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BENNER: One Hoosier tradition is back; another has miles to go

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Bill Benner on sports

Everyone loves a good comeback story.

On this Memorial Day weekend in Indianapolis, we will witness one comeback and continue to wish for another.

Both go to the core of our Hoosier sports heritage—auto racing and basketball.

For the first time since 2004, we are enjoying a racers/Pacers spectacular: the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500 followed by Game 3 of the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals, with the Indiana Pacers hosting the heavily favored Miami Heat at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

That’s a stout day/night doubleheader. Indeed, what other city, on a single day, can deliver close to 300,000 spectators and at least seven hours of national television coverage? And the answer is, of course, none.

For the Pacers, reaching the conference finals—and a spot among the NBA’s final four—represents the next step in the long rebuilding process that began the instant that beer cup landed next to Ron Artest in the Palace at Auburn Hills, precipitating The Brawl and all the ugly ramifications that came from that.

A year later, Reggie Miller retired and the Pacers’ Knucklehead Era ensued. It was left for Larry Bird to clear out the bad actors and the bad contracts and chart a painstakingly slow but ultimately successful revival for the Pacers.

I wonder where Bird’s critics—and there were plenty of them—are now.

Nonetheless, although the goal, always, is a championship, what the Pacers have achieved already is simply remarkable. And remember (as some in the national media haven’t), they have reached this point minus Danny Granger, their leading scorer from a year ago.

For now, too, the crowds have returned, and it was good to see that the presence of New York Knicks fans in the fieldhouse was kept to a minimum. We’ll see if that continues with the Heat series.

What also remains to be seen is whether this season’s success carries over into next year. Not unlike most cities and fan bases, we can be a fickle lot. For example, it only took one injury-plagued season for the Indianapolis Colts’ season-ticket waiting list to disappear.

But another reason for that is that our small market gets tugged in many ways and there is only so much corporate and discretionary income to spread around.

In any case, the Pacers are back from the depths, locally and nationally relevant again. Regardless of his wealth, which some want to hold against him, I’m happy for owner Herb Simon, and I had to chuckle when the TV cameras captured his unabashed glee in the waning moments of the series-clinching victory over the Knicks.

As for the racers part of our weekend, it pains me to admit the Indy 500 is unlikely to ever fully recapture its glory days. I attended my first race 50 years ago (Parnelli Jones’ 1963 victory) and have missed only a handful of races in the intervening years. Jim Nabors’ “Back Home Again in Indiana” may be my favorite—or at least my most Hoosier—moment of the year.

But, unfortunately, the national relevance is not what it once was and the declining media coverage is the most noticeable evidence of that. It’s more a reflection of the state of IndyCar than the Indy 500, and I’m glad that some really smart people are exploring any option that might elevate the series.

While we fret over the downsizing of the month or the removal of seats (mostly bad ones), we should never take for granted that the 500 is the largest single-day sporting event on the planet, that it never has had to sell its name to a sponsor, and that it has not had to yield to the whims of television, other than a slightly later starting time.

So on race morning, a quarter million of us will once again be witness to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Then, that evening, we’ll watch our small-market, no-superstar professional basketball team play on a national stage.

All in all, it will be a great day to be a Hoosier. Yet another one, in fact.•

__________

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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