I prefer to maintain my anonymity as I contribute here at Indy Cornrows. It is for this reason that, rather than divulging my full name, I choose to abbreviate my first name with the letter "C." Instead of somehow being judged with regard to my person, I, typically, enjoy the simple pleasure of being able to exchange thoughts and ideas with readers based upon nothing else but the content of my writing and the intense feelings and opinions of diehard fans. That being said, with the disappointing outcome of Game 5 still looming and elimination in Game 6 appearing more and more like a very real possibility; it seems like an appropriate time to shed my guarded exterior and share a more personal experience as a Pacer fan growing up in Indiana.
I was still a student during the aftermath of Malice at the Palace, and, as may have been the case with some readers, it was not always easy to defend my desire to remain a "fan" of a much maligned Pacer team. Oftentimes, I was chided for continuing to root for a team that had so many players more famous for their off-the-court illegal activities than their on-court performance.
As the years mired in mediocrity wore on, Indiana, at least in my corner of the state, definitely remained a basketball state, but not a professional basketball state. As the Pacers languished in the lottery, more and more individuals, who once would have chosen to don the garb of the Blue and Gold, opted more for a collegiate look. Instead of spending their hard earned money at Conseco/Bankers Life Fieldhouse, they went to Assembly Hall, Mackey Arena, and Hinkle Fieldhouse. As for those that continued to follow the NBA, some remained fiercely loyal fans of the Pacers, but others quietly anticipated travelling to Indianapolis for no other reason than to see their favorite stars from other squads.
Yes, for the franchise and the fans here locally, healing from the Pacers-Pistons brawl was slow going. Though not fail proof, almost every problem that plagued the Pacers' franchise over the past decade can in some way be, directly or indirectly, traced to The Brawl. For evidence of this theory, look no further than the team's drop in attendance. As recent as the 2010-2011 season, the Pacers ranked dead last in the league in terms of ticket sales.
In his role as President of Basketball Operations, Larry Bird attempted to remedy what ailed his hometown team by intentionally searching for players to fill out his roster that he believed possessed high character in addition to talent. Remaking the Pacers into a contender, not unlike any other NBA franchise, was a long-term vision, but attracting fans to come back to Indianapolis to watch Indiana's game needed to be a daily labor of love.
Consequently, it can be argued that the team that Larry built has been delegated a burden that no other team in the league can exactly understand. When donning the Blue and Gold, players are tasked with far more than just concerning themselves with their own brand, team marketing, or even winning, they have been commissioned to win back the hearts and minds of Indiana.
Slowly but surely, this version of the Pacers has gone above and beyond to embrace their calling. Roy Hibbert, George Hill, and Paul George graciously created Area 55 and the G2 Zone as a means to bring enthusiasm and fandom back to Bankers Life Fieldhouse. All the way down the roster, each member of the team in this era of Pacers' basketball has been on record regularly getting involved in the community.
Yet, as recent as 2013, numerous NBA fans flooded Bankers Life Fieldhouse decked out in purple and gold to cheer their Los Angeles Lakers to victory, much to the chagrin of George Hill:
"It sucks. It was 70 (Lakers fans) - 30 (Pacers fans) out there. These are the same people that wants autographs after the game. We're out there in the community. We're doing our job, doing what we're supposed to do on and off the court. Something has to change. I tip my hat to this team. We've been trouble free. Been out in the community shaking hands, we're winning. It shouldn't feel like an away game, especially with an important like this. Tonight, that's what it felt like."
"They always say your fans are your sixth man and you feed off that energy. Energy is down and we turn the ball over and we're hearing cheers. We're missing shots and we're hearing cheers. That kind of brings your head down cause you know you're at home. It shouldn't be like that. Now we see how it is. We have to move forward, don't worry about. Stay focus on what's in this locker room and don't worry about the rest."
As should be noted with reference to this article, the hometown hero later qualified his statement to exclude those fans that regularly support the team:
To clear the [air] I'm not talking about the fans that was there supporting us! I'm talking about the ones that were in purple! I Love INDIANA and that's why I say something about it because I care an I want everyone in the community to be apart of this team #Togetherness
Yes, even in a year where the team later went on to Game 7 of the ECF, the Pacers still ranked 25th in the league in attendance and struggled to fill their arena with "mustard" as Hill terms it.
But, at long last, this year was supposed to be different. This year, the Pacers would truly contend for a title. This year, not unlike the 2004-2005 season which began with so much promise, the Pacers were expected to be on a collision course with their Eastern Conference rival - this time, the Miami Heat instead of the Detroit Pistons. Finally, after falling from grace, this would be the year the Pacers earned redemption.
With Indiana posting a league best 40-11 record, ratings soared and ticket sales increased exponentially. This season, the Pacers finished 15th in the league in terms of attendance (Note: The team can rank no higher than 13th due to the capacity of Bankers Life Fieldhouse.)
Nevertheless, as the Pacers' on-court performance faltered down the stretch of the season and rumors of team infighting became more prevalent, some of the fans' relationship with the Blue and Gold, once again, took a turn for the worst. Over the last month, a team that finished the regular season 35-6 at home has found themselves routinely serenaded by boo-birds.
They were booed when they only managed to score 23 points in the first half of their last regular season meeting with the Atlanta Hawks. Roy Hibbert was (and continues to be) booed when he went 0-of-9 from the field against the Oklahoma City Thunder, and, as a team, they were, once again, booed on Monday evening when they gave up 41 points to the Atlanta Hawks in the second quarter of Game 5.
Granted, these were not some of the Pacers' finest moments, but the productivity of tarnishing the Pacers' home-court advantage that the team worked all season to obtain is certainly questionable:
Fan support, at least from the sounds of the arena, has not been offered up freely in these playoffs:
Oh man. The NBA TV mics picked up a Pacer fan just blistering Paul George. "You're supposed to be All-Stars...you can't beat Atlanta?"— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixSI) April 29, 2014
Sure, one fan does not accurately represent all of Pacers Nation, but the sentiment, at the very least, reflects a frustrated and, at times, temperamental fan base. For instance, an Indiana fan published an advertisement on Craigslist searching for Paul George's talent, writing "The talent for short-lived NBA superstar Paul George has gone missing."
This, despite the fact that, although his team is trailing the Hawks 3-2 in this series, Paul George has personally competed against Atlanta in the playoffs at a historic level:
Paul George is 2nd player in @NBA history to avg 20 PPG, 10 RPG and 50 pct from 3 (min. 10 3-pt FGA) in a single postseason in NBA history.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 29, 2014
Paul George is the 1st player with at least 26 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists & 6 steals in a playoff game since Michael Jordan in 1989— Basketball Reference (@bball_ref) April 29, 2014
Although ratings for Game 3 in Atlanta were the highest achieved on Fox Sports Indiana since May 17, 1999, several sites have reported that secondary market sales of Hawks-Pacers tickets for Game 2 were "insanely" cheap - as in $6.00, bargain-basement prices.
Perhaps, it is premature to jump to the conclusion that heckling and the drop in ticket prices automatically reflect a renewed reduction in fan sport.
Maybe the booing is the product of a knowledgeable fan base?
Maybe it is because some of the Pacers' stars are under-performing at the exact wrong time?
Both of these rationales could be accurate, but it seems far more likely that the heckling is resultant from a fan base experiencing the pangs of déjà vu as they watch another Pacer team, although for far different reasons, crumble right before their eyes and potentially fall short of heightened expectations.
Whatever the case, earning home-court for the entirety of the Eastern Conference playoffs during the regular season is not much of advantage if they are forced to play in front of a partially hostile crowd.
In 2012, the Boston Celtics returned to TD Garden for Game 6 of the ECF with a 3-2 lead over the Miami Heat. As many likely remember, league MVP LeBron James delivered a performance for the ages, pouring in 45 points as his team routed the Celtics on their home floor. Nevertheless, with their team down 25 in the fourth quarter, the Celtic faithful chose to genuinely chant, "Let's go Celtics!" during the final minutes of the game.
At the time, future Hall of Famer, Kevin Garnett, stated, "But I want to say to all the fans, thank you guys. I've never in my life experienced anything like this in any sport."
Doc Rivers added, "Did you hear our crowd the last three minutes of the game? What other crowd in the NBA does that? ...They did their part tonight, we just didn't do ours."
Like Doc Rivers said about his Celtics' Game 6 performance two seasons ago, maybe the Pacers didn't do their part in Game 5, but, as George Hill requested, the Pacers need fan support even during "tough times."
Now, facing another Game 6 in Philips Arena, the Pacers will return to the place where their ascent into the upper echelons of the NBA first started - this time with the possibility of a very different outcome. There is no guarantee that a Game 7 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse will even take place this postseason as many anticipated, and, if it doesn't, there is a very real chance that this era of Good Feelings in the timeline of Pacers' basketball will end the exact same way it first began. This time, with a partially disenchanted and fragile fan base, once again, asking me why I continue to root for a team connected to a baffling collapse.
This, of course, does not apply to the many lifelong fans of the Pacers that still remember Market Square Arena, idolize the moment Reggie Miller scored eight points in nine seconds, or proudly go to Bankers Life Fieldhouse to support the Blue and Gold.
However, with regard to at least a segment of the fans present at the game on Monday (unlike the fans in Boston); there were no crowd-wide serenades of "Let's Go Pacers" at the end of Game 5 to inspire a Game 6 comeback. Although the current construction of the team has done their due diligence to win back the hearts and minds of Indiana and does not have one member connected to the events of November 19, 2004, perhaps "The Brawl" and the memory of a championship-run suddenly cut short still looms large over Indianapolis:
Wow!!! Didn't realize the Pacers lost. Come on Broad Ripple. Come one 38th st!!! Come on Whitestown!! Send the power to the Pacers!!!!— Metta World Peace (@MettaWorldPeace) April 29, 2014