The beginning of the Indiana Pacers NBA history was a far cry from their ABA dynasty days. Financial struggles contributed to many poor personnel decisions which led to the team losing a lot in those dark days as they barely survived the merger between the two leagues. Ironically, the Pacers first NBA season with any amount of success led to perhaps the worst trade in team history and may have prevented the franchise’s NBA accomplishments dwarfing those three ABA championships.
But that one season of modest success might not have happened in the first place without a bicycle accident.
In the 1980-81 season, Jack McKinney led the Pacers to the NBA playoffs for the first time in his first season as coach of the team after taking over for the retiring Bobby “Slick” Leonard. The previous season McKinney was with the Los Angeles Lakers, who won the title in Magic Johnson’s rookie season. So why would the Lakers get rid of their head coach after winning a championship? Continue reading How a bike accident may have changed the course of Pacers history→
In the dark ages of the Indiana Pacers early NBA history of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the team struggled and made many poor decisions at least partially due to financial instability. Perhaps none worse than one trade that involved a future draft pick.
(30 for 30 voice) What if I told you that after the Indiana Pacers traded away their chance at drafting the player many consider to be the greatest of all time in Michael Jordan?
In 1981, Head Coach Jack McKinney led the Pacers to its first winning season (44-38) in the NBA and their first trip to the playoffs on his way to being named Coach of the Year. But the team’s success was soon cut down when starting center James Edwards was lost in free agency to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In order to keep pushing for the postseason, McKinney traded a first-round pick in the 1984 draft for Tom Owens, a journeyman center on the tail end of his career, to fill the void that Edwards left. Owens only played one season for the Pacers averaging 10.5 points per game and the team missed the playoffs with a 35-47 record.
Indiana then traded Mr. Owens to the Detroit Pistons for a second-round pick in the 1984 draft and won a combined 46 games over the next two seasons.
The Pacers finished with the worst record in the Eastern Conference in the 1983-84 season and McKinney was fired. That draft pick they traded away for a short-term fix ended up being the second overall selection.
The 1984 NBA Draft is widely considered one of the best ever and ended up having five Hall of Famers. Hakeem Olajuwon went first overall to the Houston Rockets. The Portland Trail Blazers infamously took Sam Bowie and Michael Jordan fell to third with the Chicago Bulls.
Maybe the Pacers would have made the same mistake the Blazers did and that’s the decision that would haunt them the most from the 1980s instead of the Owens trade. Or maybe Jordan would have led Indiana to multiple NBA titles like he did with Chicago. We’ll never know.
Donnie Walsh took over the Pacers personnel decisions in 1986 and steadily built the consistently competitive, respectable franchise that came closer than anyone to beating the Jordan Bulls during their dynasty as they took them to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1998.
Jon Wertheim of SI.com once said the Pacers were trying to break the “curse of Tom Owens,” similar to the Red Sox curse of trading away Babe Ruth. With all their bad luck since he said that in the early 2000s, it rings a little more true: Malice at the Palace, the GQ Photo with the struggle of 2013-14, Paul George’s broken leg, and Victor Oladipo’s injury.
You may be curious after watching Glenn Robinson III’s amazing Saturday night in the Dunk Contest how many Pacers have ever competed, let alone won, a dunk contest in the past besides Trey Dog (who I incorrectly gave only a 20% chance to win). Over the 31 years of the contest including one ABA, seven different Pacers in addition to King Glenn III have competed in the NBA Contest. Zero in the one year the ABA had their contest in 1976 before the merger. Pacers ABA legend Darnell ‘Dr Dunk’ Hillman won the first NBA dunk contest in 1977 but it was a very different season-long contest back then. All 30 teams had a representative and competed one-on-one in a bracket like challenge. Until last night, Dr. Dunk had never received a trophy for the contest, but did get a check for around $15,000.
Here’s my ranking of the top-10 dunks by a Pacers player in the dunk contest:
Let the countdown commence. And feel free to let me know where I’m wrong on Twitter @TheCorner3Ross.
#102013 Gerald Green: The Double Dunk
He didn’t complete it till after his buzzer so it didn’t count but the idea was impressive: cut off the net, dunk, catch the ball with the other hand, and dunk it again, all in the air during one jump.
#9 2012 Paul George: Larry Bird Sticker Dunk
Slap a sticker on on end of the backboard and dunk on the opposite end. Points for the prop. Nothing fancy on the dunk. PG took more attempts than he had stickers unfortunately.
#8 2001 Jonathan BenderLeft-Hand from the Foul Line
For how long he is, it should’ve been from further away. Sadly like much of Bender’s career, his performance was a disappointment. At least he didn’t get hurt!
#7 2012 Paul George Glow-in-the-Dark Dunk
He should’ve just done it with the lights on in my opinion. This is one of the dunks that Vince Carter did in his iconic 2000 Slam Dunk performance. And as @its_whitney brought out on Twitter, he should’ve had a glow-in-the-dark ball to wrap it all together. #MissedOpportunity
Hibbert is 7’2″. Yes, Roy ducked a bit and PG used his hand but still impressive nonetheless. Originally Dahntay Jones was throwing a pass to George, but he couldn’t get it completed.
#5 2013 Gerald Green Off the Side of the Backboard
Lance Stephenson’s always looking for an easy assist, and no one dunks with ease and force like Gerald Green.
#4 2017 Glenn Robinson III Over PG, Boomer & a Pacemate
Over one All-Star, one mascot, and a cheerleader backwards slam. It clinched him the contest.
#3 2014 Paul George 360 Through the Legs
In my opinion, this should have won him the best dunker crown in this strange conference battle dunk contest.
#2 2004 Fred Jones bounce alley-oop reach back
The Dunk that won him the contest and made him the first Pacers player to do so. Thank goodness he threw himself a terrible pass that made this dunk awesome.
#1 Glenn Robinson III’s 2017 Opening Dunk
Left hand over two people while his head almost hits the rim. Just nuts. I hope there is a shirt with this on it soon. He earned every bit of this championship. Way to go, King Glenn III.
Just missed the cut: All of Terence Stansbury’s dunks (there are some really good ones), GR3’s 360 Dab Dunk, Kenny Williams, and Antonio Davis. (Videos below of some of their dunks)
A brief history of Pacers past performances in the dunk contest:
The very first Pacer in the Dunk contest came early in 1985 & 1986 Terence Stansbury. He competed two years for the Pacers and one for Seattle. He made the Semi-Finals both times with the Pacers but lost out to Dominique Wilkins at home in Indianapolis in 1985 and Spud Webb the following year in 86.
1991 saw Kenny Williams compete for the Pacers in Charlotte for the Dunk Contest. Kenny would not make it out of the first round finishing 5th overall. The overall champ that year was Dee Brown of the Celtics.
Now we get into some names most fans remember. The next Pacer to compete was a Davis brother. Antonio Davis in 1994. AD didn’t make it out of the first round either, finishing 5th. Maybe being ‘penalized’ for being the big in the group. The champ that year was Isaiah Rider.
Oh what could have been for the next Pacer contestant: the Pre-Durant, Durant style player. In 2001, Jonathan Bender competed for the Pacers. His length and versatility should’ve equated to amazing things on the court, but Bender’s knees never cooperated for very long. Bender didn’t make it out of the first round either, finishing 5th (I’m seeing a pattern here). The champion that year was Desmond Mason.
All these 5th place finishes. Would a Pacer ever do well in this contest? In 2004, with a field of four players, the Pacers Fred Jones showed that he could. In maybe one of the weaker dunk contests to date, Indiana Jones bested the two-time defending champ Jason Richardson for the title spot with two 50-point dunks on his way to victory. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very proud of Fred Jones but maybe the voters were tired of J-Rich. But a W is a W. There has only been one 3-time champ at the Dunk Contest and that was Nate Richardson. So J-Rich had an uphill battle.
The next time we saw a Pacer in the Dunk Contest was Paul George in 2012 under a new format. Paul George competed twice (again in 2014). The champ would be decided entirely by fan voting this year. PG came out strong with dunks over Roy Hibbert (7’2″). Followed by his glow-in-the dark jersey dunk (would’ve been cooler in the light) and ended with the sticker on the backboard other side of the rim dunk.
Sadly the fans voted incorrectly. As they normally do when given the power for the All Star Game (I’m looking at you Zaza Pachulia). PG unbelievably finished only 3rd with 24% of the vote. Brief former Pacers bested George in the fan vote: Jeremy Evans got 29% and Chase Budinger got 28%.
In 2013 Gerald Green competed in his third contest with his third team. An impressive alley-oop off the side of the backboard from Lance Stephenson followed by an ambitious dunk he wasn’t able to put down. He cut off the net so that he could dunk the ball, catch it with his off hand and dunk the ball again. He wasn’t able to complete it and scored low, unable to advance. The winner that year was Terrance Ross.
Paul George would come back two years later in 2014. Again though, the NBA tweaked its format. A team format was adopted. 1st round was freestyle followed by one-on-one battles. PG was teamed up with the East consisting of Terrence Ross and John Wall. The East won the night but John Wall was voted as the Dunker of the Night (by the fans).
Finally this year, I hope most of you were able to watch. 2017 Glenn Robinson III wanted to #Shocktheworld and man did he do so. While the competition wasn’t the same level as years past, Glenn capitalized. With Aaron Gordon fizzling out in the first round and Glenn scoring a 50 with his first dunk. He was easily into the final round and sealed the deal jumping over three people in an impressive fashion, bringing home the Pacers second-dunk title and a nice $100,000 for his victory.
Pacers dunkers are a combined 2-9 all time in the contest. We’ll see if GR3 comes back next year to defend and become the first Pacers Dunking Dynasty.