Playing in Indy Doesn't Frighten Lyles

It sounds like fun, being a professional athlete in your hometown. Your family and friends can see you play, you never get lost and you're more likely to get endorsement opportunities.

Then again, nothing comes without a price.

Trey Lyles hopes he gets to find out. The 6-10 forward from Kentucky, barely more than a year removed from leading Tech High School to a state championship, was one of six players working out for the Pacers on Thursday, and could be available to them with the 11th pick in the first round.

Just two of Thursday's draft hopefuls are projected in the first round, Lyles and Arkansas forward Bobby Portis. They were matched up in head-to-head competition in three-on-three scrimmages, but media members are not permitted to see enough of the sessions to draw a valid conclusion.

Lyles, who also has worked out in Phoenix and Miami, is a bit of a wild card. He'll go in the first round, certainly, but some projections have him going before the Pacers pick and some after. Some have him going to the Pacers, too, a natural bit of guesswork since he grew up in Indianapolis.

Nobody seems quite sure what to make of his potential, though. He was thrown into a mix of exceptional talent in his only college season at Kentucky, which muted his contributions. (He averaged just 8.7 points and 5.2 rebounds). Two of his teammates, Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein are expected to go ahead of him, and another, Devin Booker also will go in the first round.

Lyles is regarded as a mature, skilled player who can score inside and out. He has a 7-foot-4 wingspan and plays an intelligent game – "an old man's game," some say. But, he's not an explosive athlete, and doesn't have that one exceptional skill that makes him stand out. He is best-suited to play small forward offensively, but hit just 14 percent of his college 3-pointers. He is best-suited to play power forward defensively, but lacks the strength to guard the David Wests of the NBA. Then again, what 19-year-old doesn't?

That's the thing, Lyles is 19 and far from a finished work. It's impossible to know what he'll become. But whatever he becomes, he wouldn't mind it happening in Indianapolis.

"Being somewhere where you watched a lot of games when you were a kid and actually being able to go out there and work out for the team, it's a special situation for myself," he said Thursday.

"My family likes the Pacers, I watched them growing up, so it would be a cool situation. I'm a team-first guy and this is a team-first organization."

Lyles has attended several Pacers games over the years. Once, he was given an opportunity to meet Shaquille O'Neal, when O'Neal played for Miami, but was "too scared." Playing home games in the same Fieldhouse where he led Tech to its state championship to seasons ago, and for that matter the same city where Kentucky played its Final Four game a few months ago, sounds like a dream.

It probably would be, but not without its nightmarish elements. The Pacers' all-time roster includes seven men who played high school basketball in Marion County: Bobby Jo Edmonds (Attucks High School), Billy Keller (Washington), George McGinnis (Washington), Charles Jordan (Shortridge), Wayne Radford (Arlington), Randy Wittman (Ben Davis) and George Hill (Broad Ripple).

Two others, Jerry Sichting (Martinsville) and Josh McRoberts (Carmel) grew up in neighboring counties.

Keller and McGinnis got to see the best and worst of the experience while playing on championship teams in the ABA hey-day. They highly recommend it, but attach a warning label.

"I loved it," said Keller, who played seven seasons for the Pacers and is one of four to have played on all three championship teams. "My folks were able to see me play, and I could leave tickets for friends. I didn't feel any pressure. It was like playing in high school."

"It was wonderful," McGinnis said. "You were comfortable. You grew up here and had a lot of friends.

"But it could be a blessing and a curse," he quickly added. "You have to make sure you keep it in perspective."

And there's the catch. There's a downside to being in such familiar surroundings. People are going to want favors, whether it's tickets to a game, a loan or an outright gift. Those issues are only amplified today, with salaries that have skyrocketed and are well-publicized.

"Making a lot of money is a game-changer," Keller said. "There's too many opportunities for people to get a piece of you and distract you. You start lending people money, and they don't pay you back."

McGinnis, the co-Most Valuable Player of the ABA in the 1974-75 season, probably was the highest-paid Pacers player before they joined the NBA, and at his peak the most popular. He had to learn to tell people no, something Hill no doubt has had to do.

Some people came to McGinnis for money. More often they wanted tickets, and/or a reserved parking place. He had to learn to defend, to put up an occasional stiff-arm. He received four comps for each home game at the Coliseum, but that wasn't nearly enough to cover his family members and closest friends, not to mention the mere acquaintances.

"It was always something," he said. "You had to separate yourself from some people. You were a bad guy as far as they were concerned, but you had to do it to keep your sanity.

"You end up spending more time working on those type of things than thinking about the game you had to play. I'd say, 'If I can't get you a ticket, I'll buy you a ticket. I don't want to make five or six calls to the Pacers office to get a ticket and a parking spot for you.'"

Years later, those memories tend to fade. Keller and McGinnis still live in Indianapolis, and built post-playing careers here. Keller coached at Brebeuf High School and Indiana Central, and ran a shooting camp for 37 years. McGinnis owns GM Supply Co. on the city's east side.

That's another advantage to playing in your home city. You have a wide network to begin with, and it's easier to expand it. That brings more business opportunities, and makes initiating them easier.

Keller and McGinnis led the Pacers in endorsements during their playing careers. Keller was a spokesman for the American Dairy Association for three years (they even wrote a song for him, "The Ballad of Billy Keller"), Jerry Alderman Ford, B&B Trailer Sales and Raccoon Lake. McGinnis had arrangements with a car dealer and Marathon Oil, among others. He and Keller shared endorsements with Tom Raper RV and Gatorade.

It's hardly automatic, though. Keller and McGinnis were standout players on teams that won championships. But the opportunities are there, amplified, for the hometown players. Or, as Hill is called, the "Hometown Hero."

It's far too early to make that sort of prediction for Lyles. But the possibility is there, and he doesn't shy away from it, as if Shaq were lurking around the corner.

"I don't think it would matter to me," he said. "I've played in a lot of different places before, and being able to play at home would be good for my family. It doesn't matter to me where I play at."

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