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BENNER: Will playoff-fueled Pacer passion last until November?

May 26, 2012

Of this, that and the other from the world of sports on this Memorial Day weekend:

Curious, isn’t it, that Indiana Pacers forward Danny Granger plays the “we don’t get any national respect” card when he, in particular, and his team, in general, spent virtually all of this past National Basketball Association season not getting much in the way of local respect?

Now, as this is being written, the Pacers were preparing for their third and final home game in their Eastern Conference semifinal series with the detestable Miami Heat. A sellout crowd was assured and, certainly, it was going to be of the raucous variety that had taken us all for a trip back to those days of Market Square Arena madness.

The Heat of LeBron James and Dwayne Wade, like Patrick Ewing’s New York Knicks and Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, represented mega-markets and were led by mega-stars.

Our team, from the city in the middle of flyover country, was merely the sum of the assembled parts, save for a spindly, brash, fearless guard who took them on with both his game and his mouth.

And we loved Reggie Miller for it.

He was the face and voice of the franchise. And he was box office, a reason to buy a ticket to a weeknight game in January against a nondescript opponent. Parents wanted their kids to see Reggie Miller. Kids wanted his jersey.

Almost from the day he was drafted and certainly from the time it became apparent that he would become the focal point of the Pacers offense, we have wanted—fair or not—Danny Granger to be our next Reggie Miller.

Yet, for some reason—maybe an 8-points-in-8.5-seconds outburst—we have yet to fully embrace him, even in this contentious Miami series when he has tried to play the role of the one who wouldn’t back down against the Heat and their superstars.

“That’s a product of the chip on my shoulder and we have on our shoulder as a team of not being respected,” Granger explained before the Pacers were blown out in Game 5. “That goes not just for this series, but all year. We had the fourth or fifth best record in the NBA and I think we only had one televised game. Three or four teams that didn’t make the playoffs had more televised games than us. It was just a matter of being disrespected nationally.”

Yet where was the local respect? Until the playoffs, even as they compiled a stellar record, the Pacers were next to last in regular-season attendance and often only sold out, or came close to it, when a glamour, superstar-led opponent—Chicago, Miami, Orlando, New York, Boston—came to town.

In fact, in their last regular-season game against Chicago in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the turnout was embarrassingly one-sided for the Bulls.

So regardless of how the Heat series ends, I am already looking forward to November to see if the Pacers have truly recaptured the hearts of this city and if the franchise can capitalize on the momentum.

After all, if we won’t embrace a team without superstars, how can we expect the national media to do the same?

One more note on the Pacers: Lance Stephenson. His choke sign from the bench to LeBron James in Game 3 may have turned the series. This summer, he needs to find another home.

Moving on.

I was delighted to see the basketball Crossroads Classic among Purdue University, Indiana University, the University of Notre Dame and Butler University at the Fieldhouse extended to 2014. It shows there can be cooperation and collaboration for the good of the paying customer.

That said, back to the scrap-piling of the Indiana-Kentucky series. If IU insists on home-and-home and Kentucky demands neutral courts, why not both? Just do one of each over a four-year span. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Ah, never mind.

Finally, it is Memorial Day. Remember those who have given the ultimate sacrifice. And if you see someone in the military, thank them. Without them, we might not have this silly stuff called sports.•

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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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