At first glance Butler University sophomore Gordon Hayward could be the answer to so many of the Indiana Pacers current problems—on
the court, with sponsors and at the turnstile.
At second and third glance, he’s also the answer to those problems.
Let’s start with this premise. Indiana’s sports fans are a fickle bunch. They’re not diehards in the classic sense, and this is why.
They’re all about the people behind the jerseys. That’s why teams' fortunes in this land-locked city rise and fall like an oceanic tide.
With so-called hard core fans in other markets its about some unspoken mystique, the facility and tradition.
The vaunted Yankee Stadium, legendary Wrigley Field. Shoot, some people in Chicago even bemoaned the destruction of the cesspool that was the old Comiskey Park. As I stood in two inches of water inside a bathroom during the last year of the old Comiskey, listening to White Sox fans speak about their beloved ball park, I knew there was a fundamental difference.
And the teams in those markets take on an identity of their own. The Cubs and Bears, Red Sox and Yankees enjoy a strange kind of following—regardless who dons the uniform—I’m not sure a team here ever will.
In Indiana, we cheer Reggie and Peyton, Razor Shines and Slick Leonard. It doesn’t matter if they’re playing in MSA, Bush Stadium or the Fairgrounds Coliseum.
It didn’t matter that Indiana University played in a basketball arena where you couldn’t see the scoreboard from the upper reaches of the main level and felt a touch of vertigo from the balcony, as long as you had Bobby and his boys to cheer on.
And during the glory days of motorsports it was more about A.J. and Mario than it ever was the fabled Brickyard. That might be something the folks at 16th and Georgetown want to note.
This town wants its heroes, not legacies. Hoosiers demand character, not cathedrals. If that makes Indianapolis a soft sports market, so be it.
So that brings us back to the Pacers and Gordon Hayward.
Currently the Pacers are four games from the end of another losing season. Hayward became a household name during the Bulldogs’ run to the NCAA Championship game, and now is pondering a jump to the NBA.
First, let me say the pressure on Hayward should he become a Pacer would be immense. And it’s certainly unfair to pin the hopes of a franchise on the shoulders of a 20-year-old kid.
Still, the marketing opportunities are undeniable. And not because he’s white.
You can count on one hand the number of professional athletes this town would embrace more than Hayward.
I probably don’t need to point out that Gordon Hayward can play. Spindly yes, but so was Miller. And he appears to have the type of leadership skills that are rare, and humility that is rarer yet. These things are the intangibles that make Hoosiers stand up and cheer.
I’m not suggesting he will measure up to Miller, but if Larry Bird thinks Hayward can accomplish two-thirds of what Miller did in Indianapolis, he’d be a fool not to consider drafting him.
Yes, I've heard the knocks on Hayward. My favorite is he's "too nice." But didn't some NFL prognosticators say Peyton Manning was too unemotional.
No offense, but I think it’s safe to say Hayward would have a bigger immediate impact than Tyler Hansbrough, Bird’s first round draft choice last year.
And certainly Bird sees a little bit of himself in the kid from Brownsburg. If he accomplishes one-third of what Bird accomplished, it would be an unbelievable love-fest between this city and the Bulldog known as the Baby-Faced Assassin.
That has to be tempting for Pacers brass. And the best part, Hayward would likely be available when the Pacers select No. 10, mostly because Hayward hasn’t done quite enough to prove himself to be worthy of a higher draft pick—yet.
But isn’t that how basketball operation kingpins like Bird make a name for themselves? Yes, there’s fame and glory in finding hidden gems.
Let’s face it, more than half of Walsh’s career success is owed to his drafting Reggie Miller over Steve Alford. This city couldn’t have been more profuse in their praise of Walsh in the two decades since that decision was made.
What really do the Pacers have to lose? They have almost no one on the roster this community embraces as their own. That as much as the losing is this franchise’s biggest problem.
And what’s available in the draft if they don’t take Hayward? One mock draft has the Pacers taking 6-11 Hassan Whiteside, a freshman out of Marshall. Another has the Pacers drafting 6-8 Kentucky junior Patrick Patterson. Maybe 6-8 sophomore Al-Faroug Aminu out of Wake Forest or 6-10 Georgetown sophomore Greg Monroe will be available. If you like hot overseas stars, 20-year-old Lithuanian Donatas Motiejunas is supposed to be a good 7-footer.
Do any of those send you grabbing for your wallet and heading to Conseco Fieldhouse to buy season tickets? I don’t think so.
And the Pacers need someone who will boost sales now. Not to say they’re taking the short-sighted path here, but my guess is team owner Herb Simon has had a belly full of the $30 million annual losses.
No doubt, Indiana fans clamor to a winner like a moth to a beacon. But Reggie never won us titles. And this city’s love for him never waned.
In Indiana there’s clearly an “it” factor that goes beyond brick and mortar history or decades-old mystique that draws the cheering masses.
So Larry, do you think Gordon Hayward has it?
Hayward's future, not to mention Bird's own, and perhaps even the destiny of this franchise may hang on that answer.