Twenty-five years ago, the Indianapolis sports scene moved out of its parents' house. It got an apartment. A shitty, Jeff George-y apartment full of blacklights and Nicole Eggert posters, yes – but an apartment nonetheless. It was growing up. Maturing. It was becoming more independent, less defined by Marvelous Marvin Johnson commercials and the recent successes of IU basketball.
The year was 1990. Indy Sports was in its mid-20's and had grown weary of Stuart Gray and Gary Hogeboom and chugging cases of Stroh's in Fort Wayne's basement. It was still reeling from its 1987 fling with the Pan American games — a weird, wild affair involving David Robinson and the Nicaraguan ping pong team and others, which made it feel ALIVE — but in the end, emptier than ever. There was still the 500, of course, and there always would be. It inherited that from its ancestors. The 500 was and will always be a apart of Indianapolis — it is in its genes (just like male-pattern baldness and doing math bad!). But America was moving away from open-wheel auto racing, not toward it, and the Snake Pit was long since dead, killed off by joyless lawyers and their reluctance to let 100,000 naked people snort acid and make babies in the mud.
Oh sure, the Indianapolis Indians were a fine sports organization, winning a thousand straight championships in whatever league they played, but they were the Indians, an immovable fixture in this town since the mid-16th century, its games nothing more than old-timey white noise, a different place to drink beers in the summer when Fort Wayne's step-dad was away on business. Things had to change. This was not working. Indeed, 1990 was the year sports in Indianapolis grew up — more specifically, when it put away its bong and hitched its wagon to a strange, lanky 2-guard made out of mercury and Moments. He was the pretty girlfriend it'd never had, the one who set it straight and taught it the importance of self-confidence.
1990-1997: The intern years
These were formative years in the life of Indy Sports, arguably the most formative. It went from working the slicing station at Rax Roast Beef to passing its Series 7 to establishing an all-time great NBA rivalry that was actually a hellish street fight between two violent cartels that only vaguely resembled basketball. The world took notice. The city was dizzy, covered entirely in Boom Baby car-flags and euphoria for years on end. Nothing made sense. Up was down, down was on the moon somewhere, and a six-point lead with 18.7 seconds left meant very little. These were heady times, make no mistake. Reggie Miller and Rik Smits and Mark Jackson and Dale Davis — our stoic, peacekeeping brute who was forged in a Gondor copper mine — they were militantly opposed to the mundane and/or giving up easy layups. Indianapolis Sports, for once, became the very identity of the entire city.
It was not yet a "success," per se, but nor was it the gross, unemployed shit-bag it had been in decades prior. Things were looking up. It had a reliable Honda Civic and respectable ladyfriends and John Daly going all FAT RUDY in an all-timer at Crooked Stick. It had a somewhat trendy condo, a gym membership, and a neat PalmPilot to keep its schedule. It had money to spend for once, and so it did: on electronics and investments and an unknown wide receiver from Syracuse University. Marvin Harrison arrived without fanfare or human emotion or a competent quarterback to throw him the ball. That would soon change.
1998-2005: Making the IBJ's top-40-under-40 list
In 1998, Indianapolis Sports settled down with the love of its life. No more carousing or gallivanting or doing whatever it was young people did before Tinder. (Cruising the main drag while combing their hair, maybe?) It had found its soul mate, and Peyton Manning had found his, by most accounts — never mind that the marriage got off to a rocky 3-13 start. What the pairing needed was a stabilizing force — a bedrock of trust and values and hard-fought runs for critical first downs — and one year later, in 1999, it got it. Edgerrin James bounded into the Indianapolis Sports scene like a pair of rolled dice, hardly a stabilizing force on his 24-karat face, but faces belie the truth sometimes. His very much did. He was beloved and unstoppable and the Colts became the NFL's darling.
So began the era of dizzying ascension. All for the better. It got a new best friend (Larry Bird), newly found riches (NFL playoffs nearly every year), a new Rolls-Royce (Reggie Wayne), a new luxury home (Conseco Fieldhouse), a new Treadstone assassin to guard its shit (Bob Sanders), and the very best-est radio call that ever sent a team to the Eastern Conference Finals ("DING DONG THE WITCH IS DEAD!").
Blissfully married and wildly successful, Indy Sports could do no wrong. Until it could. Until some greasy Pistons fan threw a beer at Ron Artest's Crazy, causing Ron Artest's Crazy to nearly burn down all of Detroit in retaliation and you know what? There is no need to recount it all for the eleventy gajillionth time, for it is far too ugly. Mistakes were made. Restraining orders were filed. It was a very public, very embarrassing misstep for this city's Sports Scene — its sterling reputation sterling no more. Its credit score was fucked.
So it hired attorneys and a PR team and eventually fired everyone involved, but only after a few dozen subsequent handgun crimes at various 38th Street strip clubs. Reggie retired. The Pacers sank into a deep, miserable depression full of drug counseling and arson and Troy Murphy doing terrible Troy Murphy things. The city recoiled in apathy. The night is darkest before et cetera, et cetera.
2006-2015: Becoming CEO
LOL JK!! It would get a whole lot darker! Much, much darker, in fact, to the tune of getting its soul kicked in the balls — in January of 2006, when the basically undefeated, Number-One-Seed Colts let the Pittsburgh Steelers walk into the RCA Dome and stab them in the leg with a butter knife and then Mike Vanderjagt puke-kicked the game-tying field goal 640 yards wide right and we all, as a city, wanted to divorce Sports forever and start cutting ourselves and die alone in a Shoe Carnival bathroom.
It was, without question, the low point of Indy Sports' adult life. Its finances were in disarray, its relationships strained, its health failing because it wasn't taking its Coumadin or fiber pills. Indy Sports began quietly wondering if Peyton Manning really was the love its life. Its knees were continuously sore, as middle-aged knees tend to be. It was also drinking too much again.
But all was righted a year later, in January 2007, when it sobered up and faced its demons and finally beat the Patriots. (And, to be fair, the Bears too in the Super Bowl in the pouring rain — but that was an afterthought, really.) Super Bowl XL-whatever was the watershed moment of Indy Sports' life, until the next watershed moment (the opening of Lucas Oil Stadium) and the next one (Paul George being drafted) and the next one (Butler almost pulling off "the greatest story in basketball history") and the next one (Curtis Painter's season long zero-point-DOES HE HAVE PALSY? quarterback rating in 2011, paving the way for Andrew Luck in 2012) and finally, the ultimate one (hosting Super Bowl XL-whatever downtown). It got a divorce from Peyton Manning, on amicable terms, of course, but it did not leave empty handed. It was awarded infinite alimony payments and a children's hospital and a century's worth of goodwill. To be clear, Indy Sports is in a good place at last, having risen from its mom's futon through the professional ranks, gaining promotion after promotion, finally comfortable in its own skin and its stately $5.8 million Williams Creek estate. It has scores of underlings who never knew the broke, paint-huffing derelict it used to be a quarter century ago, and it rather likes it that way.
2015-_____ : The golden years?
Twenty-five years ago it would have been foolish to think that Indy could field Hall of Fame players and win a Super Bowl and host another and otherwise become a successful, productive member of Sports Society with vacation houses in Vail and St. Croix — well, actually, "foolish" would have been an understatement. It would have been impossible to predict its charmed path back then, almost as impossible as it is to predict the next 25 years of anything. It chooses not to focus on such things anymore. It used to do that for sure. But that is wasted energy — and besides, it has its own accountants and advisers for that now.
Roy Hobbson is a sportswriter and former editor of the Greatest IndyCar Website Ever, the SilentPagoda.com. He is also insane.