Second in a series on the Pacers' 50th season anniversary...
INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - It was opening night for this new team, the Indiana Pacers, and this new league, the ABA, and the team’s first general manager, Mike Storen, didn’t quite know what to expect in terms of that night’s crowd. Response to the formation of the team had been lukewarm at best; this was a high school and college basketball town, so he had no way of truly knowing whether Indianapolis would show up to support his team at the Fairgrounds Coliseum on the night of Nov. 14, 1967.
"I can remember that day crystal clear," said Storen, who now lives in Atlanta and continues to work as a sports executive. "We had our ticket office at the Coliseum, and we had one ticket window. The lines were out the door. We sold out, 'went clean,' about 2:00 in the afternoon. Our ticket manager came in and said, 'I think we can sell standing room, but we don't have any tickets and we don't know what the law is or where we'll put standing room'."
"So I asked him, 'Can we buy a roll of tickets somewhere?' He said, 'Yeah, sure, I can find some.' So he went out – I don't know where he found the tickets – but he came back and we said we'd sell them for a dollar apiece and they could come in through the back door. We didn't even have a turnstile back then, like with movie tickets. We sold a bunch of them, then ended up cutting it off. The place was packed that night. Absolutely packed. I don't know where we put them all. People were actually scalping tickets."
Storen also got a boost when he saw that afternoon's edition of the old Indianapolis News. He had been worried about how the News might cover the new team; the team was the brainchild, sort of, of Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Collins. How would Wayne Fuson, the News' columnist, feel about the team and how would his newspaper handle Pacers' coverage? As it turned out, the News was on board, too.
"Around 4 o'clock, we saw the paper and it had a full color picture on the front page of Roger Brown, a very attractive secretary in our building and a third player whose name escapes me," Storen said. "It was like an 8-by-10 picture, a rare color picture in a newspaper back in those days, and I can remember sitting in my office almost in tears, just emotionally drained. Collins was instrumental in getting things started, so we made an effort not to have the News become a detractor of the franchise. We didn't want Fuson and Collins on two sides of the franchise. To this day, Fuson's willingness to embrace the team was huge."
Storen was an obvious choice to become the Pacers' first general manager, a position he held until he took over the Kentucky Colonels in 1969. He first met co-owner Dick Tinkham in fall of 1957 when the pair was in officers' candidate school for the Marines in Quantico, Va. It didn't take long before they became life-long friends.
"In those days, the goal was to eliminate one in every three candidates, so the sergeants in charge were actively trying to break people down and figure out who was weak and who was strong. Well, they discovered very quickly that I was a smart ass, so they attacked me very vigorously," Storen said.
"About a week later, Dick shows up because he's been in law school, and he's wearing white bucks, khakis, a white button down shirt and a blue sport coat, and he's slouching the way he does, and the sergeant says, 'If you’re so friggin' smart, I'd like to hear the Constitution.' And Tinkham said, 'Would you like to hear it forwards or backwards?' At that moment, we became best friends."
Roughly a decade later, Storen was working for the NBA's Cincinnati Royals as the team's business manager and head of promotions. "That's when we signed Oscar Robertson to a $100,000 contract, the largest contract ever in pro sports, and everybody assumed we'd lost our minds," Storen said, laughing.
That's when Tinkham called with an offer. Would the 28-year-old take a chance on an upstart league and a new team in his hometown of Indianapolis? He didn't take long to answer.
"I was 28 and here was an opportunity to run a franchise the way I thought it should be run and have control," Storen said. "At the same time, it was a raise for me. And going back to Indiana? It was really a no brainer."
The day Storen signed the contract – "It was three paragraphs long," he said – he jumped in a car and made the trek down I-70 to Dayton.
"Oscar had told me early on when we chatted about the new league, and he put me on to Roger Brown," Storen said. "So I took Oscar’s word for it on Roger and sight unseen, we knew he was somebody we wanted. I went to his home, introduced myself to him and his wife and they both came to Indianapolis. All because of Oscar."
It didn't take long before Brown showed Storen and the rest of the Pacers brass why Robertson had thought so highly of the player.
"It was funny: We brought in Slick, [Clyde] Lovelette and some others and we had these organized tryouts at the Coliseum," Storen recalled. "It was summer, hot as hell, and the first thing they wanted to do was run everybody to death and see who was still standing. Then they had this drill where you put two players on a line, roll the ball out, blow the whistle and see who could get there first. We wanted to see if they would get on the floor to get the ball; that was Slick's thing, 'Who would dive and not care about his body?'"
"Well, Roger would get to the ball first every time without diving. He didn't need to dive. I turned to somebody and said, 'This guy has a first step like I've never seen anybody in basketball'."
Brown, the player Storen signed sight unseen, now has his jersey hanging from the Bankers Life Fieldhouse rafters and is a deserving member of the Basketball Hall of Fame.
One of Storen's other early jobs was to try to talk Bobby "Slick" Leonard into coaching the team, but Slick had a good job in the jewelry business and had his doubts about this strange, new league with its three-point shot and its red, white and blue basketball. He declined the offer, although he did agree to lead the team later after the Pacers got off to a slow start the second season and fired Larry Staverman.
Add Mel Daniels to the Pacers during the team's second year, and the franchise was off and running. And winning. A lot. There was Rajah. There was Mel. There was Neto [Bob Netolicky]. There was Freddie Lewis. The Pacers quickly established themselves as the ABA's marquee franchise.
That doesn't mean the ABA didn't have its share of issues along with fits and starts. The league was always struggling financially, and the Pacers had their tough moments, too. Storen remembered going to a game in Dallas (against the Chaparrals) and seeing about 300 fans in the stands.
"Oh boy," Storen remembered thinking. "We've got a lot of work to do."
He continued, "As a franchise, we were under-capitalized, which is true of lots of start-up business. The league, there were lots of people in there who didn't know what they were doing and that created enormous problems. It's always angered me as people look back on the league and focus on the Spirits [of St. Louis] and that collection of clowns and the unbelievable things that happened. In the Will Ferrell movie ["Simi-Pro"], it left the impression among the unknowing that the league had no serious basis or legitimate basketball when there was a core of well run, really good basketball organizations. But it seemed like there were lots of questions and crises every single day."
I wondered if Storen ever felt like he was sailing a sinking ship; even though Indy and some others were doing well, other franchises were poorly run and poorly supported.
"I think there was just too much work to do to be concerned about the deeper philosophical questions," Storen said. "Dick [Tinkham] and I both served on the Board of Directors for the league and we became well respected as the best operated team in the league. So we wielded a lot of influence with the league. So it was never a question of 'Gee, do you really think we'll make it?' It was always about the challenge and the fun of trying to move the thing forward."
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The Pacers, who went on to win three ABA titles, were not just a marquee franchise, they were central to the growth of a city that had seen most of its affluent population move out to the suburbs.
"A couple of things converged," Storen said. "Mayor [Richard] Lugar was at that time advocating and putting together Unigov, so the political atmosphere was very aggressive, very young and aggressive. And what we did with the Pacers is we fulfilled that psychology of 'We can do it.' I would suggest that our development became a legitimate, tangible reinforcement that we are a major city and can compete at a national level. And that permeated throughout the community and led to the building of Market Square and then the whole sports minded business community, becoming the amateur sports headquarters. The Pacers were the foundation for that.
"I honestly feel that if the Pacers had failed, it would have been devastating for the city and all the efforts they were making to become big league."
Still to come: Bob Netolicky, one of the Pacers’ original stars...