In the pre-tipoff hypeat Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the scoreboards used to display a video designed to arouse the passion of the assembled crowd. “In 49 states, it’s just basketball,” intoned the narrator. “But this is Indiana.”
Nice thought. If only it applied to the team it was meant to promote.
Our high-school basketball scene remains robust (if diluted by a much-maligned multi-class tournament). The pipeline of local talent is as full as ever (read: “Yogi” Ferrell). And with the resurgence of IU, the steadfast excellence of the Boilermakers, and the rise of Butler’s Bulldogs to big-time prominence, the college game continues to woo us. Yes, this is Indiana, and hoops do still hold a special place in our hearts.
But what about our pro basketball franchise? Don’t you remember? The one born here 45 years ago on little more than a few dollars and a big dream? The one that helped Indianapolis elbow its way into national consideration as a sports town by winning three ABA titles in a span of four years? The one whose success spurred the construction of Market Square Arena, the retro-classic Fieldhouse—regarded by many as the finest basketball venue in the country—and, ultimately, downtown revitalization? The one that brought home a favorite son named Larry Bird, who then, as head coach, led the team to the city’s first championship appearance in any of the major professional sports leagues? The one that, while the Colts languished in mediocrity, delivered all those priceless Miller Time moments, “Spiked” the big-city New York Knicks, and emboldened us to shed our Indy-feriority complex?
What about the Pacers?
Here’s what: On a cold November night in 2004—in Detroit, no less—it all went to hell. And it’s been hell getting back. When Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson charged into the stands at the Palace of Auburn Hills to assault spectators—inebriated, jeering spectators, but paying customers nonetheless—we saw a side of the team we didn’t like (and my brother works for the Pacers). When a few misfits engaged in gunplay outside a strip club during training camp and, later, near a downtown hotel, it began to seem as if high-profile defense attorney Jim Voyles was on speed dial for half the Pacers roster. The old flame flickered and blew out. In disgust, we dismissed the entire lot as “thugs.” There was little reason to bring back that lovin’ feeling, either. Reggie—dear, dear Reggie—retired. With the organization mired in expensive, multi-year contracts on ho-hum players, we suspected that the brain trust neither had brains nor could be trusted. When Bird promised he had a plan and asked for our patience, we yearned instead for the quick fix. We wondered if Larry was more lame than legend.
All the while, a quarterback from New Orleans was leading the Colts, who could barely sell out a game in the Pacers’ heyday, to the top of the mountain. The town bled blue while the blue-and-gold bled red ink—posting an operating loss of $12 million in 2006 alone, according to Forbes—and limped through five straight losing seasons between 2006 and 2011. The tables had turned so much, we half-expected the Colts’ marketing folks to unveil a pregame video of their own at Lucas Oil Stadium: In 49 states, it’s just football …
But the now-retired Bird, though roundly (and wrongly) criticized, never wavered from his plan: unload the big contracts and miscreants, draft smartly, keep the young talent (like center Roy Hibbert), shrewdly acquire bargain-priced up-and-comers (like guard George Hill), and replace the dour pessimism of head coach Jim O’Brien with the irrepressible optimism and winning smile of the youthful Frank Vogel. And he pulled it off. In 2011, the Pacers took a baby step, making their first postseason appearance in five seasons and finishing with a spirited first-round playoff performance against the dominant Chicago Bulls. And last season, a breakthrough: the third-best regular-season record in the Eastern Conference, capped by a hard-fought semifinal series against the eventual NBA champion, the Miami Heat. On ESPN The Magazine’s recent “Ultimate Standings” rundown of top professional sports franchises, the Pacers placed fourth—FOURTH—up from 48th the year before.
We’ve been slow to notice. The Pacers had the fifth-best record in the NBA last season. Yet they were next to last in attendance (and dead last the season before). The Fieldhouse—and, to an even greater extent, Market Square before it—used to be one of the NBA’s toughest stops for visiting teams.
It isn’t that now. Not even close. Sadly, the loudest home crowds the Pacers play for are Chicago fans who take over the building when the Bulls come to town.
We know, we know. All the games are on TV, and it’s easier to stay home and eat ice cream. (To their credit, the Pacers brass, at least, don’t threaten blackouts when they’re shy of a sellout.) We’re a small market and, more to the point, a small market with a disproportionate share of entertainment (especially sports entertainment) options. And the deflated economy is stretching discretionary dollars to the buzzer. Brother, it’s tough all over. But c’mon. At $10 apiece, the cheap seats at Bankers Life are just that. Pacers management was practically giving away playoff tickets at the end of last season.
And other than an occasional lapse in maturity (see Lance Stephenson, choke sign, Miami series), aren’t these Pacers what the fans who bailed on the team said they wanted to see? There’s an established, take-the-big-shot-damn-the-consequences star in Danny Granger; a vocal veteran leader/bruiser in David West (shades of the fan-favorite Davis boys of old—remember them?); a hometown boy made good in Broad Ripple grad Hill; and a budding phenom in the ultra-athletic Paul George. Over the summer, the front office made an expensive but necessary investment in Hibbert, a fun-loving, charitable antithesis to some of the bums who once wore the uniform. And, after his heart-breaking fling with the Knicks (how could you!), the front office regains Donnie Walsh, architect of the team’s glory decade of the 1990s, to work alongside dashing general manager Kevin Pritchard, one of the brightest young minds in the NBA.
What’s not to like about these guys? Maybe we are, at last, ready for another dance with the ones that brung us. But remember this, Pacers: We only get serious with winners. So you’d better keep us cheering if you want to take us home.
Photo by Tony Valainis
This article appeared in the November 2012 issue.
Bill Benner writes for Indianapolis Business Journal and handles communications for the Horizon League. He was a longtime sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. Follow him on Twitter @BillBenner.