The last time I entered the Indiana Pacers’ locker room prior to last week was in early 2007. It only took a few minutes in that room on that night long ago to know one thing — the people inside it hated one another.
Those were the dysfunctional days of Jermaine O’Neal, Jamaal Tinsley, Steven Jackson, David Harrison and others who made up a toxic mix that helped bury the Pacers in the minds of those who once wholeheartedly supported them.
For me, a lifelong fan of the organization, the brief walk through that evening led me to not bother with the team in any capacity between then and when I moved away in 2008, something once inconceivable considering the access I had. With no Reggie Miller and no group character, I had better things to do.
I walked into the same room last week after Indiana’s 39-point demolition of Denver, and it was everything I hoped it would be. Gone were the looks of distrust and disdain directed from player to media, and player to player.
You could see these Pacers are a family.
Danny Granger was 23 the last time I saw him. He was drafted a month after Miller’s retirement, and was an unfortunate passenger on the crazy train that officially left the station before his arrival, on Nov. 19, 2004, in Detroit.
I’ll always remember standing next to Granger’s locker as he was asked about the team, and glancing over to Jackson, who glared at him with psychopathic-looking eyes, something you’d see out of a theatrical villain.
Last week, I asked Granger, now 30, about this locker room, and how it compared to those earlier in his career.
“We all pull for each other and want to see our teammates succeed,” Granger said. “We get along with each other, go to movies together, go bowling together, spend holidays together and that’s unique on an NBA team.”
Indeed it is. Because locker rooms in the NBA only contain 13 players, egos kill more seasons in that league than any other. They helped kill them in Indianapolis for over half a decade.
This team is different, and the trust built outside of basketball helps amplify it on the hardwood.
“It sure does,” Granger said. “And we have a perfect mix of veterans and young guys. A lot of teams don’t have that. We have the leadership and the young talent, and when you bring all of that together, it makes a great team.”
Since the Pacers joined the NBA in 1976, there have been only a few “great” teams — most notably the 1997-98 squad that took Michael Jordan’s Bulls to seven games, and the ‘99-00 group that made the NBA Finals.
Neither one of those won a championship, something these Pacers can do right now.
The character of this team was shown last week. After it blew a big lead in Orlando the night before, it came back to Indy and absolutely laid waste to the Nuggets.
Rising superstar Paul George said the Pacers took the Orlando flop personally.
“The whole plane ride and conversation after the game was, ‘We let one get away,’ and those are games at the end of the year that you don’t want to have bite you in the butt,” he said.
The team went just 6-4 in its final 10 games before the All-Star break to finish the first portion of the season 40-12. George admitted that during that stretch, they’d lost some focus due to the ease of many of their wins.
“We’re walking the line between having fun and playing conservative basketball,” George said. “It’s a fine line.”
Learning how to be a champion doesn’t happen overnight, just like the resurrection of the Pacers organization didn’t. This group is still growing together, and refining their balance of necessary swagger and schematic cohesion. The most important thing is they care, not just about wins, but about one another.
In a league in which teams are often poisoned by the self-absorbed, a selfless squad like the Pacers is capable of true greatness. We’ll find out over the next three-plus months if they’re ready to attain it.
— Brent Glasgow is a sports writer with the Hendricks County Flyer and Westside Flyer. He can be reached at email@example.com or 272-5800 ext. 173. Follow him on Twitter @BGlasgow37.