Pacers' Croshere: bench to bulwark

Once an afterthought, forward has become key player for Bird

June 13, 2000|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS - Just about this time last year, Indiana reserve forward Austin Croshere walked into Pacers president Donnie Walsh's office. Croshere was calm, but he was also determined to be traded.

He figured going to Walsh, rather than coach Larry Bird, whom he said he had almost no communication with in his first two seasons with Indiana, was the best way to go.

"I didn't go in an athlete-jerk kind of way," said the 6-foot-10, 242-pound Croshere, who averaged 10.3 points during this past regular season.

"I just told Donnie that, `I've sat on the bench for two years. It doesn't seem that there's going to be any more of a playing opportunity next year. Would you consider trading me so I can get an opportunity to play somewhere in the last year of my contract?' He was very receptive to that."

Croshere left that meeting figuring he was gone. And when the NBA draft came around a couple of weeks later, the Pacers did make a trade. However, it was popular backup forward Antonio Davis who was shipped elsewhere, while Croshere remained and seemed certain to see an increase in playing time.

At the time it appeared to be something of a baffling move for the Pacers. Davis, now with Toronto, was so popular in Indiana he drew a standing ovation from Pacers fans while attending Sunday's 100-91 win over the Lakers.

It's no secret that Davis was traded because Bird felt he needed to give Croshere and Sam Perkins more playing time. That did not sit well with the fans, whom Croshere said he had a hard time winning over at first.

Now, it appears to have been a risk worth taking because the Lakers have not had much of an answer for Croshere in this series that resumes here tomorrow night with Game 4.

"If Antonio Davis was here, Austin Croshere wouldn't be playing," said Bird, whose team trails the series 2-1.

He's right. That's the way it was in Croshere's first two years in the league after Bird selected him with his first pick and 12th overall in the 1997 draft. He came out of Providence as a "tweener," not quick enough to play small forward and not strong enough to play power forward.

Croshere, 25, signed a three-year contract with the Pacers and watched the same players produce the same result his first two seasons - elimination in the Eastern Conference finals.

Bird gambled that Croshere, who decided it was easier to bulk up - he added 15 pounds - than get quicker, could step in and give the Pacers a power forward who could penetrate as well as shoot from the outside.

"He's tough to play," said Lakers forward Robert Horry, who has had much of the responsibility for guarding Croshere. "What I try and do is mix it up against him."

So far, it's been a pretty rough cover for Horry. Croshere scored 16 points in Game 1, 24 in Game 2 and 12 in Game 3. He and Jalen Rose are the only players to score in double figures in all three games. In Game 2, Croshere became the go-to guy in the fourth quarter, rather than Reggie Miller.

During the playoffs, Croshere's points have come at crucial periods in each game, which speaks volumes for how far he has come. Bird has gone with Croshere in the fourth quarter at the expense of Rik Smits, whose foul trouble has also made each decision a little easier.

"That's ultimately what it's all about - being out there when the game's being decided," Croshere said. "That was a big thing for me during the regular season.

"The first time was at Portland [Nov. 29]. We were at Portland, which had the best record at the time. It was a close game on the road and we'd been struggling."[Bird] left me in pretty much the whole fourth quarter. We ended up winning the game. That did a lot for my confidence, knowing that this team could win with me on the court at the end of a game."

Things were not always that way between player and coach. Croshere said Bird barely said two words to him while he sat the bench his first two seasons. When Bird did start talking to Croshere this season, it was not always positive.

It comes with being Bird's first-ever pick in a draft.

"When he wasn't happy with me, he'd let me know," Croshere said. "There was a time during the regular season that he said in the paper that I'd be lucky to be in the CBA. He'd make comments like that and in practice say, `You ever going to make a shot when it counts?'

"One time, I sprained my ankle. I couldn't practice for a couple of days leading into a game. I went into [Bird's] office and said, `Coach, it's sore and hurts, but I'm going to try and go.

"He said, `Are you going to try and go or are you going to go?' I said, `All right, I'm going to go.' I walked out of his office and as I'm walking out, he says, under his breath, `Don't be a sissy.' "

All the pushing has paid off for Bird and the Pacers. Croshere is a big reason the Pacers are back in the series, and Bird will need him to keep playing well to get back to Los Angeles for Game 6.

"If you would have told me going into this season that I'd be playing 25 minutes a game going into the NBA Finals, not that I wouldn't have believed it, but that would have been an absolute best-case scenario," Croshere said.

NBA Finals

Indiana vs. L.A. Lakers

(Best-of-seven series; L.A. Lakers lead 2-1)

Game 1: L.A., 104-87

Game 2: L.A., 111-104

Game 3: Indiana, 100-91

Tomorrow: at Indiana, 9 p.m.

Friday: at Indiana, 9 p.m.

Monday: at L.A., 9 p.m.*

June 21: at L.A., 9 p.m.*

TV: Chs. 11, 4

*-If necessary

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