Courtesy Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis Recorder Collection
October 29, 1983, opening night of the Pacers home season that year, was billed by one local newspaper as the most spectacular season opener in NBA history. The Pacers, coming off a last-place finish in their division, faced the league’s defending champions, the Philadelphia 76ers and their three future Hall of Famers: Julius Erving, Moses Malone, and Maurice Cheeks.
The moribund Pacers needed some excitement, and new hire Kathy Jordan and her colleagues were hoping to breathe new life into the franchise with some creative promotions. One surprise in store for fans was an NBA first: male cheerleaders.
At the collegiate level, coed cheer squads are the norm, so Jordan, a former Purdue cheerleader, thought it would be fun to bring the concept to the NBA. “Back then there was a negative stigma to guys being cheerleaders, so we had to really recruit to find men,” says Jordan, who went on to work for the Pacers for 25 years. Tryouts were held, and four men were hired at a rate of $25 and two free tickets per game. The team’s mascot, Hoop T. Dunker, wore a lion’s costume, so the guys were called the Pacer Pride.
The Pacers lost the game in overtime, and went on to another last-place finish that season. But fans enjoyed seeing the Pacer Pride hurling the Pacemates through the air, and the squad endured for several more years. Rossi Mills, now the cheerleading coach and PE instructor at North Central High School, is a former Pacer Pride member who has fond memories of the group dressing up like zombies for a routine based on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. Mills was a cheerleader at Indiana State University, where he met his ex-wife on the squad.
“Cheerleading has a stereotype of effeminate guys, but 85 percent were ex-athletes,” he says. “A lot of them got into it so (they) could have a ringside seat to the games, and hook up with or at least get to know some of the cheerleaders.”
Though Mills moved on from the Pacer Pride after just one season, his daughter, Sierra, later became a Pacemate. She says that a man recently tried out for the squad but wasn’t selected. Jordan’s coed cheerleading idea may have been ahead of its time—or a preview of coming attractions. “Who knows,” she says, “everything retro comes back eventually, right?”