Last Tuesday, a buddy and I decide last second to go to the Indiana Pacers game. It’s Super Bowl Week and it’s an excuse to go downtown for some SBXLVI ambiance. Plus, the tickets are $2 on StubHub, which is pretty much the norm for Pacers games these days.
Midway through the first quarter, a tall, black man emerges from the concourse into our upper deck section and begins gesturing toward us.
“I think that’s Mel Daniels,” my buddy says.
“It’s not Mel Daniels. Doesn’t have that beaver-ish look to him.”
We get up and make our way toward the man. He works for the Pacers and his name tag tells me he is in fact an ABA Pacers legend. But not Mel Daniels. It’s Darnell Hillman. And he offers to trade tickets with us. From the sixth row of the upper deck to spitting distance of the court. Not bad for $2.
After absolutely killing it for Super Bowl XLVI, Indianapolis has all of the sudden established itself as a marquee sports city.
But while the Super Bowl and Peyton Manning got all the headlines, the state synonymous with basketball has all but forsaken its pro hoops team.
The Malice in the Palace was seven years ago and there’s no denying the rift between the team and community was devastating. But is it irreparable?
A year ago, the Pacers finished dead last in attendance (13,538/game). And despite this young team’s spirited playoff series with budding rival Chicago and 17-7 record, the Indy fans remain reluctant. This season, the Pacers are just 26th in attendance.
Team President Larry Bird has done everything he can to completely transform the roster from what many in the community saw as a gun-toting, pot-smoking group of dysfunction. Fair or not, there were strip club stand-offs and drug arrests.
Burdened with some awful contracts, the Pacers began a slow restoration, preaching patience to a disgusted fan base. Slowly but surely, Larry Legend – despite growing criticism – assembled a competitive roster in a small market.
And after firing Jim O’Brien midseason last year, the Pacers found renewed life under Frank Vogel, whose brash nature provides a cockiness fans like – or at least should like. And the team is one the fans should like as well. Danny Granger and David West aren’t All-Stars anymore, but they’re still very good players. Roy Hibbert is finally showing consistency, Paul George is a budding star and Darren Collison and George Hill provide solid work at the point. And then there’s Tyler Hansbrough, who is just plain psycho, but in a good way.
Yet the fans continue to stay away. And it’s not as if the Pacers aren’t trying to lure them in with cut-rate ticket prices and unheard of discounts. In fact, Forbes.com ranked the Pacers as having the third-most affordable Fan Cost Index in the league. But still, they stay away.
Tuesday’s win against the Jazz drew a pathetic 11,006, many of whom were probably there just for a glimpse of Butler and local golden boy Gordon Haywayd.
Asked after the game about whether or not the Super Bowl overshadowed his team’s strong start to the season and now that the big game is gone, can his team fill that sporting void, Vogel responded:
“I hope so, because I love the people here. I’ve spoken to and met a ton of them over the years and what they’ve been asking for, we now have. We’ve got a good basketball team. And we have a chance to win every night. A chance to go deep in the playoffs. We have high character guys. We’re fun. We play the game the right way. We share the basketball. We play with physicality and defend. And yeah with the Super Bowl gone I expect our crowds to really pick up over the next few weeks.”
Let’s just hope former ABA legends don’t have to keep trolling for upper deckers to make the lower bowl look full on TV.