Friday, July 9, 2010

I quit cold turkey -- and I've never been happier

It was 12 years ago that I simply walked away.

I was as passionate of a fan as they come. It started with the Rockets being my hometown team and eventually I gravitated to a team that fit my personality – Indiana.

The Pacers had the flash that I loved with Reggie Miller, but they were also the underdog and I love an underdog. Always the team up against more history and a better story. It was first the Celtics, and then the Knicks and finally the Bulls. There was always a sexier team for the NBA to have move on in the playoffs.

From 1993 to 1998, during the playoffs I wore my Reggie Miller jersey religiously on game day. It didn’t matter where I was, if the Pacers were playing, I had that jersey on. If the Pacers lost, I was crushed. I was in high school and my friends were going out every night during the summer. I was usually there as well, unless the Pacers had lost that day – or the day before in some cases.

I even wore my jersey underneath my gown on the day of my senior baccalaureate. The Pacers and Knicks were playing Game 7 that day of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. People were wondering if I would even go. I did, but the jersey was right there with me. Afterwards, everyone went to a senior party. I went home, put in the tape and started watching.

I even opened up my speech at graduation with an update on the Rockets-Spurs Western Conference Finals. There was no doubt I was a fan.

The Pacers were always a victim of circumstance. There was always a better team for the League to play in the Finals. The NBA needed New York in 1994. They needed to have Shaq and Orlando in the finals in 1995, after all, Houston-Indiana wasn’t going to draw the ratings the league needed.

But it was 1998 that delivered the final crushing blow to me. The Pacers met the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals. Jordan had already announced he was “retiring” at the end of the season, so this was his “last” run. Anyone who watched that series knows the Pacers outplayed the Bulls. But with Utah waiting in the finals, and the need for Jordan to go out on top, the Bulls were handed a ticket to a sixth title. The Pacers were the better team, but the Bulls were in the finals – again.

I woke up the morning after Game 7 and said I was done. I was interning at the Baytown Sun that summer and wrote a column writing off the NBA. No one believed me. Why would they? I was the biggest fan most people knew. I was going to get over it.

“When the Pacers are in the playoffs next year and you are on the couch jumping and screaming I am going to get this column out,” my dad said with a knowing smile.

I was simply overreacting like I did following a handful of other losses by the Cowboys, Braves, Nittany Lions and of course the Pacers. But to their surprise, and to an extent mine, I never came back. I think it helped the NBA had a lockout and cancelled a good chunk of the next season. Once again at the end of the year, the Pacers were screwed and once again, it was a move the League needed to happen. The Spurs were already in the Finals, and the League needed a story following the lockout – it needed the Knicks. I don’t remember watching any of that series. I was working in a newsroom that didn’t have a TV, and I didn’t go out of my way to watch. It ended as I expected it to.

The 2000 season was no different. The Pacers finally made the finals, but Kobe and Shaq were the story. The duo was looking to bring glory back to LA. It was pretty obvious who was going to win that one. The only game of that series I saw was the last one, in a pool hall in Baytown. I was there with a friend who talked me into playing in a darts tournament. I lost early – he went to the finals. So I had a pitcher of Shiner and the Pacers on the only TV in the bar. I watched, emotionless. The game ended, the Lakers won the title, and I truly didn’t care. I was done with the NBA.

I have watched just twice since. A year later in 2001, my wife bought us tickets to see the Pacers play in Houston. She said I would regret never seeing Reggie Miller play in person. She was right. I would have regretted it and I am glad I did it. The only other time I went to a game was when I was in San Antonio for the NCAA Regional and I got free tickets, as luck would have it, to see the Pacers. I honestly nearly fell asleep during the game. I really would have been better off staying in the hotel doing nothing.

I have moved on, and have been so much happier for it. I feel like I had my eyes opened at an early age and I am grateful for it. I hear people talking about the NBA and just wonder why they haven’t seen it yet. I see the statues on Facebook during the playoffs, and I actually feel pity for these people who still follow David Stern’s puppet show. They have not had come to the realization yet that I did in 1998.

I am sure I am not alone in this. I have friends who, over the years, have moved away from the NBA. I am sure there are people who have a specific moment that they stopped watching – the lockout, the Malice in the Palace, ect. Something turned them off.

I think the way the LeBron James decided to handle his free agency, and maybe more importantly, the way ESPN has decided to cover it, may be bringing more people to the other side. I saw an ESPN analyst during the day today say he thought this was great for the NBA. “When is the last time we were talking about the NBA this deep into the summer?” he asked. I certainly don’t have the pulse of the nation on this, and I am sure I look at it a little different than most. But I can’t imagine this fiasco will bring more fans to the table. I am sure there are some LeBron fans who will shift allegiances. The Heat will probably show a boost in ticket sales, jersey sales, ect. But when you are talking about the league as a whole, I have to think more people will walk away tonight.

I once thought that being a sports fan meant I had to be an NBA fan. Believe me when I say this, if you do decide to walk away, you will be much happier for it. There are plenty of sports out there to fill the void. Don’t worry right now about what you will do in June when the playoffs are on. Just step away, and trust me, the rest will work itself out.

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