When I was younger, I was a rabid Indiana Pacers fan. I vividly remember watching Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals against the Knicks on TV with my dad, screaming my head off while Reggie Miller scored 8 points in 11 seconds to win the game. I lived and died by Reggie’s clutch shooting, helped along by the Pacers’ supporting cast of Rik Smits, Mark Jackson, Jalen Rose, the Davis “brothers,” and an aging Chris Mullin. Good but never great, those teams were fun to watch if only because I knew every other fan in the league hated Reggie Miller. No player but Reggie could get away with all the trash-talking, flopping, and manufactured fouls that he did, but it made all those dagger-like 3-pointers that much better. He was my guy.
I kept up with the Pacers after I moved to Chicago, even though I still had a soft spot for the Bulls like every other kid who grew up in the Michael Jordan era. You can’t just abandon your team because you move to a new city, close proximity to the United Center or not. But after Ron Artest charged into the crowd in Detroit during a Pacers-Pistons game in 2004 and started the brawl of all sports brawls, I gave up on the NBA. It wasn’t just a scared white man protest of “thugs” taking over the grand old game of John Wooden and Larry Bird. Reggie was gone, the brawl had ruined what had been a promising season for the Pacers, and Artest made me embarrassed to be a fan of my favorite team. Just like it’s hard to start dating again after a bad breakup, it’s hard to keep loving a game when you don’t recognize your favorite team anymore.
In the past few years, I’ve slowly returned to the NBA. I covered the Bulls for Chicago Sports Weekly and even attended their media day in 2007. After standing next to a larger-than-life character like <a href="csw_joakimnoahfinal“>Joakim Noah you can’t help but follow along a little more closely, and Hoosier boy that am, I’m required to enjoy all types of basketball as a birthright. So I’ve been paying more attention to the NBA, not necessarily pulling for the Pacers or Bulls or any other team, but just being a general fan of the game. It’s better that my enjoyment of the league isn’t tied to the fortunes of one team like it is with baseball and football. Once the Cardinals and Colts lose, I’m ruined for the rest of the playoffs. But with the NBA, I just enjoy watching guys like Noah play ball.
We took Carter to his first Bulls game last week. The played the Sacramento Kings, ironically, both former teams of Ron Artest. Carter was as excited as, well, a little boy at his first basketball game. We bought him a T-shirt, ate ice cream, and oohed and aahed at the Bulls’ Jordan-era, theatrical player introductions. The Bulls put on a show in the first half, going up 67-43 at the break and eventually stretching that to a 35-point lead in the third quarter.
The team runs a promotion where every fan gets a free Big Mac at an area McDonald’s if they score 100 points in a game, and I explained to Carter at halftime how it was a sure thing. “They only have to score half as many points as they already have,” I told him. “We’re winning a free Big Mac for sure.”
The Kings had better ideas, and eventually overcame that enormous deficit to stun the Bulls, the second biggest comeback in league history. Carter was as upset as the rest of the crowd as they booed every Bulls turnover, every bad shot by Derrick Rose, and every Sacramento bucket. I suspected he was just imitating their exasperation, groaning and shouting, “Oh no,” but as the game drew to a close he burst into tears.
Debbie and I reassured him that it was okay, you can’t win every game. “I know that,” he said, wiping his nose, “But I really wanted to win a big hamburger.” The Bulls finished with just 98 points, one basket short of our free Big Mac.
I think he understood the part about not always winning, but I suppose the game lets you down in many ways. A Big Mac would have tasted really good after a game like that. We promised to take him back sometime when the Bulls could score 100, but at this point in their 11-17 season and a coaching change looming, I don’t know when that will happen again.