Larry Bird delivers bid for 2021 All-Star game
Larry Bird driving an Indy car to deliver the Pacers’ bid for the 2021 All-Star game.
Adam Zagoria / for IndyStar
INDIANAPOLIS – We’re going to chart our future here over the next week, our city and our NBA franchise, and don’t you worry about a thing; we’re a natural at it. This is what we do in Indy, the best big-event city in the country, and please forgive all the first-person pronouns you’re about to read. We? The NBA All-Star Weekend arriving this week in Indianapolis requires thousands of volunteers and service workers, and scores of behind-the-scenes heroes, and none of them spell their last name Doyel. This isn’t me taking credit for anything.
This is me bursting with pride for what we’re about to do.
Fans are coming from more than 40 U.S. states and 30 countries, and they won’t just be blown away. They’ll be back. Companies, corporations, CEO’s … they’re coming, too. Will they be back? If relocation is in their future they’ll remember us, because Downtown during a sports event like the Super Bowl, Final Four or the 2024 NBA All-Star Game is a place where anything seems possible, like Times Square in December or the Rose Bowl Parade in Los Angeles.
We’re not just kind of good at this. We’re the best, and while I’d love for you to take it from me – I’ve been traveling for games since 1997 and had decided Indy was America’s best big-event city long before getting this job in 2014 – ask any of the 1,500 international media you’ll see walking Downtown.
Ask any of them.
But it’s not just people and businesses who will see this place at its apex. NBA players are coming, too. Consider this week the most important recruiting tool in Indiana Pacers history, an audition for the world’s best basketball players.
And the Pacers, like the rest of us, are going to nail it.
Larry, Leonard Hoops and the sports editor’s son
It’s the small stuff, corny little touches that stay in your heart long after you’re gone, like the renaming of Downtown streets. Your GPS will swear you’re on Meridian and heading for Washington, but the signs say Celtics Boulevard or Knicks Court.
Back when the 2021 NBA All-Star Game was headed our way, before the pandemic moved the entire NCAA Tournament to the one location that could handle it – guess which city the NCAA chose? – the Pacers came up with the idea to welcome visitors to our seasonably cool city with beanies. But they didn’t assign the task to a beanie-making shop and write a check. Nope, they asked for volunteers to knit the caps in a campaign they adorably called #NothingButKnit21.
The Pacers put out the word with a photo of Larry Bird on his veranda, knitting a cap.
We’re all-in around here for this All-Star Game, starting with the way the city delivered its bid in 2017 to the NBA office in Manhattan:
Larry Bird, revving down Broadway in a specially painted gold-and-blue Indy car.
We’re not just corny, though. We’re meticulous. When Indy began its pursuit of this game, our city sent seven-person delegations in 2015 to the latest All-Star city (New Orleans, 2014) and the next one (Toronto, 2016) to study how they’d won their bids and planned for the event.
The delegations included former IU football player Rick Fuson of Arlington High (1971), whose career will end the way it began: with an NBA All-Star game. Fuson, 71, had planned to retire after the 2021 NBA All-Star Game. When it was pushed back three years, so was his retirement date; he’s stepping down June 18, the 40th anniversary of his first day on the job.
Fuson, the son of legendary Indianapolis News sports columnist Wayne Fuson, eschewed journalism for business – smart man, Rick Fuson – and landed a job with the Pacers in 1984. He started that career by helping organize the only other NBA All-Star game in town, in 1985 at Market Square Arena. With 6 inches of snow on the ground the game attracted a crowd of 43,146, breaking the All-Star record by nearly 12,000.
Then-NBA commissioner David Stern said: “Everything was marvelous. Things couldn’t have been better.”
The Lakers’ Pat Riley, who coached Magic Johnson, Ralph Sampson and the rest of the West All-Stars to victory, said: “Indianapolis put on a great show. It has reason to be proud.”
Found those quotes in the Indianapolis News archives, a story from Feb. 11, 1985. Guess who wrote it? Wayne Fuson.
You want corny? Get this: In 2015 when our pursuit of this game began, the president and CEO of Visit Indy changed his name for the occasion to Leonard Hoops.
Wait. Voice in my ear is saying the Visit Indy president and CEO’s name really is Leonard Hoops.
Well, it’s like I said earlier:
This stuff is natural around here.
NBA All-Stars will love Pacers facilities
Twenty-four All-Stars will be in town, but you’ve seen these games, the crowd shots. Dozens of others will come for the scene, and word will spread. Here’s what the best players in the world will be talking about after they leave:
A world-class practice facility that still has that fresh-paint smell, the Ascension St. Vincent Center that opened across the street from Gainbridge Fieldhouse. A quick look at Eastern Conference NBA franchises shows the 76ers’ practice facility located 9 miles from their arena, the Celtics’ facility 5 miles away, and the Hawks’ 8 miles away. But I’m sure traffic is no big deal in Philadelphia, Boston and Atlanta.
The Pacers’ facility? There’s an underground walkway to the arena, but don’t be so fast to leave the St. Vincent Center, sponsored by one of our city’s world-class medical facilities. For lots of reasons the NFL Scouting Combine has been held in Indianapolis since 2008 – we nail that big event every year, too – but mainly this one: access to state-of-the-art medical sites.
That’s another edge the Pacers have on most NBA teams: the franchise’s medical care, from training staff to physical therapy to bigger-ticket items like hospitals. This isn’t just me saying it. Would you take it from Tyrese Haliburton? Here’s what the Pacers All-Star said recently on “The Weight Room,” a behind-the-scenes series presented by Planet Fitness:
Basketball court erected at Indy airport ahead of NBA All-star game
Fans can walk and take selfies, but not play, on a basketball court put in at the Indianapolis International Airport ahead of the NBA All-Star game.
“Our medical staff is elite,” Haliburton said, crooning that last word. “Anybody who has played for the Pacers in the past knows we have the best medical staff in the NBA.”
Too biased for you? Let’s check in with the National Basketball Athletic Trainers Association. Hmm, here’s a story on its website titled: “Indiana Pacers medical staff honored.” Let’s click it and … ah. The Pacers’ staff recently earned the Joe O’Toole/David Craig Athletic Training Staff of the Year Award, and wait, what’s this? Same year, Dr. Timothy Hupfer was named Team Physician of the Year.
Players will take it from Haliburton, though. He’s beloved around the league for the simplest, most beautiful of reasons. Simple: Game recognizes game. Beautiful: Haliburton plays with an unselfish zeal that makes it easier for those around him. We’ll see it in the All-Star Game, but at practices and other players-only events all week, the All-Stars will see it in a more organic way.
The All-Stars also will interact firsthand with Eastern All-Star coach Rick Carlisle. Not sure how many of you realize this, but Carlisle is a devastating recruiting tool for the Pacers.
Pacers’ secret recruiting weapon: Rick Carlisle
Little secret about Rick Carlisle: He wasn’t always this much fun.
Look, you want the truth or not? Carlisle, Bird’s teammate in Boston from 1984-87 and his assistant with the Pacers from 1997-2000, got his first head coaching gig in 2001 with Detroit, then coached the Pacers from 2003-07. In those days Carlisle was younger, surlier, more aloof. Players respected him – check that resume again – but he was an acquired taste. Then he coached the Mavericks from 2008-21, won an NBA title along the way, and evolved into a genius of collaboration.
Players love him, the only way a guy survives 13 years with one franchise as he did in Dallas, the last 10 coming after his NBA title. Just a few days ago, with Haliburton recovering from a hamstring issue and working his way through a minutes restriction, Carlisle sent a sub to the scorer’s table. Haliburton was feeling something and wanted another possession, so Carlisle gave it to him. Haliburton then scored and walked to the bench, pointing appreciatively at his coach.
Carlisle has some Gregg Popovich to him, an acerbic wit and brilliance that extends beyond basketball. After the Pacers beat Houston on Tuesday night, Carlisle was asked about the addition of former Raptors star Pascal Siakam.
“I mean, what is there not to like?” he said. “He’s tremendous. He’s tremendous and he does it in a way that blends into the ecosystem of the team.”
Carlisle’s interests, like his vocabulary, are bigger than basketball. He created the Drive & Dish program before Thanksgiving to address Indianapolis’ food insecurity in new ways, and less than four months later has raised more than $500,000. Carlisle, as president of the National Basketball Coaches Association, has fought for the same social justice initiatives as players. They know, and while that won’t attract a free agent by itself, it’s a small tilt of the table this way.
Carlisle is Indianapolis to his core, the right coach at the right time as our city fulfills its destiny of making the 2024 NBA All-Star Game the best ever in ways that reverberate beyond those three hours Sunday night. In the lead-up to All-Star week, during a call with local reporters, NBA senior vice president David Krichavsky – who oversees the league’s youth basketball development program – said he knew how this would sound, given his audience, but it was something he truly meant:
“Rick Carlisle’s demonstrated commitment level is unprecedented by past NBA or WNBA personnel,” Krichavsky said. “He’s flown himself from vacations to events, taken time in the season to do clinics, and doesn’t just do it alone. He’s brought staff, too.”
Following Carlisle’s lead, the trio of the league, our city and our city’s NBA franchise will hold more than 50 social impact and youth basketball events this week, with a focus on food insecurity, education, youth development and inclusion. You’ll also see nearly 4,000 kids, here for Jr. NBA Day on Friday and the Jr. NBA Day All-Star Tournaments on Sunday, plus two games featuring Special Olympics Indiana athletes.
The response to all this will be enormous and beautiful, which matters in ways you can’t measure, as do comments from other NBA personnel during that call:
“We’ve never had a more consistently dedicated host site than Indianapolis.”
“We know Indianapolis’ plan is to make this the most fan-first NBA All-Star Weekend of all time.”
“There will be 175,000 ticketed opportunities for fans – 40% more than ever, anywhere.”
This is what we do here in Indianapolis, and we’re about to do it with the world – and every NBA player in that world – watching closely.