The Telethon that Saved the Pacers

The Indiana Pacers joined the NBA in 1976, as part of the merger agreement between the NBA and ABA. But despite having drawn over 10,000 fans per game in their inaugural NBA season, the team was remained millions of dollars in debt and appeared headed toward bankruptcy. They still owed the NBA money and remained almost three years away from receiving a share of television revenue.

On June 1, 1977 the team could not meet payroll. Office staff went several weeks without pay, relying on twenty area businesses and individuals who raised $100,000 to pay monthly salaries. A local hockey team – the World Hockey Association’s Indiana Racers – chipped in to provide coffee. Recognizing the need to quickly raise capital, the Pacers marketing department got creative, offering payroll deductions, arranging credit-union loans, and organizing pools of factory workers to collectively buy season tickets.

Given a goal of selling 8,000 season tickets by early July to remain solvent, the team was around 3,000 short by the end of June and potential investors, who pledged an influx of capital if the team met its goal, remained wary. In desperation, Assistant General Manager Nancy Leonard (the first female G.M. in American pro sports history) collaborated with a local television station – WTTV Channel Four – in promoting a unique idea: a telethon. WTTV had telethon experience, although never with a sports team, and the Pacers had never run a telethon – let alone with just one week to plan the event.

At 10 p.m. on July 3, 1977 WTTV began broadcasting and, for the next 16 ½ hours, filled the airwaves with impassioned pleas to support the Pacers. Head Coach Bob ‘Slick’ Leonard – Nancy’s husband – emceed the event. Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight taped a segment, as did Indiana Governor Otis Bowen. Local entertainers and music groups filled telethon-central, the 500 Ballroom of the Indiana Convention Center, as players like Dave Robisch and Billy Knight fielded telephone calls themselves. Rival groups laid aside their differences to save the team: two competing television stations – Channels 6 and 13 – aired portions of the telethon and even former Pacer – and current Philadelphia 76er – George McGinnis taped a segment and chipped in to buy a few tickets.

As Pacers’ Director of Public Relations Sandy Knapp described, “the response was terrific. We sold season tickets and we took phone pledges, but that was just part of it. It was really wild. People just walked into our offices and brought us checks and dollars and dimes and pennies.” Local kids showed up with coffee cans full of change collected from their friends and proudly handed over their hard-earned money to keep the Pacers afloat.

With an hour left in the telethon, team officials made a startling discovery – their count was off…by over 800 tickets. They were going to fail. Coach Leonard – nattily dressed in a pair of white bell-bottoms and loud red jacket – made a final plea.

Miraculously, with about five minutes left, Nancy broke into tears and fell sobbing into her husband’s arms, joyfully announcing that they had reached the goal and that 8,028 season tickets had been sold for the upcoming season. Coach Leonard led the crowd in a rousing rendition of “Back Home Again in Indiana” – a favorite of Indianapolis 500 fans – as workers and spectators alike cheered the telethon’s success. “Something like this can only happen in a place like Indiana,” Coach Leonard said. “You have to be a little hickish to make something like this take place. The people were just beautiful. Those fans backed us to the bitter end.” Never has there been a happier Fourth of July in Indianapolis’ long history. Years later Slick remembered it as being “as big as winning a championship.” The Pacers were saved. At least for now.

Adam Criblez is the author of the upcoming book Tall Tales and Short Shorts: Dr. J, Pistol Pete, and the Birth of the Modern NBA.

Click to pre-order Tall Tales and Short Shorts.

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