Of Reggie and Basketball

Last night, I was able to watch ESPN’s movie, “Miller Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks”. It is part of a series that ESPN is doing where they get a real director and pick 30 stories to make hour-long movies on. It was terrific, and brought back a lot of great memories. I thought I’d share some with you.

You see, I did most of my growing up in Indiana. Here, basketball has traditionally been the most important thing around, especially sports-wise. It is a way of life in many small, rural towns. We spawned the movie Hoosiers, and are widely-known as a basketball state (until recently, when some guy named Peyton came along). Therefore, basketball was long my favorite sport as a kid. I loved playing it, watching it, and just being around it. Some of my fondest memories of High School revolve around playing in the pep band at games, screaming my head off, and cheering on my buddies (since I obviously had no talent to play myself). When we moved to Indiana from the Detroit area, the Pistons were the dominant team in the NBA, and my favorite team. As I ingratiated into Indiana culture, the Pistons faded, and the Pacers started to build the nucleus of what would become a perennial power in the mid-90’s all the way through about 2004. I jumped on the bandwagon (yes, I admit it) and became a huge Pacers fan.

Now, my favorite weekend of the year has always been the one coming up: the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament. Basketball in near-pure form is played on one station, with 3 and 4 games at a time for 4 straight days. It is heaven. I would always fill out my brackets with Dad, and we’d compare/compete. I have always had a special place in my heart for college basketball. But as the Pacers ascended, I soon became a die-hard. I lived and died with every playoff series. Watching the film last night brought back some fantastic wins, and soul-crushing defeats. But it also made me sad.

I ABSOLUTELY LOVED that Pacers team, and everyone on it. But unfortunately, those guys are gone. And the NBA is just not the same. Gone are the days of hard fouls, and in-your-face defense. Rarely is there a pure shooter that can knock anything down (a la Reggie Miller). Now the league is populated by spoiled millionaires who don’t give a crap. Rarely do you see any hustle, or drive. It’s really pathetic to see what the NBA has become, and that coupled with the Pacers ineptitude the past few years have driven my interest to an all-time low. I just don’t care. That’s why last night’s movie kind of depressed me…I will most likely never see that level of competition mixed with skill again. As the NCAA tournament nears, and I start filling out my bracket, it reminds me once again how much I love college basketball, and loathe the pros. So, I decided to make a list of my all-time favorite Pacer moments from my high school/college days. And, big surprise, most of them revolve around Reggie Miller, with 3 of them being against the hated Knicks. Here we go:

1.8 points in 18 seconds – Astonishingly, I was playing in a church-league softball game, and missed this happening live. But of course I’ve seen it replayed about a thousand times. The movie last night really chronicled this well. In game one of the 1995 Eastern Conference finals in New York against the Knicks, we were down 6 points with 18 seconds to play. The game was essentially over. Then Reggie hits a 3. Steals the inbounds pass, steps back and hits ANOTHER 3. Tie ballgame! Inexplicably, we decide to foul. One of their premiere shooters, John Starks, misses BOTH free throws AT HOME. Patrick Ewing misses an easy put-back that he’s probably hit a thousand times. Reggie rebounds, and inexplicably, they FOUL HIM, one of the best free throw shooters of all time! He hits both to complete the feat. Most basketball pundits agree that they have NEVER seen ANYTHING like that in their lives, at any level. Unfortunately, we gave up a 3-1 series lead and had to play Game 7 in New York…which we finally won on a missed finger roll by Ewing. Spawned our radio announcer’s famous line: “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead!!!” Glorious. Of course what they didn’t show you was us not being able to break through and beat Orlando at their place, and so not making it to the NBA finals…AGAIN.

2.The Picture – In 1999, my brother Joel put a picture on the wall in our shared room. Reggie Miller had hit another playoff buzzer-beating 3 to tie the game, which we eventually won (as well as the series). In the picture, Reggie is pictured at the top of his jump, releasing the ball. In the background, you can clearly see a bunch of the Knicks fans. Many of them are shouting “NOOO!”, and several have crazy looks on their faces, and their hands on their heads in agony. It is absolutely hilarious, and whenever I think of Reggie, I think of that picture. You can see it, if you scroll down, here: http://www2.indystar.com/library/factfiles/people/m/miller_reggie/reggie.html

3.The Push-Off – Another one I didn’t see live. I was living in Scotland, and the game wasn’t broadcast. In 1999, the Pacers faced the Bulls, with Michael Jordan, to go to the NBA finals. In game 4, at home, down 1, Reggie pushes off Jordan, comes open, and hits a 3 with 2.7 seconds left to win the game. Old hat for Reggie, but one of the most amazing, clutch shots I’ve ever seen. We lost game 7 at Chicago, that we had under control in one of the more heartbreaking defeats of my life.

4.The infamous “choke” game – Again, very well chronicled last night. Down 15 points in the 4th quarter, and with Spike Lee jawing at him in the front row, Reggie scores 25 points in the QUARTER to steal the game. I remember watching this at my best friend J.K.’s house, and being almost speechless. It was probably the most astonishing performance I’ve ever seen. Of course, we blew game 6 at home in front of the most frenzied crowd maybe in NBA history (on a Free Throw MISS by Reggie), and then lost game 7 by 1 point. Crushing, again.

5.Smits, This Time – The only one on my list that doesn’t involve Reggie Miller, was all about Rik Smits, The Dunking Dutchman. I remember it was Memorial Day, 1995. Joel and I were alone in the house watching game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Magic and Shaq (the rest of the family was at some cookout). Penny Hardaway hits 2 3’s in the last 13 seconds, to take the lead in a game that we had control of. The Pacers inbound to Smits and he hits a GORGEOUS 12-foot shot at the buzzer to win it. Joel and I erupted and it was a moment I will NEVER forget.

As with my Colts, there are always going to be our share of wonderful, as well as gut-wrenching, moments. Although the Pacers never won the championship, I followed them with the same (or more) passion that I now follow the Colts. And though my affections for NBA basketball have waned, and may never return, I will never forget the decade I spent living and dying with the Indiana Pacers. Thanks for the memories, Reggie. We miss you.

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