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On the giant loss of David Benner, the Pacers' longtime media relations director
The Indiana Pacers lost a piece of its fabric on Wednesday. Benner was in his first year of his retirement after 28 seasons with the team.
David Benner is already missed.
He’s been missed all season, his first away from team after 28 seasons.
This was supposed to be the start of a new chapter, one away from basketball and filled with time on the golf course, attending NASCAR races and even more Dave Matthews Band concerts.
However, cancer would just not go away for good.
Benner, a lifelong Hoosier who spent more than half his life around the franchise he loved, passed away Wednesday morning at 67 years old. He had moved into hospice care early last month.
It’s a very sad day for his Pacers family. And for his wife, Jane, his older brother, Bill, and the rest of the Benner family.
It’s difficult to discuss the Pacers over the last three decades without bringing up DB, who had become part of the team’s soul. He was always there and loved the franchise.
The photo above captured him well. Serious, yet cooking up a smart-ass remark.
What is it this time…
You knew it was coming.
That’s who he was. Always quick with a response and inevitably giving you a hard time. Like when local TV sports reporters arrived at practice, they were typically met with Benner saying, “Oh, the Colts must be off today.”
There was always some snark. And some truth behind it. He was the Pacers’ biggest advocate and wasn’t asking for special coverage, just fair coverage.
From 1994-2022, Benner was the director of media relations for the Indiana Pacers. In that role, he served as the middle man between media and the team. He would craft press releases, advise players and coaches on what to say, handle credential requests, fascinate interview requests and much more.
He switched from the dark side to media relations after 16 years as a sportswriter at the Indianapolis Star. That included eight seasons covering about the Pacers, plus stints covering Notre Dame, IU and high schools.
The biggest challenge for him initially: learning how to tie a tie. The dress code for the Pacers was a shirt and tie. Every day.
Five years ago, back in 2018, I saw down with Benner in a conference room at the practice facility to record a podcast about him and his role.
We touched on everything, from being a basketball manager at Center Grove High School to getting into journalism, working for the newspaper and then leading the Pacers media relations department. Plus, the challenges faced in today’s media landscape. So if you want to get to know him better, listen to his podcast appearance.
Benner, by the way, was notoriously not a fan of podcasts. It was one area he always pushed back on because he was not going to make players available for podcast interviews during the season.
I tried to express how fans want to know the players better, get to know them off the court. And once they do, they feel more connected to the group. A more connected fan leads to a more engaged fan base.
Benner’s first year covering the Pacers was in 1983, the first year the Simon brothers owned the team. He always spoke glowingly about Herb and Mel, about longtime Pacers executives Donnie Walsh, Larry Bird and others.
Among the lessons he learned from Walsh: No confirmation on a deal until it’s signed. Because only then is it official.
“Always remember,” Walsh told him, “there are lawyers involved. And until the thing is signed on the dotted line, it hasn’t happened.”
So if there was news out there, like a coaching change or free-agent signing, Benner would not confirm it. He always joked “that’s above my pay grade, you probably know more than me and that there would be announcement if there needed to be one.”
“The other thing media doesn’t always get is how hard it is to win. And you get in the playoffs, it’s hard to win a game, it’s hard to win a series, it’s hard to win another series.
“Back when I covered the team, I thought I knew everything that was going on. Then I came and worked for the team and I didn’t know anything.”
Under his leadership, the Pacers media relations trio — which also included Krissy Myers and Wes Kaminski — twice received the Brian McIntyre Media Relations Award, voted on by the Pro Basketball Writers Association, for the media relations staff that best exemplifies standards of professionalism and excellence.
After home games, he was always sure to walk around the media room to see if visiting writers needed anything. And to offer them a cold beer.
Benner often repeated to media folks how he didn’t mind that they had an opinion, he just wanted for it to be an educated opinion.
At a few home games each season, Benner welcomed several groups of college journalism students. He gave them what was often their first experience in covering a professional sports team. They would be credentialed, sit in on the pregame and postgame press conferences and then file their stories from the media room.
He used to be that student at Indiana University. He understood what it meant for them to have that opportunity and be exposed to the real world.
For nearly three decades, he worked with hundreds of players and eight head coaches: Larry Brown, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Rick Carlisle (2x), Jim O'Brien, Frank Vogel, Nate McMillan and Nate Bjorkgren.
Among his favorite players to work with: Reggie Miller, Dale Davis, Sam Perkins, Travis Best, Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and David Harrison.
There were only three players he did not enjoy in all his years.
Benner, like longtime radio play-by-play announcer Mark Boyle, enjoyed a good cigar. So years ago, they started including a box of cigar for each on the unofficial list of rookie duties. And in all the years of doing that, just one player refused to participate. Benner never wanted to out him, but I was told it was Ben Hansbrough.
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This was supposed to be his first full year of retirement after 28 seasons with the team. He enjoyed mentioning several times how he was in bed by the time Carlisle met with reporters after games.
Benner attended at least a half-dozen games this season and enjoyed catching up with friends on both teams. In mid-December, he was thrilled to see Warriors coach Steve Kerr again.
That was the last time I saw him in person. He seemed to be doing well, but you never knew for sure. “Doing well, thanks for asking,” he’d said. Never too much, unwilling to reveal exactly how he was feeling even when you pushed for an update.
That was DB. Only a softy in certain moments, like when Reggie surprised him at a game last April. He had no idea and was moved to tears.
While I don’t like it, it’s fitting that in our last in-person conversation, Benner was eager to help. He was advising me on how to handle a coverage situation I’ve had this season. And right away, he responded with a quick line: “Boy, I’m glad to be gone,” he said with a smirk.
See, I had known him since 2005 when I began as a Pacers ball boy. And then I got to know him much better in 2012, when I became a full-time beat writer. He had to put up with me daily then.
Yet no matter where my writing lived — Pacers.com, on my own venture or on The Athletic — he treated me the same.
Always guarded and protective of the team, DB always appreciated the coverage. He didn’t take it for granted. Being a former sportswriter, he understood there was a job to be done. All he asked was that it was fair.
And he would always get back to you.
I’m usually behind the camera taking photos and videos of the team for my coverage. But I’m very glad I asked for this photo after the final home game of the 2021-22 season, outside the media relations office named in his honor at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
For the 2021-22 season, his last with the team, he wanted to make the most of it. Call it his farewell tour — because he did. He was recognized by other teams as he traveled around with the Pacers for one last ride together.
He attended most road games and made a point at each stop to take a photo with someone who meant a lot on his journey. Figures like Frank Vogel, Nate McMillan, Brad Stevens, Mark Cuban, Paul George, James Jones, official Zach Zarba and many more.
At one home game, he wanted a photo with Bad Boy Rick Mahorn. (I was happy to capture that moment.)
In 2019, cancer came back for a second time. And then he beat it while getting quality care at Franciscan Health. But that damn cancer would not stay away, returning again months ago.
I miss calling his voicemail each day to get the practice time. Yes… every day, he would record a new voicemail at the office with the updated media availability. “Hi this is David Benner in media relations…” is permanently stuck in my head.
I miss those serious conversations with DB, how he started as a sportswriter and knew what the job entailed. Positive or negative, just be fair.
I miss seeing him smile knowing he was skipping on the road trip to New York because that was tough, hectic and mostly filled with completing dozens of ticket requests for players. And don’t get him started on All-Star weekend.
I miss seeing him have to physically stop players after practice to talk with reporters. Especially George Hill, who would sneak around him or take alternative routes back to the locker room to slip past DB.
“It’s always a running gag,” Benner said. “I threatened to break his legs during the conference finals. I always told George I have one wife at home, I don’t need another wife here. But we had a great relationship. I think that was part of the relationship, George would try to see how far he could push my buttons and a couple times he pushed them pretty far.”
And I miss seeing him swivel in the locker room chairs waiting for us to complete player interviews after games.
I hate that he didn’t get to enjoy retirement, that he won’t get to play another round of golf or attend another NASCAR race. And how he won't get to enjoy seeing Indy shine bright when the city — his city — hosts the 2024 NBA All-Star game.
I hate that with George Hill brought back for a second stint, Benner won’t get to see him, chase him around the facility and then give him a big bear hug.
That was their game.
Like you said, DB, farewell to you and all your contributions to the Indiana Pacers. Now go enjoy a cold refreshment with Slick. And keep an eye on us.
UPDATE: March 3
The Pacers will be hosting a public memorial service to celebrate Benner on Wednesday, March 8 at 11 a.m. in the entry pavilion at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
Memorial contributions can be made in his name to any of the following organizations:
Indianapolis Animal Care and Control Foundation
7399 North Shadeland Avenue, Suite 117
Indianapolis, IN 46250
Humane Society of Johnson County Indiana
3827 North Graham Road
Franklin, IN 46131
Franciscan Health Foundation
8778 Madison Avenue, Suite 100
Indianapolis, IN 46227