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How Larry Bird, an Indy car and a flawless hosting resume put NBA All-Star game in Indy

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INDIANAPOLIS — The bid book had been carefully crafted by Pacers leaders, city officials and Indianapolis’ sports gurus. It was more than 100 pages in a spiral-bound notebook with a glossy cover replicating a hardwood basketball court with the italicized letters Indy in the middle of it.

The book was Indianapolis’ pitch to the NBA to secure a future All-Star weekend, a book divided with different tabs labeled “We Grow Basketball Here”, “Community Support Letters” and “Hotel Information.”

There were spec sheets and all kinds of stats and information on Bankers Life Fieldhouse and Lucas Oil Stadium. There was a breakdown of IT support, transportation and marketing plans. There was a little boasting about the city’s sports event hosting resume, NCAA Final Fours, NFL Combines, the 2012 Super Bowl and too many amateur sports championships to list.

“They gave us a (Request for Proposal). We responded. All the questions were answered and then some,” said Leonard Hoops, president and CEO of Visit Indy, who was part of the bid process. “But then there was actually an entire section that was an ‘On top of what you’ve asked us to do? Here’s what we’ll also do.'”

That tab was labeled “Enhancements” and it impressed the NBA.

But nothing in the bid Indy submitted to league offices to land the NBA All-Star game — not the basketball court at Indianapolis International Airport or the festivities on Georgia Street or the thousands of hand-knitted hats to be handed out to visitors — compared to a towering 6-9 Indiana basketball legend cramming his body into a tiny replica Indy car, driving through Manhattan and hand delivering the city’s bid to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.

“Larry driving an Indy car down Fifth Avenue in New York City certainly ranks up there as one of the most creative ways that we’ve ever seen an All-Star bid delivered.  To do it in that fashion speaks to how much Herb (Simon), Larry and the Pacers organization wanted to bring All-Star back to Indy,” Silver said in an e-mail interview with IndyStar last week. “And I’m still not sure how Larry fit in that car.”

When Silver announced Indy as host of the 2021 All-Star weekend (which, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, was moved to 2024) he said Bird in that car “was the cherry on top of the cake, but it was symbolic.”

Symbolic of just how far the city would go to nab its first All-Star game since 1985.

“Squeezing Larry Bird into an Indy car? There is a reason most of those IndyCar drivers are mostly the size of Mario Andretti (who is 5-5),” said Hoops. “On top of that, Larry doesn’t like the spotlight so just getting Larry to do it was a big accomplishment.”

Rick Fuson was there in New York City on that cloudy day in April 2017, waiting for Bird to arrive at NBA headquarters. It was gray and drizzling rain, but the car was bright — Pacers’ blue and gold.

“To have Larry Bird and an Indy car at the same time on Fifth Avenue in New York when traffic is buzzing by and people are looking, ‘Wow, what’s happening?'” said Fuson, then president and chief operating officer of Pacers Sports and Entertainment. “It was really an amazing sight.”

As Bird pulled up and parked, more than 300 people stood watching as the basketball legend finagled his way out of the tiny car.

“And we had a bunch of people waiting there and we got the book out and took the book up to Adam Silver in the NBA office,” Fuson said. “I don’t know that anybody’s ever done it that dramatically before, but …”

It worked. Eight months later, Fuson’s phone rang. It was Kelly Flatow, the NBA’s executive vice president of global events.

“Kelly called and said, ‘Hey, guess what? You guys got it.’”

‘Win one for the Gipper’

The league rotates NBA All-Star weekends among its franchise cities, but there is no exact formula for that rotation. Los Angeles, for example, has hosted three and New York two since Indy last hosted the big game in 1985.

That All-Star game was held at the Hoosier Dome in a city that was known as Naptown, a desert town compared to the bustling, sports-centric city today that has hosted almost every major sporting event there is to host, minus a World Series.

“I remember in the late ’70s when I used to come downtown at 9 o’clock when there was no place to eat, not many people walking around downtown,” Bird told IndyStar in 2017 when the city landed the game. “This city has come a long way in the last 30 years.”

But it didn’t seem like the NBA was so sure about that at first, said Hoops.

“Some of them had memories of the 1985 All-Star game. I remember hearing comments like that from some of the staff,” he said. “It was clear there were hurdles we had to get over. I would describe the NBA’s initial response to the Pacers’ initial inquiry as really reserved. It was kind of (like) prove it.”

The city went to work to do just that, to prove it could host an All-Star weekend and host it amazingly. Indy wanted it not just for bragging rights and economic impact (an estimated $320 million), but for their NBA team’s owner, Herb Simon, who is 89.

“I know how much work and time people put into this behind the scenes,” Bird told IndyStar in 2017. “Our owner (Herb Simon) wanted it real bad. He got it.”

That was definitely the overriding theme from city leaders, said Hoops.

“I know throughout the process, Rick kept telling me, ‘We really need to get this for Mr. Simon,’” Hoops said. “There was definitely kind of a, ‘win one for the Gipper.'”

Just a twinkle in the city’s eye

When Hoops moved to the city in 2011 to lead Visit Indy, a nonprofit that serves as the official sales and marketing arm for Indianapolis and the Indiana Convention Center, his name was the talk of the town.

He was reminded that Indiana grows basketball and basketball falls through a hoop and he embraced his organic moniker and the fact that people wanted to talk to him about everything basketball, including some casual conversations about nabbing an All-Star game.

“When you’ve got a last name like Hoops you start having those conversations,” he said, laughing. But soon those conversations became more serious and in 2014, Fuson, Hoops and Allison Melangton, who was running Indiana Sports Corp., went to NBA All-Star weekend in New Orleans.

The three, along with an army of people in the city’s hosting business, started talking more seriously, looking at dates on the calendar that matched with open hotel space and didn’t interfere with other events.

Indy was full, at the time, for 2019 and 2020. But 2021 looked like the perfect date. In 2016, the Indy entourage traveled to the All-Star game in Toronto to learn more.

“I know we all came away from Toronto in 2016 saying, ‘We are going to do this bid,'” said Hoops.

But it really wasn’t their decision. They needed Simon to say yes. An NBA All-Star game being hosted in a city doesn’t make sense, after all, unless the team is behind it.”We talked to Herb,” said Fuson, “and Herb then finally decided, ‘OK, let’s try it this time.'”

Which led to Bird in an Indy car driving through Manhattan, which led to Indy now, nearly seven years later, in the final days before it hosts its first All-Star game in 39 years.

“Of course, they will pull it off,” said longtime sports marketing executive Tom George. “Of course they will.”

A non-destination sports destination city

George is based in Atlanta and has always been in awe of Indy’s ability to be a non-destination sports destination city.

“They have done a remarkable job of making Indianapolis an attractive sports destination without any real natural draw,” said George. “Nobody is sitting around in their living room waiting to have a destination wedding in Indianapolis.”

And yet, its hosting resume has gotten rave reviews and accolades. When the city hosted the Super Bowl in 2012, it created a Super Bowl village on Georgia Street which is now replicated at major sporting events all over the country.

George compares Indy to an Atlanta or Tampa in terms of mobilizing the community so that it is an attractive place to hold a big event. All three have the infrastructure, hotels and cooperate people who will come to the event, he said.

Yet when it comes to “designated market area” or DMA rankings used to define television and radio markets, Atlanta is sixth largest in the U.S., Tampa is 13th and Indy is 25th. 

“So, you look at that and you go, ‘Why would you want to go to Indy at all?'” George said. “Why? It’s been proven, they will come, and they will make a big deal about it.”

George remembers a U.S. Track & Field championship in New York that was not promoted at all and, when it was, nobody seemed to care.

“It made not a ripple in New York,” he said. “That could not happen in Indy, Tampa or Atlanta. they have a pride. They want people to like their city.”

Selling Indy has become increasingly easier in his four decades working in the city, said Fuson, as it blossomed from Naptown to a perfect mecca for hosting events.

There are 8,000 hotel rooms within five or six blocks and two major venues — Gainbridge Fieldhouse and Lucas Oil Stadium with the convention center — just five blocks apart.”And we can drape the downtown like I don’t think any other city in the mile square can do in terms of being able to know that an event’s here,” said Fuson. “You can go to New York or L.A., bless their souls, or New Orleans or Vancouver. That’s not the same core campus. You can see from the time you get here to the time you go home that Indianapolis was the All-Star city.”Silver says the city’s track record of hosting major sporting events factored into the league’s decision to accept the Pacers’ bid.

“But maybe most of all, Indy is the perfect place for All-Star because of its rich basketball tradition,” he said. “Basketball is part of the fabric of the community.”

Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on X: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via email: dbenbow@indystar.com.

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