It was a year ago on a mid-November Friday night when we had settled into our easy chairs, watching on television as the Indiana Pacers were wrapping up an impressive and statementsending early-season victory over the Detroit Pistons in Auburn Hills, Mich.
Then, of course, all hell broke loose and the franchise we had grown up with-indeed, all of the NBA-took a hit harder than any administered in the stands.
In today’s mega-media world, few events in sports history have received as much attention as the Pacers-Pistons brawl. Sadly, until something comes along that’s worse-and it’s difficult to imagine what that could be-it will remain the benchmark for behavioral excess in the realm of athlete-fan interaction.
It is the video clip that just keeps on giving us chills, living oh-so large in sports infamy.
And it kills me that it focuses on the franchise that represents our city and state, where basketball is so revered. The franchise brought to greatness under Slick Leonard, guided back to excellence by Donnie Walsh, and now represented by Larry Bird. The franchise that’s in the hands and wallets of model owners Herb and Mel Simon. The franchise that always had exuded character and modeled class.
All are linked to the video clip that will never go away.
This is not meant, however, to reopen the debate of the rights and wrongs of that November evening, 2004. The courts meted out punishment. The NBA handed out suspensions. Some still insist that Detroit’s Ben Wallace, the instigator, received what amounted to a free pass for his role. Agreed. Some still insist Pistons management never was held accountable for the truly woeful lack of security that otherwise might have prevented the scope of what transpired. Agreed. Some still insist the Pacers’ Ron Artest was punished too severely. Agreed.
Yet none of what happened is excusable, nor can it be erased.
In the wake of the brawl a year ago, I wrote I hoped there would be positive things that evolved from that overwhelmingly negative incident. And to a great extent, that happened.
The Pacers organization worked with the NBA Players Association to distribute more than $1 million in fine money to local charities. Cynics (there are always cynics) questioned the move as a blatant PR maneuver, but don’t tell that to the charities or to the children and adults for whom that money made a positive difference.
The Pacers, short-handed as they were, evolved into a Hoosiers-style group of perpetual underdogs, and their eventual advancement to the Eastern Conference semifinals-where they lost to Detroit-was seen as a triumph, instead of the bitter disappointment it would have been otherwise.
The NBA has had to not only rethink security basics, but also conduct a serious self-exam of its image and marketing approaches. Some might draw a straight line from the brawl to the new dress code policy, but that is too simplistic. The NBA was suffering from a fansplayers disconnect long before that beer cup hit Artest in the mug. It’s also too simplistic to believe players’ off-court attire can compensate for the degeneration of the on-court game. Personally, I couldn’t care less about hip-hop, unless I’m rabbit hunting. It’s the game that needs to be dressed up, although I realize that as a 50-something white guy who likes to see well-executed offenses and the occasional jump shot, I might be in the minority.
But back to the Pacers. How much long-term damage has been done to the franchise is difficult to assess. Maybe none at all, or at least nothing winning won’t cure. Maybe I’m one of the few who still cringe at the sight of men charging into the stands with uniforms that say “Indiana” on the front. More than I hate that video, I hate that it can’t be erased.
Meanwhile, the Pacers’ new season-and the new, post-Reggie-Miller era-has begun. While there is a motherlode of talent, I’m more interested in that other “t” word: team. When I think of the Pacers squads that emerged under Larry Brown and came of age under Larry Bird, I also think of other “t” words, such as togetherness, toughness, tenacity. I wonder if this group has those.
It also gives you-or me, anyway-pause when both Miller and Dale Davis question from afar the Pacers’ maturity, then Coach Rick Carlisle airs concerns about his team’s chemistry just four games into the year.
Aw, but why fret? It’s November, and the Pacers are off to a good start.
Just like a year ago.
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. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to email@example.com.