TrueHoop: TrueIndy

Stages of accepting Paul George's injury

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
10:58
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By Michael Rubino
ESPN.com
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Paul GeorgeAP Photo/Darron CummingsPaul George is on the road to recovery after breaking his leg, but what about Indiana Pacers fans?
Paul George described the pain associated with breaking his right leg in two places -- a sickening compound fracture suffered during the fourth quarter of a USA Basketball exhibition game in Las Vegas on Aug. 1 -- with turns of phrase every bit as grotesque as the now-viral video of the injury. “It felt like gasoline was on my leg and someone lit a match,” Indiana’s budding superstar forward said at a news conference last week. “Just internally, my leg felt like it was in flames.”

Pacers fans can relate. In a sense, it seems as if someone has done the same to the hopes of their team winning an NBA title any time in the near future. But just like the ill-fated exhibition game that was called off, on-court things feel at once unimportant and unresolved.

Their first thoughts were of heartsick sympathy for George. Here was a guy -- their guy -- representing his country, hustling back on defense, for crying out loud, and the next thing you know he’s crumpled on the floor with a career in jeopardy and his teammates holding their hands over their mouths and doubled over in agony. The scene was better suited to the "Saw" franchise or "Hostel" than "SportsCenter."

Too young, too talented, too sturdy (George said in the news conference he might have rolled an ankle once or twice before), the injury seemed improbable. Denial, that was the first reaction. From there, fans zoomed through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief.

They lingered on anger for a bit, looking for someone to blame for the freak injury. USA Basketball seemed like a good target for a while. So did the court at UNLV's Thomas & Mack Center, where some found fault with the distance of the basket supports and a too-crowded baseline.

Bargaining? There was a good deal of that, too -- the ex-post-facto kind. Revisionists revisited the Lance Stephenson negotiations from July and suggested the absurd: This was karma for letting the talented but troubled guard leave for Charlotte. If only Pacers president Larry Bird had sweetened the five-year, $44-million deal, they argued; the franchise would’ve had a cushion for George’s fall.

[+] EnlargePaul George
AP Photo/Darron CummingsWith Paul George on crutches, Indy's title hopes are on hold.
And now the Indiana faithful find themselves smack-dab in the middle of depression, torn between tanking the upcoming season in hopes of securing a lottery pick and playing for pride. Both seem like rotten short-term options given the Eastern Conference landscape that existed just a few months ago. Despite the balance of power shifting from Miami to Cleveland with LeBron’s return home, Indiana, a conference finalist two years running, remained a contender with its nucleus intact. That, of course, was before this summer of agony.

Tanking -- or at least temporarily being good enough at losing to secure a top pick with your superstar on the IR -- has worked in these parts before. In 2011, with a franchise-tagged Peyton Manning out for the season with a neck injury, the Colts looked to the three-headed quarterback monster of Curtis Painter, Kerry Collins and Dan Orlovsky to save the day. Indy finished 2-14, blew up the team in the offseason, and drafted Andrew Luck with the No. 1 overall pick.

The ball’s never bounced that way for the Pacers -- or at least as directly in a line from tragic injury to silver lining.

After two straight Eastern Conference finals appearances, Reggie Miller led Indiana to a 52-win season in 1995-96. But in April of that season, Miller collided with Detroit’s Otis Thorpe and Allan Houston, fell to the floor and broke his eye socket. That kept the Pacers’ leading scoring on the bench for three weeks, including all but the team’s final first-round game against Atlanta, a series Indiana lost. The Pacers went 39-43 the next season, coach Larry Brown resigned, and Bird came aboard to coach the team, eventually leading it to its first-and-only NBA Finals appearance in 2000.

Bird, of course, is the man in charge at another critical juncture, and he seems as likely of throwing the upcoming season as he does getting a sleeve of his basketball accomplishments tattooed on his arm. At a news conference with Bird and coach Frank Vogel a few days before George spoke to the media, a reporter asked Bird if the team had plans to wear a uniform patch this season to honor their injured teammate. “Patch?” Bird said, laughing in disbelief. “He’s still alive.”

True, but the team’s hopes of making a third straight Eastern Conference finals appearance are dead as long as George has two metal rods in his leg and is walking around on crutches.

George held out hope that he might return this season, but he admitted it seemed unlikely. In his stead, Bird and Vogel have outlined a plan that relies on guys such as the C.J.’s (Watson and Miles) and Shayne Whittington surprising, George Hill stepping up, and David West and Roy Hibbert posting up more. (It could be a long depression stage.)

Bird also admitted having an eye toward the future, discussing expiring contracts and options in vague terms. “You never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “But we’re starting to look at all that right now. We’re always looking ahead. We always try to look two to three years down the road. Whatever happens we’ll be competitive. We know that. But losing a Paul George is definitely going to hurt you for a while. But when he comes back, you want to make sure you have the pieces around him.”

In the interim, George will rehabilitate -- and re-brand. He changed his number from 24 to 13 to facilitate a new PG-13 nickname, which he said is about coming into his own. “I feel like I’m at that stage where I’m ready to embrace everything that comes with being one of the young stars in this league,” George said.

That sounded an awful lot like hopeful acceptance, but a local T-shirt-maker here in Indy is even more optimistic. Last week, Hayes and Taylor added a new shirt to its line, featuring a George-inspired silhouette about to dunk alongside the tagline from "The Six Million Dollar Man": Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. Bigger. Stronger. Faster.

The words are a blast from the past, but right now, the future feels just as far away.

Head games

May, 24, 2014
May 24
10:00
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By Michael Rubino
ESPN.com
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Paul George and Lance StephensonAP Photo/Michael ConroyThere were glimpses of the good ole Pacers, but after a Game 2 loss, is Indy down and out again?
Observers of the Indiana Pacers’ troublesome second half and postseason have wondered if a proper head examination wasn’t in order. An assessment of Paul George’s concussed noggin wasn’t likely what they had in mind.

With 6:50 left in Tuesday’s 87-83 home loss to Miami that tied the Eastern Conference finals at 1-1, George caught first the calf and then the foot of the Heat’s Dwyane Wade. Splayed face-down on the floor for a good 12 to 15 seconds, George received medical treatment on the sideline and returned to the game, but afterward told reporters that he had “blacked out.” On Thursday, he was practicing in a red do-not-touch jersey, and, more importantly, questionable for Game 3 in Miami after losing a game Indiana should have won.

Expecting the unexpected hasn’t come easy to Pacers fans, but they’re getting the gist: It’s beast or famine. Sunday’s emphatic 107-96 Game 1 win in which Indiana could do no wrong (the team hit 42 percent from 3-point range and went to the foul line 37 times) gave way to a Game 2 effort that was winnable, but, at times, seemed not want-able.

For a good spell, though, the Pacers appeared on their way to a 2-0 series lead, and this was thanks, in large part, to the play of guard Lance Stephenson. George is now a legitimate medical head case, but Stephenson has often been smeared as a figurative one. Or a genius on the floor. Fans are split on Lance. (Pacers duality has no bounds.)

“Born Ready” (Stephenson’s self-given nickname) was anything but the first time the Pacers and Heat mixed it up in the conference semifinals back in 2012 and Miami eliminated Indiana in six. Back then, Stephenson was a bit player, a Larry Bird project whose one shining moment came in Game 3 when he jeered LeBron James after a missed free throw, playing court jester for The King with a pantomimed choke sign. Stephenson logged seven minutes in that entire series and scored just one point. “Lance Stephenson?” James said to the media at the next day’s practice. “You want a quote about Lance Stephenson?”

Cold, yes, but for most of Tuesday it was Stephenson who threw shade, finishing the game with 25 points, six boards and seven assists. And while Stephenson mean-mugged a few times, he was largely under control, particularly on an in-bounds tip-in from 6 feet out with 0.1 on the clock to end the first half.

The Pacers actually led 75-72 with 5:33 left in the game, but Miami went on a 10-0 run to put the game out just out of reach. After being held in relative check by George for most of the game, James scored 12 of his 22 in the fourth quarter. While Wade’s 23 led the Heat, LeBron’s performance was the one that stung.

This wasn’t a vintage James line (50 percent from the floor, 50 percent from free-throw, and 1 3-pointer bucket), but the Heat still head to Miami all even. After months of mess, the Pacers, at times, finally look like the dominant team that steamrolled to the top of the East. But not being able to capitalize when James’ effort was subpar (for him) makes you wonder if Indiana will ever break through that glass ceiling.

But it’s certainly not all bad. Overlooked in the Pacers’ up-and-down playoff ride has been the team’s 5-1 record on the road, a franchise best. Indiana lost its first road game of the first round in Atlanta, but hasn’t lost away from home since.

More importantly, through this entire fit of schizophrenia, Pacers coach Frank Vogel hasn’t wavered or panicked. He stuck with Roy Hibbert through the center’s early-round yips and has never let one game -- bomb or beauty -- define a series.

Ultimately, throughout the playoffs -- the near-catastrophe of the Atlanta series, the bumpy patch with Washington -- it’s been the Pacers who have been Pacers’ greatest enemy.

Tuesday that continued as they turned in another Janus-faced performance. The Roman deity presides over liminal or transitional spaces, like doorways and gates, and is depicted with two faces, one looking forward and the other backward. As the Pacers move toward the threshold of the NBA Finals, the face they see guarding that thruway is their own.

Michael Rubino is a senior editor at Indianapolis Monthly.

Gone fishin'

May, 9, 2014
May 9
10:15
AM ET
By Michael Rubino
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Pacers clockAndy Lyons/Getty ImagesRoy Hibbert righted the ship in Game 2, but is time still running out on the Pacers' postseason hopes?
Basically, there are three kinds of fishing trips.

There’s the one where you lie about going fishing and instead drink beer. (This is the most common.) Then you have your "Andy Griffith Show"-style outing, where, pole slung over your shoulder, all problems melt away against an upbeat ditty that comes from a whistling, off-screen chorus. And finally, you have the one where things go horribly wrong -- like in "Jaws" or "The Godfather: Part II."

Although it’s unclear which type of outing Paul George was angling for when he invited teammates George Hill and Roy Hibbert to his Geist Reservoir pad Tuesday -- a day after the Indiana Pacers looked flat in a 102-96 Game 1 loss to the Washington Wizards -- this much is unmistakable: They caught a fish in the waters off the posh Indianapolis suburb, and no one got tossed overboard like Fredo.

We know this because George posted a picture to his Instagram account. In the photo, Hibbert, center, wraps one arm around Hill and rests the other on George’s shoulder. There’s also a fish, which looks quite small in Hibbert’s mitt. The image was accompanied by a caption that read, “These rumors have got to stop! Its [sic] getting old now and all you that believe them are ignorant! #Brothers”

The rumors and innuendo have plagued the Pacers in the postseason and throughout most of the regular season’s second half. At times, the tattle (cliques, insecurities and women are the most common themes) overshadowed their accomplishments and has only grown in Indiana’s eventful playoff run. In advance of Game 2, George finally addressed its existence: “I'm just getting tired of the media and these stories,” he said. “I’m just putting everything to bed and rest.”

The Pacers, though, have put themselves in this position -- being defensive instead of playing defense, which is the reason the team is the Eastern Conference’s top seed, and, for parts of the season, looked like it belonged among the NBA’s elite.

There’s never been a clear explanation or alibi for Indiana's woes, so this is what it’s come to for those on the outside looking in: cognitive theory from the living room couch and pub-stool psychoanalysis; trading in rumors and rumoring in trades; divining and mining Instagram pics for The Answer (not Allen Iverson).

Fans have been fishing, too.

Regardless, whatever happened (or didn’t) between Hibbert and his teammates, it worked.

In Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, the enigmatic big man, who went scoreless in Game 1, had a season-high 28 points in an 86-82 win to even the series at 1-1. There were also nine rebounds, two blocks and no turnovers. He even smiled again.

All this coming after said fishing junket, social-media shots from all corners and public pleas from teammates begging for Hibbert to make his presence known. “I got to come out and be aggressive,” he said after the Game 1 loss. “I got to be a different Roy Hibbert than I have been.”

So now all’s well again -- until it isn’t. That’s what the Go Fish! approach has wrought: uncertainty.

No one knows what Game 3 will bring. Or which Pacers team will show. Or which players. Or which versions of which players. The team already has a “Good Lance” Stephenson and a “Bad Lance,” but based on Hibbert’s comments, there are now apparently multiple Roys. And that type of herky-jerky back-and-forth -- the kind that throws guys from boats -- is the reason the Pacers don’t inspire confidence right now.

No one would ever confuse 90210 with the 46204 ZIP code, but we’ve had what’s felt like our fair share of high school drama here. And while the Pacers have been mired in theatrics, the Heat continue to prowl. Miami swept Charlotte, then plowed through Brooklyn in Games 1 and 2. LeBron & Co. look like true predators.

If the Pacers hope to fend off the upstart Wizards and topple the Heat, then Hibbert, Hill and George are going to need a bigger boat.

Michael Rubino is a senior editor at Indianapolis Monthly.

Season on the brink

May, 1, 2014
May 1
10:00
AM ET
By Michael Rubino
Special to ESPN.com
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Lance StephensonAP Photo/Darron CummingsOnce a juggernaut in the making, the Pacers are in serious jeopardy of being sent packing in Round 1.
End times. Oceans of blood. Famine and plague. The appearance of NBA fans in Atlanta. Dark days, these, especially for the Indiana Pacers.

It’s hard to pinpoint when the rapture hit -- the Pacers were kind of busy sunning themselves in a franchise-best 16-1 start, GQ spreads and All-Star appearances. Now the team that many pegged to unseat the Miami Heat and represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals faces the possibility of final judgment in a win-or-go-home game Thursday night in Atlanta against the Hawks.

If you think the last two minutes of an NBA game last an eternity, consider the unremitting existence of the Pacers in the second half of the season and playoffs. The Pacers went 16-14 after the All-Star break and won only four times in their last 10 games heading into the postseason, even as the No. 1 seed hung in the balance.

That final stretch included an embarrassing 107-88 home loss to a team that for most of the season flirted with the lottery, the Hawks. It was a harbinger of things to come. In Game 5, playing at home with a chance to turn a corner in the series, the Pacers were outplayed by the Hawks at every position except one: the fetal.

For fans, it’s all felt like strange, soulless limbo, rooting for a team that on a game-to-game basis flickers between not-quite dead and not-quite alive, like a collection of really tall extras from "The Walking Dead."

The prospect of such an apocalyptic collapse has sent writers searching for historical parallels, but there don’t appear to be any. Cleveland’s 2010 NBA playoff series with Boston possesses some of the rag-doll theatrics but doesn’t carry the weight of a potential first-round exit.

It has proved fruitless to even compare this manifestation of the Pacers to, say, the Pacers of just a few months ago. Remember when Paul George was on the verge of being one of the two or three best players in the NBA? Remember when Frank Vogel was considered one of the league’s brightest young coaches and tapped to helm the Eastern Conference All-Stars? Remember when Roy Hibbert was an All-Star center? An NBA center?

Funny how fast things change. Vogel is supposedly coaching for his job. Hibbert has become the world’s tallest cheerleader, spending long spells on the bench against the Hawks, which give him matchup problems. And on the night of the Game 5 loss, George -- who has played well in the series but hasn’t transcended those lofty expectations -- had his home broken into and All-Star ring stolen. Some have joked it was repossessed. (If that’s the case, Hibbert might want to check his personal effects too.) Even Larry Bird, the architect of this team and local legend, hasn’t been immune to criticism, though most of it has been deferential and polite. I respect Larry, but ...

Why it’s reached this point is anyone’s guess. One local writer pitched the idea that an autopsy of what is now still thankfully just a gathering collapse might make for an excellent “30 for 30” installment. No one has been able to offer a plausible meta-theory for the fall-off, and none of the smoking guns -- a locker-room fight, rumors of players vying for the affection of the same woman, the trade of popular Danny Granger -- have hit the target. The best explanation? The simplest one: The team is immature and ill-equipped to handle success.

Yet despite everything that has occurred, there remains the sense that this team can right itself, that redemption seems possible. By and large, the Pacers fan base isn’t made up of extremists calling to raze the barn and scorch the earth. But fans here are fundamentalists who like flinty defense, floor-burn hustle and the extra pass. We finally got glimpses of that Saturday in Game 4, when the Pacers evened the series with a 91-88 win, and behold, it was very good. But if the team can’t muster that type of effort in Game 6, there will no more limbo -- and probably hell to pay.

Michael Rubino is a senior editor at Indianapolis Monthly.

Winners in Indiana's book?

March, 26, 2014
Mar 26
10:45
AM ET
By Michael Rubino
Special to ESPN.com
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Roy HibbertAP Photo/Michael ConroyAfter looking like the best team in basketball, Indy has fallen on hard times. Hoosiers were prepared.
Hoosiers fret. Height of the corn. Length of the sermon. Width of the breaded pork tenderloin. You name it.

But this NBA season, the state pastime has grown into a preoccupation for fans of the Indiana Pacers.

In the beginning, we worried the national media wasn’t paying enough attention to the team’s 16-1 start. By the break, we overthought the All-Star snub of guard Lance Stephenson and gnawed on the notion that, at 40-12 (best in the Eastern Conference), the team hadn’t been on TV much. Then the departure of Danny Granger! The additions of Evan Turner and Andrew Bynum! And -- gasp -- the 11- 8 mark since the break (including a 7-7 beginning to March)! Fans here have been dying for someone to tell them what to think, and need that ordination of the Pacers' greatness or divination of what's gone wrong of late to come down from on high.

Hoosiers fret, but we also pay deference to authority (see Knight, Bob). And both conditions betray our flyover-country baggage packed with inherent self-doubt and a need for affirmation. Do we belong? Are we good enough? What do you think?

Despite the angst, it's worth noting, the team still has the top record in the Eastern Conference -- two games over hated Miami -- and third-best in the Association. Since the state went 0-for-the NCAA tournament, all hopes to prove our basketball superiority hinge on the professional squad.

[+] EnlargeRoy Hibbert
AP Photo/R Brent SmithAfter a 7-7 start to March, are things still looking up for Roy Hibbert and the East-leading Pacers?
In many ways, 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert is the perfect Pacer as the largest -- figuratively and literally -- manifestation of the Hoosier mindset.

It’s little wonder the All-Star center is a fan favorite. Off the court, Hibbert projects as a salt-of-the-earth guy who holds "American Idol"-style auditions to give blue-and-gold crazies a shot to sit in his "Area 55" of Bankers Life Fieldhouse. He’s active in the community and seems to genuinely enjoy being part of the Indianapolis skyline. Hibbert’s a plus on the court, too. He swats shots, grabs rebounds and, over the years, has developed a dangerous little hook. He hustles.

When Big Roy hits the deck -- and this happens maybe once or twice a game -- you can hear the crowd draw its breath. Oh no! He climbs to one knee, gets the other leg underneath him, and then pushes upright. The whole process, it takes a while. He hits the floor harder and takes longer to get up than anyone I can recall, but he's 7-2, so I get it. Almost without exception, he's right back at it after the fall, protecting the rim, doing his thing.

Problem is, Hibbert takes big mental falls, too -- on-court plummets where he disappears for quarters and then strings of games. When the Pacers are going good, Hibbert’s teammates usually find him for early, momentum-building opportunities. But during the swoons, Hibbert becomes forgotten (or allows himself to fade into the background). Perhaps he internalizes too much. Maybe he’s too pensive. Could be a confidence issue. I don’t know. But what I do know is that it takes him a while to get up -- to bounce back. This happened last season, but, by March, Hibbert shook the crisis of confidence and was probably the biggest reason the team took Miami to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. He’s in the midst of another spring swoon, and until he picks himself up, fans will hold their breath and brood.

This type of anxiety doesn’t appear to wash over the fan bases of the NBA's blue-blood franchises. Knicks fans, for example, haven’t lost their delusions of grandeur even though their team is in the midst of another lost season. The mantra in New York isn’t Save us, Phil Jackson! -- it’s Phil Jackson will save us. That’s self-assurance. Misguided, maybe, but it’s certainty nonetheless.

Over the years, this neurosis in Indiana hasn’t been limited to professional basketball or even proficiency in the realm of athletics.

Even though the Peyton Manning-led Colts were the (regular-season) class of the NFL and brought Indianapolis a Super Bowl title in 2007, most fans were loathe to make bold pronouncements about their achievements. When it came to Manning’s place in the pantheon, the collective sentiment here seemed to be: He's great -- right?

A few years later, when Indianapolis hosted the Super Bowl in 2012, that lack of certitude was manifest in the civic sphere. With a big assist from uncharacteristic spring-like weather in early February, the city and its volunteers clearly put together one the most well-run Super Bowls in recent NFL memory, showcasing the vibrancy (and accessibility) of its downtown and the vigor of Indy’s local businesses. Yet, when it was all over, residents couldn’t stop wondering if we’d done OK. Part of that was simply Hoosiers hospitality -- the desire to please -- but it also spoke to a genuine lack of certainty. We looked to the Darren Rovells of the world to tell us what we (hopefully) already knew: We nailed it.

One could argue this is a byproduct of modesty, that Hoosiers don’t like to toot their own horn. But it has more to do with the idea that we’re somewhat uncomfortable playing that instrument in front of a big audience.

From the outside looking in, this may seem odd, especially in the context of basketball, a sport that Hoosiers perfected. But achievement has come in large part thanks to the high school and college game -- the smaller stages, not the grand one. Even the Pacers’ three championships came in the ABA, always a sideshow to the NBA.

From Hibbert to the way we feel about Hoosier Hysteria, none of this is a bad thing. It’s human and real, genuine. It’s part of our identity, and it’s become part of the way others see us.

Doubt and determination are variables in the narrative equation, ones necessary for true triumph. Succeeding against great odds is wonderful, but the victory is sweetest when attained while conquering something within yourself, and this idea is very much a part of the Hoosier sports experience, no matter the team or player.

[+] EnlargeLarry Bird
Ron Hoskins/NBAE/Getty ImagesLarry Bird, the pride of French Lick and the Pacers' president, is an embodiment of the Hoosier mindset.
Pacers president Larry Bird embodies this ideal, and it has always made me think of him as a kind of corncob Christ.

Today and throughout his playing days, Bird built a career on fail-safe skill and a cloak of confidence (he was a proto-s----talker) that hugged him tighter than those old thigh-high Celtics drawers. But even Bird had his moment of wandering in the desert before ascending to greatness, leaving Knight's IU program before his freshman season even began and returning home to French Lick. Whatever happened during that time, I'd bet it laid the foundation for the greatness that was to come: Indiana State, Boston, the Hall of Fame.

One of the all-time great Bird moments came late in his career against, of all teams, the Pacers during the 1991 playoffs where the darkness-dawn thing played out over four quarters. Back then, Bird was ravaged with a bad back. Instead of sitting on the bench, he'd lay on the floor in pain. With Bird prone, it was the perfect opportunity for the Pacers to steal a series and move on to the next round. During the first half of Game 5, Bird landed hard and whacked his head against the Garden's parquet. He was helped off the floor, led through the tunnel and into the locker room. It looked as if he was finished.

He wasn't, of course. Bird returned for the second half and the Celtics won on the strength of one his all-time great lines: 32 points, nine rebounds, seven assists, one concussion.

Pacers fans could use a doubt-determination moment of their own like that one. We're not agnostic -- we're just waiting for a sign.

Michael Rubino is a senior editor at Indianapolis Monthly.

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