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Winners in Indiana's book?

3/26/2014
After looking like the best team in basketball, Indy has fallen on hard times. Hoosiers were prepared. AP Photo/Michael Conroy

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.

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.

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.