It looks almost exactly like 2005

Steve Hammer

After the Christmas trees were dismantled and the New Year's hangovers gradually faded, sports fans in Indiana entered 2006 in much the same way they did 2005: with guarded optimism and more than a touch of dread for events yet to come.

As in 2005, the new year finds the Indianapolis Colts the prohibitive favorites to earn their first Super Bowl berth. But. They have yet to beat the New England Patriots in the playoffs and the Pats are peaking at just the right time.

Just like last year, 2006 begins with Ron Artest's basketball future in doubt. A year ago, he was martyred by the NBA for the sins of the hip-hop culture. This year, however, he finds himself ensnared by the power of his own words, which have turned his teammates and fans against him while his bosses carefully plan out a trade to send him away.

Last year began with a sense of accomplishment and anticipation for the Notre Dame football program. The new year saw them lose a horribly lopsided bowl game against Ohio State but also looking ahead to the next season.

In other words, it's history repeating itself, all across the board. The Indiana University men's basketball team, most of whose fans relish the idea of firing head coach Mike Davis, watch in dismay as the coach manages to somehow retain his job from week to week.

The last month of 2005 was a brutal month for Indiana sports fans in just about every sense. The Colts' perfect season was ended by a valiant San Diego Chargers team, causing some dismay, which was quickly replaced by real life and sadness when coach Tony Dungy's son died of his own hand. The outpouring of grief was a reminder on how shallow and superficial the world of sport really is.

Artest, who'd been on his best behavior throughout the summer and early fall, mouthed off to a newspaper reporter about how he wanted to be traded. That damage might have been contained, but Artest, as usual, compounded the crime with a Mike Tyson-like TV interview in which he repeated his trade demand.

That action caused his teammates to rebel against him and the already-skeptical Indianapolis media to deliver verbal and written beatdowns equal to or greater than the punches Artest threw on Nov. 19, 2004.

The "Free Ron Artest" T-shirts available for sale on Artest's Web site took on a new meaning after the Pacers placed him on the inactive list and disinvited him from practices. Artest is now a man without citizenship, in basketball terms, unwanted by his home and regarded as damaged goods by all other nation-states.

By year's end, Pacers President Donnie Walsh was saying he might wait until February, the trade deadline, to unload Artest for whatever remaining value he might have.

The year began with The Star's Bob Kravitz, who'd spent the month of December reminding everyone just How Right He'd Been All Along on Artest, demanding that action be taken immediately, if not sooner. As of Tuesday, the Pacers had pondered an Artest trade for 22 days, leading to the not-incorrect point that even "President Bush doesn't take vacations this long."

Left quietly unsaid, though, was the small possibility that the team may be forced to take back their prodigal son once again. Even more unspoken was the red-state/blue-state political issues at work in society.

Artest was punished last year because he violated red-state sensibilities by going into the stands after a cup-throwing fan. He was punished at the end of the year for a similar violation: don't talk back.

In the short-term, though, the franchise has been wounded, its fans alienated, its team in disarray, with almost all of its players thinking they may be included in an Artest trade.

There was giddy talk in October about the Pacers beating the Pistons and then the Spurs to win the NBA title. Now, even the most optimistic fans are hoping for a .500 record and a first-round playoff exit.

If there could be said to be a storyline throughout the year in sports in Indiana, it is the clash of political and socioeconomic cultures.

It's the same thinking that downgrades Davis' coaching skills at Indiana because he inherited "Bobby Knight's team," but doesn't mention the fact that Notre Dame's success in 2005 was in large part the work of fired coach Tyrone Willingham, an African-American, and not good-ole-boy Charlie Weis.

Meanwhile, the Colts have a week off while they salve their wounds, physically and psychically, and prepare to likely face the Patriots at some point. The state's collective breath is held on whether they can get by that hurdle, even as it marvels at Dungy's personal courage and determination in the wake of trauma.

The year 2006 looks as if it will be some sort of variation of 2005, albeit a slightly distorted one. There are games to be played and new details to fill in, but the uncertainty and ennui of 2005 spilled over into the new year.

In other words, everything old is old again.


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