INDIANAPOLIS -- Teams in the NBA often rebuild after losing seasons, renovating their rosters or their image and, in a few cases, both. The Indianapolis Pacers could be undergoing the biggest overhaul in the league this season, trying to win a few more games without losing any more fans.
Beginning their 40th season this week, a team that won a franchise-record 61 games as recently as three years ago has seen its status as one of the league's elite dissolve and watched its reputation torn apart with two highly publicized incidents of antisocial behavior.
The first came on the court two years ago, when a seemingly meaningless, macho confrontation between former Pacers forward Ron Artest and former Detroit Pistons center Ben Wallace turned into one of the ugliest brawls in sports history and turned the Pacers into the poster children for what ailed the NBA.
The second came outside a local strip club earlier this month, when Pacers guard Stephen Jackson, a major participant in the 2004 brawl, was charged with firing his gun five times after allegedly being punched in the face and nearly run over.
It happened while the Pacers were in the midst of training camp.
Jackson is scheduled to have his pre-trial hearing here Wednesday, a few hours before the Pacers open the season in Charlotte, N.C. This latest spate of bad publicity has made some in this conservative Midwestern city compare the Pacers to the once-troubled Portland Trail Blazers.
Jermaine O'Neal, who as a teenager straight out of high school played his first four seasons in Portland in what is now a 10-year career, said the derisive references made to the Indianapolis Trailpacers is more than a trifle unfair.
"It's ridiculous," O'Neal said last week after a practice at Conseco Fieldhouse. "Things happen. As I've said before, if the iron's hot the first time and you go back and touch it the second time, then it's a problem. But if it's a situation where you learn from it and move on ... this franchise is so far from that Portland franchise, it's a joke."
Trouble times four
Unfortunately for the Pacers, the incident involving Jackson occurred at 3 a.m. and three of his teammates - starting point guard Jamaal Tinsley, reserve guard Marquis Daniels and rookie guard Jimmie Hunter - were with him. That incident was not the only one involving the Pacers to make the local news.
A bag of marijuana allegedly was found in Tinsley's car that night, and police have gone as far as to see if traces of anyone's DNA can be found in or on the bag. A car registered to O'Neal - driven by someone O'Neal said he didn't know - was stopped a few days later, and some marijuana residue was found in it. O'Neal was later cleared after a friend to whom he had given the car admitted to having the marijuana. The case involving Tinsley is still pending.
"You don't see anything about me winning my case," said O'Neal, who also recently saw a civil suit filed against him by the fan he punched in the Pistons' brawl thrown out. "If I had lost my case, you would have seen it all over the damn place. The fact of the matter is that a shred of marijuana was found. Somebody makes a call to Channel 6 and says, `Jermaine O'Neal's car was found with drugs in it.'"
Having played here for six seasons, O'Neal said he understands the responsibility he and the other Pacers have in representing the franchise.
"That's why it's important for us to put ourselves in the best situation, because we're walking a fine line here and we've got to know now that anything we do in a negative light is going to be magnified, and rightfully so," O'Neal said. "This is the bed that we made and we have to make sure we live our life a certain way."
If the news of Jackson's arrest was disturbing to O'Neal, imagine how longtime team president Donnie Walsh and Hall of Famer Larry Bird, the president of basketball operations, must have felt. It bothered Walsh and Bird enough to write an open letter to the fans that was published in the local newspaper, saying the team was embarrassed by the incident involving Jackson and the others. Artest is gone - he was traded to the Sacramento Kings last season - but Walsh said fans in this basketball-rich city are getting tired of his team's remaining bad actors.
"I know that the way we played [last season] and in some instances the way we acted would turn people off. It would turn me off," said Walsh, who has run the team for 20 years and whose picture is on the team's media guide as a tribute. "[The letter] was just an attempt to let them know that it's not going to happen [again]."
Sitting in a downtown mall one afternoon last week - a mall owned by longtime Pacers owner Herb Simon - retired banker Norm Hatch said he has always preferred college basketball over the NBA but the latest trouble involving Jackson could be the tipping point for some die-hard Pacers fans he knows.