It started a joke during a phone conversation between two friends. It became a last resort. And finally it became the vehicle which saved a basketball team.

The idea of holding a telethon to raise money to save a basketball franchise was unique to say the least. But on July 3-4 during a 16 1/2-hour telethon, the Indiana Pacers sold more than 2,500 season tickets and raised an additional $30,000 toward the purchase of more season tickets.

The 2,500 tickets put the Pacers over the magic 9,000 mark. That was the figure that a group of outside investors said would convince them they should invest $750,000 in the club.

With that $750,000 as working capital, the Pacers now expect to receive permission from the Securities Exchange Commission to sell 60 units at $50,000 each of limited partnerships in the franchise.

That money will give the Pacers enough to pay off the liabilities they incurred when the ABA folded and the four teams which entered the NBA had to pay off the liabilities of the franchises that folded.

"Our NBA entry fee itself ($3.2 million) was never the problem." Pacer coach and general manager Bobby Lenonard explained. The problem was the money it cost us when the merger came aboutand the ABA folded. That's what was killing us."

The Pacers were so near death that only a $100,000 contribution from local businessmen enabled them to meet their payroll in May. It was soon after that crisis that the telethon idea came up.

It was the brainchild of Elmer Snow, general manager of WTTV in Indianapolis, the station which televises Pacer games.

Snow was discussing the situation with John Jewett, the man coordinating the Pacers' one-month (June) drive to sell 8,000 season tickets.

"Hell, if you want me too, I'll even hold a telethon if it'll help," Snow told Jewett. The two laughed at the time.

Three weeks later Pacer officials were on the phone asking Snow to set up the telethon. Time was running out fast. Another payroll was coming up and the new investors' deadline was fast approaching.

"When they called I told them there was no way we could set the thing up in a week," Snow said. "But we all realized it had to be done because at that point it was the ONLY way to save the franchise.

"Organizing the thing was difficult to say the least but the support we got was terrific. Two other local stations agreed to simulcast the telethon and we contributed the time of our people."

Somehow the effort got organized. Most of the talent was local and at times confusion reigned. But with former players Roger Brown, Mel Daniels, Freddie Lewis and Billy Keller, the heart of the Pacers' three ABA championship teams, plus the members of the current team lending a hand, the project worked. Leonard remained throughout.

"It was an incredible experience. By the time we got near the end we must have had close to 2,000 people in a 1,000-seat hall," Leonard said. "Near the end when I realized we were going to make it, it was like the end of a championship game that goes right down to the wire.

"All of a sudden you get a couple of quick ones and you know you've got it. It's an extremely emotional experience. I think all of us were drained. The combination of pressure and emotion really added up."

One Pacer official said that Leonard treated the telethonlike a ball game. "He was the coach throughout the whole thing," she said. "One minute he had the mike, the next he was out talking to people and then he worked the phones. He never stopped going."

"We didn't want to lose the Pacers," Snow said. "Having them here is good for local business, but beyond that we like to think we're a major league city. We didn't want to lose our one major league team in Indianapolis."

"I guess," Leonard concluded, "it took a slightly hick concept ot keep us major league."