The Pacers saved my life. That truth permeates everything I write. In some ways it is reflected in everything I do. When I was a boy, gratefully escaping Shortridge Junior High, I worked that spring spray painting centerpieces for a wedding decorator. On the newspapers I spread out daily as tarp, I began to notice the perennially disastrous Indiana Pacers making a nice run at the playoffs. Up to that point, basketball had meant something to me only by the force of an Indiana upbringing. In elementary school, Jason and his family took me to my first Pacer game against the Washington Bullets, and I spent the majority of my energy there worried that Manute Bol's legs would snap while running down court. I had, like most Indiana boys, a hoop on my garage. Having reached my final height at the tender age of twelve, I played post position in organized school sports. There, I utilized a reliable jump hook, a decent runner in the lane, and showed a passion for rebounding and physical play. But that was mainly lost on a home environment which valued intellectualism and art. So noticing the Pacers was merely that, a brief recognition.
A month or so later I was invited to a friends house for a Pacer game party. I cared not for the Pacers, was singularly excited about being invited to a party. The occasion was for game five of the Eastern Conference Finals in 1994. What I was treated to was one of the single most exciting events of my young life. Reggie Miller scored 25 points in the fourth quarter in the Garden versus the New York Knicks and I was hooked. My life became entangled with the Pacers from that moment on. The following year I spent time at the Indianapolis Star learning the ins and outs of Pacer beat writing. I jumped in my best friend's pool with all my clothes on when Patrick Ewing missed the tip-in during game seven of the Eastern Conference Semi-finals. I was the only one I know who didn't turn off the TV for Reggie's eight points in eight seconds. I flew home early from a cousin's wedding to be in Indy for game seven against the Bulls in 1998. I wrote an impassioned letter to Donnie Walsh following the 1999 Eastern Conference playoff collapse against the Knicks, urging patience, pleading for him to keep the team intact. One of the happiest moments of my life was spinning, dancing, hugging at the improbable 40 foot shot by Reggie to force a first round overtime game 5 against the Nets. With our theatrics, Harper and I convinced an entire New Orleans bar to watch and root for the Pacers in the ensuing two overtimes. I attended Reggie's last game with JT and Joey, and to this day display the ticket stub on my fridge.
But none of that explains how the Pacers saved my life. It is less riveting than Reggie's heroics, far less tangible than basketball plays. In college, I was diagnosed with severe clinical depression. I was largely despondent and inert, at my worst suicidal. I still have pages and pages of dark writing and in my darkest dark, when I could not even find the strength to write, there are pages of stats—possible line-ups, potential trades, number trends, names and cities and match ups—all the Pacers. The hopelessness I understood in that time was softened by a focus on men who played a game. When I no longer cared if even my heart continued to beat, the rhythm of the basketball against the court became my heart beat. The concreteness of winning and losing, as well as a continual hope in believing in a finite season, buoyed me when concreteness and hope were things I lacked in my own life. To this day my writing pages are interrupted by pages of stats. There is something incredibly poignant about the simplicity of basketball—pick and rolls, alley-oops, the poetry of a jump shot—that redeems the ugliness of my soul. I could not have known as an awkward adolescent stumbling upon one of the great moments of basketball playoff history, that I would come to live and breathe the game, in a time when living and breathing gave me no joy.
My subsequent recovery did not dampen my passion for the team one bit. I have continued to eagerly follow the Pacers, visiting Conseco ten times a year while living in Indy, and after moving, have listened to Mark and Slick at least 70 games each season. Since the Malice in the Palace, I have carefully tracked the process of returning to relevance, all the while crafting in my own mind the smartest way to rebuild and bring back a disillusioned fan base. The Pacers are an integral part of my existence.
In honor of Reggie's playoff game winner against the 76ers in 2001, I composed a haiku for his yearly contest, which speaks to the Pacers' importance in my life.
And in one moment,
time stopped, the world fell away.
Nothing left but sky.