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Tough times in Indiana


We can stay past closing time, debating the leading sports region in American right now. It's a good time to be a Wisconsinite. The Brewers won a franchise-best 96 games this past season, the Packers, the defending Super Bowl champions, are currently undefeated; so are the Wisconsin Badgers, currently No. 4 in the nation. Boston might be fixated on the supernatural collapse of the Red Sox, uncovering the mystery of which pitchers consumed which caloric treats where and when. But over the past decade, Beantown teams have won titles in bulk, as if shopping at Costco. If the Rangers win the World Series, Dallas will hold another championship parade, barely four months after feting the Mavs.

For those of us with ties to Central Indiana, we can only look around with envy. Greater Indianapolis may not have been rocked by the housing crisis. (It's not in our Midwest constitution to buy McMansions we can't afford.) Thanks largely to a diverse local economy -- agriculture, manufacturing, life sciences, pharmaceuticals -- the Recession, hasn't left a trail of devastation in "The 317," the way it has elsewhere.

But, man, is the region in a sports slump.

Start with the Colts, a team with a horseshoe for a logo, but nothing but bad luck of late. The glorious Indiana fall foliage is in swing, Halloween is barely a week away, and Indianapolis is still in search of its first victory of the season. The team spoiled us, winning more games than any other NFL franchise over the past decade. That was due largely to one man, Peyton Manning. But when he had another neck surgery right before the season, the Colts quickly came to resemble, well, the Colts before his arrival. As the pre-Peyton acronym went, "Colts: Count On Losing This Sunday."

Not that there's much relief on Saturday. An hour south of Indianapolis in Bloomington, the Indiana Hoosiers have a new coach, Kevin Wilson, but a familiar tableau of fumbles, interceptions, missed tackles and lopsided losses. The team is currently 1-6, fresh off a 59-7 drubbing by Wisconsin. An hour north of Indy in West Lafayette, Purdue is little better, at 3-3. Even Notre Dame (4-2) -- in desperate times, we're willing to expand our rooting interests clear to the Michigan border -- doesn't help much.

Yeah, but Indiana is a basketball state, you say. Historically, yes, though the inexplicable decision to scrap the all-comers state high school tournament, memorialized in Hoosiers, has exacted a huge price on the hoops culture. Besides, the usual basketball powers are in the doldrums, too. The Pacers were once a model NBA franchise, playing in a model building, Conseco Fieldhouse. But then came The Brawl in 2004 -- the supreme irony of Ron Artest's new name is not lost in Indiana -- an event that handicapped the team for years. A title contender at the time, the Pacers haven't won a playoff series since, and are sporadically rumored to be candidates for NBA contraction. Last year, finally free of the knuckleheads that alienated the local fan base, the Pacers unexpectedly made the playoffs. It's hard, though, to build on this modest momentum where there's a lockout.

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Speaking of slow bouncebacks, the Hoosiers still haven't totally recovered from the departure of Bob Knight more than a decade ago. At one time a seminal college program, IU went 12-20 last season and Maurice Creek, a prize recruit, has suffered three serious injuries in the last 22 months. Purdue has fared better, but hasn't reached a Final Four in more than 30 years. The Boilers haven't escaped the curse either. Their best player (and a superb human being), Robbie Hummel, is a redshirt senior, having torn his right ACL in consecutive seasons.

The state's woes in basketball and football look trivial, of course, viewed through the prism of IndyCar racing. Even before Dan Wheldon, the reigning Indy 500 winner, was tragically killed while racing last week, the circuit has been sputtering, done in by everything from the rise of NASCAR to the high price of fuel to the defection of drivers. Once an iconic sporting event, the Indy 500 is clinging to relevance. In the coming weeks, there will be a drumbeat of criticism, suggestions that Wheldon died because open-wheel racing put speed ahead of driver safety.

More evidence of a sports snakebite? Greg Oden is from Central Indiana. So is Jay Cutler. Same for Zach Randolph, who played so well in the NBA playoffs last season but seems to be in constant trouble with the law. The NCAA, the piñata of the sports world, is situated in downtown Indianapolis. Right behind the former site of the Indianapolis ATP tennis tournament, which was shuttered last year.

Where does this leave us? Well, we still have Butler, the Hickory High of college hoops, that irresistibly likable program that has come within a game of winning the NCAA championship the past two seasons. There are random acts of kindness by Indiana athlete that make cheering for losing teams somewhat easier. (To wit: Pacers forward Danny Granger's recent idea to hold a charity basketball game and donate the proceeds to arena workers hurt by the NBA lockout.) Though the summer threat of a canceled NFL season made for some tense moments -- and this would have been the ultimate sign that the sports gods are out to get us -- Indianapolis will host the Super Bowl in February.

We also take pride in Colts owner Jim Irsay, an endearing first team All-Eccentric. Following Irsay on Twitter (@jimirsay) has become a local spectator sport. The unmistakable message of his communiqués: at the end of the day, it's just sports. Even during the most dire moments of the NFL lockout, Irsay was tweeting out streams of consciousness and random classic rock lyrics ("ALL ABOARD!!!!!!!!! Ozzy Osbourne, not Newsome"), publicizing local charities and pledge drives, offering cash prizes for correct trivia answers. Even as his team has made a Sunday ritual of losing, he's been on his game.

Last weekend, before the Colts lost yet again, Irsay tweeted: "I'm negotiating 2 buy Mars. so I can ensure intergalactic, NFL dominance for the 25th century."

We hope that by then, the local Sports Curse will have lifted.