There are two things you need to know about growing up in Indiana.
One: however much corn you think we have, you have grossly underestimated. Statistically, if you’re standing somewhere in Indiana, you’re probably standing in the middle of a cornfield.
Two: whatever you’ve heard about Indiana and basketball, it’s not an exaggeration. Sure, we’ve had a dalliance with the Colts – and all of us are very enthusiastic about Andrew Luck, who is a Nice Young Man – but there’s a level of obsession in Indiana for basketball that you’d expect of soccer in Brazil, or cricket in India. Even if you don’t like basketball, per se, growing up in Indiana gives you a certain base level of knowledge about the sport that comes, seemingly, from osmosis.
Growing up, I didn’t like basketball; I loved basketball. Market Square Arena was where I learned how to be a fan. The Arthur Jordan YMCA was where I learned how to dribble.
I have retained only one of those two things.
My mother was a typical Hoosier who loved sports in general and basketball in particular, and even though I was nerdy and awkward, and really my only skill was being taller than the second grade boys on all the other teams, I played and I tried my hardest. I didn’t especially enjoy it, but I absolutely loved going to Pacers games with Mom. Market Square Arena was where I bought my first foam finger and where I said my first swear word (“shitty” – in the context, “that was a shitty call, ref, are you blind?”) and when it was demolished in 2001, a month before I left home as an exchange student at age 15, my mom cried almost as much as she did putting me on that plane.
The early ‘90s, for those of you who weren’t alive (oh God, I’m old) or avid basketball-watchers at the time, were a golden era of the sport. Michael Jordan was playing two hours up I-65 in Chicago. In New York City, the Knicks were making Spike Lee excited instead of deeply sad. And in Indianapolis, Reggie Miller was basically a god. Stephen Goldsmith may have been the mayor that initiated the New Downtown, but it’s no coincidence that the rebirth of Indianapolis – formerly a place so boring it was referred to, not at all jokingly, as Naptown – happened alongside the rise of the Pacers.
One episode of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series chronicled Reggie Miller and the Pacers’ rivalry with the Knicks that defined the era, and it is very much worth watching.
But I lived it.
Imagine, if you will, caring about your team so much that you fly 650 miles to what you regard as the middle of nowhere and pony up a not-insignificant amount of cash for playoff tickets. You make a sign to bring with you that you hope will earn you a closeup on TV – it reads “HICKS VS KNICKS” in orange and blue – and you’re secure in the knowledge that people from Indiana are basically too nice to really do anything but smile at you slightly less than they would otherwise. And then, on your way out of the arena after a heartbreaking overtime loss, a ten year old girl leans out of the passenger side window of a white Chevy Astro and yells “HICKS RULE! SUCK IT, NEW YORK!” at you, waving a giant Pacers flag as the van turns the corner.
My mom bought me ice cream at the Ben and Jerry’s in Broad Ripple afterward. I couldn’t hit threes like Reggie, or make the choking sign at Spike Lee, but my voice was shrill like only a little girl’s can be, and I could sure as shit make a dejected Knicks fan feel even worse about his poor life choices.
So what happened? Why is it that, 20 years later, I’m unable to name more than three Pacers players, and only that many because I have recently watched an obscene amount of Parks and Rec? What happened to the little girl whose mom got dirty looks up in the cheap seats for telling her daughter that if the players on the court couldn’t hear her when she yelled “BRICK!” at free throws, she wasn’t doing her job as a fan?
Basketball’s place in Indiana hasn’t changed. There are still hoops attached over the vast majority of garages in subdivisions across the state. High school basketball still holds the same kind of sacred mystique in Indiana that football does in Texas. But, for a while, life as a Pacers fan got a little darker than people from Indiana are generally comfortable with. Nine years after Reggie was knocking down threes like he was trying to win a giant stuffed animal at a Fourth of July carnival, Ron, Stephen, and Jermaine were getting suspended for knocking heads together in Detroit. Subsequent issues with lackluster coaching, poor team chemistry, and off-court incidents at Indianapolis nightclubs (I promise you, not an oxymoron) coincided with a rise in success of the Colts. With their squeaky-clean image, and the work done by the likes of Tony Dungy and Peyton Manning – and now Chuck Pagano and Andrew Luck – the Colts began to appeal to Hoosier sensibilities in a way that the Pacers weren’t managing.
For me, though, there’s something else.
Basketball was the game I watched with my mom.
It was the sport I liked even when I thought I didn’t like sports. It meant time eating cotton candy and yelling down from the cheap seats with the person I loved most in the universe, and when Mom was diagnosed with brain cancer in late 2006, it coincided with the worst season in the team’s history.
We couldn’t watch it together.
We didn’t need anything else to make us sad.
I took refuge in other sports. Gloried in the Colts’ championship season, the bright spot in a pretty hellish year. I let Liverpool make me dream in 2005 in Istanbul, and I have continued to allow them to toy with my emotions. I found it impossible to follow the Blackhawks from abroad in the mid-2000s, but moving back to the States after university coincided quite serendipitously with the rebirth of the franchise under Rocky Wirtz’s ownership. I moved to Baton Rouge to teach and staunchly refused to take an interest in SEC football, but learned to hate Alabama despite my best efforts to ignore anything to do with LSU. The Colts lost to the Saints and I had to wear a goddamn Saints hat every day for a month.
Life moved on.
But I haven’t watched a full NBA game since I sat in hospice with Mom in 2008, watching the Pacers try and fail to make the playoffs for a second year in a row, listening to the rasp of her breathing and wondering how I’d manage alone. Sometimes I think that maybe I’ll feel a love of basketball come back, my Hoosier blood running true across the time and distance. Basketball taught me how to be a fan, after all.
Maybe it still has more to teach me.