by Kent Sterling
Pacers President Larry Bird says what he feels with incredible consistency, so when he introduced David West at the press conference this afternoon to welcome him back, his effusiveness was almost touching.
“David has done more for this franchise than he can imagine,” Bird said. He also used words and phrases like “heart and soul”, “tough”, and “honest” to describe this “special player.”
Talking to West, who will be a guest on “Ahead of the Curve” this Saturday on 1070 the Fan (11a-1p), he understood the level of compliment that was being paid to him by one of the best players in NBA history, as well as the guy under whose authority he toils for the Pacers, but was mostly unmoved.
That’s always true of the people to whom the highest compliments are paid, as they usually hold themselves to such impossibly high standards that even generous praise from legends sound like criticism to them.
West is a serious man with serious expectations for both the Pacers’ achievements and character. He spoke of continuing to play productively, but also of his joy in being a mentor for the young team.
Throughout the event, the word “culture” might have been used by Bird, West, coach Frank Vogel, and brand new back-up point guard C.J. Watson 300 times, and I never once thought it was lip service to woo a fan base that learned to loathe the previous iteration of the Pacers because of wayward behavior that led them to believe the players were unapologetically living the thug life.
Whether that was true then, it sure is not now. The culture of the Pacers was described by Vogel as “work hard, have fun,” just like it is by every manager for every business in America, but because of the life in Vogel’s eyes and the smile on his face when he says it that there is no choice but to believe he means it.
If this is all obvious to Pacers fans who’ve been here for awhile, my apologies. When I left Indianapolis after the 2010-2011 season, the vibe was entirely different, and not in a good way. The ways in which the Pacers appear to be operating on a different plane are too numerous to list, but the iron in West’s words, the enthusiasm in Vogel’s voice, and the obvious pleasure Watson took in describing why he came to Indy make showing up for press conferences very enjoyable – so enjoyable that Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson showed up and sat with the media.
There appears to be a buy-in on this team that doesn’t happen very often in professional sports, and listening to Bird talk about West, it’s easy to ascribe the credit for that to the 32 year-old power forward.
And the usually cynical media has bought it too. Mark Montieth has covered a lot of Pacers teams, and answered my question as to whether this new group was too good to be true by saying, “Best locker room I’ve ever been in.”
It’s tough to get young and rich men to buy into the all for one and one for all stuff, but it appears to be happening with the Pacers.
There is a palpable sense that something very special is happening here. If I didn’t know better, I would guess that I was intoxicated by the friendly access this group of players provides. I’m by nature very cynical, but I leave every one of the Pacers media events feeling like the guys doing the talking actually believe what they are saying. That’s something I haven’t felt in the Fieldhouse since 2000.
Whether or not the love and commitment toward one another the Pacers feel manifests itself in the home court advantage throughout the playoff that West spoke of several times this afternoon is to be seen, but for the fans who said they would stay away until the culture of the team changed, it’s time to come back.
The culture has changed, and it seems as long as West rides through the halls and hardwood like Chief Ten Bears in “The Outlaw Josey Wales”, it will remain “team first, work hard, and have fun.”