As I'm sure is obvious, I am a Pacer fan. I have the utmost respect for the team and their connection to Indianapolis and the state as a whole, and I've written quite a bit about that on a blog that is supposedly about baseball.
For some time now, though, the Pacers have been almost invisible in the town. The reason isn't too hard to see. I would say the real reason was they went through the least successful period of their NBA tenure since being hamstrung at the merger. But the reason the team stopped winning? Pretty simple. It was all about cleaning house after the brawl.
Why bring this up now? Well, readers of Grantland probably read this piece yesterday. That piece is probably the best I've ever read about the brawl. It set the Pacers back years on a number of fronts, and they really only just started recovering last year. As it turned out, the roster the Pacers have this year was almost custom made for this shortened season, which I'm hoping will speed the recovery and bring the fans back.
In a not-so-surprising revelation, I watched the brawl live. I remember sitting on the couch at my mom's and I had already started browsing away at my laptop, because the game had been decided. I heard the crowd getting excited, so I looked up, just in time to see Ben Wallace shove Ron Artest with everything he had. From there, I thought all was settled as Ron-Ron went to go cool off. Then the cup came down, and the rest is history.
I found this post I made (and the subsequent thread) on the Straight Dope message boards I used to frequent. I made that post in the immediate aftermath of the brawl. Or maybe even before all the dust had settled. As you can see, the first several posts made closer to the incident put the blame almost entirely on the fans. It wasn't until later that blame shifted more towards Artest.
I tend to blame the fans for the escalation. Was Artest right in charging into the stands? Of course not, and Stephen Jackson was even more wrong to go up after him. The suspensions that were earned* were deserved. If the fans had just backed off other than holding Artest and Jackson back, it still would have been a black eye on the NBA, but it wouldn't have become the legendary incident it became.
*Except for maybe Jermaine O'Neal. He threw his punch at a fan who had come onto the court. I am of the opinion that, once you enter the field of play, you forfeit all protection. If you're dumb enough to square off with professional athletes (especially basketball players who are typically at least 6'3" or so) on their turf, you deserve what's coming to you.
Of course, none of this is addressing that the Pacers may have been the champions that year if they had their full complement of players. They probably should have beaten Detroit the year before in the playoffs. There is no doubt in my mind (or the minds of most connected to that Pacer team) that they would have beaten the Pistons that year. Instead, the Pacers would spend the next five years being not quite good enough to make the playoffs, but not quite bad enough to snag a really high lottery pick.
It took longer than expected, but it seems that this year's team might finally exorcise those demons. The fans still aren't coming back the way they should be, though it's still better than it was. But the team is winning. The team is sitting in third at the moment and really should be able to win at least one round in the playoffs. Maybe two if they can meet the Bulls in the second round. I don't know what it is, but the Pacers seem to give these Bulls absolute fits. And that's the great panacea: winning. You win in the playoffs, and fans will take notice.
Besides, it's not like we have Peyton Manning to root for any more.