By Ben Golliver
The Pacers lost to the Lakers 99-93 at home on Friday in a result that wasn't entirely expected because of the teams' records (Indiana is the No. 2 seed in the East; L.A. is clinging to the No. 8 seed in the West) and because of the status of Kobe Bryant (who went scoreless in 12 minutes because of a sprained ankle). The Lakers won in a plucky performance, telling reporters afterwards that they rallied behind Bryant's attempt to play. Five Lakers scored in double figures to overcome the NBA's No. 1 defense and hand the Pacers just their eighth home loss of the season.
George Hill, who saw his game-high 27 points squandered in the loss, took out his frustrations after on the lack of crowd support in Bankers Life Arena, according to the Indianapolis Star.
“It sucks. It was 70 (Lakers fans) – 30 (Pacers fans) out there. These are the same people that wants autographs after the game. We’re out there in the community. We’re doing our job, doing what we’re supposed to do on and off the court. Something has to change. I tip my hat to this team. We’ve been trouble free. Been out in the community shaking hands, we’re winning. It shouldn’t feel like an away game, especially with an important like this. Tonight, that’s what it felt like.”
“They always say your fans are your sixth man and you feed off that energy. Energy is down and we turn the ball over and we’re hearing cheers. We’re missing shots and we’re hearing cheers. That kind of brings your head down cause you know you’re at home. It shouldn’t be like that. Now we see how it is. We have to move forward, don’t worry about. Stay focus on what’s in this locker room and don’t worry about the rest.”
Hill tweeted a minor clarification Saturday that attempted to direct his comments towards the presence of Lakers fans as opposed to the absence of Pacers fans.
To clear the [air] I'm not talking about the fans that was there supporting us! I'm talking about the ones that were in purple! I Love INDIANA and that's why I say something about it because I care an I want everyone in the community to be apart of this team #Togetherness
Despite playing in basketball-mad Indiana, where the high-school game is a treasure and the Indiana Hoosiers are as popular as ever, the Pacers rank No. 26 in the NBA in home attendance, averaging less than 15,000 fans per game. That mark is actually up significantly from 2012: Indiana has been in the bottom-five of attendance every year since 2007, including multiple years in which they finished dead last.
Hill's discussion of the team's off-court behavior is a clear reference to an oft-cited explanation for the team's weak attendance in the past. The Pacers' role in the "Malice in the Palace" brawl, as well as a rash of off-court incidents—including Stephen Jackson firing a weapon outside a club, a bar fight involving Jamaal Tinsley and a shooting incident in which Tinsley was the target—have regularly been cited as a reason for the team's poor standing in the attendance rankings.
Aside from an ugly 2010 arrest for guard Lance Stephenson in an incident of alleged domestic violence, the current Pacers are indeed toeing the line, as Hill suggests. They've also been winning games: The 2012 Pacers advanced out of the first round for the first time since 2005, and this year's group has a solid shot at making an Eastern Conference finals run. While the Pacers have four players with All-Star credentials -- Danny Granger, Paul George, Roy Hibbert and David West -- only George, 22, boasts true superstar potential, and he's still in the midst of his breakout nationally.
It's quite possible that, sometime soon, George's two-way talent can fill Bankers Life Arena by itself. Until then, Pacers fans are treated to a defense-first, slow-down style (fifth-slowest pace in the league). Management installed a giant jumbotron screen to improve the crowd experience, but solid defensive principles don't translate to HD quite as well as fun-and-gun transition offense, and Indiana has topped 100 points in just 13 of their 34 home games this season.
Then, of course, there are the Lakers, whose fans travel as well as any team's in the league. The purple that so frustrated Hill is a regular sighting in every arena all season long. That's true in Indiana -- one of the NBA's smaller markets -- and everywhere else.
What to make of Hill's comments given that context? Well, he's not out of line in asking for more support, although he surely could have been more tactful.
Players, like all citizens, should be expected to be law-abiding; our society doesn't give out ribbons to everyone who manages to remain out of jail. Community-service visits serve marketing and sales goals for the team just as they serve the hospitals and schools they reach. Autographs aren't a particularly good bartering chip, either. Giving an autograph costs Hill nothing except a few moments of his time, and it's usually his decision whether or not to give them, especially before and after a game. If he's upset at Lakers fans living in Indiana wanting his autograph, his frustration is misdirected, as they are still the league's customer, even if dressed in the opposite color. Surely he would agree that it's better to be asked for autographs by Lakers fans than by no one at all; empty seats kill his personal earning power.
There's no telling how long a reconciliation between a franchise that lost its way and its fans will take. Winning usually helps, and Indiana's attendance figures year over year suggest that it has helped here. Although it's easy to lose sight of this after a tough loss, Hill must keep in mind that the fans are the customer, and that a hard-handed stick treatment isn't likely to be as successful as the rows of community-service carrots the franchise has tried to lay out. Because who, really, wants to be yelled at for how they choose to spend, or not spend, their money? If Hill is passionate about increasing his team's home turnout, I'm sure there are a number of bright minds in the Pacers' business offices who have ideas on how he and his teammates could help make that a reality. If he's just letting off steam, then he's done more harm than good. And if he ever thinks Lakers fans are going away, he's totally kidding himself.