Pacers should have had Michael Jordan


Apr 15

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Bulls/Pacers hasn’t exactly been one of the great NBA rivalries, especially since the teams have met just once in the playoffs, the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals.

Of course, it might have been something if the Pacers had drafted Michael Jordan, which they should have.

They hate being reminded about that, though only a bit more than when they passed on Larry Bird.

Talk about your curses. The Cubs don’t have much on those guys.

The Pacers were a dynasty once. They were probably the best team ever in the old American Basketball Association and one of four teams to join the NBA in the 1976 merger.

The Pacers had the likes of Mel Daniels and George McGinnis, who won three of the nine MVP’s, and all-time winningest ABA coach Bob “Slick” Leonard. The franchise won three of the nine ABA titles and lost in the finals two other times. But the NBA did a great job of bankrupting the entering ABA teams as the Nets had to sell Julius Erving.

So in the 1978 draft when Bird was available, the Pacers had the No. 3 pick. They’d previously traded No. 1 overall to Portland for No. 3 and Johnny Davis. The Trail Blazers took Mychal Thompson. That continuing desire for a center would mark the Blazers as well.

The Pacers had financial issues on entering the NBA and weren’t sure they could sign Bird, who was selected sixth by the Celtics. Bird played another season at Indiana State and then won three titles with the Celtics coming to the NBA in 1979 along with Magic Johnson. And you know that story.

In 1981, the Pacers traded their 1984 No. 1 pick, common in those days, to Portland for center Tom Owens, who played one season before he was traded to Detroit and retired. The pick became No. 2 in the 1984 draft and the Trail Blazers used it to select… Sam Bowie. I guess the Pacers could have done that as well given their history, though at the time they had center Steve Stipanovich and surely would have selected Jordan.

Michael in Indianapolis?

The Pacers had a terrific season in 1997-98 under new coach Bird, finishing second to the Bulls in the Central with a 58-24 record, second best in the Eastern Conference.

The Pacers went 7-2 in the first two playoff rounds and gave the Bulls arguably the toughest playoff series they had in any of their championship seasons, and only the second seven game series they would play in those six championship seasons.

They were a tough, physical team led by Reggie Miller, Antonio Davis and Dale Davis, along with Chris Mullin, Jalen Rose and Mark Jackson.

“Kind of like Boston right now, most of us were past our best,” recalled Mullin, who will go into the Basketball Hall of Fame this summer. “Pretty much except for Reggie. I know myself, I needed to be about three years younger. We were good, but not quite at the level we were used to playing at.

“In the end, it was Michael and Scottie taking over defensively,” recalled Mullin of Pippen playing point guard Jackson to slow the Pacers’ offense. “We got to Game 7, and they made the big plays. They really pressured Mark and back then you were allowed to hand check, slash, whatever. Metaphorically speaking, it was cutting the head off because Mark was a big part of what we did. Defensively, they got us.”

And it would come down to that as the Bulls held on in Game 7 despite poor shooting by Jordan and Pippen, a combined 15 for 45, and a no show from Dennis Rodman with six rebounds, as the Pacers went the last two minutes without scoring.

Still, Bird, now Pacers’ president, thinks it came down to one play with about six minutes left in Game 7.

Each team had won its home games and reserve Travis Best had a big shot to get it to Game 7 as Jordan missed twice in the last minute of Game 6. The Pacers were hanging onto a 77-74 lead late when Jordan tied up Rik Smits for a jump ball. Smits got the jump, but it got directed to Pippen, who threw to Steve Kerr for a tying three that seemed to change the momentum and eventually the game as the Bulls won 88-83.

“We got the rebound and Michael tied up Rik Smits,” Bird recalled. “They got it and got the three. Even at the time it happened, I was thinking, ‘If we can come down with that ball and even get to the line it might force Michael to try to do it all.’ I thought if we get that ball we can hold on for two or three minutes, but they get it and Kerr hits the shot.

“The Bulls were a great team, but we had an opportunity in Game 7 to beat them in their building,” said Bird. “We had a veteran team. I thought we’d have a better chance (to win the title) than in 2000. Guys were focused, they played smart and together.”

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