INDIANAPOLIS — Paul George missed 11 of 14 shots in his first appearance here as a visitor, a 100-95 Oklahoma City win over the Pacers, but the former local star still delivered the victory for the Thunder. His lengthy defense put the clamps on Indiana sweetheart Victor Oladipo on what turned into a 9-for-26 night for the guard, swapped as part of a package in exchange for George in June. George heard boos during introductions and every time he touched the ball, the state’s first chance to speak to him since he more or less forced his way out. But this was far from a nasty affair.
The game was carried on ESPN, Indiana’s lone regular season appearance on the network, ensuring for at least one night that the team would be broadcast above the rails. It hasn’t been easy to find Pacers games in 2017-18 despite the surprise of an expected lottery team suddenly springing toward relevance.
The sprightly 16-12 group is built around Oladipo (24.3 points per game) and run steadily by NBA lifer Nate McMillan, now in his second year as Pacers coach. It remains by far the NBA’s best bargain.
But you wouldn’t know it by gazing through the glass.
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A couple of weeks into the Pacers’ surprising season, bartenders at Chumley’s in Lafayette, Ind., appeared unaware that the team even had a TV affiliate. Again we’ve broken the bar, in search of one television among the dozen available to watch the local NBA team play. This isn’t the first time this has happened this season.
My Indiana driver’s license, even after the doorman’s inspection, won’t guarantee access to all things orange and leathery. Not during football season. It’s a talk I’m familiar with, after a dozen years living in the Hoosier State.
“Are they on local TV?” a server asked, trying her best to fill my notebook.
Another bartender was asked if anyone ever requests to turn the channel to Pacers games. “We get asked about a lot of sports,” he replied.
A trip down Lafayette’s High Street — same as most others in Indiana, neatly kept and versatile enough to suit each of your needs — offered the same confusion. The bartender at DT Kirby’s happily fulfilled our request to flip a college basketball game over, before admitting that finding the Pacers took a little research.
“No one’s ever asked,” a barback chimed in, forearm tattoos sunk deep into his sink. It was hard to tell if he was complaining.
Bars bellied up to in Fort Wayne, Bloomington and Indianapolis relayed the same result — the game’s rarely on, no local’s ever raised an issue. In a state that warms to a new class of incoming basketball freshmen every fall, selling potential Pacers fans on the latest batch of pros is a harder push. Daylight hours slim during basketball season. Not many people have the time.
Even in the hour before Friday’s riotous home win over LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers, heads were turned elsewhere.
A trip past the windows of a wing joint outside Bankers Life Fieldhouse revealed televisions featuring the NFL on ESPN, Fox News, NFL Network and the NFL on another one of ESPN’s networks.
That victory over the Cavs and Sunday’s conquest against the Nuggets featured all-world performances from Oladipo, the five-year vet and prize of the offseason deal George encouraged. Oladipo posted a career-high 47 points against Denver and stood toe-to-toe with James in the Cavs game, as the NBA legend worked in a building he’d dominated far too many times for Pacers fans to count.
The average purchase price for a Pacers ticket on the secondary market is down 60 percent since 2015 according to Tickpick, and the drop cannot solely be pinned on the loss of George, who played in Indiana from 2010 to 2017. Ongoing talks with the shivering independent ticket brokerage consultants stationed alongside the parking garage that shares an alley with Bankers Life Fieldhouse also revealed estimates along those lines.
The building is perhaps the league’s best to see a game, an inexpensive date when purchased online — teenagers dotting the upper bowls of Bankers Life often carry cheaper ticket stubs than their friends watching a first-run movie at Circle Center Mall next door.
Sunday’s matinee against Denver exuded that comfort. Entire families ducked away from holiday shopping to warm up inside. After the Pacers win, local children with squeaky sneakers conducted winsome shooting exhibitions on the team’s vacated home court.
Wednesday night offered no kiddie run-throughs. George was the lone member of either team on the court an hour after this win, chatting quietly with two pals next to the empty Pacers bench.
It was an unlikely NBA scene. James’s return to Cleveland in 2010 brought fears for his Miami Heat’s on-court safety. Kevin Durant’s reappearance in Oklahoma City, months after leaving as a free agent the previous summer, was met with a smirking rush from the stands.
Indianapolis would have set the state’s blue laws back a century upon Reggie Miller’s return had he accepted the New York Knicks’ free agent offer in 1996, but this modern indifference is rooted in pragmatism. Local songwriter John Hiatt once railed against smashing a perfectly good guitar. Pacers fans similarly don’t see any point in burning a perfectly good jersey.
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A ballboy named Brady and three others that looked like they shared the name shagged flat jumpers for George 45 minutes before tip Wednesday, as onlookers stood by.
Most didn’t have their phones out. Several were more interested in trying to recognize faces behind the TV camera lights that dotted the floor (it was only former NBA player and current broadcaster Grant Long, kids). When public address announcer Jerry Baker stumbled on a line, he was gently chided by team employees — Jerry! — a perpetual Pawnee complaint come to life.
There was none of the klieg brace that met Market Square Arena fans when they walked into the building during the height of Indiana’s contending efforts in the 1990s. Not that Nate McMillan, coach in George’s final year and Oladipo’s first, wanted the lights dimmed.
“I don’t want to take that away from them,” he warned the media pregame, when asked about the national TV sheen. “I want them to be fired up. We’re not going to shy away from that.”
Indiana didn’t, but after the league’s No. 2 defense stifled his Pacers, McMillan was left to conclude that there was “no question” the national attention did a number on his team’s nerves.
“I don’t think they felt us,” the coach said. That regret could have carried over to the viewers at home.
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The Pacers franchise isn’t averse to taking risks. It’s been in the team’s makeup since the half-decade it spent dominating the ABA.
This is the same team that drafted Reggie Miller over Hoosiers hero Steve Alford in 1987, cashed in on one of the NBA’s first great lottery projects in Rik Smits, and interrupted a championship drive in 1999 to trade franchise stalwart Antonio Davis for high schooler Jonathan Bender. A year later, it followed its Finals run in 2000 with the decision to take a chance on Isiah Thomas as first-time coach before trading Dale Davis for another ex-high schooler, by then the team’s third, Jermaine O’Neal.
George fell into the laps of the Pacers a spot behind Butler stud Gordon Hayward in the 2010 draft. When Hayward didn’t sniff his home state team during free agency last summer, the Pacers fell back on dealing their best player in two decades for Oladipo, whose resume included three up and down years at the University of Indiana and underwhelming NBA stints in Orlando and Oklahoma City. He is still on a rich second contract.
It was that contract and the lack of a returning first-round pick that flummoxed Pacers fans. Undistinguished careers already working at $21 million a season are hard sells for fans of all interest levels.
Domantas Sabonis, the other acquisition, is the progeny of Hall of Famer Arvydas and he passes like it — a son presuming he owns his own father’s double-aged strength before dad lets him have a whack at the circular saw. Arvydas was in attendance for his son’s nervous showing on Wednesday.
But it’s that return that set Indiana on its way, Oladipo at all-star levels from the start of this season, Sabonis an improved rebounder and broken-play finisher.
Two studs for the price of an older star that didn’t want to be there, an all-star in George that could jet in free agency for no compensation within a year. It’s the sort of return that NBA general managers, forever at the mercy of a player’s league, lust over. Kevin Pritchard, the veteran executive who took over when Larry Bird walked away from his role as personnel boss in 2016, was instead roundly criticized for the deal.
His reward is a winner, possibly the league’s best story and certainly one of its most interesting watches, a feature that eluded the Pacers in George’s last few years with the club.
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Indiana is a beautiful drive at any point in the year, and several of those passageways take their names from state basketball legends:
There’s Rick Mount Highway, straight and rather dour, while Indianapolis features Oscar Robertson Boulevard, too easily passed by. There are parts of Old 67 renamed after John Wooden, ribbons of gray and yellow as tightly held as the man himself.
No Pacer has his own street yet, but they do, it turns out, boast a local TV affiliate that the team plays quite well on.
If the team wants another shot at ESPN, though, it will have to wait until the playoffs. Before George had even left the building on Wednesday, national press had started to frame the win as a turnaround for the underachieving, 13-14 Thunder, and their trucks were leaving the state. More traffic for the Mount Highway to brood over.
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That’s just fine. “This is all new to us,” McMillan reminded the media prior to a loss that was less about his team’s legs going wobbly in the spotlight, and more about the NBA’s No. 2 defense coming into town.
The same patience has to extend to the state, and the fans in wait.
Wednesday’s exercise in tact confirmed the sensible: Indiana doesn’t need to be angry at Paul George, and any mild winter indifference toward this team has nothing to do with enmity or revolt.
It’s all about time, in an area where Daylight Savings only arguably helps. The crowds inside the arena are healthy, knowledgeable and loud, and the rest of the community only has to outlast Christmas and the Colts before diving in yet again.
When Chumley’s finally finds the channel, Hoosiers will love what they see.
Kelly Dwyer produces daily NBA columns at The Second Arrangement. He is based in Lafayette, Indiana.
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