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.