Like just about every other kid who grew up in Indiana, I once had visions of becoming a professional basketball player.
By the strobe of a garage light, I spent many nights playing out the ends of imaginary games. Usually, my team was down by several points. Usually there were just a few seconds left to play. And of course, I always pulled off the miracle (even if, occasionally, it took a few tries).
Unfortunately, I and the thousands of kids just like me didn’t have much in the way of idols to pattern our games after. The Indiana Pacers of the 1980s rarely saw a 30-win season, and boasted such talent as Sydney Lowe, Devin Durant, and Steve Stipanovich. If you’ve never heard of those guys, that’s sort of my point.
In 1987, everyone in the state was pulling for the Pacers to take hometown legend Steve Alford (search). Instead, General Manager Donnie Walsh took Reggie Miller (search), a brash, gangly kid from California with a bad haircut who, rumor had it, often lost pick-up games to his sister (Cheryl Miller was an all-American guard in college).
To make matters worse, Reggie Miller was also a shooting guard – Alford’s position – which meant the team had obviously had no designs on the local favorite. Indiana fans booed the pick.
Of course, they’d come to regret it. Miller became a four-time all-star, the best three-point shooter in NBA history, one of its best free throw shooters, and after Michael Jordan, arguably the modern era’s best clutch performer. He’s also a likely Hall-of-Famer.
Miller’s first dramatic playoff heroics came in 1994, in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the New York Knicks, a series billed by the New York tabloids as “the Hicks vs. the Knicks.” Miller threw down 25 points in the fourth quarter, including a record five three-pointers, and led the Pacers to victory with 39 total points. Miller also engaged in some back-and-forth smack talk with celebrity Knicks fan Spike Lee, putting him on the front of every New York paper, and winning him big acclaim back home.
Indiana had its first bona-fide superstar. I was in college at the time, but I can only imagine that driveway hoops across the state that night busied with 10-year-old boys replaying that fourth quarter, finally with a real star and a real victory to fuel the fantasy.
The next year, Miller did the Knicks one better. Down six with 8.9 seconds to go, Miller caught a pass and put down a quick three-pointer. He then stole the inbounds pass, and hit another. On the ensuing play, he was fouled, and hit both free throws to seal the win. Miller had scored 8 points in less than nine seconds. Critics point out that Miller obviously shoved his man when stealing the inbounds pass, and should have been called for a foul. They’re probably right, though fouls are harder to come by in playoff games, particularly in the closing seconds of close games.
But “The Shove” was also an important moment for Indiana sports fans. Our teams had never done very well in the regular season, much less the playoffs. And that bred talk of conspiracy. Each time the Pacers lost in the playoffs, local talk radio buzzed with theories that the NBA ensured bigger-market teams or teams with marquee players made it further into the playoffs. So, went the thinking, the refs had it in for the Pacers.
But “The Shove” gave Reggie, the Pacers, and Indiana an air of legitimacy. For once, <i>our</i> guy got the break, and against the team from <i>New York</i>, no less. It was salve for an entire state’s continually wounded psyche. Later, Reggie would get away with another conspicuous shove against Michael Jordan, the biggest name in basketball, sealing yet another miracle, last-second playoff victory.
The Pacers eventually lost the series with “The Shove.” The evening they lost the final game, a friend and I decided we’d go to the airport to meet the team returning from New York. We weren’t the only ones. More than twenty-thousand of our fellow Hoosiers had the same idea. We wouldn’t get within a half-mile of the airport. Gridlocked fans got out of their cars, drank beer, played music, tossed Frisbees, and celebrated. It was well past 1am. And our team had just lost. Indiana fans were happy to merely, finally, have been in the mix. Miller took his team to the playoffs several more times, with many more spectacular finishes and clutch performances along the way.
Reggie Miller will retire after this year’s playoff run. It’s been a tumultuous season. After the infamous brawl with Detroit last November, his team has had to play the entire season without its best player, and significant portions of it without its best three. Pacers’ starters have collectively missed hundreds of games due to injury this year. Cue Miller. After three seasons of giving up the scoring reins to younger teammates, the old Reggie returned this year when his team needed him most. After leading scorer Jermaine O’Neal went down last January with an injured shoulder, Miller picked up the slack, averaged over 20 points per game during a crucial stretch this spring, propelling the Pacers to a secure playoff position.
Reggie’s the kind of guy it’s fun to hate on the court, but it’s hard not to admire off of it. You loathe him if he’s not on your team, but even if his fiercest critics will admit they’d take him in a heartbeat if given the chance. As he left his last game in the place that hates him most – Madison Square Garden – Miller left to a warm, respectful ovation from Knicks’ fans.
In the era of free agency, Miller made a point to stick with the same team for his entire career. At one point in the mid 1990s, he was on the last year of his contract, and rumors swirled of interest from larger-market teams, places where Miller’s talent and personality would be far more lucrative. At about the same time, an arsonist burned his Indianapolis home to the ground. The fire not only didn’t chase Miller from Indiana (he re-signed with the Pacers), but also inspired him to start a charity for young burn victims.
It’s funny how things work out. Indiana has long held a near-religious love of basketball. The state claims the game as its own. But for a long time, Hoosiers had little at the professional level to cheer for. It was a cocky kid from UCLA – perhaps the furthest thing from Indiana in both geography and culture – that gave Indiana fans a legitimate stake in NBA basketball.
Radley Balko maintains a Weblog at: www.TheAgitator.com.