Indiana Groans

by Lang Whitaker

Sunday afternoon at the Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, while the Titans and the Colts were squaring off just down the road, the Indiana Pacers hosted their annual Fan Jam, one of those events designed to allow fans to watch their team in an informal practice session and hopefully build some sort of rapport between the players and the community.

Problem was, not even 100 hours earlier, several Pacers (Stephen Jackson, Jamaal Tinsley, Marquis Daniels and Snap Hunter) were involved in an incident at 3:00 a.m. involving a strip club, guns, cars and a fist fight. This would be a problem no matter where it happened, but it was worsened by the fact that after last season, Pacers president Larry Bird met the media and pledged to take control of the franchise Ron Artest had pushed to the brink. People I’ve talked with in Indy have told me that there was a serious disconnect between basketball fans in Indiana and the Pacers. This may have been because of the Artest incident(s), or it might have been because the Pacers haven’t been winning as much.

Either way, it’s indicitive of a larger trend around the NBA, where fans (particularly casual fans) and teams haven’t been vibing. Is it because the players are largely black and the fans the NBA courts are white? Is it because nobody can relate to guys making upwards of $5 million a year? Whatever the cause, the effect is real.

Even if Jackson shooting off was justified, as police say it was, the larger problem is that the Pacers players are continuing to perpetrate an image that they’re above the law, out for justice, hard to kill or any other Steven Seagal movie title. The Indy Star compiled a helpful list of all the gun incidents involving pro athletes from the last decade. (Although they left out Lonny Baxter — guess he didn’t qualify as a pro athlete.) And Bob Kravitz has been hammering them and Larry Bird (here and here) in the Star.

But so far the Pacers haven’t officially responded or made any statements to the fans about how they’re going to handle things, which makes it seem as if they hope it will all be swept under the rug.

And how’d the Fan Jam go? Well, an estimated 10,000 fans showed up, and they were by-and-large supportive. James White got to play with the starters — which led to a great backhanded compliment from Al Harrington: “You can tell he’s been in college five years” — and by all accounts he acquitted himself rather well.

Jackson didn’t participate in the Fan Jam, but the Pacers players rallied around Whoo! Jackson, most of them spending Friday night at his house, which is probably a safer environment than a strip club.

Then again…