Back in May of 2012, Larry Bird famously called his Indiana Pacers team soft; he even spelled the word S-O-F-T to make sure everybody got the message. They still lost in the playoffs to the Miami Heat (who went on to win the championship), but the Pacers responded to their boss’ challenge with heart and intensity.
Now it seems like everyone is calling the Pacers soft, and it’s all become white noise. It’s not working this time. The word seems to be wringing the life out of those guys instead of firing them up. The good people of Indianapolis know that there is no more beautiful sight in sports than a glint of anger in Andrew Luck‘s eyes; when something peeves him off, he finds a new gear and commences throat-stompage. Back in November, the Pacers and Indianapolis Colts seemed like two sides of the same young, talented, highly-entertaining coin, making Indianapolis one of the most fun sports atmospheres imaginable. Now, they seem near polar opposites; one is a collection of fiery overachievers, and the other is struggling to live up to half its potential.
Some people are born mentally tough, and some people aren’t. The question is, can mental toughness be learned? Or, can it be forgotten?
When Bird called the Pacers soft two years ago, his guys lost the series, but they proved worthy of the occasion. Then, in 2013, they took the Heat to seven games. Earlier this season, they looked near invincible. Roy Hibbert was favored to win Defensive Player of the Year, and Paul George was flirting with MVP contention. I remember being royally ticked off when they lost their first game, as if I’d convinced myself they might never lose again. Now, they’re neck-deep in a Chicago Cubs-worthy collapse that could become the stuff of legend.
Basically, February happened. Lance Stephenson was kept off the All-Star roster (which I expected to yield Luck-esque results, but obviously I was wrong). The Pacers signed Andrew Bynum as some sort of secret weapon that I still don’t understand. Danny Granger, the last guy remaining from the dark days after the brawl, was traded right when all of his patience and hard work was finally paying off.
Lance’s snub was probably not that big of a deal, but to me, those other moves meant that however good you think you are, you aren’t good enough. Those moves represented doubt and implied questions from team management. It reminds me of how George Lucas keeps tinkering with the Star Wars movies, except we’ll never know if that original iteration of the team might have turned into a classic finished product before it was rendered into a cartoon. Far be it me to question Larry Legend and company, but if they act like the team isn’t good enough, why should he be surprised when they do the same?
Yes, this team appears to be soft, but constantly reminding them of it isn’t helping anything.
I’m a closet believer in sports karma. I don’t know if Granger might have brought down the next Curse of the Bambino, but the trade did seem a little cosmically dissonant. I can’t prove that Bynum has some sort of voodoo hex about him, though the evidence might suggest this is the case. No one can undo what has already been done, but as soon as the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder ends on Sunday afternoon, all the records will be wiped clean. We know this Pacers team is talented enough to hang with anyone. I truly, truly believe that people can choose to be mentally tough; it’s just a matter of whether or not they will.