- Sam Smith
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Donnie Walsh wanted to keep Primoz Brezec. Walsh knew, despite Brezec averaging barely a point in three seasons with the Pacers, that Brezec could shoot, that the Slovenian taken 27th in the 2000 NBA draft could be an effective NBA player.
One problem: Walsh had too many good players. With the Charlotte Bobcats joining the league, the Pacers could protect only eight players in the expansion draft.
In the end, it came down to Brezec or Reggie Miller. The Pacers didn't believe the new Bobcats would select Miller, though there was always the chance they could and trade him. And the Pacers could make a deal with the Bobcats, giving them something in exchange for not drafting Miller.
Neither option was satisfactory.
It's not like Miller, 39, was a key piece for the Pacers' championship hopes anymore. In fact, they'd signed Stephen Jackson to play shooting guard and the coaches were privately hoping Miller would volunteer to come off the bench after his poorest pro season.
But none of that truly entered into Walsh's thinking. The Pacers' president had no intention of exposing Miller and his reputation to expansion. Walsh would not do that to the player who represented the rise of the franchise from its NBA mediocrity after the ABA-NBA merger and who'd come to adopt his new city. Brezec has become a productive center for the surprising expansion team, averaging 11.7 points and 6.4 rebounds, as Walsh suspected he would. And now, of all times, the Pacers could certainly use him. But never, ever at the cost of embarrassing one of his top players.
Does this sound like the kind of monster who would spawn the men who participated in arguably the worst moment in NBA history, the horrific riot on Nov. 19 in Auburn Hills?
The result, as we all know, was unprecedented suspensions, huge fines and a national examination of fan and player behavior and their attitudes toward one another. Indeed, the belief was the entire sport was being threatened and put on trial.
They meet each other Dec. 25 in Indianapolis for the first time since the contretemps that resulted in suspensions that have Ron Artest out for the season and Jermaine O'Neal and Jackson out into January, though an arbitrator has ruled that O'Neal is eligible to play right away, pending a court challenge by the NBA.
The Pistons are back to full strength, if not full confidence and proficiency. They were dragging along through Sunday with the same record as the Pacers, barely peeking above .500 all season with poorer defense, worse shooting and a classic post-championship hangover. The Pacers, 5-9 since the event despite a surge immediately afterward, work nightly to scrape together a team worthy of the NBA.
Some members of the Pistons' front office see themselves as victims, their community perhaps inexorably tarred by what they consider the ultimate and only true instigator, Artest. The Pacers, frustrated with their glorious season perhaps being lost (they were blowing out the Pistons in Detroit with seconds left when the riot broke out), believe they have suffered the most.
And perhaps the most wrenching blow to the gut of these two franchises is that their efforts to do things the right way have been overshadowed, washed away, trashed by a single incident on a single night.
But when was the last time you heard a Pacers' player complain, ask to be traded, condemn management?
It doesn't happen.
Pacers' players, even when they leave through free agency by their choice, come to regret it. Al Harrington has suggested such already, and players like Antonio Davis, Jalen Rose, Dale Davis, Mark Jackson and Travis Best have talked openly of their Pacers' days being their best.
Perhaps it's not always the best business decision, but the Pacers routinely take care of their players with long-term contracts.
Many have mocked those given to Austin Croshere and Rose. The day Artest was traded to Indiana, the Pacers promised him an immediate long-term deal to relieve financial pressure. Same with little-used Jonathan Bender. The Pacers create stability. They don't negotiate for the extra few dollars.
Walsh won't be wearing a white beard this week. And he doesn't have to. Around the Pacers' organization all year he's called "Santa Donnie."
When Walsh had to dismiss coach George Irvine, who had brought Walsh to the Pacers, Walsh rehired Irvine as a consultant and personnel specialist whenever Irvine was not working. Walsh routinely contacts fans who write with issues, often takes calls about concerns after the Auburn Hills incident. When the Pacers went to the 2000 NBA Finals, Walsh flew the staff and their families to Los Angeles for the games.
There's a longtime maintenance worker at the team's fieldhouse who is deaf and, it turns out, an excellent bowler. He wanted to compete in the Deaf Olympics in Europe but couldn't afford to do so. Walsh had the staff put together a fundraiser for the man to take his entire family and then privately made up the shortfall.
Yes, all franchises do charitable work. But not all have the kind of charitable, high-character people you find with the Pacers and Pistons. Sure, they'll take on an Artest or a Rasheed Wallace. But those players are the exceptions. After all, it is a business of winning first. You have to accept some blemishes with the talent, especially when you think the talent can be shaped to fit the character of the franchise.
Miller last season was the winner of the league's J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award for his work in the community. It includes a foundation established for victims of fires. Plus, Miller does much of his charitable work himself, regularly stopping by schools and hospitals unannounced or personally greeting ill children at home without even telling the Pacers, let alone the media.
Yes, Jermaine O'Neal was one of the players throwing punches in the brutal fight. But he may be one of the best overall players and people in the NBA.
We know this because that's what the Professional Basketball Writers Association called him last season. The writers annually present the Magic Johnson Award to the player who combines excellence on the court with it off the court in dealing with the public and media. O'Neal was last season's recipient.
And, no, they aren't Bad Boys in Detroit anymore, even if several of them are still around somewhere in the organization, including team president Joe Dumars, Detroit Shock coach Bill Laimbeer and broadcaster Rick Mahorn (who even tried to keep Artest out of the stands that night). The Pistons don't need many reunions, because hardly anyone ever leaves.
Add team doctor Ben Paolucci, trainer Mike Abdenour and media director Matt Dobek to the core who have been there for two decades. The scout who discovered Dumars -- Will Robinson -- was kept on the staff into his early 90s and was presented a championship ring last season.
Yes, Dumars. When the NBA decided to inaugurate a sportsmanship award, it looked for a suitable name -- and now it's the Joe Dumars Sportsmanship Award.
This has been growing into a great rivalry in recent years, and now it's the best in the wake of the dismantling of the Lakers and Kings. But, despite the intensity, there won't be a repeat Saturday in Indianapolis of the sad events of November 19. Heck, most of the key participants won't even be there.
These are two teams that represent the best in basketball on and off the court -- hard work, commitment, effort, passion and loyalty. Perhaps we'll remember that by the time the playoffs roll around. We should applaud who they've been and who they are rather than what they were for a moment in time.
Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
The malice in the Palace obscures the way Indiana and Detroit conduct themselves the other 364 days.