In October 1997, in the first minute of his first exhibition
game as a Pacers forward, Austin Croshere drew a charge and
landed hard on his left hand. Seconds later he drew another
foul, then underwent a quick examination by the Indiana trainer.
The hand was broken. "Welcome to the NBA," said Larry Bird, who
was experiencing his first moments as the Pacers' coach. "Now go
make your free throws."
After leading Providence to the Elite Eight as a senior, the
6'9" Croshere (CROW-zher) was taken 12th by Indiana, becoming
Bird's first draft pick. But their relationship seemed doomed to
fail. At the end of Croshere's rookie year he broke his left
foot during warmups. Last season he was injury-free but his
hopes of winning Bird's confidence in training camp were dashed
by the lockout. He was a young player out of place on a veteran,
contending team. After appearing in only 53 games in two
seasons, Croshere respectfully asked the Pacers to play him or
trade him. "I was looking at being out of the league if I didn't
get a chance," he says.
Croshere was offered with Travis Best to the Clippers for
Lorenzen Wright last summer, but that deal fell through--luckily
for Indiana. Instead, on draft day the Pacers dealt backup
center and power forward Antonio Davis to the Raptors for 6'11"
Jonathan Bender, an 18-year-old project. The Pacers had slotted
Croshere as a reserve small forward, but now they needed to
replace Davis in the rotation. Croshere was given a chance to
win that job.
Toward that end he devised a new summer school curriculum: Power
Forward 101. At 7 a.m. Croshere, a Los Angeles native, would
train at UCLA with a track coach, "to work on lengthening my
stride," he says. At 8:30 he would meet former NBA gunner Kiki
Vandeweghe at a UCLA gym for a basketball workout. He would eat
his second meal before lifting weights in the afternoon with a
personal strength coach. At 4 p.m. he trained with a master in
hopkido. "I did that for the mental discipline," Croshere says.
He showed up at camp this season 20 pounds heavier, at 242. He
won the job.
Croshere has added energy and athleticism to a team that had
been gasping for both. His averages through Sunday--10.3 points
and 6.4 rebounds in 22.9 minutes per game--compare favorably
with Davis's numbers in 1998-99, though Croshere lacks Davis's
burly defensive presence down low. Still, Croshere, 25, sees his
NBA future at power forward. "I think I can get bigger without
sacrificing my quickness," he says.
Croshere is one of six free agents the Pacers will either
re-sign or lose this summer--after replacing Bird, who's
retiring after the playoffs. Wherever Croshere lands, Bird
thinks his skills are best suited to small forward, based on
games like Indiana's 111-102 win over the visiting Rockets last
Friday. Croshere nailed two three-pointers and a spectacular
reverse dunk while equaling his career highs in points (22),
rebounds (13) and assists (three). "He needs to develop that
intermediate-range jumper, a little hook shot," Bird says.
"He'll figure it out because he works so hard. I guarantee you,
in two to three years he's going to be a great pro."
COLOR PHOTO: FRANK MCGRATH/NBA PHOTOS