May 25th, 2012

It’s really too bad about the Pacers

It’s really too bad about the Indiana Pacers. They were never destined to win, but that never stopped me from secretly rooting for them. They were what I loved about basketball – sport by committee, team dynamics and clutch shooting. They were Rik Smits and Reggie Miller and Travis Best and Young Jermaine O’Neal. The Pacers used to be my team.

And then, they weren’t.

I’ve tried to frame my mental shift from Pacers fan to Celtics fan without looking too much like a bandwagoneer. I’ve probably failed in that regard. I’m still a bandwagon jumper, paternal history and Garnett-loyalty be damned.

But some things just bring you down so much it’s hard not to jump. For me, it just so happened to be the same thing that brought the Pacers down.

The Malice at the Palace

I don’t know what I was doing in Minneapolis, but I knew I had been drinking. Both Kerrie and I had been out. Celebrating, probably. Seeing some punk rock band. I have no idea.

All of us that night were basketball fans. We went back to our friends’ house in time to catch the end of Sportscenter.

The year before, the Pacers had lost to the eventual champion Pistons in six games, thus busting any hope for a Timberwolves/Pacers NBA Finals. (A Sam Cassell injury would bust the other side of that matchup.) We ended up with a Pistons/Lakers Finals. Good for ratings. Bad for the small guy.

The wounds were still fresh, but the Pacers had come out of the gates with a 6-2 record to begin the 2004-05 season. They were stacked. They were ready to win. They were better than any group in team history – even counting the 2000 NBA Finals team that lost to the Lakers in 6.

It was the night of November 19, 2004.

Their opponent: the world champion Pistons. They were in Detroit. And they blew the champions out. At home. Without question.

It was the biggest statement game of the season thus far.

And then.

And then…

One flagrant foul. One cocky small forward. One beer cup. One rush into the stands. One defensive roundhouse.

The Malice at the Palace had begun.

Adrift

For the next few weeks, I struggled to defend my team. “They were provoked,” I said. “Ben Wallace is a coward,” I said. But the brutality of the players and fans held tight. I remember the sudden clash of fan and professional, like a symphony performance gone wrong.

Ron Artest was suspended for the year. Half of the team was sent home for at least a few games. The season was a disaster. Despite a hot streak here and there, the Pacers struggled to gain home court advantage for the first round. They fought harder than they needed to, trying to salvage what was surely Reggie Miller’s last chance at an NBA title.

I still think of the separation between performer and spectator as a sacred wall of protection. But it’s a fallacy. There’s no fallacy that can keep an aggressor in his or her seat. There’s no fallacy that can protect a performer from his or her aggressors. That wall couldn’t protect Dimebag Darrell. That wall couldn’t protect John Lennon. These are people who died from behind the wall, so why should we expect a sports team to be free from that?

All this aside, what happened that day I wouldn’t realize until recently, when I read Grantland’s oral history of the Malice at the Palace. Nine years later, I was able to put my finger on what soured me on my favorite sport for four years, as I struggled through year after year of middling teams, my attention waning despite my usual loyalty. I had been a Dolphins fan for twelve years of disaster, why would four years of this Pacers disaster suddenly want to turn me away? Why would I take advantage of any opening to get out, completely open to the eventual turn toward my father’s team – the Celtics – and their run as champions?

Turns out, it was this. It was this fight.

It was the slap in the face that came with the fight. It was the lack of respect. It was the questions I’d have to answer as a diehard Pacers and basketball fan. The questions about the NBA’s thug nature. The direct correlation with the new dress code policies. The exodus of talent from Indiana. The focus on smart and marginally talented white kids. The inherent racism I’d encounter while trying to defend the aggresion of Ron Artest and Jermaine O’Neal and Stephen Jackson, and the response that came with it.

Turns out, in that year, when my favorite player of all time to that point was in his best position to win a title, when the Pacers were a juggernaught that no one could handle, when Ron Artest had put up his best year ever and was playing even harder than before, when Jermaine O’Neal was riding the thrill of being the #3 player in the league (behind All World PFs Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan), when everything should have ended up in a Finals berth and a 62-20 record, everything fell apart.

Because certain people couldn’t hold their fists. Becuase certain networks couldn’t understand the volitility in throwing young men into a court and threatening them. Because the crowd wouldn’t respect the sacred wall of protection.

Reconciliation

I was tired. Basketball was still my favorite sport, but I was tired. So tired.

The resurgence of the Celtics gave me not only an excuse to move, but helped me rediscover the game. I lost a lot with that fight. But I didn’t know it until I revisited it.

And now, I tend to forgive the Pacers. With Brad Miller retired, Reggie Miller announcing and Ron Artest stuck on an underachieving Lakers team, those early 2000s Pacers teams are distant memory. Now I see a Pacers team that is eerily similar to those “us against the world” teams – no real stars, just a bunch of above-average players fighting against the league’s superstar mentality.

I was destined to be a Celtics fan, my dad might say. But I was never long for downplaying my Pacers love. I was never going to forget the midwest; the cradle of basketball civilization; the home of Larry Bird and the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Who knows what would have happened if the Malice was a dream? A championship? A change in fortune? Or was this all really just predestined – if it wasn’t the fight, it would have been something else.

It’s really too bad about the Pacers. But, as always, there’s always next year.


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