Ron Artest, the former Indiana Pacer now known as Metta World Peace of the Los Angeles Lakers, has now been suspended by the National Basketball Association for six playoff games. World Peace didn’t exactly live up to his new sobriquet when he delivered a concussion-producing elbow to the head of an opponent.
Some things don’t change. A friend of mine knows Jerry Colangelo, owner of the Chicago Bulls. When the Pacers acquired Artest from the Bulls in a mid-season trade in 2002, my friend reported that Colangelo told him we in Indianapolis “would be sorry.” How right he was.
The Pacers had drawn sellout crowds for several years before 2005, and were generally regarded as a championship contender. But when a fan at a game in Detroit in December 2005 poured a drink on him, Artest lost control and chased the fan into the stands. The result was the infamous brawl, widely seen as a low point in NBA history. Artest was suspended for the rest of the season, and took two other Pacer stars with him for lesser but still lengthy suspensions.
The crippled team staggered through the balance of the 2005-2006 season. A series of failures on and off the court in the wake of the brawl sent the team into a tailspin in the standings and in public respect. Fans abandoned the team in droves and the resulting collapse in attendance undoubtedly produced over $100 million in lost revenue over the next six years
But the Pacers have learned their lesson. It took several years to rebuild a team that, like the Reggie Miller teams of a decade ago, is a serious contender in the upcoming playoffs. Equally important, the current Pacers are players you can cheer for without worrying about off-court distractions.
Larry Bird and Frank Vogel have done a marvelous job of assembling and coaching this young and talented group. They handle themselves off the court as Hoosiers expect. They play the game with energy. They push the ball up the court and make the extra pass. Believe it or not, they put up a fierce defense and crash the board for offensive rebounds. In short, they are fun to watch.
These Pacers have earned our community’s support. And it is in the interest of the broader community, not just basketball fans, that the team succeed financially as well as on the court. The Pacers generate a substantial amount of local tax revenue, and support our night life and long list of good causes.
But an NBA team is not sustainable without decent attendance. If the current level of fan support continues, sooner or later we will inevitably lose this important piece of our community’s smorgasbord of attractions. There is no reason a quality team playing in a great place with a storied basketball history should languish at the bottom of NBA attendance.
We have invested a lot in Banker’s Life Fieldhouse. It is without a doubt one of the best basketball venues in the world, perhaps the very best. After 13 years, it remains clean, colorful and fresh. By the time you read this, the Indiana Pacers will be in the middle of their first-round playoff battle with the Orlando Magic. Owner Herb Simon has stuck with the team through all the post-brawl travails, but the rest of us haven’t done our part. Fan support has yet to return to the level the current team deserves. We had only six sellouts in the just-concluded regular season, all generated by the marquee visiting teams. That won’t do the job over the long haul.
Finally, the players deserve more. The team plays better with vocal support from a full house. Make an effort to support them in these playoffs, and get a group of friends or business associates together for one of the season-ticket packages next year. Only a few years ago, the Pacers were one of the elite teams in the NBA. They are on a northward trajectory, and we can all help them on the way.•
• Boehm is a retired Indiana Supreme Court justice who previously held senior corporate legal positions and helped launch amateur sports initiatives in Indianapolis. Send comments on this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.