As one of the four ABA franchises accepted into the National Basketball Association in 1976, the Indiana Pacers arrived ready to improve upon the sterling success that they had already experienced. However, topping five Finals appearances in a seven-season span proved to be easier said than done.
Powered by small forward Roger Brown and big man Mel Daniels, the Pacers posted seven straight winning seasons while still in the ABA. Daniels nabbed MVP honors twice during this run, and Indiana captured the league championship in ‘70, ‘72 and ‘73. Whether it was the elevated level of play or just getting used to the game without the red-white-and-blue ball, the club struggled mightily during their early years in the NBA, and it wouldn’t be until the ‘80-81 season that they’d register a winning campaign and book a trip to the playoffs. It was a step in the right direction for a franchise that would still have to wait until ‘87 to notch their first-ever postseason victory. At the NBA Draft that summer, the Pacers shocked the entire state by passing on Indiana Hoosier Steve Alford and selecting UCLA guard Reggie Miller. The move was unpopular to say the least, but in time, it proved to be a brilliant decision.
The slender sharp-shooter didn’t start right away for the club, but Miller emerged as a premier talent during the ‘89-90 season when he averaged 24.6 points per contest and earned his first trip to the All-Star game. Most importantly, the future Hall of Famer had Indiana back in the postseason after a three-year absence, setting off a string of seven consecutive playoff appearances. Miller continued his ascension, and thanks to a pair of remarkable performances against the New York Knicks, he earned the nickname “Mr. Clutch.” In ‘94, Miller went for 25 points in the fourth quarter to secure a victory for Indiana, and the following year, he silenced the crowd at Madison Square Garden by scoring an incredible 8 points in the final 16.4 seconds to wrestle the win away from the Knicks.
Back-to-back bouts in the Eastern Conference Finals had Indiana fans craving a world championship, and the Pacers finally got their shot in ‘99-00. After winning 56 games during the regular season, including 25 in a row at their new home of Conseco Fieldhouse, Indiana seemed poised for greatness, but the basketball gods had other plans. The Los Angeles Lakers would triumph in the Finals, but the Pacers had secured a spot among the league’s elite. Trips to the playoffs had become standard practice, but a title remained out of reach.
Conseco Fieldhouse became Bankers Life Fieldhouse in 2011, and regardless of the name on the building, diehards decked out in yellow continue to pack the arena. They groove to the sounds of the High Octane Drumline and marvel at the feats of the Power Pack, a group of aerial artists who use trampolines to take the slam dunk into another galaxy. It’s virtually impossible to predict a team’s fortunes in the topsy-turvy NBA, but Pacers fans like their chances every time.