Like many folks starving for sports content during this harrowing pandemic period, I’ve faithfully tuned in to the ESPN “Last Dance” documentary of the Chicago Bulls’ sixth championship season.
While it hasn’t told this NBA basketball junkie anything he didn’t already know about their magical run, it has revived memories of March 19, 1995, and the return of Michael Jordan to the NBA, which I believe (with all due respect to Elvis fans) is clearly the biggest event in the history of the now imploded Market Square Arena.
Who better to relive the moment with than David Benner, longtime director of media relations for the Indiana Pacers? Brother Benner was in his first year with the team after spending 16 years with the Indianapolis Star, including a number of those covering the team as a beat writer. While I assumed that March day had to be hectic for the media staff, I had no idea just how chaotic it actually was.
The Pacers were practicing at Park Tudor School the day before the game, which was slated to be a regional telecast for NBC Sports which, in turn, switched it to a national game. In essence, there was just 24 hours to prepare for what would be a global event.
“I likened it to having Commissioner David Stern calling you and saying you’re hosting Game 7 of the NBA Finals,” stated the always helpful Benner via email. He went on to add that the credential requests were crazy and thankfully it was “pre-cell phone” days, as he was bombarded with faxes and calls to his office line. “There was a NCAA Regional being played in Dayton and after I spoke with a writer requesting a credential, he handed the phone off to five other writers” added Benner. In total, he stated the Pacers granted 200 credentials for the game, with only 16 of those receiving a seat, which undoubtedly left some media personnel disgruntled. Photographers were no less interested, and while most were allowed to shoot pregame warmups, a security guard assigned specifically to Benner had to “remind” those without game credentials they would have to vacate the floor.
Longtime media workroom manager Bill York recalled the crunch on game day as well. “I was bombarded for ticket requests and I told everyone my wife said she’d strangle me if I sold our season tickets and she didn’t get to go.” One of York’s longtime colleagues in the media workroom was master baker Kaye Totton, who prepared a special batch of her legendary chocolate chip cookies for Jordan. “Our work area was near the visitors’ locker room and I told the Bulls representative I wanted Michael to enjoy them,” recalled Totton. Jordan would later enter the work room to thank her for her culinary efforts, telling her he didn’t want teammate Toni Kukoc eating all of them before he got the chance to devour a few.
The Bulls would go on to lose to the Pacers in overtime by a score of 103-96, and the final stat line for M.J. included 19 points, as a result of shooting just 25% from the field, to go along with six rebounds and six assists in 43 minutes of play.
Benner, who worked until the wee hours the night before the game and returned early on game day after a brief nap, gave credit to his staff and the building personnel who converted Market Square Arena back to a basketball court from a hockey game the night before.
“It was amazing to see it all come together and we won the game which made all the hard work worth it,” stated Benner, who even personally transported a media colleague to the Indianapolis Airport after the game. He concluded by adding, “On a day when it went from a game to something off the charts, the Market Square Arena staff performed like Reggie Miller in the clutch, and in my initial season, I quickly learned what a great group of people I was working with.”
Notes: While all the focus was on Michael Jordan that day, the Pacers’ Dale Davis was a force on the backboard with 20 caroms, including eight on the offensive glass.
Scottie Pippen had a big game with 31 points and Reggie Miller dropped in 28 for the Pacers. Byron Scott added 17 points for Indiana and Mark Jackson dropped 10 dimes.
Danny Bridges, who would like to thank David Benner for tolerating him all these years, can be reached at 317-370-8447 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.