INDIANAPOLIS — The Pacers used to light their pregame hype video with a heavy slogan: “In 49 states, it’s just basketball… but this is Indiana.”
The idea was to embrace the heritage of Hoosier hoops and pray that it would solidify the NBA game here, and that’s still a struggle. Pacers attendance is solidly in the bottom third of the league in an arena that most would rate in the top two or three for its intimacy and sightlines.
But if you added up all the bodies in seats in all the levels of basketball, this state may lead the nation. And in people who, from a very young age, give it a shot on the court. Some of them Celtics.
“I don’t know how to explain it, it’s just everybody has to try it,” said R.J. Hunter, a former Celtic draftee and now a two-way player with the club — and also an ex-star at Pike High School on the edge of Indianapolis. “It’s almost like a necessity here. People here take basketball serious. They take it personal. But I’m not sure why. Even when I left, I was like, why does Indy take it more seriously than anywhere else?”
Hunter paused and added, “I wonder if it’s the ‘Hoosiers’ movie that started it. The movie was crazy, so everybody started paying attention to it.”
Uh, no. “Hoosiers” was set in the 1950s, and it was ABOUT how big basketball was in Indiana back then even.
“I don’t know,” Hunter said. “But everybody knows the game a little more here. I mean, they watch it just a little differently.”
It’s clearly special for Brad Stevens, Gordon Hayward, Hunter and assistant coaches Micah Shrewsberry and Jamie Young to be back where they grew up for this first round series against the Pacers. And while they will try to make more roundball memories, Hayward has a pretty good one in what’s now called Bankers Life Fieldhouse that he can try to top.
“Well, I hit a last-second shot to win the state tournament, which is probably the best one I’ve had,” said the Celtic forward, who starred at Brownsburg west of Indianapolis and went on to play for Stevens at Butler. “It’s something I’ll never forget. I think high school basketball in Indiana is just about everything. It was a memory that will last forever and that was a lot of fun. It was actually the day before my birthday, too, so we got back to the gym and the whole town like sang Happy Birthday. It was quite an extravaganza. It was cool.”
Away from the crowd of reporters at the team’s Friday morning workout in advance of Game 3, Hayward took a dive into the meaning of basketball to Indiana.
“I think it’s kind of like built into your DNA here,” he said. “I mean, I remember growing up and everybody’s got a hoop in their back yard. Our whole town went to the games on Friday night at the old varsity gym. It’s like Texas with football. That’s Indiana with basketball. There’s not much else to do probably either. It’s cold here; it’s an indoor sport.
“And it’s big with colleges, too. IU basketball is huge here. My parents both went to Purdue, so we were always rooting against IU. And now Butler is a really solid program, and Notre Dame has always been a solid program.
“And I think people around here pride themselves on youth basketball being really good, too — people knowing how to play and teaching the fundamentals.”
Stevens, like Hayward and the other Green Hoosiers, is, of course, focused on the job of defeating the Pacers. But it doesn’t take much to turn the coach a bit wistful.
“When I’m growing up in the ’80s, Larry Bird’s playing for the Celtics and he’s an Indiana kid, and the NBA’s booming because of him and Magic and then obviously Jordan — and then Reggie Miller comes here,” he said. “You know, your tie to Indiana hoops is like a source of pride. You’ve got all those great players from the past, all those people that inspired you, all the people that you looked up to. And they’re all over the place. I took my son to Springfield a couple of years ago and we walked through the Hall of Fame, and there were so many people from Indiana in that Hall of Fame and so many people that by five degrees of separation we’ve been connected to because of these jobs. Indiana’s a special place to grow up. Basketball means a lot.
“Friday night, you go to a high school game. If you go to a high school game in New Castle, you’ll be sitting with 10,000 other people. You can go to your local high school game and it’s almost always sold out. Then the next day you go to an IU, Purdue, Butler game, and it’s like as good as it gets. Great crowds, great passion, great environments. People love the game. Then on Sunday, you’d come to the Pacers’ game or you’d watch Larry Bird on TV, and there’s your Indiana fix again. It’s just special.”
And Stevens isn’t kidding about the size of the high school facilities here. The arena that was home to Western University in the movie “Blue Chips”? It’s the high school gym in Frankfort, Indiana, a municipality of some 16,000.
Basketball here is about the game, but it’s also about more than that. It’s a magnet for the community. People may go to different churches on Sunday, but many of them were in the same gym the next Friday.
“However long we had to be in school is on the calendar every single day, and being on the blacktop somewhere shooting hoops is also on the calendar every single day for a lot of people,” Stevens said. “Whether you played in high school or didn’t play in high school, it was just kind of something you all did together.”