INDIANAPOLIS — Before every tip-off, the Indiana Pacers form a circle and jump in unison around a certain player who grimaces, shouts and waves his arms in an effort to create a motivating frenzy.
But this ritual isn’t led by All-Star center Roy Hibbert. Or budding All-Star Paul George. Or veteran power forward David West. Or any other starter, for that matter.
The man in the middle of it all is 6-foot-9 reserve forward/center Jeff Pendergraph. He never starts, doesn’t always play but is always the pre-game rallying point.
He not only embraces the role, he takes it quite seriously.
“I feel like I’m the motivational leader for the guys,” Pendergraph said before a recent home game. “I don’t just do that pregame huddle stuff for kicks and giggles. I really try to get everybody going all the time.”
And those around Pendergraph respond because he’s earned their respect with his energetic personality, work ethic and the adversity he’s overcome to earn a living in the NBA. Although he’s appeared in only 10 games this season, and played in just 20 last year, he provides a unique leadership quality the franchise finds indispensable.
“He’s one of the best locker-room guys I’ve ever been around, honestly,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “And that’s not just coach-speak.
“He’s got an incredible spirit and positive attitude, whether he’s playing or not.”
Pendergraph, who played at Arizona State at the college level, was selected with the first pick of the second round in the 2009 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings. His draft rights then were traded to the Portland Trail Blazers
Pendergraph’s rookie year in Portland, however, was disrupted by pre-season hip surgery, and he missed the first 27 games. He spent most of his first season getting back to speed while averaging 10.4 minutes per game.
He made a full recovery in time to score a career-high 23 points in the final regular-season game of his rookie year. With such a dominant performance, Pendergraph thought his future was bright in Portland.
But during the second
pre-season game of his second season, Pendergraph injured his right knee. Initially, doctors thought it was just a sprain, but an MRI later revealed a torn ACL. His season was over before it started.
“There were a couple of dark times where I didn’t think I was going to play basketball again,” he said. “I didn’t know if any teams would want to take a chance on me coming back from another injury.”
But he put his worries aside and embraced the rehab process, a grueling regimen based on mixed martial arts that healed his body, changed his mindset and altered his life.
“My confidence just started getting really high, and my faith got stronger,” Pendergraph said. “I started going to church, and a whole lot of things happened to help flip my outlook.
“I just got back to that underdog mentality.”
And it worked.
Signed by the Pacers before the 2011-12 season, he’s had a welcoming NBA home ever since.
“I was extremely excited,” Pendergraph said. “It was the best opportunity I had. What (former Pacers president) Larry Bird and (former general manager) David Morway were offering me was huge. I was really lucky and blessed to accept it.”