Game 4 had to have felt exactly like reliving Game 1 to the Indiana Pacers. Improbably leading the entire game, some of it by double-digits, the Indiana lead began to diminish rapidly over the final three minutes of the game: a 10-point cushion turned into a one-possession game in a hurry. All the while, the red sea of fans was going bananas, attempting to spur its team to a thrilling comeback win.
The problem is that Game 4 took place at Conseco Fieldhouse. In a series in which the Pacers dropped the first two contests despite leading for almost 60 minutes, the blue and gold returned to Indy for what they thought would be home-court advantage. It turned out to be a home invasion.
Thursday’s crowd was split 50-50 with the Pacer faithful out-performing their red counterparts. Returning from perhaps the most encouraging losses in franchise history, fans showed up rowdy and ready for Game 3. Post-game quotes from Frank Vogel and Danny Granger as well as the opinion of one ESPN Chicago columnist who said the Bulls playing Indiana “had to feel like swimming with their clothes on” ran across the bigscreen.
Make no mistakes about the fact that Chicago fans were definitely in attendance at Thursday’s Game Three in extraordinarily high numbers. At times, the atmosphere resembled that of a high school game: each side alternated cheers and jeers for its preferred group. But it was a neutral environment at worst where the Pacer players at least got to enjoy the confines of a familiar locker room and well-known path to work.
Game 4, however, was nothing short of embarrassing for anyone who cares about Indiana basketball. What was reported as maybe a 50-50 crowd by TNT (or so I heard, since I actually bought tickets to the game and therefore did not watch it on TV) was more like 70-30. And a meek 30% at that.
Pacers officials would have been better off not allowing the pre-game introductions to take place. Chicago fans nearly took the roof off as the announcer said the names of their starters, then rained down boos on the Pacers’ five. The crowd was silent for most of the game, during which the Pacers held a double-figure lead, then nearly spurred the road team to a massive comeback.
Such an overwhelming migration of fans from Chicago has created quite a bit of media attention. The search for explanations has yielded a few reasonable answers. Comparable tickets were often ten times more expensive in the United Center as in Conseco Fieldhouse. The Bulls had a better season. Many IU and Purdue students are from the Chicago area. And so on. And so forth.
One Pacers worker, tossing out t-shirts at the end of the first quarter, shared how disgusted he was at the turnout to me, mainly because the lovely lady who escorted me to the game and I were the only Pacers fans in the section. “I don’t see how anyone can say this isn’t a fair-weather city,” he said.
Indy Star columnist extraordinaire Bob Kravitz essentially excused the turnout, writing that the Pacers can’t “field a lousy and thoroughly irrelevant team for four-plus years, then have a decent two months and expect the entire city to reach for its wallets.”
Who’s right? Well, both to an extent.
Kravitz is correct in that the Pacers, after a season that saw a coaching change and ended eight games under .500, can’t expect the kind of fan support that a team with the league’s best record (and six previous championships) enjoys. But at the same time, tickets were available the week of the games for $13 apiece. It isn’t exactly a second mortgage.
The truth is that Indianapolis, unlike Chicago or New York, is a fair-weather sports city. Kravitz using the Indianapolis Colts 1999 playoff game against the Tennessee Titans is a perfect illustration. That year, the Colts finished 13-3, but Tennessee fans filled the RCA Dome in large numbers (although not as bad of a ratio as this series’ Game 4).
Some may say that Indianapolis did not have a deep connection yet to the Colts with the team only having been in town since 1984 and having yet to experience any real success at that point. And what a fine justification that is if we ignore the fact that Tennessee had only had a football franchise for three years in 1999 with the previous two being 8-8 seasons.
The truth is that Indianapolis is a fair-weather sports city. And it was humiliatingly on display to a national audience in Game 4.