeout I'm thinking, "Surely he's going to put in a real player now." But he didn't.
On the last play, I inbound and clear out to the weakside. Reggie drives baseline, and as soon as he does, I'm thinking, This is not good. Reggie throws the pass and I catch the ball. Of all the people in this arena, I'm the one guy who should not be shooting this shot. I kind of peed my pants. I was wide open but I shot-faked. I shot-faked no one because there was nobody there. I actually shot-faked the air and drove middle and it rimmed out. And we lost the game.
I go in the locker room after and it so uncomfortable. These are vets and I clearly was not up to the task at hand. That's what you learn as a bad rookie player, you learn you have to make a play.
The next day at practice I'm stretching in the corner and Coach Bird walks over to me. He's my hero, right? He says, "Hey what happened last night?" I gave him some baloney answer about thinking I could get into the lane and get a better shot. He said, "I don't blame you, I blame me. Because I should have known better than to have you I the game." It was the worst thing anybody has ever said to me. Not really the worst, but it was the truth.
Croshere: I remember one game early in the year. The ref was Hue Hollins. I had gotten my third foul in the first half and a little later Hue handed me the ball on the sideline right next to Larry to throw it in. I said, "Coach, that's my third foul." He said, "Just inbound the ------- ball, you're not going to play long enough to foul out." Hue looked at me and started laughing. Then Larry started laughing.
Pope: We're playing the Knicks and Charles Oakley caught me with a good one in the third quarter, an elbow right in the head. In the moment I'm seeing stars, but in the moment I'm also thinking, I can't wait to go home and call Mom and say, "Charles Oakley just elbowed me in the head! I can't believe it!"
Croshere: We got our first paycheck and they had taken money out for something and Mark goes to David Craig, "Hey, what's up with this?" David said it was the charge for having a single room on the road. The collective bargaining agreement says you're supposed to have a roommate, so to get a single room you have to pay something extra.
Mark said, "I don't want that, I'll take a roommate."
David said, "Well, then find a roommate."
He was going around to everyone on the team asking if they would be his roommate on the road. He even asked the equipment guy, who was really old (Bill Hart). "Hey, Bill, let's share a room!"
Pope: When you're a bad player, you know money's going to shut down at some point. A freaking burger cost $75 at the hotel. I'm thinking, What is happening! I could buy a cow for that much.
I would always go to a Subway on the road and it became a little joke. We're rolling into L.A. and we're driving to the hotel and we drive by a Subway and a whole chorus of guys yell, "Pope, there you go! There's your Subway."
In my second season (1999) we're playing the Knicks in the playoffs. I actually proposed to Lee Anne, who worked for David Letterman, during the playoff series. She comes to the hotel one day and has the ring on and we ran into Mully in the lobby. He looked at the ring and says, "Lee Anne, that is a lot of Subway sandwiches."
I was pretty close to living off my per-diem to pay my apartment rent and food.
Croshere: I remember going to Blockbuster and renting like five movies and watching them. I would get to the gym early and stay later. But even then, you're still home at 3 and you've got nothing to do the rest of the day. That's life as a rookie. It's the greatest job in the world, but there's a lot of loneliness to it.
Mark didn't hang out. He stayed in his room and studied the Bible and took notes. He wasn't going to bars or trying to hang out and meet people. I remember Chris Mullin had me over to his house several times for dinner. I appreciated it when the veteran players reached out.
Pope: The pre-game huddles were so ridiculous. I don't know how that happened.
I felt a lot of pressure to deliver for the guys, man. I really did. It got semi-ridiculous. But it was my opportunity to give everything I had to this team. These guys were giving everything they had by playing 44 minutes, I was giving everything I had by giving a 37-second speech.
I got carried way with it. We were playing the Knicks in the playoffs. Ike (Dale Davis) was always joking about "cookin' 'em." Like "We're gonna cook 'em." In homage to him, right before we ran out onto the floor, I got a big can of beans and I put an apron on and had a chef's hat and I did a thing about how were gonna "cook 'em."
Croshere: Mark West stayed in the same apartment complex as me and we would car pool to the airport a lot. It was great to have someone like that around. He was president of the players association, so he knew what was going on.
Back then we had to carry our own shoes with us. They carried everything else, but we had to carry our shoes. Every time I got in the car, he'd say, "You got your shoes? You got your wallet?" He would say if you forget anything else you can deal with it, but you have to have your shoes and wallet. I say that to my kids now when we're going somewhere. "You got your wallet?"
Pope: I was a fan at the end of the bench on that team. Coach was very much like, "Nobody is getting a free ride here, it doesn't matter how bad a player they are." He would sit me the whole game and it would be a close game and there would be seven seconds left and we had to get it inbounds to seal the game or get a game-winner and he would call me off the bench to inbound the ball. He was like, "Bro you're not going sit there and chill out. You're going to sit there and be nervous and see if you're going to come in to inbound the ball."
We were in Phoenix and the game was tied. There's a timeout (with two seconds remaining) and Larry Bird puts me back in the game. Reggie comes off a weird screen and ends up in the corner and I throw him the ball from the sideline. He shot fakes and dribbles and bangs the shot on the baseline. I run in and start jumping up and down and celebrating. Sure enough, I'm on SportsCenter like a real player. Like, "Reggie and I just won the game!"
I was the luckiest guy in the world to be on that team.
Highlights and close shaves
After hitting his game-winning shot in Phoenix, Miller ran off the court and held his index finger to his mouth to hush the fans. That invoked bad karma, as the Pacers then lost their last two games on the five-game road trip and then lost a home game to the Suns the following month. Still, they hit the All-Star break with the best record in the Eastern Conference, 33-13, one-half game ahead of Chicago. That meant Bird had to coach in the All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden, something he would have preferred not to do. Miller and Smits were selected to play in it — Miller for the fourth time and Smits for the first. Smits wasn't particularly eager to do it, either.
Smits: You know me. I was still kind of a shy kid then. New York City is the exact opposite of shy and the All-Star Game is the exact opposite of me. But I'm glad I did it. I was kind of intimidated by the whole thing more than anything, but it was a great experience looking back on it.
Pacers stars Reggie Miller and Rik Smits were selected to play in the 1998 All-Star Game, where Larry Bird served as their coach. (Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images)
The Pacers sputtered coming out of the break, winning five of their next nine games to fall 2 1/2 games behind the Bulls. The followed that stretch, however, with a 124-59 victory over Portland at Market Square Arena. It remains the only time NBA history a team has been doubled up — and Portland was a good team that finished the season 46-36. It had won at Chicago two nights earlier, however, which might have created a hangover effect.
Antonio Davis: Just one of those nights where everything goes right for you and everything goes wrong for the other team. We could have bounced the ball off our heads and off the top of the backboard and it would have gone in. It made us feel good because you believe in what you're doing. You're working together and you're seeing results.
Croshere: That game doesn't get the press that I think that it would. The thing I remember is that I was sitting there thinking, "Please tell me I'm going to get in this game. We're up 60 points!" I remember that I had a very efficient game (eight points in 6 minutes, 55 seconds). But I thought I'd get in before I did.
That victory started a three-game winning streak, but the Pacers continued on a rocky road for another month, failing to build momentum. Finally, a 96-89 loss at Charlotte on April 3 proved to be a wakeup call. Bird's postgame address has stuck in the memory of some of those with the team that night.
Burke: That was as emotional as I ever saw Larry. He was appealing to them. "What are you thinking about out there?! Do you think we're going to win and we're going to compete playing like that?!"
Pope: He wasn't cussing us out, he was just so devastated and heartbroken that we had disrespected the game with our lack of effort and focus. On that particular night, we did not bring it. I've only seen that kind of emotion in sports a couple of times. It's really rarified air.
That loss kicked off a seven-game winning streak to close the season, aside from a season-ending loss at Cleveland when the starters played only the first quarter. One of those victories was a 114-105 victory at Chicago on April 13. Bird had appealed to his players to play physically, so Mark Jackson bumped Michael Jordan hard on a layup attempt. Jordan threw the ball at Jackson's head and was called for a technical foul. The game was presented in the media as a statement game that proved the Pacers could win in the United Center, but only some of the players took it that way.
Best: Beating Chicago in Chicago meant something. They knew we were looking for them. Chicago's not trying to lose that game. It meant something to us. I'm sure if you looked at all the games that month that's probably not a game we all would have circled as a win. It's always huge to win in Chicago.
Antonio Davis: We had more to prove than they did. We were playing some good basketball so at that time the only thing that mattered was continuing to do what we were doing. The Bulls didn't have to win that game. They wanted to and Mike was going to play, so they were going to try, but I don't think we put that much on it. Were we excited about it? Oh yeah. But we knew it didn't matter.
Smits: It's always nice to prove to yourself you can win in an arena. But I'd rather not win there and give them a false sense of confidence and surprise them in the playoffs.
Jackson: We didn't think we had anything to prove. We thought we were as good if not better and we thought it was our time. We thought, "Let's show them what they're going to see when they see us down the road. Not if, but when." It was a message to them, not us.
Heading into the playoffs, the Pacers found a memorable way to display their unity. They had done things such as wear black shoes and black socks for postseason games in the past, but this time they all shaved their heads. Nobody is quite certain where the idea originated. Most assume Miller and Jackson were behind it, but even Jackson isn't sure of that.
Burke: Knowing those two, they had a bet on who would do it and who wouldn't. When Smits did it — oh, my God.
Jackson: With Rik doing it and Chris doing it, that was a wrap.
I can recall yelling and screaming and jumping up and down. Just being in shock when Rik walked into the locker room. And I grew up watching Chris play with the fluffy hair. That's part of what he was. For him to trim it down and cut it off, it showed everybody he was serious about the team being together.
Hoiberg: I didn't think there was any way Rik or Chris Mullin would shave their heads. I shaved mine down to a crew cut. But I walked into the building the next morning and those guys were completely bald. I was like "Oh, ----." So someone shaved my head — it might have been Mark Pope.
Pacers players display their shaved heads prior to a first-round playoff game against Cleveland. (Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images)
Antonio Davis: When Rik came in with his head shaved, we were so fired up. He doesn't even realize what that did for us. It was crazy. We knew...nobody wanted to shave their heads, but are you willing to do that for your team?
It's us against the world. How many ways can we prove that to each other. Shaving your heads was just another way of showing that.
West: It worked as a rallying cry. It was kind of weird, seeing Rik Smits with no hair. Mully had the crewcut anyway, but to go bald, that's a whole other level. I was surprised Travis did it, he had the image going. But it was no problem. Everybody was on board.
Smits: I've never been under so much peer pressure. There were a couple of us who held out as long as we could. But, of course, we wanted to be part of what the rest of the team was doing.
Mullin: One of those games was on television recently and my daughter, who wasn't born then, was like, "What's wrong with you?" I said, "Hey, I was all in." I wasn't going to Hollywood anyway.
I think my wife shaved me. I shaved my two (five- and six-year-old) sons' heads then, too. We did it together.
Smits: It never did grow back the same after that. It wasn't a good look for me, I'll tell you that. Who shaved it? That's a good question. Probably my dad, if he was around. He used to shave his head.
Best: My hair's never grown back the same after that. I had never shaved my head bald up to that point. After that, it started thinning a little bit.
I have to shave it now. I'd be looking like Bozo the Clown
Antonio Davis: We were crazy. Gosh, we were crazy.
The Pacers breezed through the first two rounds of the playoffs, eliminating Cleveland 3-1 and New York 4-1. They closed out the Knicks at Market Square Arena, 99-88, behind the force of the first playoff triple-double in the franchise's NBA history. Mark Jackson finished with 22 points, 14 rebounds, and 13 assists in a performance Bird called "phenomenal."
Jackson: You don't have those days and those games without the team, without guys making plays for you. You get in that zone where everything seems to go right for you.
The biggest memory for me after that game, a day or two later my dad gave me the stat sheet from that game. I specifically remember him handing it to me. He was a great example as a leader, but he was never one to say, "Awesome job, you played outstanding." He would say, "You turned it over in the third quarter." Mom was a cheerleader for me, even when I played awful. My dad kept it real at all times. For him to hand me a stat sheet was almost like putting a stamp on it.
I framed it, but since moving 10 times I don't know where it is.
Have a question for Mark? Want it to be on Pacers.com? Email him at email@example.com 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 Amazon.com.
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.