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'He was everything to us': Inside the night Pacers coaches wore custom hoodies to honor David Benner
The story of the special hoodies, shipped overnight to San Antonio and Pacers coach Rick Carlisle taking over an interview for a thoughtful perspective on DB.
It’s been an emotional last several days for the Indiana Pacers. They knew the day was coming, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
David Benner, the director of public relations for the last 28 seasons, passed away at 67 years old on Wednesday morning after a 13-year fight with cancer — which he beat twice before.
The team has been on the road for more than a week, part of a 10-day, four-game road trip with two stops in Texas. And in many ways, that’s a good thing.
In a time where so many of them are grieving the loss of their teammate, someone who had worked in the NBA longer than most of the players had been alive, they could all be together.
For Thursday’s game against the Spurs at the AT&T Center, head coach Rick Carlisle and members of his staff, plus a few others, wore gray hoodies with a photo of Benner on the front. It was the least they could do to remember their friend.
In true Benner fashion, it was a throwback photo.
Longtime team photographer Frank McGrath, who passed away almost two years ago, used to take individual headshots of each player and staff member at media day each fall. McGrath needed to test the lighting and backdrop so, Benner being Benner, put on a jersey to help.
Throughout the years, this photo kept resurfacing in the archives because everyone thought it was hilarious. An official team photo … with Benner in a Pacers jersey … and, wait, is that blonde hair?
So the hoodies with this photo on the front were originally ordered for April 3 of last season when the franchise celebrated Benner’s contributions — 28 seasons in media relations and eight more as a writer covering the team (1983-91) — at a home game.
But they didn’t arrive on time.
Benner’s PR team included Krissy Myers for 23 years and Wes Kaminski since 2013. Myers and Kaminski worked for months planning that special night, like Hall of Famer Reggie Miller and his oldest child, Ryker, surprising Benner at halfcourt during the pre-game ceremony.
Benner was stunned and moved to tears of joy. (Watch for yourself.)
Those hoodies arrived for the home finale, so Myers and Kaminski broke them out for the first time. And since, a box of them have been in Myers’ office at the St. Vincent Center in downtown Indianapolis.
After the Pacers announced on Wednesday that Benner had passed away, Kaminski, who is not on the road trip, sent whatever was left overnight via FedEx to the team hotel in San Antonio ahead of their game on Thursday.
And thankfully, this time they arrived as planned.
“Not just [Thursday] night, but for the past 48 hours, the outpouring of emails, calls, texts, everything that we’ve seen,” Myers said of what’s stood out. She was speaking by phone on Friday from Chicago, the final stop of their four-game road trip.
“We knew he was well-loved. I had no idea it was gonna be like this. It’s been absolutely amazing to hear from so many people.”
You got to love this line from Benner’s obituary. Those around the team, and especially local reporters, will nod their head in agreement.
David had a keen sense of humor that brought delight and laughter to everyone. He was a friend to all (except photographers who strayed from their courtside spaces and ESPN personalities who thought they were above the rules) and developed respectful and lasting relationships with local and national media as well his media relations colleagues in the NBA league office and other franchises.
About Those Hoodies…
Down in San Antonio, Myers only had about 10 of the custom hoodies. Not nearly enough for everyone who wanted to wear one, so they shared.
A few players wanted to wear them for the walk out of the hotel and into the arena. Those moments are always photographed by the team and then shared on social media.
However, because of the changeover in the roster over the last year or so, only a few knew Benner well. George Hill, Myles Turner and T.J. McConnell.
Tyrese Haliburton and Buddy Hield have been Pacers for barely 13 months, but it’s notable that Haliburton was one of the players to request a hoodie. This is another picture-perfect example — pun intended — of how Haliburton gets it.
He’s the star of the team. He’s the face of the franchise. Fans watch his every move closely and players follow his lead. The fact that he wore this hoodie, not just for the walk-in but also on the bench at the game (since he was sidelined with an injury), speaks volume about his character.
And while this is just Carlisle's second season as Pacers head coach, it's his third stint with the team. So he overlapped with Benner during the 1997-2000 seasons while an assistant on Larry Bird’s staff, and then again from 2003-07 as head coach.
"I have lost a friend," Bird said this week (via the team). "David was great to work with and he will be greatly missed by all of us. My condolences to David's family.”
One of my favorite things to watch in his return to Indiana is Carlisle understanding the moment. He understands when players need picked up or to be let loose. He gives proper credit when it’s due and he recognizes those who impact the franchise daily.
As Benner did.
So when Carlisle learned about the hoodies, he asked Myers if they had enough for the coaches to all wear one on the front of the bench during the game.
Indeed, they did.
“Watching the reaction to all this has been so great,” said Myers, the associate director of media relations who started with the franchise in 1999.
It gets even better, though.
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The players and staff learned about Benner’s passing during an 11:30 a.m. meeting in San Antonio, and in another example of Carlisle reading the situation, he brought several staff members to the front of the room to share their memories with the young team.
“A man of great integrity, a man that was fiercely loyal to the franchise,” Carlisle said of Benner. “He was a mentor, a father-figure, a great advisor. Personally, if I really think hard, I don’t know if I can think of anyone else that I’ve ever known that did so much for so many, and asked for such little in return. I think he’ll legacy will be as one of the all-time givers in the history of the Pacers organization.”
Later in the day, after answering questions during his regular pre-game press conference — 90 minutes before each road game — he did his usual interview with Jeremiah Johnson for the local Bally Sports Indiana broadcast. Carlisle was in control and he wanted this one to be different. To be special.
He grabbed the microphone from JJ and included Myers to speak about her close friend and longtime boss.
“It meant everything,” Myers said. “It was an absolute surprise to me. We had finished up media and he was getting ready to do his interview with JJ and said, ‘Oh, Krissy is gonna do this interview with me.’
“I said, ‘Krissy is going to what?’ And he said, ‘Come on, come on up.’
“Being able to speak about David was amazing to tell people what he meant to me, what he meant to our franchise. The opportunity was great.”
This has been a lot for Myers and others to process. As I wrote this week, it’s a giant loss to many — especially inside the franchise. Even in retirement, he regularly attended home games until the cancer returned.
Now, no longer will Myers be able to call or text Benner with a question, to run something by him or to simply check in on him. But the memories created and guidance she received for several decades will stick with her every day.
“Yeah, I’ve thought about it a lot,” she said, pausing to collect her thoughts.
“He was my voice of reason. We all know I can get a little fiery and feisty from time to time. He calmed me down and helped me come to a rational email or a rational text before I fired off what I actually wanted to say most of the time. I’ll miss that.
“More than that, though, I’ll miss his friendship. He was more than a friend. He was everything to us.”
The team will be holding a memorial service for him, at 11 a.m. on Wednesday in the entry pavilion at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. That’s fitting because he spent more than half his life with the Pacers — the franchise he grew up rooting for the most.
And once again, several staff members will likely be wearing those gray hoodies to honor and celebrate their friend and teammate gone too soon.