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Friday, February 7, 2003
Updated: February 11, 5:25 PM ET
Happy to be 'Nappy

By Jason Whitlock
Page 2 columnist

INDIANAPOLIS -- So I go home for a few days, visit my dad at the Masterpiece Lounge, take the short drive up I-69 to Ball State and meet the new football coach, hatch Super Bowl plan XVII with my favorite quarterback, Jeff George, over drinks at the Velvet Lounge and basically just soak up all that is Naptown, home of the Black Expo, pea-shake houses, Mike Vanderjagt and the most unique basketball team ever assembled.

Peyton Manning
"Hey, what's it like to win a playoff game?"
Say what you want about the backward-ass city that raised me -- it's full of hicks, the newspaper sucks, there's nothing to do -- but I love Indianapolis. And I loved Nap when Donnie Walsh, the Simon brothers and the Pacers were NBA laughingstocks, before the Irsays brought the Colts to town and back when the key to downtown development hinged on the width of a G-string at the Red Garter Lounge.

My hometown has come a long way, particularly as a sports town.

The past couple of weeks, with Vanderjagt and Peyton Manning sparring, Ron Artest and Isiah Thomas suspended and Shaq and Kobe visiting, Naptown felt like the center of the sports universe.

Nothing to do in Nap? Nothing to do besides play Dr. Melphi to Artest, play arbitrator between Vanderjagt and Manning, decide how much credit Thomas deserves for the Pacers' ascension and contemplate whether the team is good enough to beat Sacramento, Dallas or the Lakers in a seven-game series. Oh, I had plenty to do at home.

Before I delve into my favorite sports subject, the Pacers, let me say this about Vanderjagt and Manning. If there wasn't a whole lot of truth to what the kicker said, Manning wouldn't have been barking so loudly in Honolulu when that Vanderjagt rock nailed him in the backside. The national media needs to get over its love affair with Manning. Until he wins a playoff game, you can say damn near anything you want about Manning, the QB with the happiest feet in the NFL. Manning called out E. James for skipping "voluntary" summer workouts, and you didn't hear The Edge doing all the whining and fussing that Manning did on the sidelines in Hawaii. Manning isn't above criticism, even from a kicker.

Ron Artest
Artest is going to beat you any way he can.
Have I ever shared with you that I'm a lifelong Pacers fan? Been going to Pacers games since their Fairgrounds days in the ABA. The single greatest day of my sporting life was sitting in my living room in Kansas City watching Reggie Miller drop 25 fourth-quarter points on the New York Knicks in a 1994 playoff game. I cried harder and was more excited on that day than I was on the day me and Jeff George led Warren Central High to its first state football championship and undefeated season.

I'm thoroughly convinced that this Pacers team can win it all.

Because of Thomas and Artest's flagrant fouls, the Pacers are being called Bad Boys II, the second coming of those super-physical, Thomas-led Detroit Pistons team that won two titles. It's a fair comparison. But it's not totally accurate. These Pacers have far more skill than those Pistons. And Artest has far more game and common sense than Rodman. Artest isn't crazy. He's more Barkley than Rodman. Artest is a cheater. He's an intimidator. If it takes a hard foul and a mad man act to slow down T-Mac, then that's what Artest is going to do. Trust me on this, Kobe, Stojakovic and Dirk don't want to see Artest in the NBA Finals. They don't want to be put to the Test.

You know who the Pacers are? The Pacers are the Portland Trail Blazers without the every-hour weed habit. The Pacers are the Trail Blazers with heart, focus, a work ethic, leadership, pride and common sense. The Pacers are the finest collection of interchangeable athletes the league has ever seen. Everybody, except Reggie, can play defense. Everybody can put the ball in the hole. And the Pacers are the only team in the league with two shutdown defenders -- Artest and Al Harrington -- who can score on the other end.

Today on Page 2
  • While the entertainment world goes crazy with Oscar buzz, Page 2's Jim Caple hands out his Sports Academy Award nominations.
  • The Sports Guy is back in the NBA saddle as he hands out scratch tickets for the lottery bound.
  • The Daily Quickie is all duded-out in honor of everyone's favorite computer pitchman.
  • My Pacers are damn near the perfect basketball team. All they need is The Glove. My homeboy, Jason Williams, the former Notre Dame small forward, laid it all out for me how the Pacers could ship Austin Croshere and Jonathan Bender to Seattle for Gary Payton. Croshere is on the block because of his fat contract. Payton wants out of Seattle. And current point Jamaal Tinsley's poor decision-making is the only reason the New Jersey Nets stand a chance of retaining their Eastern Conference crown.

    Bottom line: The Pacers need to do something at the point. And whatever they do, please God, I hope Donnie Walsh has enough strength to stop Zeke from rescuing Damon Stoudamire from the end of Portland's bench. Stoudamire, Isiah's "success" story from his brief tenure as a GM, is a streak-shooting Tinsley.

    Now I like Zeke. As a coach, he's a shorter, better-dressing, darker Larry Bird. He commands a great deal of respect on the sideline and in the locker room. He sets a great tone and has created a winning environment.

    But Donnie Walsh deserves most of the credit for this team. He made the bold move of trading away the Davis boys -- Dale and Antoine -- so the Pacers could be the team of the future. I thought Walsh was an idiot. Hell, I've always thought Walsh was an idiot. It's only been until this year that I've been able to give Walsh credit for the Pacers' success.

    Isiah Thomas
    Isiah's fire has spread to the Pacers.
    I was still bitter at Walsh because he was a part of the George Irvine coaching staff that came up with the stupid idea that Wayman Tisdale, one of the greatest low-post scorers in the history of college basketball, was an NBA small forward who should handle the ball and play facing the basket. Ruined Tisdale's career and to this day is one of the dumbest player-development decisions in the history of the league. How Walsh catapulted from Irvine assistant to Pacers general manager is a mystery.

    Anyway, Larry Brown, as coach of the Pacers in the mid-1990s, turned the franchise around and taught Walsh everything he knows about being a shrewd GM. No matter the cause, no one can deny Walsh is now as good as it gets in the NBA. And so are the Pacers.

    Jason Whitlock is a regular columnist for the Kansas City Star (kcstar.com), the host of a morning-drive talk show, "Jason Whitlock's Neighborhood" on Sports Radio 810 WHB (810whb.com) and a regular contributor on ESPN The Magazine's Sunday morning edition of The Sports Reporters. He can be reached at ballstate0@aol.com.