Frank Vogel reminds that Bobby “Slick” Leonard will always be No. 1.
Not in the NBA’s record book, technically, because Leonard won 387 of his 529 Indiana Pacers games in the ABA. But “Slick” is a Hall of Famer and visible Bankers Life Fieldhouse voice as a radio color analyst, the fan favorite who coined the popular phrase, “Boom Baby!” for 3-pointers.
Ever respectful of that history, Vogel humbly downplayed winning his 191st career game to set the Pacers’ new NBA coaching victory record Friday night. A 93-86 triumph over the LeBron James-less Cleveland Cavaliers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse pushed Vogel’s mark to 191-134, ahead of Larry Brown’s 190-138.
“The winningest coach in Pacers history will always be ‘Slick’ Leonard,” Vogel said with a smile.
But the 41-year-old Vogel admitted he is honored to be mentioned among other coaching greats including his current boss, president Larry Bird.
This has been his most challenging season. Injuries have impacted the Pacers’ continuity since Aug. 1, when two-time All-Star Paul George broke two bones in his lower right leg during a Team USA scrimmage in Las Vegas. Media day was two months away and outside expectations for a team that had the Eastern Conference’s best record last season couldn’t have changed more dramatically overnight.
Yet the Pacers (24-34) wake up Saturday morning in the eighth and final conference playoff spot by percentage points.
“It just looks like no hope and he comes in and wham! He’s like, ’You can do this. You can do that,’” forward David West said. “I don’t know. I don’t know how else to really describe it other than saying he has a way of just pulling guys up, constantly just pulling you up, pulling you up, building you up.”
Guard-forward C.J. Miles endured a shooting slump for about two months at the start of the season. Vogel kept verbalizing his faith in the Pacers’ streaky newcomer, even going as far as to take him out to dinner. Miles eventually got it together.
“He’s not going to let you lose confidence,” said Miles, who has hit a team-high 92 3-pointers.
Vogel predicted at a preseason golf outing that the Pacers would be the NBA’s surprise team this season. But then bodies kept getting subtracted from the mix. Ten players have contributed to the team’s unbelievable total of 182 games lost to injury.
“With your main horses out,” he said, “it’s tough to win games in general.”
The Pacers lost six in a row after a season-opening win. They endured an eight-game losing streak into December. Then there was a seven-game losing streak into January.
Fans wrote them off and suggested it was best that the team tank its way to a high draft pick. But the Pacers refused to accept that. Bird reiterated his expectation for the team to make the playoffs and admitted on Feb. 3 he was disappointed. The Pacers have gone 7-2 in February, dramatically reversing course with point guard George Hill back in the starting lineup.
“I think the culture had a lot to do with it,” Vogel said. “I did have concerns, not so much that I questioned our players’ intent or anything like that, but I just know what losing does at this level. Losing separates you.”
He credits high-character guys for not getting down and quitting.
“There’s been other situations where it’s tougher to manage a group,” he said. “This group has been very easy to manage and very fun to manage.”
The Pacers have a favorable schedule ahead, seven more at home out of the next eight. They have momentum. The playoffs, once perceived outside the locker room to be mission impossible, isn’t just do-able. It’s once again expected.
Their coach kept believing. And he refused to let his players believe otherwise.
“That being said,” Vogel added with a smile, “we haven’t accomplished anything yet.”
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.