BENNER: Catching up with Pacers, racers and Boilermakers

So many topics, so little space …

This week, we will discover if the Indiana Pacers’ glass is half empty, or half full.

Or, to put it another way, will Conseco Fieldhouse be half empty of Pacers’ fans and, thus, half full of partisans for their playoff opponents, the Chicago Bulls?

Despite making the postseason for the first time in five years, the Pacers haven’t exactly lit a fire beneath their local fan base, finishing dead last in the NBA in attendance (average, 13,538).

Understood, a sub-.500 regular-season record doesn’t stir a lot of passion. As for the Bulls series, the rare prospect of an eighth seed beating a top seed—it’s happened only three times in NBA history—doesn’t stoke optimism.

Yet the feeling was similar in 1994 when the Pacers, seeking their first-ever NBA playoff-series victory, opened on the road against highly favored Orlando and Shaquille O’Neal. Byron Scott’s buzzer-beater in Game One gave the Pacers an upset. They went on to sweep that series, took out top-seeded Atlanta in the next round, and pushed the New York Knicks to the brink in the Eastern Conference finals. The Pacers then owned this town lock, stock and Reggie Miller’s gun barrel for six years.

I’m not suggesting this is a restart of that. For one thing, opening rounds back then were best-of-five. Now, they’re best-of-sevens. That increases the odds that the better team will prevail. And the Bulls, led by my vote (if I had one) for MVP, Derrick Rose, are the better team.

But the Pacers, at least, have upheld the vows of team President Larry Bird and interim coach Frank Vogel. They are a playoff team even if abetted by the good fortune of Eastern Conference geography. Ever so slowly, they are pulling themselves out of the abyss with the nucleus of a promising, young team in place and the possibility of adding the requisite pieces to make them a conference contender again. Perhaps Bird will prove that you don’t have to go all the way to the bottom to ascend back to the top.

Then again, will he be around to see the job to completion? His contract is up. He doesn’t need the money. And he has absorbed an enormous amount of criticism, much of which was undeserved. Who could blame him if he just said, the heck with it?

In any case, playoff basketball has returned to Indianapolis. Let’s just hope Indy is not South Chicago. Moving on, I couldn’t help but notice the contrast in the tone of media coverage of the NCAA tournament’s championship game and the back-nine meltdown by Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy at the Masters.

Scribes and talking heads alike derided the offensive struggles of Butler University and the University of Connecticut—especially Butler—in that title game. CBS’ Clark Kellogg referred to “unparalleled ineptitude” and said the game was like watching paint dry, which moved Jim Nantz to respond, “That’s an insult to paint.”

Yet reaction to McIlroy shooting an 80 and blowing a four-shot lead was generally sympathetic. One writer opined that we should “feel sorry” for Rory.

Kind of makes you wonder who the professionals were.

It would have seemed that the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 would have served up limitless possibilities for the honor of driving the pace car. A.J. Foyt? Rick Mears? Al Unser Sr.? Bobby Unser? Johnny “Lone Star J.R.” Rutherford?

Instead, they give us that bloated monument to self, Donald Trump.

What, Steven Tyler—butcher of the National Anthem—wasn’t available?

Finally, I never thought a Purdue guy like Matt Painter would play his alma mater like he did. If I had been Athletic Director Morgan Burke, my response to Painter’s dalliance with the University of Missouri would have been, “Matt, Columbia’s a wonderful town. I hope you and your family enjoy it there.”

And I say that even though I think Painter is a terrific coach, a university asset and an all-around good guy.

I’m not a smart man but what, exactly, was it that was holding Purdue and Painter back? Money for assistant coaches? Nicer rental cars? A fancy practice facility and locker rooms? This so-called “lack of commitment” or whatever that means?

You would think Purdue had been languishing at the bottom of the Big Ten.

There’s a one-word answer to anyone who thinks all you need to get to the Final Four is a checkbook: Butler.•


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 He also has a blog,

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