As I flipped back and forth between channels on the night of May 8, the irony of Sen. Richard Lugar’s losing the Republican primary as the Indiana Pacers were registering their biggest victory in seven years was inescapable.
Because without Lugar we might not have the Pacers.
Yes, Mayor Bill Hudnut collected most of the credit for yanking Indianapolis out of the doldrums, spurring the building of the Hoosier Dome, and bringing the Indianapolis Colts to town. His successor, Steve Goldsmith, got his due for replacing the holes downtown with Circle Centre mall. Bart Peterson emphasized arts and cultural amenities, but had the construction of Lucas Oil Stadium at the top of his resume. Greg Ballard has solidly dealt with infrastructure improvements and presided over arguably the best Super Bowl in history.
But it all really began with Mayor Dick Lugar.
I know, this is supposed to be a sports column, so I promise I’m not deviating too far from the central theme.
I have told/written this story many times over the years, but it bears repeating as we rightfully reflect on Lugar’s career in the aftermath of his stunning defeat to challenger Richard Mourdock.
When Lugar moved into the 25th floor of the City County Building on Jan. 1, 1968, the view from the window was of Dullsville. But by the time Lugar left on Dec. 31, 1975, the view included a downtown edifice known as Market Square Arena.
With the opening of MSA, Indianapolis had been forever changed and its future shaped—even though no one really knew that yet.
Two things motivated Lugar to risk political capital and divert federal revenue-sharing funds toward the construction of MSA.
One, the Indiana Pacers, playing at the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum, had developed into the flagship franchise of the late, great American Basketball Association. In winning three championships, the Pacers had taken the town by storm and were hugely popular.
Two, the Indiana High School Athletic Association, bowing to ticket demand (remember, this was before multi-class basketball), had moved its beloved boys state basketball finals from Butler (Hinkle) Fieldhouse to Indiana University’s Assembly Hall for the simple reason that Assembly Hall could seat 3,000 more spectators than the fieldhouse.
Lugar, a Shortridge grad who had a deep appreciation and passion for Hoosier Hysteria, had difficulty fathoming that the state capital lacked an adequate facility to host the boys state finals.
Then there was his over-arching vision … that in order to stimulate downtown activity beyond the 8-to-5 workday window, the populace needed a reason to come downtown.
Events at Market Square Arena—the Pacers, the World Hockey Association Racers, concerts and other events including, yes, the return of the IHSAA boys basketball state finals—provided that motivation.
The rest is sweet history. For the next 25 years, MSA became our communal home and downtown blossomed around it. Lugar saw the reward, not the risk, in investing in a multi-purpose facility.
Lugar left for Washington, D.C., in 1977 to begin his distinguished career in the Senate but never, despite what the attack ads tried to portray, forsook his Indiana roots and, in particular, his passion for Indy.
Hudnut, of course, built on Lugar’s foundation, abetted by the wisdom and vision of a couple of former deputy mayors, Jim Morris and Dave Frick; the investment of Lilly Endowment; and the overwhelmingly bipartisan support of Democrats and Republicans who shared a commitment to redefine and revitalize Indianapolis.
It’s interesting to note that the whole “reaching across the aisle to build consensus” thing—for which Lugar was so sharply criticized in this campaign—has been strategic to Indianapolis’ success. It’s not surprising that Lugar took that mind-set with him to the floor of the U.S. Senate. If only there were more like him. Instead, we are electing people who are vowing there will be fewer.
Sure, it is entirely possible the vibrant downtown Indy we have today might have occurred without Lugar’s leadership. Yet someone had to be first, to dare to take the city in a new direction, to see the potential. Lugar was that man.
So, on the night of the beginning of the end of Lugar’s distinguished political career, a few miles from where he offered a gracious and classy concession speech, the Pacers provided a stirring, series-clinching victory in front of a roaring, sold-out crowd. It rekindled memories of the playoff runs that made Market Square Arena—the house that Dick Lugar built—the place to be.•
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.