My dad is 5’4’’.
My dad is really short. And white.
When he left for junior college at what was then known as Burlington Junior College in Burlington, Iowa, it seemed unlikely that his best friend would turn out to be a 6’10’’ African-American basketball player. Well, maybe unlikely to those who don’t know my dad. Instead he befriended this giant, and another player on the basketball team from Detroit named Bobby Joe Hill, famously the starting point guard a couple years later on the famous Texas Western National Championship basketball team.
Apparently, my dad could play ball a little bit, and it caught the attention of the players, who then persuaded their coach to let him walk on, which they did. The center on that team, who would move on to the University of New Mexico after Burlington stayed in touch with my dad and later was the best man in my parent’s wedding. Or rather, was supposed to be the best man.
He instead showed up in Princeton, Iowa for the wedding, which was being held in Princeton, Illinois. This caused his ulcers to act up and he missed the wedding. His wife still managed to make it and they both made breakfast the next day with my parents.
I wasn’t born yet when all this happened, but it played a huge part in my life. The reason for that is it shaped my sports fandom. And the reason this factored into my life so prominently is that my dad’s scheduled best man and best friend was none other than Basketball Hall of Fame member, two time ABA MVP, retired number 34 in the rafters of Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Mel Daniels.
So while I was growing up in the 90’s, in Davenport, Iowa, which is prominently Bulls Country, especially during the MJ years, I was one of the few Pacers fans this side of the Mississippi.
I was Reggie crazy. Thanks to some connections I had an opportunity to shoot hoops at Market Square Arena when an enormous Dutchman named Rik Smits walked in and asked if he could shoot with me. I remember 25 fourth quarter points, eight points in 8.9 seconds, Reggie over MJ. I also remember game seven in 1999, the Finals in 2000, the brawl, the Jim O’Brien years, and of course, Larry bleeping Johnson.
Throughout it all, I have watched every game on NBA League Pass. I have cheered and cursed and over-analyzed draft picks and trades. I have gone from despising Tyler Hansbrough in college to loving him as a Pacer. I have watched Danny Granger become the face of the franchise to a guy in a suit this year. I have compared Lance Stephenson to all things good and bad, and made far too many Miles Plumlee jokes.
I’ve also spent my post-college years in typical student loan debt-invoked poverty, while still scraping up enough money to attend a playoff game each year. My brother and I drove the five plus hours to Naptown last year for game four against the Heat only to get my heart ripped out. We drove back this year for game two of the Hawks series. That drive home was a little better.
The reason for all this reminiscing and gushing to just reflect on how difficult it has been to be a Pacers fan in my lifetime. I’m surrounded by Bulls fans, and the inevitable Lakers and Celtics fans which are everywhere, and now, since I also coach youth basketball, a bunch of little Heat fans that have no problem proclaiming the Heat to be the best team ever. Of course, kids will be kids, but it is the parents who show up in the Wade jerseys who make me want to scream: “Is your Tim Hardaway jersey dirty? No Alonzo? No Rex Chapman? Rony Seikaly? Get outta here!”
Finally, in the last three weeks, the Pacers have gotten some respect, even all the way here in Iowa. Beating the Knicks was one thing. Pushing the Heat to game seven, and doing it with a little (gold) swagger has been another. Those Bulls fans who I have clashed with for 27 years are suddenly on the bandwagon. The kids I coach are talking about Paul George. Lance Stephenson has been the subject of a number of articles, including one on Grantland.com comparing him to hometown hero/pariah Ricky Davis.
Regardless of how Monday night turns out, the Pacers have taken the national spotlight and ran with it. The great part is this could be just the beginning. Re-signing David West, extending Paul George, getting Granger back and solidifying the bench (again) could make the Pacers legitimate title contenders for a number of years.
This season has been a hell of a ride. From losing Granger, to the emergence of Lance and Paul, to the Gerald Green disaster, to the early struggles of Roy, to winning streaks, to losing streaks, to brutal offense, to magnificent defense, to monster dunks, to epic blocks, to the “Lance Stephenson game” against the Knicks, and now this memorable series with the Heat. It has all been worth the time.
I am not writing the Pacers obituary. When the Pacers left for Miami, they packed for eight days. They plan to play in San Antonio Wednesday night. David West plans to not play with a 103 temp. They legitimately think they can win Monday night in South Beach, and for the first time in a pessimistic fan’s mind, I believe anything is possible with this team.
If I had to bet money, it’s too hard to bet against LeBron and the Heat, but I’ll be as emotionally invested in this game as any I can remember. If they can pull off the upset, and Pacers PA announcer Michael Grady riles up a crowd somewhere downtown Indianapolis with a cheer of “Indy-“, he may be able to hear me from Iowa screaming “-ANA!”.
I will say one thing for sure: if the Pacers beat Miami Monday night, and have a chance to win their first NBA Championship, I will pack up the car and head to Indy. I may not be in Bankers Life Fieldhouse because I am a poor twenty-something and Finals tickets are pricey, or the game is being played in San Antonio, but I will be in the city. I will celebrate with people who have stuck with the blue and gold like me.
I will be in the city of Indianapolis to share in a Pacers title, spilling out onto the streets of downtown, just like my dad was back when his tall, odd-couple-friendship, buddy helped them win a few ABA titles all those years ago.