Sunday, February 12, 2006

Back from a fine weekend in Indianapolis, and the best hoops in the world.

Today at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, the undermanned but feisty Indiana Pacers – missing three starters to injury and with Ron Artest finally exiled to California – missed a wonderful chance to upset the visiting NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, falling 92-88 in the closing seconds of a nationally televised game before 18,345 fans.

We drove north yesterday, somehow managing to avoid the worst of the multi-car pileup on I-65 in near blizzard conditions, then enduring a 15-mile, 1.5-hour detour that ended with a late lunch in brilliant sunshine and driving sleet (all at once) at Greenwood’s Oaken Barrel brewpub.

The bizarre world of Indiana weather is exceeded only by the state’s official roller coaster ride of rabid affection and inexcusable venom (see “Davis, Mike”) induced by basketball as the spectator sport of choice.

The mythology of high school basketball in Indiana is unquestioned to such an extent that Hollywood dedicated a movie, “Hoosiers,” to it, and our response to this recognition was to gut it and kill the magic by introducing class basketball.

Loyalty to the state’s college programs is lifelong and fervent, with thousands of Indiana University fans in near-suicide mode as their program’s long slide downward gains critical mass, but as Dale Moss notes in today’s Courier-Journal, Indiana University Southeast’s nationally ranked NAIA men’s basketball team can’t draw flies even on Gary “The Gary” McCartin Bobble Head Day.

Somehow in the midst of these generational and purely parochial loyalties, the professional Pacers thrive in Indiana’s capital city, and do so with a splendidly schizophrenic approach to marketing the urban game to a target audience imbued with rural sensibilities.

For three quarters or more of today’s game, as various “kiss cams” intruded, scantily clad cheerleaders wiggled and Our Sponsor’s Fan of the Night performed impossible stunts for meaningless prizes, a steady soundtrack of hip-hop and various soulful grooves filled every spare moment.

Such is the NBA norm in the 21st century, and a far cry indeed from the less boisterous ambience I recall from childhood, when the Sunday games on TV were quiet and seemingly choreographed, like a muscular and reverential ballet danced before a few thousand polite spectators.

The rival ABA, of which the Indiana Pacers were a charter member, is responsible for introducing the caffeine-driven, incessant off court antics that have helped to boost attendance and draw casual followers to games, hence the scene at today’s game, where not a single moment can be left empty of motion, noise, or both.

Of course, music is central to this tableau, and so we are reminded that the rock group Chicago’s major claim to the rock and roll hall of fame is that there was a time when its horn heavy songs were performed by every ragtag pep band in every leaky high school gym in the basketball heartland, of which Indiana still sees itself as pre-eminent in spite of recent travails, and perhaps this explains why every time I go to a Pacers game and the game gets tight after three quarters, suddenly the resident DJ is silent, and the arena sound system’s search capability suddenly yields nothing but classic rock: Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Queen and Led Zeppelin song snippets, and as a bonus, video clips from “Hoosiers” and “Animal House.”

World colliding, to be sure, but as long as the paying customers aren’t troubled, there’s no reason to care. We left satisfied, entertained by the loony capers, the shuck, and the jive, but far more so by the chance to watch great athletes perform, and to observe the little things that make it all worthwhile.

With less than a minute to go and San Antonio unbelievably trailing, the Spurs inserted the veteran Robert Horry into the lineup and brought the ball inbounds. After screening, Horry paused, shrugged, and retreated unnoticed to a position behind the three-point line, fifteen feet away from the nearest defender, and seemingly ready to sink yet another of the game-winning shots that have defined his big-game career.

But it was not to be. The Argentine phenom Manu Ginobili drove the baseline for the hole and was fouled, and his two free throws put the champs ahead for good.

The shot I’ll remember was the one Horry didn’t get a chance to take – and as the saying goes, you miss 100% of that kind.


edward parish said...

The Pacers of my memories-

The pic of Coach Slick Leonard in white shoes on the bench is priceless.

jon faith said...

As you likely know, the local affiliate carried the Arenas/Iverson showdown, perhaps their is a saturation standard, given your exposure this weekend in the CJ. It was a thrilling crescendo, though I couldn't understand Carlisle's strategy at the end nor his (non)use of Peja or Fred Jones.