When Donnie Walsh arrived in Indianapolis in 1984, he didn’t plan on staying long. Hired as an assistant coach by head coach and good friend George Irvine, Walsh knew coaching jobs came with short-term realization and real estate agents on speed dial. He didn’t plan to stay long since his goal was to be a general manager in the NBA.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would be with the Pacers,” said Walsh.
In 1986, he became the Pacers’ General Manager and Walsh admitted, “It was hard to change your team back then, you had to do it through the draft, not through free agency. My first week, when I looked at our team and realized what was ahead, I thought I was an interim guy.” Twenty years later, Walsh has established himself not only as the longest-tenured basketball decision-maker in the NBA, but as one of the best. Under Walsh’s leadership, the Pacers have become one of the NBA’s elite teams, reaching the NBA Finals in 2000, reaching the Eastern Conference Finals six times and winning four Central Division Championships.
“I’ll tell you, I don’t want to think of a team that doesn’t have a person of Donnie Walsh’s quality as part of it,” said Pacers co-owner Herb Simon. “He’s my kind of guy. He’s straight forward, honest, hard-working, very talented and treats everyone fairly. I don’t know what else you could ask for in a person.
“You can be proud to be the owner of a team that has Donnie Walsh as part of it. It has been a day-to-day enjoyment for 20 years.” When Walsh took over the Pacers as GM in April ,1986, the team was coming off a 26-56 season and had reached the playoffs only once in 10 NBA seasons. Under Walsh’s guidance, the Pacers have now reached the playoffs 17 of the last 18 years and also brought three of the game’s most respected names, Larry Brown, Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas (all Hall of Famers), in to coach the team.
“The whole experience for me as the President/General Manager of the Indiana Pacers has been entirely positive,” said Walsh. “I have great owners (Mel and Herb Simon), I’ve had great coaches, players and fellow workers. We’ve had an opportunity to become an elite team in the NBA, to build the No. 1 sports venue in America, maybe in the world, in Conseco Fieldhouse, and to be included as a part of the history and tradition of Indiana basketball.
“My personal goal for the Pacers’ franchise was to always be included in the great tradition of Indiana basketball with both high school and college. Our reaching the NBA Finals and reaching the Conference Finals six out of 11 years is a point of excellence that I think puts us in that category of Indiana basketball and reflects well on the basketball in this state. I think we’re now firmly part of that mix and I feel good about that. But the ultimate goal is still to win a championship. Until then, it was great to see Market Square Arena and Conseco Fieldhouse filled and rocking when we’ve had very good teams. For me, it hasn’t been any better than this.”
His ability to mold the Pacers into one of the top franchises, while continually keeping the team competitive, earned him recognition in the 2000-01 season from Bloomberg News Service as the NBA’s top basketball executive in a vote of the league’s coaches.
His track record speaks for itself, considering that prior to the 2005-06 season, the Pacers had the best winning percentage (.602) of any team in the Eastern Conference and fourth-best in the NBA behind the L.A. Lakers, San Antonio and Utah over the previous 10 seasons. In that span, the 1999-2000 season was one of the more interesting, yet impressive, trips to the postseason. In June, the Pacers traded veteran Antonio Davis to Toronto for the draft rights to a talented high school player, Jonathan Bender, the fifth overall pick in the NBA Draft. Many predicted the Pacers to not only finish low in the Eastern Conference, but in the bottom half of the Central Division. At season’s end, the Pacers had not only won the Central Division for the second straight year, but for the first time in franchise history had compiled the best outright record in the Eastern Conference at 56-26. That mark stands as the third-best overall record in the team’s NBA history. The Pacers also tied a league-best (with the L.A. Lakers) 36-5 record at home that included a 25-game home winning streak, both franchise records.
In the playoffs, the Pacers beat Milwaukee and Philadelphia before meeting their old nemesis, the New York Knicks, in the Eastern Conference Finals. But there, the Pacers won their first-ever Eastern Conference Championship in six games and advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time. There, they fell to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games for the world championship.
After that season, Walsh made a bold move by beginning to rebuild the team without tearing it up. With the retirement of Rik Smits as a player, Bird as the coach and the loss of point guard Mark Jackson to free agency, the Pacers were definitely going to change. The key move in that offseason came when Walsh traded veteran All-Star forward Dale Davis to Portland for a young talent named Jermaine O'Neal, who has since become a five-time NBA All-Star, the 2002 Most Improved Player and a league MVP candidate. Walsh also brought in Thomas to coach the team that year and for three straight years, the Pacers continued to make the playoffs while making steady improvement, winning 41, 42 and 48 games.
In 2003-04, under Walsh’s guidance, the Pacers returned to the elite of the league. Under new coach Rick Carlisle, the Pacers won the Central Division, compiled the best record in the NBA (61-21), set franchise records for road wins in the NBA (27), total victories and winning percentage (.744) while reaching the Eastern Conference Finals again. Following that season, despite adversity from injuries and player suspensions, the Pacers have continued to make the playoffs the last two years. The current Pacers’ playoff runs – nine straight years, 17 out of the last 18 – are equaled by only one other NBA team, San Antonio.
Three years ago, Walsh began to put a different stamp on the franchise, naming Bird as President of Basketball Operations in July, 2003, to take the team into the next era.
Off the court, Walsh oversaw two other major projects. In June, 1999, Indiana was awarded a WNBA franchise. Now, the Fever are one of the top franchises in the league. Prior to that, as the Pacers headed toward the next century, the need for a new arena in downtown Indianapolis was becoming more and more evident. In 1994, after the Pacers reached the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time, he began quiet discussions with city leaders.
Today, 18,345-seat Conseco Fieldhouse fits neatly into place in downtown Indianapolis, the NBA, and with Indiana’s rich basketball tradition for a very unique trifecta. The retro-style, multi-purpose facility has drawn rave reviews for its blending of the modern amenities - such as suites and club seats - with attention to the basketball heritage of Indiana and ensuring that all fans are at home in what is truly a basketball house. It is a basketball destination and a tourist attraction.
In the 1999-2000 season and postseason, the Pacers sold out every game in the Fieldhouse, the first time that had been done in franchise history. In that season, the only other NBA teams to sell out every home game were the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks. “I think it culminates all of our dreams for the Pacers, but I think it also encompasses everything that is Indiana basketball to me,” said Walsh. “That was our goal when we started this and I’m talking about when we started back in 1986 to build a team. We wanted the team to be a part of the tradition of Indiana basketball, which it really hadn’t been up until that point in the NBA. It has been a long process over many years, but I think it culminates with Conseco Fieldhouse because it kind of embodies it.”
On both counts of building the Pacers and Conseco Fieldhouse, it took a believer. Walsh fits that mold perfectly, going back to 1986 when he thought interim was his fate. Destiny intervened.
In 1986, the Pacers were struggling. They had lost two key players, Clark Kellogg and Steve Stipanovich, to career-ending knee injuries. But Walsh, rarely taking a day off in his 20 years on the job, believed he could turn the franchise around. And he has.
Starting with his first draft, Walsh took Chuck Person, who went on to become Rookie of the Year. Person, with Detlef Schrempf, acquired by Walsh in a trade, and a young gun named Reggie Miller who was drafted by Walsh, led the Pacers to the first of many memorable playoff series, starting with a five-game loss to Bird and the Boston Celtics in 1991.
In 1993, Walsh hired Brown as coach and in 1994 they reached the Eastern Conference Finals before losing to New York in seven games. In 1995, the Pacers again reached the East Finals (losing to Orlando), but they had their first 50-win NBA season and won their first NBA banner, the Central Division championship.
The 1996 playoff run was cut short by Atlanta in the first round, but Miller missed the first four games of that series with an eye injury. In 1997, the Pacers slipped to 39-43 and didn’t make the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons, due to injuries to Smits, Derrick McKey and key backup, Haywoode Workman. Brown resigned in April, but Walsh - thinking ahead as always - had a high-profile replacement ready, the legendary Bird.
The Pacers finished the 1997-98 season with, at the time, an NBA team record 58 victories and their 58-24 record provided a .707 winning percentage, the best in franchise history at the time. They also went the last 63 games of the regular season without losing two straight games. Also that season, the Pacers compiled the best record in the East at the All-Star break, earning the coaching staff of Bird and assistants Dick Harter and Carlisle, All-Star coaching honors. They were joined in New York by Miller and Smits, at that time only the second time in team history the Pacers had two NBA All-Stars. Bird eventually was named Coach of the Year and the Pacers extended the eventual World Champion Chicago Bulls to seven games before losing in the Eastern Conference Finals. Then, in 1998-99, the Pacers tied for the best record in the Eastern Conference (33-17) and won their second Central Division championship.
With Conseco Fieldhouse rising in the Indianapolis skyline, Walsh has seen two projects reach prominence and he wants them to stay there. “Looking back at it, I’m glad we’ve been able to get the team to the point where it is,” he said. “There’s great satisfaction in doing that. As for Conseco Fieldhouse, I get the feeling of accomplishment in the sense that after being here for so many years, if I have a part in this building it’s that it is something permanent I can look back on and think, ‘Well, I had something to do with that.’ ”
The 65-year-old (3/1/41) Walsh has also seen fan appreciation rise during his tenure. Attendance in Market Square Arena was the highest in franchise history the last 12 seasons before the record-breaking move to the Fieldhouse, capped by 1995-96 in which the Pacers had a record average of 16,438, that included 29 sellouts and a season-ending run of 13 straight sellouts. In 1997-98, fans filled MSA to 96 percent of its capacity and in its last season an average of 16,182 (98 percent capacity) visited MSA. In 25 home dates in the 1998-99 season, the Pacers had 15 sellouts.
Walsh, who in 1988 was named president of the Pacers Basketball Corporation (now Pacers Sports & Entertainment which runs the Pacers, the Fever, Pacers Foundation, Inc. and also directs the management of Conseco Fieldhouse), has spent his life in and around basketball.
An outstanding high school player in New York City, Walsh played at North Carolina under Frank McGuire and Dean Smith. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science, Walsh attended the North Carolina Law School and helped coach the Tar Heels’ freshman team for two seasons.
After graduating from law school and turning down offers from then former Vice President Richard Nixon’s law firm in New York City and the U.S. Justice Department’s Honors programs, he took a graduate coaching position under Smith at North Carolina and then became an associate head coach under McGuire at South Carolina. In 1977, Walsh was about to enter private law practice in South Carolina, but Brown, the head coach of the Denver Nuggets, asked Walsh to join him as an assistant. Walsh stayed with the Nuggets as an assistant coach and a head coach before entering private business in 1982.
But in 1984, Walsh was back in basketball as a Pacers’ assistant coach. Two years later, he became GM. He has since been a member of the U.S. Olympic Games Committee for men’s basketball for Dream Teams I and II.
Walsh’s knowledge, professionalism, accessibility and courtesy are highly-recognized throughout the NBA by players, coaches, front office personnel and the media. He is also a respected member of the Indianapolis community, serving on the boards of many charities. In June, 2004, he was honored with the Indiana Pathfinder Award for his contributions to causes involving youth.
He and his wife, Judy, both natives of New York, have five children and live in Indianapolis. They also are avid dog lovers.