SPORTS: In defense of the indefensible blue and gold

March 10, 2008

Yes, I'm writing about the Indiana Pacers.

Their struggles-and, yes, the scrapes with the law and bad judgment exercised by a few-have exposed an ugly underbelly that says as much about us as it does about them.

It's a cautionary tale for those riding-high Indianapolis Colts because (1) Peyton Manning won't play forever, (2) Tony Dungy won't coach forever, (3) Bill Polian won't be the decision-maker forever, and (4) the law of legal averages eventually will catch up to any group of young men making lots of money and spending much of their lives in the fast lane.

In other words, enjoy it while it lasts.

As I've stated in this space before, it wasn't that long ago that the Pacers could do no wrong and the Colts were the ugly stepchild.

The month of May meant more than the run-up to the Indy 500. It meant extended playoff runs; Reg-gie, Reg-gie, Reg-gie; and sold-out, sore-throated crowds at Market Square Arena and then Conseco Fieldhouse.

Pacers gear flew off the shelves and all the flags that flew from cars were adorned in blue and gold.

Oh, and Larry Bird was a shrewd hero, not a dumb goat.

The Colts? They just couldn't get it right, except for that 1995 playoff burst engineered by Jim Harbaugh. Coaches and general managers came and went. And there was enough dirty laundry (does anyone remember Steve Muhammed?) to keep the non-sports media salivating at the prospect of rich athletes gone bad!!

When it came to support, they couldn't sell out the smallest stadium in the NFL.

Of course, we all know the rest of the story. Jim Irsay became the owner. Irsay begot Polian, who begot Manning and Dungy. The rest of the pieces fell into place.

The Colts' ascension coincided with the Pacers' decline, which became a fall off a cliff on that November night in Auburn Hills, Mich. Ain't been the same, since.

Please, do not misconstrue my thoughts about the Pacers. Many of their wounds have been self-inflicted. Yet others also have been circumstantial and, in some instances, things over which they had zero control, starting with an idiot throwing a beer cup.

Still, it's a high-profile, high-stakes enterprise where, as I've written many times, the bottom line is the one that goes on the scoreboard.

What frankly irritates the heck out of me is the abandonment of this franchise and the constant pummeling it takes-some of it racially tinged-from folks who simply don't have a clue about the complexities of running an NBA franchise.

And some perspective, please. All the Pacers are not thugs (the racist's favorite code word). For the record, they have 15 players on their roster. Three-Jamal Tinsley, Marquis Daniels and Shawne Williams-have had both serious legal and judgment issues. A fourth, David Harrison, was suspended after testing positive for marijuana (a test the Pacers, by league rule, couldn't be notified about until he failed it for a third time). Oh, and the two clowns the public demanded be traded-Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson-were.

In the meantime, the Pacers team has struggled on the floor, largely because it is missing two-fifths of its starting lineup to injuries. Offensively, they're darn fun to watch, but their defense is a constant liability and their inability to close out games has been a killer.

Attendance is last in the league. Last. So much for Indianapolis portraying itself as a great sports town. It's certainly not a great pro sports town. It's a fair-weather town where the bandwagon quickly empties. Don't think it won't happen to the Colts the first time they slip below .500 and have a couple of off-field incidents. And that's not a question of if that will happen, but when.

The Simons saved the Pacer franchise when it was nothing. Without them, there is no Reg-gie, Reg-gie, Reg-gie. Donnie Walsh made it into one of the NBA's finest, regardless of market size. Larry Bird coached its finest NBA moment and now has taken on the task of trying to restore its glory. You think he's doing it for the money? Please. He's doing it because he's one of us and because he's a competitor. Yet he gets trashed as a bumpkin who doesn't demand accountability. Nonsense.

Yes, a few knuckleheads have run them through the muck. Yes, some personnel decisions have blown up in their faces.

But a real pro sports town wouldn't give up on them like Indy has. If nothing else, fans would show up just to boo 'em.

Mark my words, these times shall pass for the Pacers and, yes, for the Colts.

Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. To comment on this column, send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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