I grew up in Indianapolis during the 90’s. My entire world was Pacers basketball as a kid. Rik Smits was my favorite player. I loved him so much that I just started telling people that my name was Rik Smits. It’s no secret that those Pacers teams in the mid to late 90’s were beloved by many. So many fond memories came out of that period. Reggie’s 8 points in 9 seconds, The Choke, Rik’s last second shot against Orlando in ’95, that magical run to the 2000 Finals against the Lakers; too many moments to recount.
What was so memorable about those years wasn’t so much the success of the Pacers on the court, although there certainly was much of that, it was more of the role that team played in forming what identifies us as Hoosiers; in what identifies me as a Hoosier. You see, for many years Indiana and its capital Indianapolis was considered a flyover state or a place you drove through on your way to Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, or pretty much anywhere else in the Midwest. It was irreverently referred to as Naptown or Indianoplace. Outside the Indianapolis 500 and a tradition of grassroots basketball, about the only thing anyone really knew about Indiana was corn.
To be perfectly honest Indy lacked any real sort of character. A product of a 1980’s economic boom, the downtown area was lined with large, bland limestone buildings were symbolic of the kind of city Indianapolis wanted to be, but had yet to become. Market Square Arena, the Pacers first purpose-built arena, was certainly an archetype of basketball arenas like Madison Square Garden and the Boston Garden. It was a white domed structure like so many of its time. It was almost as if Indiana was embarrassed of its heritage and felt the only way to grow and become the modern city it so desperately wanted to be was to try to imitate the big metropolises.
Cue the 90’s. Donnie Walsh had drafted some hot shot kid from Hollywood over Indiana’s favored son in the 1987 NBA draft. Hoosiers were used to losing by then; memories of the success in the ABA years long forgotten. Passing up Steve Alford was just another middle finger to Pacers loyalists. But then something magical happened. That little shit from SoCal not only took us to the next level, but pitted us against the self-proclaimed basketball gods in New York City. A lot of losing happened in those early years; close games and close series. Year after year we always seemed to face the Knicks in the playoffs and year after year they always dealt the final blow to our season.
The curious thing was, it almost didn’t matter. You see, what mattered, and I mean deeply mattered to Pacers fans was the finally, after all these years, someone was finally standing up for us. That team wanted to win for them, sure, but they wanted to win for us. They fought hard for us, they fouled out for us, and they damn near got into a fight on the court every night for us. That whole crew: Reggie, Rik, Mark Jackson, the Davis brothers, and so many more took the fight for our city’s, our state’s respect to the floor every night. They didn’t always win. It took them three tries before they finally knocked off the Knicks in 1995 and until 2000 before they every reached the Finals before losing in game 6. But it was that feeling that they took on the big brother role and fought to be heard when no one else was listening.
Since then Indy has really come into its own. In my lifetime I’ve seen Indy go from a bland Midwestern city to a place that with a strong sense of identity. It’s become vibrant and filled with culture. If you come from large city that vibrancy may be hard to find, I get that, but considering where we’ve come from the difference is stark. No longer are we trying to imitate to big cities with facilities like Market Square Arena, but we can now celebrate who we’ve always been with the Fieldhouse.
In the time since the 90’s era Pacers, we’ve seen the Colts rise to prominence and Indy go from a basketball town to a football town. Nothing against the Colts, but I’m just not that into it. While I would trade very few things for our 2006 Super Bowl victory, there is still nothing that gets me excited more than a team who not only plays together, but also for something bigger than themselves.
We had some really good years between 2011 and 2014; took it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals two years in a row against the Heat. Those were exciting times, but it still just wasn’t the same. There wasn’t this sentiment that everyone really wanted to be playing in Indiana; it just felt that they were using us as a stepping stone to get somewhere bigger and better. And that’s fair, I suppose, we all have to do what we have to do to get where we want to be. I get it. But, why can’t the final destination be here? Why does it always have to be New York, Miami, Chicago, or LA?
I will be the first to admit that I was one of many who had very low expectations for this season, but at the same time I was hopeful. I was hopeful that maybe in a couple years we could be a really good team that could make it to the playoffs and perhaps do some damage. I never expected this. I mean no one really expected this. I don’t need to rehash this season because you know it, you’ve lived it—it’s your story. But it’s become my story; our story. You have fought tooth and nail every single time you’ve step foot on the court. It hasn’t always been pretty, but honestly that doesn’t matter because we’re not pretty either. Even when we’ve lost I still can’t help but brim with pride. It’s so obvious that you not only play for each other, but play for us and that means so much to not only me, but for Hoosiers everywhere.
Life circumstances will be taking me elsewhere after 25 years in the Heartland. I must admit I’m going to deeply miss it here. It may not be the world’s greatest city, but it’s my city. It’s my home. I met a beautiful Canadian last year and we have since married. Later this year we’ll be moving to Halifax, Nova Scotia, but Indy will always be a core part of who I am and will always be. It’s been magical to share you guys with her; to enable her to understand the passion that once was when I was a kid. Because in the end it’s not really about basketball, it’s about being heard when you have no voice, it’s about being respected when no one else cares, and it’s about being loved when no one else loves.
So thank you. Thank you Ike, thank you Bojan, thank you Trevor, thank you Darren, thank you Al, thank you Cory, thank you T.J., thank you Ben, thank you Victor, thank you Alex, thank you Glenn, thank you Domantas, thank you Lance, thank you Edmund, thank you Myles, thank you Damien, thank you Joe, and thank you Thad. Thank you to Nate and Kevin and your team and thank you to so many more. Words cannot begin to describe how incredible this season has been and how proud I am of not only what you have accomplished on the floor, but what you have done for this city and this state. I can’t thank you enough. Basketball lives again in Indiana.