My cursed life as a Pacers fan

I’ve only got five more days to wait until the NBA season opens. The Pacers look good – like, I mean, championship good. I’m very excited. I’ve reached a new level of “Pacers fan” – the level where every year looks like a championship year, even if they had lost all of their players and moved to Vancouver.

My love for the Indiana Pacers – the team that will forever be vilified by the actions of a few players on November 19th, 2004 – stated after a brief reintroduction to professional sports. For a time – roughly three years – I stopped following sports all together. I’m not sure what it was; most likely it came from an ill-conceived notion that it wasn’t “punk” to like organized sports and that if I was ever going to fit the image I was desperately trying to acquire, I’d better stop watching grow men throwing balls around.

First though, a little background is needed. I grew up a Bulls fan, and like many impressionable youth in the late 80s/early 90s I came to view Michael Jordan as the torchbearer for all professional sports. The Chicago Bulls were the first team I ever felt a connection with – the first team I had a personal interest in. They were the first team that I had followed closely, and they were the first team that won a championship while I was a fan.

My first glimpses of being a professional basketball fan came while watching the Bulls make the leap from “really good team” to “great team.” I remember thinking they were outmatched when they played the Lakers in the 1991 Finals, and I remember watching them win the championship after they went ahead and outmatched the Lakers themselves. I went Bulls crazy – buying hats, videos, and basketball cards until they overflowed the cardboard boxes and spilled onto the floor in my closet. My prized possession was the Beckett Basketball Monthly – issue #14, September 1991 – with Michael Jordan kissing the long awaited O’Brien Trophy after winning the NBA Finals.

I learned about teamwork, sportsmanship, and leadership: not from school, but from Michael Jordan and his teammates. I learned that I appreciated the workhorses – the oft forgotten players that made their fair share of big plays without any notice. I started calling Horace Grant my favorite player, and started wearing 54 as my jersey number. I believed, and I still do, that basketball is, above all, the greatest sport ever created. Some people go crazy for NFL training camp, or the MLB’s summer league. I don’t. Instead, I watch the NBA draft. I run a fictional basketball team based on the 1997 NBA season.

I like basketball. A lot.

I think of being a sports fan now and I wonder what the allure is. What is it that locks us in as fans when we are young? What is it that makes us cheer (or jeer) a certain group of guys that we have no connection with or control over? Sports do crazy things to people. We form allegiances based on arbitrary things. Some choose their teams based on where they live or which games they see on television more. Others choose teams based on their childhood memories.

I chose my team because I didn’t like Shaquille O’Neal.

I’m getting ahead of myself. As I said, I didn’t watch sports for a long time. I had no reason to – I hadn’t followed it for years and I had forgotten everything that had happened. This coincided with Michael Jordan’s first retirement. He went off to play baseball, and I went off to pursue whatever freshman-age high school kids do. Professional basketball and I didn’t meet up again until 1995.

1995 was the year that I came back, just as Jordan came back halfway through the season (after failing miserably at baseball). It was also the year that Shaquille O’Neal broke onto the scene as a legitimate superstar. He had already been Rookie of the Year, and he had already become a three-time all star. This was the year, however, that the Orlando Magic made the NBA Finals. Shaquille O’Neal, the future of the game and the most important big man of the era, was getting ready to shine on the biggest stage in basketball.

I hated him. He was oafish, and he was crass, and his rookie card (which I had in my collection) wasn’t worth as much as I had hoped it would be. I was just getting back into sports and I didn’t want to revert back to being a Bulls fan – that was too easy. I wanted a team that was good, but not yet good enough to be idolized, like the Dallas Cowboys or New York Yankees. Just like I followed Horace Grant because he wasn’t the biggest star but was still a quality All-Star caliber player, I wanted to follow a team that wasn’t going to make the playoffs a cakewalk every year. I didn’t want an easy answer.

The Orlando Magic, with O’Neal, were playing the Indiana Pacers during the Eastern Conference Finals. I decided then and there that the Pacers were going to be my team. The fact that I had always liked Reggie Miller sealed it for me.

I had just become a fan of the most frustrating basketball team of all time.

Truthfully, though, that comes across as a bit of hyperbole; everyone has a claim to his or her team being the most frustrating team of all time. Everyone can bring up times when their team had broken the hearts of every loyal fan. Ask any Minnesota fan about that. Bring up the Vikings or Timberwolves, and see what they say.

The Pacers tormented me for a few years with the almost yearly decline come playoff time. They would almost make it, and then be bounced out by the Knicks, or the Bulls, and I would sit unfulfilled, waiting for the next season to start, not caring about who was in the Finals because it sure as hell wasn’t the Pacers. This went on for a few years, and I was beginning to regret my choice of team. My mind was wandering while watching Pacers games, searching around for a better choice. I felt guilty about shopping my loyalty around, but what had the Pacers done for me lately?

In this way I understand what some sports fans feel when their team underachieves year after year. Some fans will thrive in the one-sided relationship between a fan and his or her team. Boston Red Sox fans, up until last year, lived through excruciating horror every time they faced the Yankees. Their team let them down time and time again, and until last year they took every punch. They looked a broken and beaten team straight in the eye and said, “I still love you, Red Sox. I don’t care how much you torment me every year – I still love you.”

If you think that’s going a little over the top, then you’ve never met a true Red Sox fan. Ask Bill Simmons about it.

Finally in 2000, the unthinkable happened – the Pacers made the NBA Finals. This one moment in Pacers history turned me from “casual” fan into “full out raging moron” fan. It was All Pacers, All The Time. I started loving the game again. I started loving the team, finally. Even though the Pacers lost that Finals appearance, to Shaquille O’Neal’s Lakers, the fact that I had become a true Pacers fan still remained.

I’ve studied up on Pacers history enough to know certain moments well enough to have been there. I know I didn’t watch the game, but I remember vividly Reggie Miller’s 7 points in 8 seconds to beat the Knicks in the 1995 playoffs. I remember vividly John Starks head butting Reggie Miller at the end of a close game the year before. I feel as if I’ve been a Pacers fan for a longer time than is actually possible, stretching back to when I was a Bulls fan.

I feel a connection, regardless of how real, with these players; the team, the uniform, the history, the coach – they’re all part of my circle. Some people get caught up in certain television shows. I, instead, get caught up in a professional sports team. I don’t have any excuses for it – in fact, I know deep in my heart that it’s a one-way relationship. I devote my sports-based attention towards the Pacers without any promise of success in return. I give my time, energy, and words over to a team that doesn’t even know I exist. This is the hardest part of being a fan: the nameless, faceless quality we take on in order to be accepted in the fold.

Still, I’ll forever root for this team. I’ll stand behind them when they lose all of their stars and miss the playoffs. I’ll cheer for them even when they stab me in the back with a horrible Game 7 loss. I’ll buy all of the merchandise the day they finally win a championship.

When that day comes, it will feel a little bit less one-sided. I’ll be rewarded for my years of loyalty with an NBA Championship. A Championship that, though I in no way helped win it, I will happily rub in the face of all of my friends.

That will make it worth the long wait.

This was lovingly handwritten on October 27th, 2005