Please, let it happen. Or, should I say to the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks, make it happen.
Hicks versus Knicks. Déjà vu all over again.
The thought occurred the other night as I watched the Knicks play the Boston Celtics in the first round of the NBA playoffs at Madison Square Garden and the cameras inevitably focused on the front-row celebrities, in particular, the animated film director Spike Lee, who was dressed like an orange traffic cone.
The Hicks, er, Pacers, need another crack at him, at the Knicks’ obnoxious fans, at the Garden (the most overrated basketball venue in the world), and at the whole city.
The Pacers have returned nearly all the way from the post-brawl malaise. They have a young, exciting team composed of good citizens who are also good players. They won the Central Division title. Crowds are returning—albeit, gradually—to Bankers Life Fieldhouse. There is a buzz again.
But if the Pacers were to meet the Knicks, the buzz would turn into a full-throated roar. And it would grip the city’s attention just like it did back in the “Reggie-Reggie-Reggie” days.
Indeed, in the next progression of their comeback, the Pacers need the Knicks. And the Knicks, staging their own return from basketball purgatory, need the Pacers.
Sure, there’s basketball still to be played and games to be won. The Pacers have to dispatch the Atlanta Hawks. The Knicks have to finish business with the Celtics. But if they come through as they should, they will meet in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
It is difficult to believe it has been 13 years since the Pacers last faced the Knicks in the playoffs. That was the 2000 Eastern Conference finals. It was the sixth time in eight years they met in the postseason. Those series turned the city on its ear (both cities, in fact). They even made for an outstanding ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, “Winning Time,” that focused not on just two franchises, but two cultures.
Now I’m not sure these Knicks are nearly as detestable as those Knicks. After all, those Knicks were the arrogant coach, Pat Riley. They were John Starks, and Charles Oakley, and Anthony Mason, and Patrick Ewing, and Larry Johnson. Tough guys.
These Knicks have a home-grown Indiana coach, Mike Woodson, out of Broad Ripple High School and Indiana University. Their general manager is another former IU Hoosier, Glen Grunwald. They were put together by the same genius who is back occupying the big office at the fieldhouse, Donnie Walsh, which is another reason to hope this series comes about: to watch Donnie squirm.
But I have one other reason to hope the Pacers and Knicks meet.
Now that Paul George has won the NBA’s MIP (Most Improved Player), perhaps he can become the NRM.
Next Reggie Miller.
It seems the Pacers—or, at least, Pacers fans—have been waiting for the NRM since the original departed the scene for a career as a TV analyst (he’s really good, by the way) and an induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame.
Those are huge sneakers to fill. Perhaps impossible.
Before his knee injury, Danny Granger was the Pacers’ go-to guy. Yet, despite his leading-scorer status and willingness to take the big shot—and the hit-or-miss consequences that go with it—the passion he engendered among the masses at the fieldhouse was tepid at best. He was not the NRM.
George could be.
Both are Californians: Miller from Riverside and UCLA; George from Palmdale and Fresno State. Miller was 21 when he was drafted 11th. George was 20 when he was drafted with the 10th pick. Neither was particularly well-known to Indiana fans, though George did not invite the negative reaction Miller did when he was chosen instead of native son Steve Alford.
Both also have had similar career progressions, from rookie backup to second-year starter to leading scorer in his third season.
But then Reggie took it to a higher level against the Knicks. Maybe George can get us there again.
Now I could be wrong—especially when agents become involved—but George seems to be the type of young man who might be willing to stake his claim in a small market and become the long-term face of the franchise, not unlike Kevin Durant at Oklahoma City currently or, back in the day, Reggie with the Pacers.
For now, though, here’s hoping for a reprise of Hicks versus Knicks and a Broadway stage for George.•
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.