Last Thursday night was difficult. The Pacers were getting humiliated by the Boston Celtics and Mr. Bush was dancing in the end zone and spiking the ball on all of the other channels. Soon thereafter, the nicest and sweetest Survivor contestant was kicked off the island. To top it all, I had a sinus infection that produced very colorful and interesting specimens from my impossibly blocked nostrils. It wasn’t a good day. The Pacers’ defeat was disheartening, if not particularly surprising. Having lost 19 of its last 30 games heading into the playoffs, it shouldn’t have shocked anyone that they lost to an overachieving Celtics squad. The Pacers made the mistake of peaking in January instead of May. Hearing people call for Isiah Thomas’ head on a platter was surprising, however. Thomas wasn’t the person who caused the team to suck. He wasn’t the one who went a quarter and a half without scoring in a playoff game. He shouldn’t be fired because his players didn’t perform as well as they could. Thomas inherited quite a different team in 2000 than the one Larry Bird took over in 1997. In ’97, the Pacers were cagey veterans, seasoned in the playoffs and cocky about their future. Thomas took over a team in meltdown. The veterans had retired or been traded away, and the squad’s average age (save Reggie Miller) was in the early 20s. There’s no reason to give up on Thomas now. It’s difficult to point to anything he did that caused the team’s downward spiral this year. In fact, he tried many different tricks as the team circled the drain. It’s not his fault. Anyone who didn’t see this disaster coming hadn’t been looking carefully. The signs of complete failure had been there for quite some time. There was the 11-game losing streak. There was their inability to close out games. At one point this season, there was even a call for Rik Smits to come out of retirement. If that doesn’t indicate desperation, nothing does. It was just three years ago next month that the city was Pacers-crazy. Just about every major intersection featured some enterprising guy selling Pacers car flags, hats and T-shirts. We even dared to believe the Pacers would be allowed to defeat the superhumans from Los Angeles. The Pacers have the opportunity to elicit that kind of response once again, given a little patience and a lot of the Simons’ cash. Changing directions now would set the squad back another three years. While the Pacers’ defeat was not unexpected, one thing was very disturbing, however: the videotape of Ron Artest and Pacers director of player personnel Mel Daniels getting into a fairly heated shoving match after the game. The incident, I’m afraid, may spell the end of Artest’s days with the team, which would be quite unfortunate. For one thing, he couldn’t have chosen a more beloved figure to pick a fight with. Daniels was a key member of the great ABA Pacers teams of the 1970s. His jersey number hangs from the rafters of Conseco Fieldhouse. He’s worked with the team for ages. Secondly, team management no doubt feels Artest has been warned more than 10 times about his behavior. I predict they’ll unload him in a fire-sale trade just prior to the NBA Draft, probably to a scrub team like the Cavs or Clippers who don’t mind players with anger-management issues. Yet Artest is a gifted player. He has a tenacity and fearlessness on the court that’s rare. Like Dennis Rodman, his upside is greater than his downside. To throw him out now would be sad, but it’ll probably happen. And realize that Artest only erupted in anger after being pelted with crap from the Boston fans. Boston has the most notoriously dirty and venal fans of any city in the USA. This is the same city where a fan beat the crap out of an NBA referee during a tight NBA Finals game years ago. So what will the Pacers have next season? A new coach, which means no Jermaine O’Neal, who said he’d bolt if Thomas were fired; a boatload of new players; and the last dance for Reggie Miller. Depressing. Even more depressing was the way the Pacers’ poor play made a mediocre Boston team look like the Chicago Bulls at the height of their power. The Celtics are basically a two-man team, yet they played like world-beaters against the Pacers. After the game, I turned on Fox News to catch the reaction to the president’s speech. The commentators were dancing and high-fiving each other like Elvis had just come back from the grave. They foresee four more years of rolling back the clock and rolling up the Constitution, and they’re ecstatic. I flipped over to Survivor and watched as Christy, the hearing-impaired contestant with a smile that shines like the sun, got brutally back-stabbed and voted off the island while the surgically-enhanced bimbos advanced toward the million-dollar prize. And then I sneezed and something the same color as Lucille Ball’s hair flew out of my nose. Yep, Thursday was a hard day to take.