The Pacers were angry. Two nights earlier, they had blown a fourth-quarter lead and lost in Miami against their nemesis. Two nights before that, they'd dropped a game at home against Detroit, which is the kind of thing that happens during the NBA season as one game blends into the next. Not to this team, however.
"Every night we're playing for home-court advantage," Indiana coach Frank Vogel told me as we walked down the hallway following his pregame media scrum, not long before his team took on the Houston Rockets in late December.
I asked Vogel if he had any worries about how his team would bounce back from that Heat loss, a crushing three-point defeat that ended with Paul George howling about an uncalled foul from LeBron James on the game's final play. George may have had a case, but he wasn't getting that whistle against LeBron. Not in King James' building, anyway. Get Miami in Bankers Life Fieldhouse in a Game 7 in front of an Indiana crowd, and who knows what might happen?
"We really feel like every night we're playing for a championship."
Vogel looked at me like I was crazy. That play was the whole point of the Pacers' season. Losing two in a row wasn't just poor form. It was a refutation of everything they wanted to stand for as a team.
"We really feel like every night we're playing for a championship," Vogel said. "A lot of teams can't say that about their regular-season nights. There's a lot of ‘Just Another Night's' in the NBA. But not with our team."
* * *
Immediately after losing Game 7 in Miami last spring, the Pacers started talking about home-court advantage. They talked about it in Los Angeles over the summer during informal team workouts. It was the first thing they talked about publicly when they returned to Indiana for training camp. It was almost a dare.
"It's something that we feel that this group is mature enough to handle," said power forward David West, who doubles as the team's conscience. "From day one."
And so the pissed-off Pacers took the court against the Rockets in front of a raucous sellout crowd -- their seventh in 13 games -- and won by 33 points. Their defense was impenetrable and George took over in the third quarter; he also helped harass James Harden into a 3-for-14 shooting night. "It's a good feeling," George said. "Because when we're at our best, we feel like we're unstoppable."
For most of this season the Pacers have been unstoppable. They opened with a nine-game winning streak, then reeled off seven more. At the rejuvenated Bankers Life Fieldhouse, they ended 2013 with a 15-1 record and an average margin of victory of better than 14 points a game. Attendance is, quite reasonably, booming.
That last part is important. Because while it's a common complaint among the Pacers that the national attention they've earned has been woefully late in coming -- they were, for instance, not one of the 10 teams featured on Christmas Day -- they had to get their own fans back first.
"Winning back our city and our fans and our state is as much a part of our goals as winning basketball games," Vogel said. "This is a Pacers town and there was a time they cared less about the Pacers, for good reason. A lot of our goals were centered around delivering to our fans a team they could fall in love with."
After years of neglect from a basketball mad community, the Pacers are once again a beloved institution. Season ticket sales are up 34 percent from last year, the second straight season they have enjoyed a better than 30-percent rise. Over their first 16 home games, attendance has increased by more than 3,000 per game. They had already matched last season's sell-out mark with 10 before the calendar had even flipped to 2014.
TV ratings are up even more. They've improved 141 percent from last season, the highest percentage jump in the NBA.
Local TV ratings are up even more. They've improved 141 percent from last season, the highest percentage jump in the NBA, according to figures supplied by Fox Sports Midwest. The team's ratings in November and December were the best since the 2004 season, and their home game against the Heat in December at a sold-out Bankers Life Fieldhouse drew the team's highest rating in more than a decade.
This has not been an overnight success. It took years of patient building by team president Larry Bird, perhaps the one man in Indiana who could absorb the high-volume criticism and insult -- or, perhaps, the one man who could be spared the full force of their impact -- that came with the Pacers' painful process. Considering their market and draft position over the years, the Pacers qualify as a minor basketball miracle.
Locally, they have become something else. They are, in Indiana, the very embodiment of the Hoosier ideal: tough, unselfish, unglamorous and defensive-minded with a fierce and familial esprit de corps to rival any of the college teams that dot the state's landscape. They are a throwback to the great Pacer ABA teams, powered by players plucked from relative obscurity who are beloved in the community and retain various personalized chips on their respective and collective shoulders. All of that matters in Indiana, where history and tradition are inescapable.
"That was really the first step, was to get the city back behind us," George said. "We have all good guys in the locker room, we're in the community and I think they understand that. None of our guys are knuckleheads now. Sweeping the whole locker room and getting guys with a lot of upside and potential. The Hoosier Nation is back."
* * *
From the beginning the Pacers have been a locally-run organization that was smarter, sharper and savvier than the competition.
Created in 1967 by a group of local businessmen as an ABA franchise, the first player in franchise history was Roger Brown, who was playing in a semi-pro league in Dayton when the Pacers called. Blacklisted by the NBA and NCAA for having once met notorious gambler Jack Molinas, Brown became such a beloved local figure that he later served four years on the city council. He was inducted posthumously into the Hall of Fame in 2013.
Their anchor was Mel Daniels, a rugged big man who was all substance and zero flash. The team signed George McGinnis after his sophomore season at Indiana, daring to risk the ire of the Hoosier faithful by poaching from the state's true favorite team. They unearthed gems like Bob Netolicky, Billy Keller and Freddie Lewis. They were ably coached by Bob "Slick" Leonard, a one-time Hoosier hero whose folksy front masked a fierce competitor. After games, they all hung out at Neto's bar.
The Pacers were Indiana's team, and they won three ABA championships while playing to sell-out crowds. They were also the closest thing the league had to stability and tradition, which allowed them to enter the NBA along with the Nuggets, Nets and Spurs in 1976 when the leagues finally merged. But the terms were harsh -- a $3.2 million entrance fee and no cut of TV for four years -- and the Pacers had to shed salaries and talent. It would take years for them to recover.
Eventually, they did. Reggie Miller arrived in 1987 and center Rik Smits was drafted the following year. The Davis boys -- Antonio and Dale -- arrived in subsequent seasons, and formed one of the league's toughest frontcourts. Mad genius Larry Brown coached them to the conference finals and then gave way to Bird as coach, who guided them to two more conference finals and finally an NBA Finals appearance in 1999-00 in which they lost to the Lakers.
It was those teams' eternal regret that they peaked during the second Michael Jordan era and then ran into the dawn of the Kobe/Shaq Lakers. Still, they remain as beloved in town as the Pacers' great ABA squads. During the team's pregame video, the sight of Miller curling off a screen and burying a jumper still draws the loudest reaction from the crowd.
An argument can be made that the best NBA team Indiana had until now was actually the 2004 Pacers that won a franchise record 61 games and took the eventual champion Pistons to six games in the Eastern Conference finals. That team had size, scoring, toughness and a solid mix of young stars like Jermaine O'Neal and Ron Artest (before he found World Peace) to complement Miller's veteran savvy.
And then, on the night that went on to define the team in an entirely different way, they went to Detroit. It wasn't the brawl that did them in; that's what everyone here wants you to know. While the aftermath of the Malice in the Palace was devastating -- Artest was suspended for the rest of the season, Stephen Jackson (30 games) and O'Neal (15) also served long suspensions -- the moment that locals point to as the tipping point in the team's long descent from civic institution to object of scorn was Artest's trade request the following year.
After he was banished and finally traded for Peja Stojakovic, more problems arose. Miller retired and injuries robbed O'Neal of his prime. Then, the arrests started.
In October of 2006, Jackson was charged with criminal recklessness after a fight at a strip club resulted in Jackson firing a gun into the air and getting run over by a car. Later that year, Jamaal Tinsley faced charges from a bar fight and was later involved in another late-night altercation that ended when someone shot up his car outside a downtown hotel at 3 o'clock in the morning.
"When I came here in the '08-09 season, the arena was empty. You could hear a pin drop."
All this happened as Peyton Manning transformed Indianapolis into a football town. From 2006-10, the Pacers were a nondescript, capped-out team in a small market with unfavorable draft picks and little hope of getting better. Attendance dropped each year before bottoming out in 2008, when they averaged only 12,222 fans, dead last in the NBA. "When I came here in the '08-09 season, the arena was empty," Hibbert said. "You could hear a pin drop."
The story goes that it was during this fallow period that Bird "changed the culture," which is somewhat loaded shorthand for getting rid of troublemakers and bringing in good guys. It's not that simple, naturally. The Pacers may have stayed out of court, but they weren't much good on it.
But Bird stayed patient and hit big with Hibbert and later George and Lance Stephenson in the draft; none were considered sure things. He removed Jim O'Brien in the middle of the 2011 season and elevated Vogel, who had no prior head coaching experience, and they made the playoffs. They lost to the Bulls in the first round when more than half their building was wearing Chicago Red. Things were still moving slowly.
That offseason, Bird signed West and traded for George Hill; they went on to take the Heat to six games in the second round. The next year, they went all the way to Game 7 of the conference finals. But it wasn't until this season that the crowds truly came back.
"When I got here, we had some conversations that we had to get the city back involved in Indiana Pacers basketball because they've been down for so many years," West said. "My response -- I think everybody's response -- was they'll come back if we're playing well and give them a reason to come to the arena."
The Pacers believe that it's not only their success on the court that has won back the city's love, but their involvement in the community, coupled with a genuine team bond that's rare in the transient world of professional basketball. The core of the team is their starting five, plus longtime fixture Danny Granger, who recently returned to the lineup after missing 102 games with a knee injury. This is that team's story.
Drafted 17th overall in 2008, Roy Hibbert was acquired by the Pacers in a draft-day deal that sent Jermaine O'Neal to the Raptors. Six years into his career, Hibbert has emerged as a solid low-post threat and one of the best defenders in the league. He's one of the building blocks of the new Pacers, and also kind of a goofball.
Heather Denton is the Pacers director of player relations. She has been with the team for 17 years. It's the first job she had after college and never saw any reason to leave. Denton's approach is to meet with each player individually and craft a community relations program that fits with their personalities.
"It's not going to be one-off," she told me. "It's not forced. It's something that they really want to do. It's a really good group. They care. They want to come up with new ideas and they're always like, ‘How can we help people?' That's a constant theme in this locker room with these guys."
In 2009, Denton went to Hibbert with an idea. Attendance had sunk and the building was in need of an energy lift. They saw the success Andrew Bogut had in Milwaukee with Section 6, a block of seats that he purchased and gave out to rabid Bucks fans. "If you want to do this," Denton told Hibbert, "You have to own it."
No problem, Hibbert said. He held American Idol style auditions and selected 55 winners whose mission was to attend every game and make as much noise as possible. The effect of Area 55 is something like a student section at college games. Old-school chants like, "You can't guard him," mix with banners, painted faces and a drum section. Area 55 even spawned a companion group, the G-2 Zone, which was started by Paul George and George Hill.
True to his word, Hibbert made it his own. He organized a Gangnam Style dance at a local mall, busting his moves in a jumbo white tuxedo and garnering a half-million views on YouTube. There are annual dinners for Area 55 members and regular get-togethers. When he signed his extension before last season, he played laser tag with his cheering section.
What has emerged is a weird, loud, little family. One couple met and started dating at the Gangnam dance. Another got engaged. One member even donated marrow through a bone match program, which affected Hibbert deeply. In August of 2012, a young fan named Lee Eddins died from leukemia. Hibbert flew out to Sacramento with Denton for the funeral. To him, the community outreach efforts and the success on the court go hand in hand.
"We have not only good players, we have good people on the team on and off the court," Hibbert said. "It's brought the community back. It's been a long process, but it's one that we worked for and we earned it. How you go about your business on the court reflects how people look at you. You can give out as many turkeys as you want, but people read you're late to practice or you're late to games or acting a certain way, they aren't going to buy into it."
PG TAKES FLIGHT
With the 10th pick in the 2010 draft, Larry Bird had a decision to make. His choices included Ed Davis, a rebounding forward with a North Carolina pedigree, or George, a long-limbed semi-unknown from Fresno State. He chose potential.
As Paul George's star has risen, so have the demands on his time. Still, after every Pacer home game, George sits patiently at his locker answering questions until longtime PR chief David Benner calls it a night. He does not seem burdened by the responsibilities or annoyed by the steady barrage. He is, in other words, too good to be true: A 23-year-old, self-aware superstar who is engaging, thoughtful and secure.
From his silky jump shot to his lockdown defense, George makes everything about the game look easy. Yet he struggled with the demands that were placed on him after Granger went down with a knee injury early last season. During the playoffs, George told West that he couldn't wait until the summer to work on his game, because he hadn't prepared enough for the role.
George retreated to his California home and worked on his off-the-dribble skills, a major weakness for a player who was now expected to create his own shot. The results have been dramatic and terrifying for the rest of the league. George is now legitimately in the conversation as one of the top-five players in the world, and he is no longer unsure of himself or his role.
"The biggest thing for Paul, not only does he have confidence in himself, he's got this air about him," West said. "He's just got this confidence about him, this attitude about him where he feels like he can get it done. You can't really do some of the things that he does. His ability to guard a guy three, four, five dribles, pick his pocket and then get down the floor with a spectacular finish. And then get on to the next play and get a defensive stop. All of that is what makes him him."
About an hour after the Pacers had finished practice, George was still on the court getting up shots. The court is in the arena's basement and there's a window where fans can peer in on their heroes. A group of kids waved frantically as he finishes his workout. George waved back, making their day.
He has become the most popular player on the team and is in line to start the All-Star game for the first time in his career. The max contract extension he signed during the offseason will keep him in Indiana through his prime. On a team of earthbound grinders, George's talent is ethereal and that marks him as a separate among equals. But he doesn't see it that way.
"Everybody's on the same page," George says. "On the court, we understand that it's a group effort. We don't care who's shooting the shot. Most teams play for highlight plays and stuff like that. We play the right way and we play to win. That goes with sharing the ball, helping one another on the defensive end and giving credit where credit is due. We don't like to accept credit alone, because we built something here. A real togetherness. Teamwork. Everything that we do, we know that we don't do it alone."
HE'S A BAD MAN
During his eight seasons in New Orleans, David West was regarded as the consummate pro's pro. A pick-and-pop shooter and rugged rebounder, West averaged 16 points and seven rebounds. But late in his final season with the Hornets, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Heading into free agency, West chose the Pacers over the Celtics, which helped legitimize the team.
If you were making a list of the people in the NBA that no one messes with, David West would be the captain. A 10-year vet with a deep baritone and broad shoulders, West is as likely to drop a well-timed elbow in his opponent's stomach as he is to step out and drain an 18-footer, and he makes a lot of jumpers. He's a tough guy in the classic sense, a no-nonsense badass who handles his business and doubles as a big brother for his younger teammates.
"There's a seriousness to his approach that resonated among everybody in the locker room," Vogel said. "It's not by anything he says or does, but by his mere presence. Very few players in the NBA or pro sports can do that with just their presence, but David West does."
Hibbert is the anchor of the team's signature top-rated defense. George is the emerging superstar and the biggest reason why the Pacers are legitimate contenders. But this is West's team, and everyone knows it.
"David is the real reason why this locker room is the way it is," George said. "The second he came here he had everyone playing as a team and giving himself and sacrificing himself for the betterment of the team. That just flew throughout the whole locker room. He's so wise. It's beyond basketball, some of the conversations that we have."
In the locker room, his voice is the unquestioned authority. He's the one who decides when the joke has gone too far or whether the music should be turned down. "When he speaks," Hibbert said, "you listen."
Naturally, West shrugs off the suggestion that he is the team's de facto leader.
"We don't walk around labeling, you're this or that. Everybody's got a voice in the locker room because everybody's got to be held accountable," West said. "We're asking you to do a job defensively. That's what we expect of you. Our coach will go off and get mad when he has to, our assistants the same way. But first and foremost it comes from us. We police each other so we make sure we're holding each other accountable. Everybody has a voice. Everybody can say what needs to be said so when we get out there to play we're all on the same page."
THE HOMETOWN HERO
In desperate need of a point guard to stabilize his team, Bird traded the draft rights to Kawhi Leonard in 2011 for a career backup named George Hill, a local product who played his high school and college ball in Indianapolis.
George Hill does nothing spectacular. He shoots well from the outside, but will never be mistaken for Steph Curry. He's a willing passer, but not a playmaker on the order of Rajon Rondo. He's a hard-nosed defender without flashy statistics or accolades to back up the claim.
All of that makes him the perfect point guard for this team: selfless, tough and relatively anonymous. Even calling Hill a point guard is a misnomer, since the Pacers offense tends to start with either Stephenson or George. Hill is a guard. Period. End of sentence.
"Our egos need to be out the door when we get here," Hill said. "It's not about you, it's about the team. That's how we took it since Day One. Everybody's personality clicked. It just makes us a better team."
If there is a criticism of Hill, it's that he's not assertive enough. This has been an ongoing conversation between Vogel and Hill, and every time Hill has a strong game, the topic gets brought up again. It's startlingly easy not to notice Hill at all, in fact, unless he has one of his periodic scoring binges, or conversely, when things go wrong. Not coincidentally, his name is often floated in trade rumors, which are just as quickly shot down.
Yet Hill stays above the fray. For such a low-key figure on the court, he is one of the most visible Pacers in the community.
During the offseason he traveled to Haiti, conducting basketball clinics on dusty courts, playing soccer and distributing food for a group called Kids Against Hunger. It was a life-changing trip, and the NBA honored him in November with their Community Assist Award. On a team of adopted favorites, Hill is the true son of Indianapolis.
A playground legend from the same Brooklyn high school that produced Stephon Marbury, Lance Stephenson played one year of college ball and fell all the way to the second round, where Bird grabbed him with the 40th pick in the 2010 draft. In four years with the Pacers, he has developed from little-used reserve to full-time starter. Mercurial even at his best, Stephenson is having a career year.
Will you say something to him?
That was the question that hung in the air after Lance Stephenson dropped a triple-double in a 27-point win over the Celtics that was punctuated by the player known as "Born Ready" showing off some dance moves at midcourt in front of the visitor's bench.
Vogel deflected the question. George suggested in his light-hearted way that Lance should be on Dancing With the Stars. So it was left to West.
"That stuff doesn't bother me," West said. "I don't know how people will take it, but that's Lance. You just got to expect it sometimes."
Few people expected much of anything from Stephenson in his first two seasons in the league. He played less than 600 minutes and gained notoriety for flashing a choke sign at LeBron James during the 2012 playoffs and then nearly getting decapitated by Dexter Pittman during garbage time.
Yet, Stephenson has flourished in recent years, emerging as a starter late last season and averaging almost 14 points a game this year; he already has three triple-doubles on the season. His style is hectic and herky-jerky, a tumble of manic energy streaking down the court, bound for either a spectacular finish or a head-scratching failure.
Against the Celtics, that meant a ragged triple-double that included 12 points on 15 shots and some aggressive stat padding in the fourth quarter of a blowout. The next night he poured in 26 points on only 16 shots in a brilliant performance against the Nets.
The Pacers give him a lot of latitude to make plays, and are willing to take the good with the bad because of just how good Stephenson's "good" can be. For better and for worse -- mostly better, these days -- Stephenson gives them an unpredictable edge.
"Obviously we give him a lot of room to go out and play his game," West said. "But he knows that every single night we're depending on him to play well for us. He knows we need him to be successful."
THE UNLIKELY SIXTH MAN
Danny Granger was Bird's first big draft coup. A talented scorer from New Mexico, he fell all the way to the 17th pick where Bird scooped him up after such immortals as Ike Diogu, Yaroslav Korolev and Antoine Wright had already been selected. In 2009, Granger averaged 26 points per game and made the All-Star team. As the Pacers began their ascent, he was still the face of the franchise. Then he got hurt.
Danny Granger's return caused quite a bit of anxiety among the Pacer faithful. While he was recovering from knee and calf injuries, George flourished and Stephenson emerged as a standout. How would he fit in? A local media member asked, partly in jest, "How long until we can have a Lance vs. Danny starting lineup debate?"
So, it was with some trepidation that Granger made his return to the Pacers for their Friday night game against the Rockets. He looked rusty, missing six of his seven shots, but he recorded a weakside block against Dwight Howard and received numerous ovations from the sell-out crowd.
Internally, the Pacers were delighted that Granger was back. Vogel feels that he is the final piece to a revamped second unit that includes C.J. Watson and Luis Scola, Bird's two summer additions. The players scoffed at the notion that Granger would disrupt their chemistry.
"It's only going to make us that much stronger," West said. "We don't see that from the inside. We're a tied together group. When Danny was hurt he wasn't away from us. He's been around us the whole time."
The next day, Bird pulled Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz aside and left no doubt about Granger's place with the team, telling Kravitz that Granger wouldn't start and that his time with the franchise was likely over when his contract expires after this season. For good measure, Bird got in a shot about Granger's conditioning.
This was a reminder that time is fleeting in the NBA, even on a team that successfully locked up its young stars with contract extensions. The Pacers won't go over the luxury tax line and there will be tough decisions to make this summer when Stephenson becomes a free agent. This may be the only chance this group has to win together. Two nights later against the Celtics, Granger hit four of his five three-pointers, and the questions took on a different tone.
"I've known Danny Granger a long time," Vogel said. "He's been waiting for -- how long has be in this league? Ten years. He's been a waiting long time to get on a team like this. He's going to play the right way."
The Colts were playing and patrons filled Kilroy's dressed in their blue and white finest. The Pacers were also playing later that night against the Celtics and another sell-out crowd was expected. This would have been unthinkable last year, but as the Colts built a big lead over the Chiefs, the bar began to fill with Pacers fans in Paul George jerseys.
Across the street from the arena, ticket scalpers were doing solid business. Boston is always a decent draw here and some fans came to applaud Brad Stevens, the former Butler coach returning to his Hoosier homeland as coach of the Celtics. By and large, the ticket buyers were Pacer faithful. "Business is good," one of them said with a smile. "It's always better when you're winning."
That night the Pacers won again in a blowout, eviscerating the Celtics with one of their finest defensive performances of the season. It was three days before Christmas. A trip to Brooklyn beckoned before a long break. The only negative was cold water in the shower, but they bonded over that as well. "If you Tweet that," West said to one shivering player, "We all Re-Tweet it."
That's the word that appears on the top of the Pacers whiteboard each and every game. It means everything from passing to the open man to talking on defense and being part of the community. It's quaint, really, that a team of professionals brought together from all over the country would feel this way about each other and their adopted home. But they also believe that it will give them an edge come playoff time.
"We not only have good players we have good people on the team on and off the court," Hibbert said. "It's been a long process, but it's one that we worked for and we earned it."
About 50 miles of Interstate 37 separates Indianapolis from Bloomington on the map. It's more or less a straight shot, with billboards advertising personal injury attorneys and the redemptive powers of Jesus Christ. In between, there are baskets tacked up on barns and in cul-de-sacs. It's the heart of Hoosier country and the Pacers are once again everything the faithful want in their basketball team.
The radio is playing the postgame show and the true believers are calling in to defend Stephenson. "Lance was just having some fun," one of the callers said. "Ain't no thing." He gets no argument from the host.
Another calls in to say that this is the best NBA Pacers team there's ever been, no offense to Reggie and Rik Smits. And, he adds, is there anyone who has done as much for Indiana sports as Larry Bird?
These are happy questions, and it's a good time to be an Indiana Pacer. Maybe the best it has ever been, and maybe getting better still.