By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
Cue the black cat at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
It really is the only thing left, a symbol of the rotten luck that befallen the Indiana Pacers lately — well OK, poor performance is the real culprit — but more so a link to the sort of sports swoon the Pacers are experiencing as they flail to finish the 2013-14 regular season.
It’s a famous picture – an ominous black cat set loose at old Shea Stadium, scampering past the visitors’ dugout as Chicago Cubs third baseman Ron Santo gawked from the on-deck circle. And it has served ever since as shorthand for the collapse of the 1969 Cubs, one of the worst ever in U.S. team sports history. And one that seared itself into the memory of a mere lad whose sports enthusiasm was just beginning.
Right: Mine. Growing in the near-suburbs, my family had taken me to Wrigley Field a few times that summer, which wasn’t so much a baseball season as it was a festival. Of Ernie Banks‘ smile, of day baseball, of ivy-covered walls, of Santo and Billy Williams at the plate, of the Bleacher Bums, of Ferguson Jenkins’ work from the mound, of Ken Holtzman‘s first no-hitter and, mostly, of winning. The Cubs grabbed first place with an 11-inning victory on Opening Day and held it for 155 days, slipping to second with just 20 games left in the 162-game season.
Their nosedive had begun a month earlier, though, their nine-game cushion in the NL East saving them for a while but dialing up the stress, too, as it dwindled. On Aug. 13, the Cubs were 74-43, nine games up on St. Louis and 10 in front of the soon-to-be “Miracle” Mets. Chicago went 18-27 the rest of the way while the Mets finished 38-11. It wasn’t even close – an eight-game gap – by the end.
The Pacers, at the moment, look to have passed their tipping point. Rock bottom has come yet again, the 107-88 mess against Atlanta in which Indiana scored 23 points in the first half and couldn’t get out of its own way, either on the court or on the side. That’s where center Roy Hibbert, a sensitive fellow, splayed his 7-foot-2 frame on the bench for most of the game after being yanked by coach Frank Vogel. The body language, the blank stare, the lack of interest in his teammates’ comeback quest or Vogel’s timeout huddles – you’d have sworn Hibbert had seen a black cat cross the Pacers’ path.
Still to come, perhaps: One Pacer airing out another in public, the way Santo screamed at centerfielder Don Young after a game-busting dropped fly ball.
It’s too early to rank what’s happening in Indiana among pro sports’ all-time collapses, such as the 1995 California Angels, the 2007 Mets, the 2003 Minnesota Vikings or others. The NBA and the NHL are tricky that way, because a front-runner like Indiana that loses its way – the Pacers had staked out the No. 1 seed from the get-go and looked capable of going wire-to-wire until a few weeks ago – still ends up qualifying for the playoffs.
That gives it a chance against a lower-seed team to right itself, and avoiding a first-round upset tends to restore some measure of confidence. In the NBA, it’s the teams that cough up potential success in the postseason that get remembered for their big fails. Like the 1993-94 Seattle SuperSonics (losing to No. 8 seed Denver), the 1999-2000 Portland Trail Blazers (blowing a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 7 vs. the Lakers) or the 2006 Dallas Mavericks (up 2-0 in The Finals before losing four straight to Miami).
But who’s kidding whom? Indiana’s game has gone south in almost all areas, offensively and defensively. The trust level in the locker room has bottomed out, and Vogel’s job security now is a daily topic in local and national media – anything less than a return to the East finals, or maybe The Finals, might bring a pink slip, insiders say and outsiders speculate. The Pacers are 13-13 since the All-Star break – there’s been no “Miracle” out of Miami, 16-9 in that time, but it has been enough to chase down a front-runner gone sideways.
It’s still a swoon rather than a collapse, but if the Pacers don’t already feel enough pressure to fix all that ails them, they should know this: There are little kids throughout Indiana on the brink of being traumatized for life as sports fans.
What, you say that isn’t likely to help the situation?