Relevant? That's an improvement
A strange thing happened at the United Center with 24 seconds left in Game 2 of the Pacers-Bulls series.
A chant went up.
"Granger (stinks)! Granger (stinks)!"
Sam Smith, the veteran Chicago basketball writer best known for his book "The Jordan Rules," turned to me on press row.
"Forty eight hours ago, most of these people didn't know Indiana still had an NBA franchise," he said. "And they definitely didn't know who Danny Granger was."
Back in the day of my old radio show, we asked ESPN national hoops writer Chris Broussard what he viewed as the national perception of the Indiana Pacers.
"There is no national perception," he said.
He was right.
Shoot, there was hardly a local perception. People went from hating the home team to simply not caring. This year, the Pacers finished last in the league in attendance, a tough pill to swallow in a region where basketball is religion.
The Pacers were the most anonymous, nondescript team in the NBA, bereft of stars, lacking any real identity as a basketball team.
Now, though, that's changing. Or it's starting to change. It's hardly a paradigm shift nationally or locally, but with the Pacers playing the Bulls tough the first two games in Chicago, and returning home tonight for Game 3 at Conseco Fieldhouse, there's a growing sense that the Pacers have begun to matter again.
And in a good way.
"I walk around in the mall now or drive around, I definitely see more Pacers hats and jackets and shirts," Roy Hibbert said. "That wasn't the case when I got here. My rookie year, the team was trying to change its image. I had old women stop me in the street and say, 'You guys have got to stop acting like hoodlums.' "
"I was like, I wasn't even here, I was in college when all that stuff happened," Hibbert said. "But I knew what they were saying."
Sure enough, the Pacers are very fortunate to be in the Eastern Conference; in the West, they wouldn't have sniffed the playoffs with 37 victories. But it's what you do with the opportunity when you get there, kind of the VCU Effect. And the Pacers have seized this opportunity and not only taken the Bulls to the limit, but reminded people nationally and locally that they do, in fact, exist.
You think prospective free agents haven't noticed that Indiana is building an interesting, young team with massive potential? Suddenly, Indy doesn't look like hoops purgatory.
I'm not going to get all dramatic and say this is the series that turns it all around for this franchise. They still finished last in the league in attendance. They still might not sell out Game 3. And there's a pretty good chance Chicago fans will turn portions of the fieldhouse into the United Center South. (Quick request: Can they bring the Luv-a-Bulls along?)
It's unfair to expect some kind of Pavlovian response from local fans who've spent the last eight years either disgusted or bored by this franchise. It takes a lot more than 40 games of good basketball to make fans buy tickets.
But it's changing.
People are feeling good about this franchise, even invested.
It is impossible, at this point, to give interim coach Frank Vogel too much credit. He has done an astonishing job, putting his imprint on this team emotionally and strategically. When he took over, this group was dispirited by years under Jim O'Brien, and was playing a style of basketball that favored early, quick 3-point shots. Vogel made this team feel good about itself, and altered the team's style, making it a more physical outfit, doing so without the benefit of an offseason.
I'm just not ready to rip off the interim tag, not until the season is completely done. There are still too many questions:
Will Larry Bird return and be the one making the call?
How much money will owner Herb Simon be willing to spend on a head coach?
In the long term, do you want a young coach leading a young team, or do you need a veteran with more experience and cachet?
At this point, the Pacers players don't quite know whether Vogel is the easy-going Mr. Positive they sometimes walked over the first months of his tenure, or the increasingly tough taskmaster they've seen the past few weeks. Vogel raised eyebrows at a recent practice when he went verbally toe-to-toe with veteran James Posey.
"As he's gone along, he's gotten more comfortable and figured out what his coaching style is," Pacers veteran Mike Dunleavy said. "At the beginning, he wanted to be overly positive, and that was a good thing. Now he's gotten to the point where he's raising his voice a little bit and cracking the whip a little bit recently."
What's interesting is, there's a local debate over Vogel's future. Look at the message boards, listen to radio . . . they're talking about it. The noxious cloud of apathy is starting to lift.
Finally, after all these lost years, Indiana Pacers basketball has begun to matter again.