Benner/Sports and Pacers and Sports Business

BENNER: Pacers turn corner, but bigger issues await the team

April 30, 2011

Rarely is a playoff loss, let alone a first-round playoff loss, let alone a 4-1 playoff loss in a best-of-seven series, cause for celebration.

So, no, I didn’t feel like sipping champagne while listening to the “hey, hey, hey, goodbye” chorus being sung by Chicago Bulls fans—and more on them in a minute—in the closing seconds of their team’s closeout victory over the Indiana Pacers at the United Center.

More important, I hope the Pacers themselves didn’t feel good about it. Effort and competitiveness, yes. Result? Un-uh.

As the team’s most veteran player, Jeff Foster, said, this is something the Pacers—especially all those youngsters getting their first taste of postseason combat—need to have gnaw at them throughout the summer and into training camp next fall.

That is, if there is a training camp next fall, and more on that in a moment.

Even if the Pacers did avoid the sweep that many predicted, even if they did push the Bulls to the limit in four of the five games, losing is still, well, losing, and there remains a long way to go for both the team in particular and the franchise in general.

Case in point: game four at Conseco Fieldhouse, where the “home” team was anything but.

I have been around the Pacers since, oh, 1967, so I think I can somewhat accurately place that crowd in historical perspective. Simply, I have never witnessed anything remotely like it.

Bulls fans took control of the house, both in number and volume. And, I might add, in obscenities. If what I observed is typical of the Chicago fan base, then they can have it.

Hey, I knew it wouldn’t be a trip to the Magic Kingdom, but I was nonetheless unprepared for the scum from the Red Sea. The only good thing about it was that the Pacers won, so we took their money and sent them back up Interstate 65 disappointed.

That said, the Chicago franchise—minus the punks who support it—is where the Pacers need to be. You may recall that the Bulls post-Michael Jordan, like the Pacers post-Reggie Miller, endured some tough times.

But Chicago fans wavered only slightly in their support. Pacer fans, meanwhile, evaporated.

Sure, there is great disparity in market size. There is also a great difference in the market psychology. Chicago is, without question, a pro sports town. The populace eats, breathes, lives and dies the Bulls, Cubs, Sox, Bears and Blackhawks.

They’re with them win or lose.

We’re with the Colts and Pacers win or, er, win.

And I remind folks of both the empty seats and the number of Jets fans who found their way into Lucas Oil Stadium for the playoff game with the Colts in January.

The Colts know—and are working hard to that end—that they need to prepare for the lean times that are sure to come. In sports, every wave eventually crashes on the beach.

The Pacers—their situation exacerbated by The Brawl, several knuckleheads on the roster, and the painfully slow housecleaning that had to be done—have at long last provided a basis of hope for the future.

But the job isn’t finished. It’s barely begun. Again, there was that 60-40 ratio of Bulls-Pacers fans for Game 4, not to mention regular-season attendance that was dead last in the NBA.

The Pacers have young, marketable talent. They have good guys you can root for without feeling guilty. I hope Larry Bird stays to run the basketball end of things and Frank Vogel gets the “interim” adjective lifted from head coach. There is, at last, salary cap room, though the much-stated imperative—go out and get a “closer” who can help the Pacers avoid their wont for losing leads late in games—is anything but a given no matter how much money they have to spend.

But what concerns me most is that this momentum and feeling of good vibes the Pacers have generated over the last couple of months could be lost to a lost season.

While the NFL and its players squabble over how to divide $9 billion, the NBA faces fundamental issues that threaten the future of the league, especially franchises in smaller markets that are drowning in red ink. (ESPN.com writer Bill Simmons has a piece on the Sacramento Kings that ought to be required reading for everyone in the NBA.)

The Pacers have regained some relevance in their hometown. Now we wait to see if they matter to the NBA.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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