The Ghost of Ron Artest

By now, most people have seen and/or heard about the “elbow heard ‘round the world.” A lot of the focus has been placed on the two people involved in the incident, and rightfully so. While that type of violence may be seen in some of the more violent sports such as MMA, hockey, or football, it is rarely, if ever, seen on the basketball court. A game full of finesse and grace has little room for that kind of brutality and unhinged force. The actions by Metta World Peace not only had an immediate impact on James Harden’s sidebeard, but also may have had a reverberating effect 2000 miles away.

Even 7½ years later, the wounds from The Brawl are still very fresh. When I was down in Indianapolis a month ago, I attended a Pacers game and was completely surprised by the lack of fan support. This is a team that is young and near the front of the pack in the Eastern Conference. If there’s a team in the league that is replicating the Oklahoma City Thunder model, it has to be the Pacers. A positive team culture and a young budding core surrounded by good, upstanding veterans.

Even with the attributes of a team on the rise, I still could not find a Pacers shirt at the downtown mall. I asked some locals why they thought support for the Indiana Pacers was waning, while the support for the 2-14 football team was at an all-time high. The most resounding answer was that, to this day, they were still turned off by the Brawl. The next most popular answer was that the team wasn’t even that good. When I told them the team was in 3rd position in the Eastern Conference and a darkhorse contender, the usual response was, “Really? I didn’t even know.”

In a moment of panic, the body sets off its “all hands on deck” response called the fight or flight instinct. In that moment, the body either gears all of its energy towards escapism or violence. In that instant, a couple Pacers players chose fight over flight. It’s amazing how a moment of instinctual insanity completely shattered the view a city had of its basketball team. Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson were always known as questionable characters. Loyal to a fault, but ticking time-bombs, nonetheless. Players who escaped their rough upbringings, but whose rough upbringings never escaped them.

The team, itself, was on its way to a probable championship run. It featured Jermaine O’Neal, Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson, and Jamaal Tinsley in their young primes, Reggie Miller as the veteran seeking his first championship, and a cast of good supporting players. What was a 7-2 start to begin the 2004-05 season, ended in a 44-38 struggle to remain in the playoff picture. While many Pacers fans were initially supportive of their players for sticking up for themselves, many changed their tunes as soon as the suspensions were levied. Many fans wondered whether the selfish actions of Artest and Jackson had cost the team a title.

After The Brawl, things soured between Artest and the Pacers, and he was eventually traded the next season. Adding fuel to the fire, Stephen Jackson was involved in a shooting at an Indianapolis night club that further strained the relationship between the Pacers and their fans. The Pacers had no choice but to go the route of the Portland Trailblazers during their Jailblazers clean-up, and blow the team up. When that happens, though, you can bet on at least 2-3 season of rebuilding, if not more. Horrible teams tend to have a negative impact on fan support, further straining the relationship between the Pacers and the people of Indianapolis.

The Pacers finally made it back to the postseason last year, but with a sub-.500 record. While they were good enough to make the playoffs, they really weren’t THAT good. But this season, with the acquisitions of David West, George Hill, and Leandro Barbosa, and the continued development of Roy Hibbert, Danny Granger, and Paul George, the Pacers have solidified themselves as the 3rd best team in the Eastern Conference. And attendance and fan support seems to be coming along for the Pacers.

But with all these good vibes, a sad reminder happened on Sunday. A reminder of how one person’s actions can still hold so much weight on the psyche of a fan base. While this probably doesn’t affect most of the fan base, it’s that important final 10-15% that the team needs to be profitable. Those are usually the fair weather fans or the returning disenfranchised fans. With Artest’s actions though, those fans will probably think it is business as usual around the league, and will choose to stay home. Which is a shame, because the Pacers are team on the rise that needs a fan base that is also on the rise.

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