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On the calendar, tomorrow is just another gray day in February — notable only because some rodent in an obscure Pennsylvania town will chase a couple of shadows on the ground and predict the long-range forecast about as accurately as the guys on the 10 o’clock news.
In Central Indiana, it’s something else.
It’s the anniversary of one of the most pivotal moments in the history of the region. On Feb. 2, 1967, the upstart American Basketball Associa-tion offered a franchise to eight Indianapolis businessmen, led by attorney Dick Tinkham and insurance man John DeVoe.
On that day, 39 years ago, the seeds for the Indiana Pacers were planted.
Few could’ve envisioned what’s happened in the four decades since.
Now, it’s easy to take for granted the two big sports arenas on opposite ends of Georgia Street — Conseco Fieldhouse and the RCA Dome. They’ve brought us major-league basketball and football, Final Fours and college basketball tournaments.
But in the winter of 1967, one had to go outside the state for big-league sports — to Chicago, Cincinnati and St. Louis. A couple of forays in the nascent NBA had failed in the early 1950s — a pair of Indy teams and one in Anderson had failed to stick past 1954, and the state’s other big-league entry — the Fort Wayne Pistons — had gone to Detroit by 1958.
Indianapolis was “Naptown,” a city whose national reputation was for being, well, a spot on the map in-between all of those other cities. The Pacers began to change all of that.
They played in an upstart league in a rebellious era of pro sports — the same people who started the ABA would bring big-league hockey to town seven years later in the World Hockey Association. By the end of the 1970s, both leagues would eventually merge into their established rivals.
The ABA was big Afros, big scores, colorful basketballs and colorful characters — from Dr. J to Marvin “Bad News” Barnes. It was a laboratory, launching the 3-point shot and the “no foul-out” rule.
But it was also a league that opened up big-league sports to new markets — places the blue-bloods in the NBA would never consider reaching. Some, like Indy, Louisville, Denver and San Antonio, worked. Some, like Miami and Richmond, Va., didn’t.
There wasn’t a basketball palace like Conseco Fieldhouse awaiting the Pacers when they began play that fall. Heck, there wasn’t even a place like Market Square Arena.
The 10,000-seat — or a few more if the fire marshal was looking the other way — State Fairgrounds Coliseum was the incubator for pro basketball in Indiana, and provided some of the greatest memories.
Three championship teams, Rahjah, Slick, Neto, Darnell, Freddie and McGinnis starred there. Every retired number hanging at Conseco Fieldhouse comes from that era.
But most importantly, they sparked a revival.
The Pacers gave the area a common vision and optimism, as if Indianapolis was something, like Cincinnati, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and St. Louis. They made us think “big-league,” something we take for granted now.
Obviously, all the early winning and championships helped. Packed houses at the Coliseum were frequent, and they helped the ground-up growth of Downtown when Market Square Arena was built for them and the WHA Racers in 1974. Without the Pacers’ success, it’s unlikely the RCA Dome gets built and the NFL even considers Central Indiana.
Those days are a long way away. So are the rocky patches in the 1980s, when the Pacers averaged 4,814 fans in 1982-83 and Bob Leonard was selling season tickets in a Save the Pacers telethon.
Reggie Miller helped revitalize the Pacers a few years later, and eventually bring the NBA Finals to Indy.
But 39 years ago, the Pacers brought that same vitality to an entire region.
So Long And Thanks For All The Fish.
If you've done 6 impossible things today?
Then why not have Breakfast at Milliways!