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How the Pacers Climbed Back from Basketball Hell and Became Contenders

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How the Pacers Climbed Back from Basketball Hell and Became Contenders
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For a while there, it was ugly.

Where to start, or more appropriately, when? A brawl that sent a season with championship aspirations swirling into oblivion? A constant barrage of criminal shenanigans from players like Jamaal Tinsley, Shawne Williams, Stephen Jackson and Marquis Daniels? Jim O'Brien's "stretch 4" era, in which the paint may as well have been a mixture of sharks and molten lava given how Pacers bigs approached it?

Or maybe, more recently, just the way Indiana approached the offensive side of the game, clanking clock-strained jumpers with all the urgency of a Galapagos tortoise skinny-dipping in quicksand?

To really appreciate where the Pacers are, and how far they have come, you have to start with the past. You have to know what it was like to dread the morning news, to be on the business end of every SportsCenter highlight reel.

It's a story most Pacers fans don't want to tell—or rather, relive. Too much time toiled away in basketball prison, literal and figurative. Too much history re-written by the victors, because for a good stretch there, nobody quite embodied the endless cycle of losing—off the court, and on—like the Indiana Pacers.

It was ugly, and as with most ugly things, it was not exactly designed to fit a mantle frame. But to truly appreciate what the Pacers have done, you have to understand ugly.

Because without ugly, this Pacers squad, perhaps the future of the NBA's Eastern Conference, would not exist.

 

Boom, Baby

A long time before it got ugly, there was some guy named Reggie Miller. 

If you grew up in Indianapolis in the '90s, you knew the hierarchy of faces you were expected to revere went something like: God, mom and dad and then Reggie Miller. Superman took a back seat, and unless the president figured out a way to secede the Knicks from the Association, he was just some other guy in a long list of guys who never seemed to exist outside of the classroom.

Sure, there was Michael Jordan. And the rare soul may have been bold enough to wear a Patrick Ewing jersey every now and again—though no one ever seemed to pass him the rock at recess, curiously enough.

But ultimately, there was Reggie. And there was a Pacers team that gave the city of Indianapolis an identity, even if just for the fleeting window of the NBA playoffs.

You see, when you grow up in Indianapolis, you quickly pick up on one truth: It ain't Chicago. Nor is it New York, nor is it Los Angeles, nor is it anything but "flyover country" to a large percentage of the United States population.

Even as a kid, you picked up on this—you're supposed to feel bad about that. Inferior. Less than. Because you're a "hick," even if you've never seen a corn stalk. And clearly, nothing is expected of you. You're not important.

Those people are important; the ones in the places that matter, where the sun is obscured by skyscrapers and a stiff Atlantic breeze blows the smell of sewer gas, hot dogs, knockoff perfume and just the faintest whiff of urine-soaked sweatpants—though the latter two are admittedly difficult to discern at times.

When you grow up in Indianapolis, you're not supposed to win. You're not supposed to do anything. You're supposed to resign yourself to some anonymous existence shielded by cloud cover to the business class above. Life is a labyrinth of suburban supermarkets and chain restaurants, and maybe someday, the circus will come to town.

Until Reggie.

Reggie Miller was the first person I could ever remember who prided himself in putting the city on his back. The perception, it seemed, was changing. Whereas once, the statement was, "Yeah, I'm from Indianapolis...," Reggie made it cool to lift your gaze from your Airwalks and say, "Yeah, I'm from Indianapolis!"

So, we had an identity. Finally. And everyone seemed to embrace it, regardless of age, sex or social status. Hicks versus Knicks? Sure, okay. We were the Hicks. We were everything they always said we were, which made every victory, every "boom baby" that much sweeter.

You learned to love the Pacers, not just because they were winning, but because of the culture they created. There was a tangible community, a sense of togetherness. Neighborhoods gathered to watch. Workplace productivity waned on the eve of big games. Every kid on the block hit the court after school let out, emulating every jump shot, every jab step, every player by name.

Except Reggie, of course. I mean, who were you kidding? You weren't ever going to be Reggie. Jordan, maybe, but not Reggie.

A collective communal identity was formed one buzzer-beater at a time, and slowly, Indianapolis—at least before my eyes—became a place on the map. A real contender, able to hold its own against all those places that were supposed to matter more.

Hicks beat Knicks. Pacers advance to NBA Finals.

Damn, it felt good to be a Hoosier.

 

We Don't Like to Talk About That

The day it got ugly—and boy, did it ever—I was a sophomore in high school, watching the Pacers thump the Pistons on a nationally televised game.

This was it. This was the year the Pacers were finally going to get over Detroit, the perpetual thorn in their side in their quest to advance as Eastern Conference champions. The primetime beatdown said it all: the Pacers were tougher, better and badder. They had all the pieces; the complete team.

And then...

"Dad, get in here!"

It started with a hard foul. Ron Artest roughly contested a Ben Wallace layup in the waning moments of a runaway win. Wallace countered with a two-handed shove directed at Artest's neck.

"Dad, hurry up, you gotta see this!"

Players were separated. Artest sauntered over to the scorer's table and imagined himself on a Bahaman beach. Words were exchanged. Whistles were blown. Towels were tossed.

And then, a cup was thrown.

"He's going into the stands, dad! Oh my God. He went into the stands!"

Think back to the worst morning of your life. The one where you overslept your alarm clock, forgot you were out of toothpaste, charred your toast beyond recognition, broke your key off in the door, stepped on dog crap and forgot your wallet on the kitchen table.

This was the sports equivalent.

Everything snowballed, each event seeming slightly more unbelievable—yet insanely real—than the next. Of course Stephen Jackson joined the fray, because why not? Of course Fred Jones was being pummeled by Ben Wallace's three-ton brother. Of course fans rushed the court hoping to fight by Duke of Queensberry rules, only to find themselves on the wrong end of Jermaine O'Neal's flying right cross.

Of course chairs were thrown. Of course Mark Boyle was hospitalized.

"Dad, seriously, get in here. Tinsley has a dust pan!"

Are you not entertained?!

It was ugly, the first sign of it, and it wasn't so much an introduction to ugly as it was ugly driving a tank through the living room on an otherwise inconspicuous Friday night in November.

After my dad finally emerged in the doorway, I remember just watching in silence from that point, wondering if my favorite team would even make it out of the arena alive.

You'll understand if most Pacers fans still don't want to talk about it. Nobody was more punished for the night of November 19, 2004, and all of the subsequent events to follow, than Pacers fans.

After all, the Detroit Pistons only saw a few players lose a handful of games to suspension. The Pacers lost Artest for the year, Jackson for 30 games and O'Neal for 15 games.

None of that is to say the punishments weren't deserved.

But you had to ask yourself, if Pistons fans were a large factor in instigating and fueling the brawl, why was their franchise only given a slap on the wrist? Why could their beer tosses and chair flings end a game with 46 ticks remaining on the clock, and why could the next meeting be delayed 90 minutes due to a bomb threat called in to the Pacers locker room, without the Detroit fanbase receiving equal reprimand?

It just didn't feel fair. It felt wrong. And it only got worse from there.

Over the course of the next few years, that culture Reggie had built, that Pacers franchise we had all grown to love, was completely undone. A barfight here, a downtown shootout there, and you found yourself holding your breath when you watched the morning news, hoping the city could make it one day without adding another Pacer to the police blotter.

As the franchise was unraveled by a group of selfish players with no regard for the city of Indianapolis or what it was supposed to mean to represent it, the Colts stole the spotlight.

And despite racking up some legal issues of their own—more Colts players were actually involved in off-field incidents from 2004 to 2010 than Pacers players—Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy guided the NFL franchise to becoming the darlings of the city, replacing the pride that had once been reserved for the blue and gold.

Before long, names like Earl Watson and Stephen Graham became roster mainstays, and attendance dwindled accordingly. And once Reggie said his goodbyes?

Forget it. There was no true franchise player, not a guy who could put the city on his back. There was no selling point. There was just a vague assembly of stretch forwards and journeyman, and the perpetual hope that Danny Granger could shoot the team into a ballgame.

I still watched the games, but I had no illusions about the subject of water cooler talk. It was never going to be about that game last night. Hell, I remember starting conversations about the Pacers, only to be interrupted by "Who? They stopped existing when Reggie retired, remember?"

People just didn't need the Pacers anymore, it seemed. Now, Superman took a back seat to Manning, and Indianapolis had a few more peaks in its skyline. It was no longer a city in need of identity. Reggie had done his part, and Peyton was doing his.

Who needed the middling Pacers, with their sub-.500 records and Jim O'Brien offense?

 

A Slow Climb

Before he was given a vote of confidence from team president and Hoosier legend Larry Bird, the man who helped pull the Pacers from the abyss was discovered by another Hoosier—David Letterman.

Yes, 15 years before he took over the Pacers' head-coaching gig, Frank Vogel starred on staple Letterman segment, "Stupid Human Tricks."

Former coach Jim O'Brien had exhausted the patience of fans and management and was consequentially relieved of duty on January 30, 2011. Vogel assumed interim coaching responsibilities, and Pacers fans—what hardcore contingent remained interested, at least—began to dream up candidates for the 2011-12 season.

Vogel was too busy preparing for the playoffs to care much about that.

After starting just 17-27 under O'Brien's watch, Vogel led the Pacers to a 20-18 record down the home stretch. It was ugly, as things had been for a while, but it was good enough for the eighth seed in an incredibly weak Eastern conference.

It was a fluke, most figured. A 37-45 record? Drawing Derrick Rose and the 62-20 Chicago Bulls? Yeah, most thought, wake me when the nightmare is over.

But these Pacers weren't going down without a fight.

Though the Pacers did lose the first three games of the series—five-point, six-point and four-point decisions, respectively—they played the Bulls much tougher than most anticipated. Certainly better than the patsies they were supposed to be.

Game 4, hosted by the Pacers at then-named Conseco Fieldhouse, was supposed to be the culmination of a sweep. The Pacers were plucky, but the Bulls were just better. Chicago fans showed up in droves, most gleefully carrying brooms.

Indiana had other plans.

Led by Granger's 24 points, the Pacers lived to fight another day, holding off the Bulls 89-84. Yes, it was just one win. No, nobody expected Indiana to go on some magical run and win the series from there.

But it was a start. A fresh start. 

And that was all the Pacers needed.

By the time the 2011-12 season rolled around, people were starting to notice the Pacers again, and for all the right reasons. No longer was this a team that tied up the Indianapolis Metro Police Department with police runs, nor was it a team content to cross its fingers and hope it could win from the three-point line.

This was a new team, a gritty team. One that dove for loose balls, sacrificing teeth in the process. This was a team beginning to discover itself, and at the same time, the city was beginning to rediscover the team. Everyone needed a new identity. The Pacers found one stained with blood and sweat—the blue-collar, lunch-pail attitude Hoosiers could embrace.

Vogel, through his made-for-TV sideline speeches and emphasis on attacking the paint and defending the rim, helped redefine ugly. And somehow, one slugfest at a time, ugly became something beautiful to watch. Something that reminded us there was still some fight in this franchise that didn't spill over into the stands, a contagious confidence cultivated by post moves and boxouts.

It wasn't all Vogel, of course. Bird—who assuredly had grown as sick of the losing and cultural detachment as the no-shows in the nosebleeds—orchestrated a roster-building process that added such talents as Paul George, Roy Hibbert, David West, George Hill and Lance Stephenson.

Ever the masterful architect, Bird committed to a new identity and needed no more than three years to put all the pieces in place.

 

We There

After advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals this year—taking down the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks in the process—popular sentiment lent no illusion of a Hickory High upset.

Heat in 5, perhaps a sweep, said Skip Bayless:

Heat in 6, proclaimed Dick Vitale:

It didn't matter that the Pacers had pushed the Heat in the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals. They had let too many games slip away, and at the end of the day, it was always going to be LeBron James versus a host of names the national media never learned to spell until the calendar crept toward June.

As it turned out, of course, popular sentiment was correct. The Pacers would not upset the Heat. There were moments. Damn, were there moments.

There were three free throws by George that put Indiana ahead by one in Game 1, just to see James glide to the bucket at the buzzer and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

There was an inspired Game 2 performance which saw George yam on the Birdman so hard that, by every law of physics, all that should have been left underneath the basket was a 7' crater and a massive ink splatter.

There was David West playing sick, fighting a 103-degree fever to finish with a double-double.

And there were countless inspired little moments, the ones that add up. A challenged shot here, a clutch three there. 

Ultimately, though, there weren't enough moments to upset the Heat, and Miami established itself as the superior team. A 99-76 Game 7 drubbing established Eastern Conference supremacy—the Pacers just weren't quite able to claim the throne.

But that didn't mean they hadn't arrived.

For all the head-hanging, for all the regrets that could have been had over taking the champs to the brink but coming up short, there instead lingered something new. A sentiment Pacers fans were just learning to embrace again.

Optimism.

Hope.

Arrival.

George, the Pacers' budding superstar, said it best:

We there. And for a team with such a young core—consider that George, Hibbert and Stephenson are 23, 26 and 22 respectively—it's certainly difficult to argue otherwise. If the Pacers sans Granger could push the Heat that far, who's to say they can't return as a stronger, more experienced, more formidable unit next year?

Who's to say they shouldn't be strong contenders to emerge as Eastern Conference champions in 2014?

A new era of Pacers basketball has been established, and Indiana is here to stay. For a while, it was pretty damn ugly. But now, kids roam the neighborhood with George jerseys on—at long last, the Miller pinstripes have been retired from the youngest generations—and the guy across the street lingers by the mailbox an extra five minutes to talk about feeding the post. 

Pacers basketball is back. And it's a beautiful sight indeed.

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