The Indiana Pacers’ season ended against the Miami Heat in disappointing fashion. President of basketball operations Larry Bird visibly showed his disgust as many fans and analysts were left wondering who was to blame. Fingers can be pointed in many directions: off-court distractions, poor offensive executions, lack of leadership and focus, negative attitudes, etc. For the final three months of the NBA season, the Pacers just withered into obscurity and public humiliation.
So what is the real reason? Who is really to blame? Why did it happen?
The finger pointing should go to ghost of brawl at The Palace of Auburn Hills that still haunts the team and the state.
Indiana is a state rich with legendary basketball roots. The 1954 Milan High School state championship basketball team was documented in one of sports’ most iconic movies “The Hoosiers.” Former Indiana University head coach Bobby Knight dominated college basketball with his tough and respected style. Former Pacers guard Reggie Miller stood up to the bigger markets with confidence and clutch moments. All of these iconic moments and many more document the historical tradition that is Indiana basketball.
However, the one stain on Indiana’s protected and well-respected tradition is the brawl between the Pacers and Detroit Pistons in Detroit, Mi. on Nov. 19, 2004. Indiana is always one of the first red states in presidential elections for a reason. Extremely conservative and filled with the blue-collar attitude of the Midwest; Indiana expects hard work and toughness. Along with those expectations, citizens and representatives of the state must uphold its crispy clean and well-protected reputation. That’s just the Indiana way.
As the Pacers fought the fans during the brawl, the reputation of the state continuously took public relations hits. The actions of the few sullied the reputation of the whole. The Pacers’ roster was 90 percent African-American, so the court of public opinion feasted on racial stereotypes. This brawl was a disaster for the organization.
As a result, the top priority for the Pacers was to rebuild their reputation. Wins and losses were no longer a priority. Team profits became obsolete. Acquiring star players was an afterthought. Toughness and hard work took a back seat. Everyone and everything attached to the players had to be attribute to advancing the Pacers’ image.
That ghost of a burden has clouded the team ever since.
The Pacers’ problems didn’t come from lack of talent, skill or experience. Their issue was their lack of blue-collar toughness and hard work. During the year of the brawl, the Pacers were a legit championship contender just like this year. The similarities of the teams are kind of scary. Yet, Larry Bird and the rest of upper management placed a glass ceiling on this year’s team and ruined their chances at a championship. The Pacers were constructed like the teams of old, yet their actions were coddled with chains and handcuffs.
It’s time for the Pacers to evolve with a hard-working frontline like Dale Davis and Antonio Davis, an entertaining superstar on the wing like Reggie Miller, a confident guard with New York swagger like Mark Jackson, a slow-footed, yet skilled low-post big men like Rik Smits and a bench that just comes in and competes.
But most importantly, it’s time for the Pacers to put the ghost of the brawl to rest.