Recently, I entered the House the Bad Boys Built and Ron Artest nearly tore down: the Palace of Auburn Hills. Expecting to perhaps be threatened or harassed for my preferred outcome of Saturday’s Pacers/Pistons game in Motown, I was instead disturbed for entirely different reasons.
It wasn’t the fact that I was in Detroit during Spring Break, the free throw shooting of my favored team or even the final result that upset me. The problem was the atmosphere of the game.
In a city far removed from its team’s latest championship, the Detroit crowd was lively and responsive. The Pistons played a good game — certainly helped by their opponent’s 7-of-19 performance from the free throw line — and the crowd fed them energy.
Why does it matter that Detroit had a good crowd on a Saturday night home game in March? Great question. I’m glad that you asked.
The real problem is that it was a more energetic game than any of the dozen that I have been to in Indianapolis all year. This came in the building of a team that is effectively out of the playoff race and has very few, if any, long term answers.
As the regular season draws to a close, and the postseason vaguely threatens to disappear entirely, it is not unreasonable to take a quick glance to the Pacers’ future.
Mike Dunleavy ($10.5 million), T.J. Ford ($8.5 million) and Jamaal Tinsley ($5.5 million) all have contributed about equal amounts since the switch to Frank Vogel, and all will be off the Pacers’ cap next year. This gives the team a considerable amount of wiggle room to sign new free agents to complement the assumed existing core of Darren Collison, Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert, Tyler Hansbrough and Paul George.
In a rapidly changing NBA, the question becomes: what will bring the players to Indiana?
We’ve seen from the recent migrations of LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony that money isn’t enough in every circumstance. Oftentimes it comes down to the existing players on the roster (also known as the “Miami Cheat” or “LeBron White Flag”) or location (also known as “Carmelo Takes Denver Hostage”). Unfortunately, the Pacers really don’t have either advantage on their side.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve lived in Indiana my entire life, and with the exception of a few months-long excursions to perfect my Spanish, I don’t expect to leave anytime soon. But I’m not an NBA free agent, the majority of whom aren’t from the Midwest.
So if money isn’t enough to bring a big-time free agent to Indianapolis, what’s getting him here?
See, the problem in Indiana may be the weather: the cold-weather tendencies of the winter and the fair-weather tendencies of the fans. The Colts even had some trouble selling out this year’s home playoff game initially, and the Pacers can’t get a full house without help from either LeBron or fans from Chicago.
If I’m an NBA player, I’ve noticed this in my past trips to Indiana over the years. I’m not entirely sure that I want to spend the next three to five years of my career playing in front of a Conseco Fieldhouse half-full of lethargic supporters. I don’t know what the small market of Indianapolis, a city where the bars close at 2:00 and the winter lasts a full three months, has to offer me other than a paycheck. I’m going to think twice about playing almost 50 games a year over six months in an arena in the self-proclaimed capital of basketball where the fans can’t match the energy level of a destitute team in a city that just set a national record for population decrease.
If you’re reading this thinking that sounds ridiculously immature and shortsighted, you may not completely understand the mind of a millionaire athletic phenomenon in his 20s.
On November 19, 2004, Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson ran into the stands at the Palace of Auburn Hills; the Pacers have never been relevant since. As I sat less than a hundred feet from that very spot six years and change later listening to an invigorated Detroit crowd celebrate a fundamentally meaningless victory, I worried about how my team could ever return to what it once was if the fans just don’t really care.