Little Love In Indy For The Pacers

Paul George looks to the crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. (USA Today Sports Images)

Paul George looks to the crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. (USA Today Sports Images)

The toughest crowd in basketball isn’t the one that fills Madison Square Garden and yells for, and sometimes against, the Knicks. That’s one of those New York myths. Same for the Garden in Boston, which is rather tame. And the fans in Chicago. And Philadelphia faithful, with a rich and deserving history for being stressed and on edge, probably rate No. 2 on the list.

The hardest-to-please crowd lives in an otherwise family-friendly city known for its Midwestern hospitality and a laid-back vibe. It’s Indianapolis and Bankers Life Fieldhouse, home of the Pacers. Yeah, you’re shocked, too?

It’s the only place in the NBA where a team can win consistently, put an entertaining product on the floor, do wonderful deeds in the community and suit up the game’s next big star … and still be forced to beg folks to show up.

It’s a place where the Pacers can rip through a regular season and wrestle the division away from Chicago, and then grow plenty frustrated and angry when Bankers Life turns into United Center South on nights the Bulls are in town.

It’s the best basketball arena from a cosmetic standpoint and will be on the spot for the next few games of the Eastern Conference finals, where the Pacers suddenly own home-court advantage. That’s a lot different than feeling home court advantage, and the Pacers should know.

Is Indiana still drawing the line about paying to see a bunch of thugs, the local description of the Pacers not too long ago? Are fans still holding the Pacers accountable for what Ron Artest did in 2004 when he went Artest on a fan in Detroit and ruined basketball for six years? Are fans still clutching their children tightly and not letting them walk the downtown streets at dusk because Jamaal Tinsley and Stephen Jackson hit the clubs and a few club-goers? Are they still annoyed the Pacers once used a first-round pick on a tall and raw center from Georgetown who was clumsy and clueless?

Can someone give Indiana this update: Artest is half a country away, Tinsley and Jackson are out of basketball, the Pacers now walk little old ladies across the street and Roy Hibbert could soon be the best center in basketball. And tell them if they don’t want to appreciate Paul George live and in person, then 29 other cities gladly would.

It’s embarrassing or maybe disappointing how the Pacers can’t fill their building despite having the fourth-cheapest overall ticket prices in the NBA. This is Indiana, birthplace of John Wooden and Larry Bird, high school home of Oscar Robertson, where Hickory High went Hollywood, where you might get evicted from your own home if you don’t have a hoop in your driveway. This is supposed to be basketball heaven. This place throws its weight behind Butler, the Pacers of the NCAA. Don’t they appreciate hard work and character in Indiana, which is what the Pacers are all about?

The Pacers were 25th out of 30 in home attendance. They sold 84.1 percent of the building; only nine teams did less, percentage-wise. And this marked a significant improvement. Last year they were next to last in attendance and the year before, dead last. And sometimes even when they sell all the seats, scores of fans don’t even bother to show up to fill them. In the Knicks series, there were sections in the upper reaches where Hibbert could stretch out and not touch anyone.

Earlier this year Pacers guard George Hill, who was born and raised in Indy and went to school at IUPUI, vented at the lack of respect, especially how “fans show up when we play marquee teams but they show up wearing the marquee team’s clothes.”

The organization, biting its tongue, has always taken a more tactful response but clearly, the franchise is frustrated. The Pacers exterminated all the bad apples, drafted wisely, made a few free agent signings at significant cost for a small-market team and then matched a $60 million offer sheet last summer to retain Hibbert. The Pacers are committed to winning and taking fewer risks with players — Lance Stephenson was an exception, and he’s turning out well — but the city hasn’t returned the favor.

It’s one thing to fill the house when the Lakers are in town and the playoffs begin, quite another to show up in February when the Bobcats show up. It’s why the Pacers are always mentioned whenever there’s talk about what teams might pack up and leave someday, although owner Herb Simon would never do it. If he did, he’d have every reason to see how the Pacers would go over in Seattle.

It’s not like Indianapolis is loaded with multiple entertainment options, and while it’s a Colts town, there should be enough room for a team that charges considerably less, plays the state sport and will stun the NBA if the Pacers protect the home court for Games 3 and 4.

“We’re ready to go home and play in front of our fans and see what happens,” said George.

He should be careful. If a large and loud gathering of Heat fans get tickets and make themselves heard, that would be tougher to accept than losing to the Heat. While everyone knows about Indiana’s famous link to basketball and what it means to the state, Miami doesn’t even care about basketball. Miami is into being trendy. Miami just likes to see and be seen.

Yes, losing to LeBron James is understandable. But losing to fans from Miami wearing LeBron jerseys? Unforgivable.

7 thoughts on “Little Love In Indy For The Pacers

  1. Interesting article. As a resident of Indiana for most of my life allow me to share why the Pacers struggle to fill the seats. The NBA is a distant third in terms of what our basketball crazy inhabitants fill their time with. High school gyms are filled every night for JV and Varsity games. Second on the priority list is the college game. Now that the Hoosiers are relevant again, they will suck up even more attention.

    We prefer to watch both teams give it there all night in and night out on the basketball floor. Not just in the playoffs. Let me clarify this statement a bit more. The current Pacers team certainly has worked hard all year, but you can’t deny the intensity level of the overall game changes in the NBA during the playoffs.

    • ” High school gyms are filled every night for JV and Varsity games.”
      This is the great Hoosier myth, and it is at least 50 years out of date. Yes, in small towns that had little to offer in the way of entertainment, Friday night basketball games were the thing to do. But in an era of endless entertainment options, after countless communities have had their schools consolidated out of existence, and when students are more interested in social media than real-life experiences, there is no reality in that statement. Just watch the sports segments on local TV. Empty gym after empty gym, even with large, traditional rivalries. And Butler will never set any attendance records. No, Indiana is no longer the center of the basketball universe.

  2. Not too hard to see that a basketball purist state like Indiana might reject today’s NBA.

  3. Well if you don’t want the Pacers Seattle would be happy to take them off your hands.

  4. Yes.. Most of what you said is true. I live in Indy and have for 20 plus years. This was a Pacer town till the brawl. Pacers had been getting arrested with Regularity before the Brawl but that night was the straw that broke the camels back. That season the Pacers were odds on favorite to win the title . Magic picked them before the season started as the Champions. Hindsight it was a great collection of players. Reggie Miller, Tinsley, Artest, Stephan Jackson, Derrick Mckie, Jermaine Oneal. The problem was they could not stay out of trouble. Someone was getting arrested once a week. The brawl brought down the whole city. It ruined the season and people in this state have long memories. They forget the good things but will remember for a long time anything negative especially if it makes Indiana or Indianapolis look bad. The Pacers shipped off everyone. The fandom is coming back but it is slow going. People do not want to get burned at the same time. I think there are three other factors you neglected to mention. The Economy went in the crapper in 2007-8? People here only have so much disposable money. The owners of the Pacers ( Simons) have routinely held Indianapolis hostage demanding 30 million a year from the city for upkeep etc.. The fact they are billionaires and are bitching and crying over a relatively small amount of money does not sit well with fans here. Thirdly.. The Colts have gone from being a terrible team to having had two Super Bowl appearances since the Brawl. This is a Colts town now. The Pacers have to earn their way back into people’s hearts. When I first moved here this was an IU state. If IU was playing it was a ghost town. The Pacers had it for awhile. Now the Colts are the BMOC.

    • I forgot to add as far as I know Tinsley played all of last season with the Utah Jazz. I am not sure he is ” out of the league”. Stephan Jackson can be a good player but he is such an incredible pain in the ass that no one wants him. It’s a bad sign when you go back to the team you started with (Spurs) and they outright release you in March. He is talented enough he could help a team even a playoff team yet no one will touch him with a ten foot pole.

  5. Watch the bandwagon fill up if they beat Miami,an entirely possible situation.