INDIANAPOLIS – The first time it happened in secret, under the table, when Vern Fleming came to town and walked inside Market Square Arena.
The front office was not to be comingling with Indiana Pacers players, especially women in the front office. There was still that stereotype surrounding women in sports in the 1980s, said Kathy Jordan.
But Jordan was torn. She knew that Fleming needed her. She knew a lot of these players needed her. She knew what it was like to come to a city and feel alone.
Just years before, Jordan had been married to an NBA player and she hated it. Newly- planted in Cleveland where her then-husband Walter Jordan had been drafted by the Cavaliers, Jordan felt lost.
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She showed up to an apartment that had no furniture, no curtains and Jordan had no idea how she could ever call this place home.
She had no idea where a good place to eat might be. She had no idea where she would get her hair done. Where were the best places to shop? Who was the best financial planner in town? There was no internet then.
“And no one helped us,” Jordan said. “No one showed us anything.”
Jordan didn’t care to stick around. She moved back to Indianapolis, the city where she’d been born and raised. She worked for her of her brother of hers Rev. Charles Williams at Indiana Black Expo.
Three years later, she landed a position with the Pacers as a promotions assistant. And months after that, Fleming came to town, the 1984 first round draft pick by the Pacers.
Jordan decided she didn’t care about the rules. She went straight to Fleming. And she asked him what she could do to help.
‘No one really helping these guys’
Jordan looked at Fleming and she saw his wife and young son he had brought with him. Jordan started thinking about her days of hers in Cleveland.
“Being on that other side,” she said, “I kind of saw that there was no one really helping these guys.”
Jordan began showing Fleming and his wife around neighborhoods. They were from New York, so it was a culture shock. She showed them the best schools and the best restaurants. She helped Fleming’s wife find a hair salon.
What Jordan did for Fleming quickly turned to helping other players – Chuck Person, Reggie Miller, Rik Smits, Dale and Antonio Davis.
And for 25 years, Jordan was mentor, confidante and adviser to Pacers players. She helped players in too many ways to count.
Jordan did everything from helping them decide whether to rent or buy to helping them find a financial planner. She put a makeshift library in the locker room, leaving books for players to read. She guided them as they started foundations and even gave Miller his broadcasting debut.
What Jordan started in 1984 was noticed by the league. And as the years went on, other NBA teams started doing exactly what Jordan was doing for her players.
“She blazed a trail for this role,” said Karen Atkeson, Pacers vice president of player relations, the modern iteration of Jordan’s former job. “And now, every single NBA team has a Kathy Jordan.”
‘I thought he was going to fire me’
After Jordan helped Fleming, other players started coming up to him. “How did you do this? How did you do that?”
“And he was like, ‘That girl in the office,'” Jordan said. “So they kind of knew it on the basketball side but, in the front office, they didn’t know what I was doing.”
Or so Jordan thought.
Donnie Walsh was a Pacers assistant coach when Jordan began mentoring players. A few years later, Walsh became the general manager.
That’s when he called Jordan into his office and told her: “I know what you’ve been doing to help the players.”
“I thought he was going to fire me,” Jordan said. “I said, ‘Should I pack up my stuff?'”
It was quite the opposite. Walsh had seen how much what Jordan had been doing helped the players, not having to worry about life off the court. Walsh wanted her to keep doing it – and make it even bigger. Walsh made the position an official one with the team.
In those early days, Jordan said, there was no title. She was kind of like a welcome wagon. “Just trying to acclimate them to the city, to this strange place where they knew no one, had no relatives, no friends.”
But as years went on, players started asking Jordan for advice, about everything from buying a house to an invention they wanted to market. Jordan started helping players with life skills.
“I tried to get them independent,” she said. “‘Yes, you need a financial adviser, but you also need to know how to read your own bank statement and balance sheet.'”
Soon, her position with the Pacers became known as athlete development. And it snowballed into connecting players to real estate agents, setting them up to audit college classes, talking about the importance of giving back to the community and understanding what the future might hold.
A future that might not include basketball.
‘Someone to look out for them’
Jordan said the same thing to every player she worked with: “This isn’t going to last forever. You need to start thinking about life after basketball.”
She talked about how they needed to be prepared. They might have a lot of money now. They might think they could never be one of those players who ended up broke or cut from the league, but it could happen.
Jordan brought in former NBA players, some who’d had success after their playing days, some who had not. She wanted her players to see both sides.
She asked each player what their passions were, what they would be doing if not basketball. She tried to get them started on, or at least thinking about, a second career.
Miller was one of Jordan’s biggest success stories (though she has many). As a young Pacers player, Miller told Jordan he was interested in broadcasting. She came up with an idea – a teen talk show.
At first, Jordan was going to have a different player host the show each week. But Miller was so curious about the world of broadcasting, he became the sole host.
“It was Oprah for teenagers,” Jordan said. There was a live audience at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis where Miller hosted the show for three years. He then moved on to “The Reggie Miller Show” on WRTV and, after retiring from the Pacers in 2005, became an NBA analyst on TNT.
With Jordan’s guidance, Person started a show, too, where he interviewed opposing players in town to take on the Pacers.
She set up internships with EA Sports for players interested in video games. She set up shadowing trips. Many players were interested in movies, recording and rap music. She hooked them up with people in the business.
In her role, Jordan knew her players just about as well as anyone on the team. She knew their personalities and their quirks.
“I could pretty much look at somebody and know something was going on with them,” she said. Jordan would pull them aside. “Hey, what’s going on? Is there something I can help with?”
Most of the time, they would open up and share what they were going through with Jordan. She would do what she could to help, or connect them with resources.
“That’s all they needed,” she said. “Just someone to look out for them.”
‘It became this thing. Now it’s huge ‘
More than a decade after Jordan started helping Pacers players, NBA commissioner David Stern heard about what she was doing.
During the lockout of 1995-96, as other team’s players left their cities, the Pacers players stuck around. They were out in the community, putting on basketball camps, meeting people.
Newspapers around the country reported on the Pacers’ lockout activities. Stern called Walsh.
“He’s like ‘What are you doing? Other teams aren’t doing this. Why are your players doing this?'” Jordan said. “Donnie’s like, ‘I don’t know. Talk to her.'”
Jordan told Stern that through her years mentoring the Pacers, she had encouraged players to do something bigger than themselves, to get out and meet the city that rooted for them.
“Common sense to me is if they like you, they will come,” she said. “But to like you, they’ve got to know you.”
Jordan created a Pacers calendar, a ripoff of the Playboy calendar. She took the players off the court and photographed them, Fleming at a pool hall, Miller reading a book. She asked them what their hobbies were, what they liked and didn’t like and printed it up.
“The league thought that was the best thing since sliced bread,” Jordan said. “They wrote me up in the NBA magazine about it.”
Stern asked Jordan to do a presentation to the league on building relationships with players. Then, he asked her to do another presentation.
Not long after, the NBA launched a pilot program based on what Jordan was doing. It included five teams, the Pacers, the Chicago Bulls, the Golden State Warriors, the LA Clippers and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
What Jordan was doing grew from there. But not just in the NBA. The NFL picked up on the trend, starting a player engagement program. Major league baseball and soccer and colleges joined in.
“So it just became this thing,” Jordan said. “And now it’s huge.”
A talk over lunch or dinner
It didn’t necessarily feel like it, at the time, that she was doing something so impactful.
“I look back at stuff now and go, ‘Yeah, I did this,'” said Jordan. “‘Yeah, I was the first to do this or that in the league.'”
Jordan was allowed to go on the team plane. She would usually sit with the rookies and they would talk about what was going on with their lives. Once they landed, Jordan would take players to lunch or dinner before the game.
It was a perfect time, away from their family, to find out what they needed.
Forty years later, Atkeson does the exact same thing.
“Essentially, we help them with everything off the court, besides media requests,” Atkeson said during a recent Pacers trip to Orlando. “Moving, getting situated, helping their families. Just anything they need so they can focus on basketball.”
Atkeson’s department of three helps players who need to get driver’s licenses. They set them up with real estate agents, find schools, churches and entertainment.
Like Jordan, Atkeson will ask a player for lunch to talk, not about on court stuff but about life.
“We are the main contact between the player side and the business side,” Atkeson said. “In my opinion, if this department weren’t here, it would be total chaos.”
If the department Jordan created didn’t exist, Atkeson said, players would be lost.
‘She created this herself’
Jordan retired in 2008, but players have not forgotten her. She still gets calls from former Pacers.
“It’s when they get a little older and go, ‘Oh, I remember what you said,'” Jordan said. “You just talk to them until you’re blue in the face, just keep repeating it and repeating it and, one day, they hear it. One day, it makes sense to them and it’s relevant.”
And when those players call, Jordan is there for them, like she always has been.
Jordan had a passion and Ray Compton saw it 40 years ago. He was in charge of marketing for the Pacers when the Simons bought the franchise and wanted to expand the department.
Jordan came in for an interview and there was something about her, Compton said.
He hired Jordan as promotions assistant but, as the NBA world knows now, she expanded her role into something much more.
“She created this herself because she had this passion for the players and being a guide for them,” Compton said. “She just really wanted to make a difference for them.”
Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her by email: email@example.com.