Pacers look forward to seeing Frank Vogel back in Indy

Frank Vogel spent nine years in Indianapolis. He was just an anonymous assistant on Jim O’Brien’s staff during the first three and a half years.

Then, in late January of 2011, O’Brien had coached his last game for the team. Ejected in Chicago, in fact.

Pacers President turned to his young assistant. When he called Vogel to inform him of the decision and to ask if he’d be willing to take over, not only was O’Brien on that call, too, but he also pushed his mentee to take it.

So he did, and they fought like hell to make the postseason. And they did. They advanced further in the postseason in each of his first three seasons and then they reached the conference finals both in 2012-13 and 2013-14.

On that ride with Vogel from unknown to household name in the sports world was Paul George, who was drafted 10th overall in 2010. It was his rookie season when Vogel took over for the final 38 games.

During a Twitter Q&A several years ago with fans, George’s response to his favorite moment from his rookie year was Jim O’Brien getting canned. Vogel instilled belief in George, Roy Hibbert, and the entire team. It was exactly what they needed then.

When media called him an optimist, he said he was a realist. You just had to have faith.

When the Pacers’ starters take the floor Monday night against the Orlando Magic, they’ll see that familiar face on the opposite bench. It’s a figure nine of them played for last season.

Should George play — and he’s “hopeful” but officially questionable — after missing Saturday’s loss to the Celtics due to a left ankle sprain, he’ll likely head down to give his former coach a big hug.

Then, it’s on.

“It will great,” George said of Vogel’s first game back at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. “I’m sure it will be an emotional moment for himself and for our crowd. We’ve had our moment. It will become just a basketball game after we see each other.”

[Paul George thanks Frank Vogel, calls him ‘one of the most influential men’ in his life]

Vogel was 250-181 (.580) as Pacers head coach. They were playoff participants in every season except 2014-15, when George missed 76 games because of rehabilitation on his compound leg fracture. They missed it, however, by just one game.

On year later, once Nate McMillan, the 15th head coach in franchise history, was promoted to lead man, his first call was to Vogel. They talked for nearly an hour.

“He was really excited for me,” McMillan said after his introductory press conference. “I’ve heard that he endorsed me in that situation.”

[Vogel clarifies what went down with the Pacers]

Vogel liked what he had in Indy and once said “I want to coach here forever.” That was in August, 2014. It’s not very often that a player or coach gets to go out on their own terms.

He was, however, fully prepared to sit out this season, spend time with family and grow individually like Tom Thibodeau did this past year. But then the Magic (and several other teams) came calling, and the opportunity — and money, surely — intrigued him.

Vogel wanted to take some of his Pacers assistants with him to Orlando, where he’s making a reported $22 million over four years. That’s an average of $5.5 million annually, way more than he was or would have made if Bird had chosen to sign him to another extension.

But Dan Burke and Popeye Jones remained on staff in Indy. He did get Magic officials to sign shooter Damjan Rudež, and then he hired Dru Anthrop as a special assistant.

Monday in Indianapolis will have to be challenging for him. He would attend neighborhood parties and vacation with those same people. He coached his daughters’ youth soccer team. Heck, he would even call into the team’s postgame radio show, Pacers OT with Eddie White. He not only coached the Pacers, but he embraced being part of the community.

“I’m sure it’ll be emotional,” Vogel said (via Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel). “[I have] a lot of strong ties there still, a lot of great memories. It’s endless. [I spent] nine years there. My daughters were basically raised there. I became a head coach in the NBA there. Some of my best basketball moments of my life were coaching the Pacers.

“… I know I’ll be shaking a lot of hands and catching up with a lot of familiar faces. It’s going to be emotional. But, look, when we get out there, I’m going to be focused on one thing, and that’s getting a ‘W.’ “

It will certainly help that the Magic (4-6) are coming off easily their best win off the season at Oklahoma City.

George Hill, who the Pacers also moved on from in the offseason, was asked about Vogel’s upcoming return when Utah was in Orlando on Friday.

“For him at the moment, his heart is probably burning,” Hill said. “Just the way that the organization treated him towards his exit was very unfair. I think the guy did a phenomenal job. I think he deserved a little bit more respect than what he got. But that’s how they handled it. Vogel took it like a man and moved on. I’m just happy that he had another opportunity to come in and change another program around.”

McMillan expects fans to welcome him back to the city that was home, where he rose through the ranks and where his two daughters, Alexa and Arianna, grew up.

“I think they’re going to act positive to him,” he said. “Frank did a great job when he was here. I think the fan base pretty supportive of him. They should recognize and acknowledge what he has done.”

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