Pacers owner Simon watches team rise again
Just a few years ago, the Pacers were losing, fans had bailed and the team looked like it might even leave Indiana.
Now, the Pacers are selling out home games in the playoffs.
''It's certainly reassuring,'' Herb Simon, the team's 77-year-old owner, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. ''Hopefully, we'll keep that up. We're very excited about that.''
Indiana, the No. 3 seed in the East, takes a 2-1 lead into Game 4 at Orlando on Saturday. The first-round series returns to Indiana on Tuesday.
The franchise has gone on a roller-coaster ride the past decade.
Simon, as co-owner with his brother, Mel, helped the Pacers reach the Eastern Conference finals six times and the NBA finals in 2000 during the Reggie Miller era. Indiana had the league's best record in 2003-04 under coach Rick Carlisle and looked ready to break through and possibly win a title.
The franchise began falling apart when Ron Artest fought with Detroit Pistons fans in November 2004. In the next few years, several Pacers found trouble with the law and fans started trickling away.
The Pacers, already losing money, struggled to reach an agreement on how to afford their lease at Conseco Fieldhouse, which since has been renamed Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Simon said all along that he didn't want to move the team, but the financial struggles meant tough decisions had to be made about the franchise's future.
Eventually, the city agreed to help the Pacers with operating costs, but problems remained. The Pacers were last out of 30 teams in the league in attendance in 2007-08, 28th in 2008-09 and 27th in 2009-10.
Simon gave team President Larry Bird the job of rebuilding the team. He shipped off every player who ever got in trouble, rebuilt, and now the team has been to the playoffs back-to-back years after a four-year drought.
Attendance was last again in 2010-11, but the season ended with a buzz after Frank Vogel took over for Jim O'Brien at midseason. The Pacers went 20-18 in the regular season after the switch and lost to the Chicago Bulls in a competitive first-round playoff series.
The Pacers were last in attendance for most of this season, but the fans started coming back late in the year. This resurgence in Indy is what Simon hoped for all along.
''We always tried to work a deal to where the team would be here for the future,'' Simon said. ''We belong in Indianapolis, and we're doing everything we can to stay here.''
Simon said Bird has done a good job of rebuilding the team around Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert. The key moves before this season were adding George Hill on draft night, trading for Lou Amundson and picking up free agent David West. The final touch was adding guard Leandro Barbosa at the trade deadline.
''I'm pleased with everything Larry has done,'' Simon said. ''Everything he said he was going to do, he's done and more.''
Bird decides year-to-year whether he'll return. Simon wants him back.
''After the season, we're going to sit down and work it out one way or the other,'' Simon said.
Miller, now an NBA analyst with TNT, has expressed interest in running the Pacers if Bird steps aside. Simon said he has been in contact with Miller, but not specifically about a future opening.
''We maintain contact and we do have coffee occasionally,'' Simon said. ''I think he's pretty excited about his present job. We have a very good relationship, and I'm sure we will continue to have a good relationship.''
Simon also is pleased with Vogel. The 38-year-old finished third in the coach of the year voting in his first full season.
''As far as we're concerned, he's our coach of the year,'' Simon said. ''The other guys are great, but we're very pleased with Frank Vogel.''
Donnie Walsh left as the team's CEO in 2008 and Mel Simon passed away in 2009, forcing Herb Simon to take on more responsibility. He said he has no plans of slowing down. Simon believes there is more success to come for the Pacers.
''Just continue with the plan and the program that Larry and the basketball side has put together, a good short term, mid-term and long-term plan,'' he said. ''We keep following as best we can.''
Follow Cliff Brunt at www.twitter.com/cliffbruntap