By Ryan O’Leary | For The Tribune
In 2003, when the basketball star formerly known as Ron Artest was coming into his own as a two-way star for the Indiana Pacers, ESPN The Magazine came to town to profile the mercurial forward.
Artest wound up featured on the cover, touted as “the scariest man in the NBA.”
But at one point, the reporter asked Artest who he feared most in the NBA?
David Benner, a Greenwood resident who has been the Pacers’ media relations director for the past 27 seasons, couldn’t help but hear the answer (which didn’t make it into the article).
“Ron tells the guy, he points over at me and says, ‘I fear Dave,’” Benner recalled. “And the reporter goes, ‘No, seriously. Who do you fear most in the NBA?’ He goes, ‘No, seriously, I fear him. He jumps my (stuff) all the time.’”
Imagine being able to say that one of the most feared players in basketball history was afraid of you.
That’s just one of the many badges of honor, tangible or otherwise, that Benner has accumulated over almost four decades working for and around the Pacers and the NBA.
This upcoming season, he says, will be his last.
A 1973 Center Grove graduate who served as a student manager when the Trojans’ boys basketball team reached the state quarterfinal in 1972, Benner attended Indiana University before joining the sports staff at the Indianapolis Star. While there, he covered the Pacers beat for eight seasons, beginning in 1983.
Benner then went on to take the Star’s Notre Dame football beat in the early 1990s, a three-year run that included the famed “Game of the Century” between the Irish and Florida State in 1993.
But the NBA pulled him back in.
“Dale Ratterman, who was the PR guy for the Pacers, came to me and asked me if I’d be interested in taking over his job because he was getting (promoted),” Benner recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t know anything about PR.’ … He said, ‘Well, we think you’d be good at it.’”
Benner asked for a year to think about it. He covered the 1993 Fighting Irish on the gridiron and Indiana University basketball that following winter before agreeing to take Ratterman up on the offer.
His timing was pretty good. In 1994-95, Benner’s first season, the Pacers made it to the Eastern Conference finals before losing to Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway and the Orlando Magic in seven games.
During that first season, Benner had to make the transition from being a member of the media to dealing with the media from the “other side.” He may or may not have been joking when he said he had to learn how to tie a tie.
He also had one of the more chaotic experiences of his career during his rookie campaign when Michael Jordan chose to return from his first retirement with a March 19, 1995, game at Market Square Arena.
“We’re out practicing at Park Tudor and word starts to leak out,” Benner recalled. “He’d sent that fax: ‘I’m back.’ So the next thing you know — this was before cellphones and all that — by the time I got back to the office, the fax machine was nonstop and my office voicemail was full; you know, guys wanting credentials. And we only had X amount, and a lot of them I just said, ‘Look, I’ll guarantee you a credential. I just can’t guarantee you a seat.’”
When one thinks of chaos and the Pacers, thoughts inevitably drift to the infamous night of Nov. 19, 2004, when a brawl, better known to most as the “Malice at the Palace,” took place toward the end of a road game against the Detroit Pistons.
After things got heated during an on-court confrontation between Artest and Pistons forward Ben Wallace, a fan threw a cup of beer onto Artest from up in the stands. That led to Artest and teammate Stephen Jackson going up into the stands, fans coming onto the court looking for fights and all other sorts of general bedlam.
Benner wasn’t in Michigan that night. Instead, he went to dinner with his wife and came home in time to catch the second half of the game — and the brawl — on television.
“My reply was, ‘Holy (crap),’” he said.
Right away, Benner phoned his assistant who was at the game, urging him not to let any Pacers personnel talk to the press onsite. He then drove to the Indianapolis airport to meet the team upon its arrival, knowing a media horde would be waiting.
Despite the occasional high-pressure situation, Benner’s memories of his time with the Pacers are overwhelmingly positive. He remains in contact with several former players, and while he is partial to a select few — Travis Best and Sam Perkins, he says, helped him through a difficult time professionally many years ago — he has got high praise for almost everyone he has worked with over the years.
He also has an endless stockpile of stories. One of the perks of being courtside for so long is that Benner got to see a side of the athletes that fans rarely glimpse and had the chance to live the sort of tales that most people get only through hearsay.
For example, most basketball fans know of Larry Bird’s reputation as a notorious trash talker, but Benner found out firsthand how bad it can get when he was courtside to cover the 1986 NBA All-Star weekend in Dallas. Bird was warming up for the league’s inaugural 3-point contest and was uncharacteristically cold.
“He’s out there warming up … and he’s not exactly stroking it,” Benner shared. “I said, ‘A little off, huh?’ And he goes, ‘I’ll bet you $5 on the next one.’ OK. So of course, he makes it, and he turns and says, ‘You owe me $5.’ I said, ‘OK.’
“So later in the season, we’re playing the Celtics in Hartford, Connecticut. And Larry would see me, and he would always say, ‘Is the game on TV (in Indiana)?’ because of his mom. I said, ‘Yeah, the game’s on TV.’ He goes, ‘OK, thanks. You owe me $5.’ So I paid him $5. I’m glad I didn’t welch on that bet because it might have affected me when he became coach.”
The Pacers have never won an NBA title, making the finals only in 2000 and losing in the conference finals six other times during Benner’s tenure. Experiencing as many playoff runs as he did gave him a greater appreciation for just how hard it is to win during the postseason. Winning a game at that level is tough enough, he says, never mind a series or a championship.
“We’ve had really good teams that didn’t make the finals and didn’t win a championship, but we ran into Michael Jordan,” Benner said. “We get to the finals, we run into Kobe and Shaq. Then you get down the road, we run into LeBron. And these guys are great players.
“From the outside, it’s easy to say, ‘Why didn’t they do this? Why didn’t they do that?’ But it’s so hard, and the satisfaction you get when you win a playoff game or you win a series is tremendous.”
Benner was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2010 and recovered. In 2018, the cancer returned in the fatty tissue of his stomach, and though it abated somewhat through biweekly chemotherapy, it still isn’t completely gone.
That contributed to his decision to call it a career after this season, but he says even if he were in perfect health, he’d probably be doing the same thing. Benner will be 66 in October, and while he still likes working with the team and the media, 36 years around one organization is a lot.
“I still enjoy it, but you reach a time where you just go, ‘OK, it’s time,’” he said. “The experiences I’ve had with this franchise have been great. I never had a ‘real job.’ There are aspects to it, but I’m working for a team that I grew up watching, admiring, cheering for, and you get to experience it and see what it’s like. … The good times far outweigh the bad.”