Nancy Reagan at Pacers game
NBAE/Getty Images

Remembering Nancy Reagan's Pacers Connection

by Wheat Hotchkiss Writer/Editor

The world mourned the passing of former First Lady Nancy Reagan earlier this week. The wife of 40th President Ronald Reagan died on Saturday at the age of 94, and tributes have poured in from across the globe in the wake of her death. The Pacers, for their part, held a moment of silence for Reagan before Monday's game against the San Antonio Spurs.

The tribute was fitting not only for the tremendous impact the former First Lady left on the country, but also because Nancy Reagan actually did once attend a Pacers game.

One of Reagan's chief initiatives as First Lady was her "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign. During the 1987-88 season, Reagan teamed up with the NBA, which hosted "Just Say No" nights in 11 different cities, including Indianapolis.

On February 4, 1988, Reagan and then-NBA Commissioner David Stern traveled to Indiana for the Pacers' "Just Say No" game. According to an article published that day from the Chicago Tribune, Reagan chose to attend a game at Market Square Arena in part because of one Pacers player's anti-drug efforts.

The second-leading scorer on the Pacers in the 1987-88 season was a bruising 23-year-old forward named Wayman Tisdale. Tisdale had seen other athletes fall victim to drug abuse — most notably Len Bias, who died of a drug overdose two days after the Boston Celtics drafted him with the second overall pick in the 1986 NBA Draft.

Those events moved Tisdale to start his own anti-drug program, "Tisdale's Team." According to the Tribune, the mission of Tisdale's organization was to "(work) with central Indiana students to combat alcohol and drug abuse." As part of the program, Tisdale donated Pacers tickets to program participants (1,250 each season, according to the article).

"I wasn't looking for this," Tisdale said at the time about the First Lady's visit. "This is big and it's really special. I'm very grateful for this recognition. I'll definitely have my best suit on."

Upon arrival in Indianapolis, Reagan visited a "Tisdale's Team" meeting. She then attended a private reception at Market Square Arena with some corporate and political VIPs.

Longtime Pacers team photographer Frank McGrath was on hand to photograph the reception and later chronicled his experience in the Zionsville Times-Sentinel.

"Trust me folks, no matter how long you've been doing something, or how good you are, anxiety like this can turn anybody into mush," McGrath wrote of his nerves while waiting alongside Secret Service agents for the First Lady to make her entrance.

Reagan stayed for the Pacers game that night against the Philadelphia 76ers. There, she addressed the crowd, and in a memorable moment, Tisdale and Sixers All-Star forward Charles Barkley picked up the First Lady so that she could dunk a basketball. McGrath was the only photographer allowed on the floor when that happened, and he captured the iconic image you now see in this story.

The Pacers went on to win that night, 109-95. Their leading scorer was Wayman Tisdale, who finished with 26 points on 11-of-13 shooting.


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