The Purdue Boilermakers Final Four drought isn't nearly as legendary, but it stretches back to before I was born.* This is not due to a lack of talent. Purdue has put plenty of players in the NBA since, fairly highly ranked more often than not, won plenty of Big Ten championships. And yet, something always happens that seems to stop the team in either the Sweet 16 or Elite 8.** It's maddening. This could be (will be soon?) a post in itself, but the bewildered Jeff Foster tells us it's time to move on.
*Last appearance: 1980. My birth: 1986.
**The past two years, that "something always happens has been named Robbie Hummel and his broken down knee. Just when we got over the whole broken back fiasco.
There have been a few bright spots. The Colts won a Super Bowl in 2007 (2006 season) after many disappointing playoff runs with Peyton Manning. The Blackhawks broke a 50-year Stanley Cup drought last season, though I would be lying to say I've been a huge Blackhawk fan all my life. Or even a Colts fan. So, while those championships were nice, there are bigger prizes for me.
That leaves us with the Pacers. As has also been documented here, I'm not a huge NBA fan. I was when I was younger. It seemed like the NBA was king when I was in grade school with everybody. But, sometime in high school, I just sort of lost interest. I was still a big NBA fan when the Pacers made their finals run against the Lakers, but I think everybody knew there was no beating that Laker team in a best of seven series. They had some very good teams all through the 90's, especially the late 90's, but ran up against either Jordan's Bulls or Ewing's Knicks. The timing was just never right. It looked for some time that the Pacers would be the first ABA team to win an NBA championship, which would be fitting, because the Pacers were not always so cursed.
Though it was long before I was born, this is the reason why I am and why I continue to be a big supporter of the Pacers despite my general disinterest in the NBA. On the national sporting scene, all Indianapolis was known for was the Indy 500 and a plethora of amateur sports. Hoosiers and the Purdue-IU rivalry, and Notre Dame football for those that realized South Bend was in Indiana. But, in the '60's, Indianapolis was a city that was ready to join the big boys. It was still not a huge city by any stretch. Judging from the census figures, there was probably a bit over a half million people living in Indianapolis when the ABA came to town. The Pacers were a founding franchise, starting in 1967. There were 11 teams originally, and only the Pacers and the Kentucky Colonels made it through the entire run of the ABA without changing locations, names, or folding.
The league was founded on the premise of forcing their way into a merger with the NBA, which almost killed the league before it had a chance to merge. For Indianapolis, though, that was just what the doctor ordered. If the NBA didn't consider them a major enough market, they would show the league what they were missing with an ABA team. And show them they did. The ABA mounted serious competition with the NBA, both for players and TV money. When the NBA finally came calling, the Pacers, having a very strong case for being the pearl of the ABA, were one of the four teams to move into the NBA. It was the Pacers that showed the nation Indianapolis could a major league city. Indianapolis returned the favor and kept growing, too. Between the Pacers success, the continued success of the amateur sports scene, and the city's commitment to building top-flight facilities, the seeds were sown to draw in the Colts.
*I'm going off memory on that, so I could be off, but that's got to be close.
It seems because of all this, Indianapolis (and Indiana as a whole, really) understands that sports are bigger than the games. These teams, these structures, are as much of a civic entity as they are a business. That's what makes sports grand. It may be rooting for laundry (to paraphrase Seinfeld, I think it was), but it's important laundry. The jerseys might say Pacers at home, but they say Indiana on the road. That jersey represents not just a team, but a population. Which is why when that trust it broken, it usually takes something a little harder than a few losing seasons to break. And it just so happens that the Pacers lost the city (the state?) with one of the ugliest incidents in the history of sports. Or maybe civic history, period.
The brawl and subsequent rebuilding killed fan support. It still hasn't remotely recovered. I do think it gave Pacer fans an insight into Braves fans. We were making the playoffs every year, and it got to be where you just expected it to happen. The season didn't start until the playoffs. The fanbase 1) got a taste of what it's really like and 2) found out who the real fanbase was. The team had to struggle through purgatory for a while, but there have been some promising signs as of late.
I would say it started with Danny Granger. He was a rookie for the season after the brawl, so obviously it wasn't a quick turn around. I would say I like Granger, but I'm not a fanboy. There are issues with Granger, namely his defense and is often reluctant to take the ball to the rim. He sometimes doesn't give the impression that he really gives a damn. That's certainly from the outside. Maybe he's just become a bit numb to losing, given when he came in. But he is a borderline All-Star, and there was no reason he should have slid to the 17th pick in the draft when the Pacers gladly snapped him up. That was a big break, it gave the team somebody new to build around after Reggie Miller retired.
The 2006 and 2007 drafts were essentially a waste, setting back the rebuilding. In 2008, the turnaround started in earnest. Granger and Mike Dunleavy started really showing their potential, and Roy Hibbert and Brandon Rush* joined the team. Tyler Hansbrough came the next year, and though he basically missed his rookie year with an inner ear infection. He showed what he could do this year, silencing any critics that said he was not an NBA caliber player.
*Rush may be gone after this season with George Hill joining the team. I'm not terribly upset, because Rush was certainly inconsistent, but it certainly seemed like he tried hard, and when he was on, boy could he shoot.
Finally, all the rebuilding is starting to pay off. The Pacers were starting to get talked about around the state. Paul George, who has surpassed just about everybody's expectations, joined the team, and after the departure of Jim O'Brien, the rotations seemed to solidfy, and the team finally gelled into a very solid basketball team.
The team finally broke through to the playoffs an gave the top seeded Bulls all they could handle for five games. Indianapolis was finally excited for the Pacers again, looking towards the future and what the team needs to add instead of falling back to calling the team "thugs," which has not been true in a few years.
Another way to measure the momentum is the draft party. It usually attracted a few thousand, enough for some good pictures, but nothing special. This year, 8,000 people came to see who the Pacers would take at 15, even though I think everybody knew that it wouldn't be anybody to get especially excited about.* That shows a definite uptick in interest. It seems people just want to be around, be involved in the resurgence, which is great. Absolutely great.
*Unless maybe it was JuJuan Johnson or E'Twuan Moore, given the Purdue connection, or even Matt Howard or Shelvin Mack out of Butler. And yet, I think everybody was more than thrilled when the Pacers essentially traded their draft away to get George Hill, another local product. Well played, Larry Bird.
Of course, like I said, the Pacers are cursed. Even this surge in momentum (playoff berth, finally having money to spend, great pick up in Hill, measurable increase in fan interest) is poorly timed. As soon as the Pacers are really back on track, it's all threatened to be derailed by an NBA lock out. There's nothing anybody in Indianapolis can do about that. I suppose Herb Simon has a bit of say, being an owner and all, but I don't think he's one of the more influential owners. Really, if Indy was a bigger market, I think you would hear more about the Pacers being a cursed franchise, because it seems for all the franchise has done right over the years, something just always happens.