The NBA says Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, the first home game for Indiana against the Heat, will be on Sunday.
In Indianapolis, they say Game 3 will be “Race Day night.”
They also might call it the equivalent of Reese’s peanut butter cup — two great tastes that taste great together. From 1994 to 2004, the once-disparate energies of a Pacers playoff run and the May activities at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway have come to strengthen each other when running simultaneously. But this is the first year a playoff game will be played on the day of the Indianapolis 500.
So, the Game 3 crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse will be comprised mostly of people who either a) got up early enough to deal with Indy 500 parking and traffic, then found someplace to snag a nap before heading downtown or b) listened to the Indy 500 at one of many Race Day cookouts before heading downtown.
Notice steady alcohol consumption wasn’t mentioned. It’s implied.
Or, as youth sports columnist and former Indianapolis resident Bob Cook quipped, “This will really mess with the tradition of watching the race on television the night of the race.”
(ABC’s race broadcast, never shown live in the Indianapolis area, has been shown by the local affiliate that night since 1992.)
Cook covered the previous zenith of the Pacers-Speedway synergy, Game 7 of the Indiana-Knicks 1995 Eastern Conference semifinal at Madison Square Garden. He said he never heard a place get so quiet as Madison Square Garden when New York’s Patrick Ewing rimmed out a finger roll that would have tied the score with seconds left.
As the Pacers rebounded Ewing’s miss, a roar went up across the Speedway during a dramatic final day of qualifying. The Pacers claimed victory as the Indy 500’s most successful owner, Roger Penske, saw his drivers, former winners Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi, bumped from the field.
Indiana kids used to learn state geography by which school played in which sectional/regional/semi/state of the state high school basketball tournament. You might hear defensive communication that would make college coaches sigh in pickup games among players who never played organized basketball past elementary school. Or just never played organized ball, period.
Still, for decades, “May” meant “who’s running fast at the track?” not “who’s running the pick and roll?” The Pacers began life as an original American Basketball Association franchise in 1967. In the ABA’s nine wild seasons, the Pacers were the league’s steadiest entity: three championships, two other ABA Finals appearances, packing the 8,200-seat Depression Era-built Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum, then the twice-as-large Market Square Arena after 1974.
But during those glory days for the franchise, neither NBA nor ABA playoffs ran as deep into spring as they do today. Indianapolis’ attentions remained free for the taking as soon as the Speedway opened for practice each year.
Also, the ABA didn’t have a national network partner that wanted weekend afternoon programming. ABA games were night games. Nobody runs at night at Indy. Then, the Pacers brought only the occasional playoff cameo. Usually, they had long retreated from the stage by the time the first Cosworth or Offenhauser fired up for practice.
So, the Pacers and the Month of May at the Speedway resembled a car company’s advertising and production sides — from the same place, but with little relation.
That changed in 1994.
Around skinny shooter Reggie Miller and Dutch center Rik Smits, the Pacers built a tough, defensive-oriented team that swept Orlando in the first round and faced No. 1 seed Atlanta in the second. The series began during the first week of practice for the 1994 Indianapolis 500 qualifying. After a split of Games 1 and 2, the Pacers hosted Games 3 and 4 on Saturday and Sunday. Or, Pole Day and Day 2 of qualifying.
This was back when Pole Day meant 165,000 people. The remaining three qualifying days drew what many mid-range tracks would like to get for a race crowd. So when Pacers updates were given over the public address system and flashed on the information screens around the track, crowds erupted.
The Pacers advanced to play the Knicks in the Eastern Conference final. The prerace invocation, usually a nonpartisan plea for a safe race and ending with a request to help the Pacers.
Maybe somebody listened. In 1995 and 1998, they would host Eastern Conference final Game 4s against Orlando and Chicago respectively the day after the race, Memorial Day. Each would be won with improbable last-second shots. In 2000, the Pacers made the NBA Finals before losing to the Lakers.
Since then, in years the Pacers get KO’d early or don’t make the playoffs, you can hear several times during Race Weekend, “I miss when the Pacers were in the playoffs in May.”