Friday, May 4, 2012

It's Okay to be a Pacer Fan Again

Two years ago, Ron Artest hit an end-of-game three point shot to win the NBA Championship for the LA Lakers and proceeded to thank his therapist during his post-game interview. I shoved my head into my couch like a manic-depressive ostrich and decided once and for all there was no such thing as karma.

Ron Artest hit a clutch 3-pointer to win a ring. As far as I was concerned, that ring should have been Reggie Miller's. That moment reminded me of all the reasons I'd divorced myself from my team and made me wonder why I still watched the NBA at all.

Funny how time is so circular - Ron's currently suspended for committing violent acts during a game, and the Pacers are playing the Orlando Magic in the first round of the playoffs. One of the first NBA games I ever saw was Pacers versus Magic. That game was in Indianapolis, and it looked like everyone in the crowd was waving brooms. My dad explained to me it was because, if the Pacers won, they'd sweep a series for the first time in team history.

That was 1994, the moment I first realized Indianapolis had an NBA team.

That's when Pacers playoff games became must-see TV because of Reggie's dramatic buzzer beaters and the rivalry with the New York Knicks. We loved spending time with those guys. They were fun, they were exciting. You had to see it for yourself, you had to be a part of the last-second experience. Sometimes I wonder if Indy fans prefer winning when it's a little unexpected.

Indianapolis is not like New York, Philadelphia, or Boston. We don't tear apart our sports stars when they underachieve, it's not our style. We're not exactly harsh on fragile psyches. We're patient with losing, so long as the team plays hard and the players are good citizens. We like to think we're pretty friendly, but there are some things we just don't tolerate. What's become known as the "Malice in the Palace" fractured our relationship with the team, and for many fans, that rift still exists.

We didn't want to be associated with that sort of thuggery. We didn't condone it, we didn't like it. We were ashamed. The 'incident' happened in 2004. By 2005, the Colts were in the midst of their first Superbowl run, with Peyton chipping vigorously at the record books and getting his name on a children's hospital. The Pacers were shoved aside because the Colts were winning and because we loved the way they represented us. Indianapolis, once known as a basketball town, invested its fan energy into football. I'd been a pretty involved Pacer fan for nearly ten years. I didn't miss them.

Last year, the Pacers made the playoffs. If they hadn't been playing the Bulls, I probably wouldn't have noticed. I didn't watch, but I heard from the Chicago folks this new team was scrappy, a bunch of overachievers. It piqued my interest enough to start checking the scores and reading articles again. That's the sort of thing an Indy fanbase loves. That's the sort of thing that just might draw us back.

Last week, I watched my first Pacer game since 2004 - the last regular season game against the Bulls. Though the Pacers had earned the #3 seed in the playoffs, the Fieldhouse in Indianapolis was full of Chicago fans. It made me sad. Digging a little deeper, I found that they were having so much trouble selling playoff tickets that Colts players were giving them away.

Eight years later, the fanbase still hasn't come back. It's an entirely new team of entirely new players. I used to recognize each player's face, no need for a roster or jersey numbers. Now, I don't even know their names.

I think it's time to finally exorcise the Pacer brawl demons. It's time to move forward, to give these new guys a chance. In researching these kids, I learned something interesting - this team is kind of boring. There's no superstar, no attention seeker. They're the sort of guys who like bowling and video games and reading - who have college degrees in things like Economics and Civil Engineering. They play hard, they've kept their noses clean (for the most part).

They've been patiently waiting for us to notice.

In 2004 the Pacers betrayed the fanbase's trust. Over the last few years, it seems to me they've worked very hard to prove they want us back.

Let's give them a chance. I think these guys will be worth the risk.

[Click here for the "Get to Know Your 2012 Pacers" feature.]