Pacers clinging to life 

They are already champions to us

They are already champions to us
For about 36 hours, between the end of Friday's game and the end of Sunday's game, the Indiana Pacers were the darlings of the national press. You couldn't watch ESPN without someone raving about what an amazing squad the Pacers are, how they are resilient, how they are the Cinderella team of the playoffs.
That would be a mistake. Until the game clock shows zeroes in an elimination game, I'm not giving up hope on the Pacers.
On Sunday, about 100 extra reporters descended on Indianapolis to cover the game. Peter Vecsey of the New York Post was scrambling around looking for a Sharpie before the game. The New York Times' Liz Robbins, wearing very sensible shoes, was sprinting between locker rooms, trying to get enough quotes to make her deadline. Then Indiana took a thrashing from Detroit on Sunday and the story turned 180 degrees back to the Pistons. Let's put things in perspective for a moment. There is a man who sits against an overpass and holds out a cup on Delaware Street, not far from Conseco Fieldhouse. The cardboard sign he holds is especially bleak: "ANYTHING. PLEASE. HOMELESS. GODLESS." That is real-life tragedy. The triumph and adversity of the Indiana Pacers pales in comparison. But by the time this sees print, the Pacers will have either won or lost Game Five and will be preparing for Thursday night's home game, which could be the last of Reggie Miller's career. Fair-weather fans suddenly saw clouds and storms appear on the horizon after Sunday's massacre at the Fieldhouse. Bandwagon jumpers suddenly jumped off. That would be a mistake. Until the game clock shows zeroes in an elimination game, I'm not giving up hope on the Pacers. They've become America's team, able to overcome obstacles, poor shooting, injuries, suspensions and Bob Kravitz's scathing words. They can overcome this latest setback as well. Meanwhile, the Pacers themselves must decide whether they are going to shoot well enough to beat the world champions or if they will give up. But for a few days, the Pacers were the toast of the national media, so much so that NBA commissioner David Stern made an appearance at the Fieldhouse on Friday. I was talking to another reporter, wondering where the commissioner would speak, when I turned around and he was right in front of me. The antagonist of Artest, the oppressor of Indiana basketball, was standing 3 feet away with a number of beefed-up security guards around him. I extended my hand. "Welcome back to Indianapolis," I said. He shook my hand. "Nice to see you," he said. Then the press conference started and it was suck-up city. Stern was lobbed a few softball questions from The Star about where he would be sitting, and did he like Indianapolis. There was a question or two about the union negotiations. Nobody wanted to ask him about Artest. So I spoke up, as I'd been dreaming of doing since November. "Commissioner, you know that the Indiana fans feel oppressed about the suspensions. Some even say it's political, a red state/blue state thing," I said. His response sounded like one President Bush made in the debates last year: "I understand everybody in this country doesn't agree with the decisions I've made," Bush said. "And I made some tough decisions. But people know where I stand. And that's how best it is to keep the peace." For a moment, the commissioner, in his very affable way, sounded just like the president. "I don't think it's a red state thing," Stern said, puzzled. The softball questions continued, so I went upstairs to the main concourse where the true hoops experts, the Pacers fans, were. There were a variety of T-shirts: "Free Artest." "Suspend Stern." The front of one shirt said "In Indiana We Drink Our Beer." The back said, "We Don't Throw It." Stern was never pictured on the jumbotron, nor was his presence announced to the crowd. He was still booed as he walked across court at halftime. Indiana fans never forget. "He needs to stay the hell back in New York," one fan told me. "It's not a smart thing for him to be here." If he was an intruder, there were many others present. The most shocking thing about Sunday's game was that there were so many Pistons fans in attendance. Some of the Detroit fans were pretty scary looking and I began to rethink my idea of traveling to a Pistons game wearing my Artest jersey. The Pacers have never given up on you. This is not the time to give up on them, even if they are down 3-2 going into Thursday's game. Most of the time, good triumphs over evil, except in presidential elections. And even if they stumble and fall, the Indiana Fever start their season this Sunday with a 6 p.m. home game against the Charlotte Sting. Their squad looks solid, with eight first-round draft picks and one of the league's dominant players in Tamika Catchings. Center Kelly Schumacher has grown into an excellent role player. Our teams may be defeated on occasion, but the spirit of Indiana basketball never dies. It is in our blood, making us genetically superior to the other 49 states. The Pacers' season, whatever the outcome of the Detroit series, is a case study in perseverance and fortitude. With the return of our political prisoner, Ron Artest, next season, they will be even better. His incarceration stands as an injustice that must be avenged. It has been a season to remember. May God bless the Indiana Pacers.

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