Saturday night, I attended my first Pacers game at Conseco Fieldhouse in downtown Indy. I’ve long heard the buzz that Conseco was the best place to watch a game in the NBA, combining both the amenities of modern sports arenas with the feel of a classic fieldhouse setting. Although my experience was not typical, I did greatly enjoy my first visit to our local basketball palace.
A bank my father-in-law deals with offered him four tickets to Saturday’s game with the Knicks. When he called Friday to ask if I wanted to join him, I assumed since they were corporate seats, they would be pretty close to the court. When he handed me my ticket as we departed for Conseco, I saw that we would actually be sitting in a suite. Sweet! Free food, free drinks, away from the common riff-raff! (Please note: I consider myself riff-raff, although of the uncommon variety, so that’s a good thing to be called.) Joining us were one of my wife’s uncles and his son who were driving up from the IU-Penn State game. We waited for them in the large entryway which resembles a classic train station. There’s a large marquee that lists upcoming games and events above the ticket windows. Every few minutes, the numbers and letters on the marquee flip randomly before arriving back at their normal resting place. Think of a European train station changing arrival times, departure gates, etc. and the small cards that make up the words flipping to reach the correct point. Hard to describe, and my picture of the marquee didn’t turn out, but hopefully you get the idea. Just above the lobby, at the main entrance to the arena proper, a traditional pep band was playing songs you would normally hear during a college game. To our left, and below ground level, windows look down into the Pacers’ practice gym, where a few players were completing individual workouts. From our vantage point, you could look into the arena and see an entire side of the scoreboard, so you were able keep track of how much longer until the game started.
Our friends arrived and we made our way to our suite. There are two levels of suites at Conseco: one ringing the lower level, and a second that rests above the second level of seats, underneath the main balcony. We were located in the second level, straight up from one basket. We entered, made pleasantries with our hosts, grabbed some food, and then my wife’s 16 year old cousin and I grabbed the last two seats in the front of the suite. There were 12-14 true stadium seats in the front of the suite, with two high tables and barstools behind them. The suite was not full, so turned out there were plenty of good vantage points to watch the game. I wolfed down my sandwich just in time for tip-off. Despite our view being slightly obstructed by the massive NBA shot clock, we had a fairly good view. I would have liked to have been closer to the action, but I can’t complain since I got a free $50 ticket, free parking, and free food.
Conseco is well laid out for basketball. Sight lines are excellent. The seats are comfortable and well arranged. The pitch of the upper deck does not appear to be too severe. I’ve heard lots of good things about Missouri’s new Paige Sports Arena. I would be very interested to see it, as the plans for Conseco were originally to be used by MU to replace the Hearnes Center in the mid-90s. I understand some small adjustments were made, but the design is basically what was to be built in Columbia. Conseco definitely feels like a modern college arena. Despite holding over 18,000, it still has a fairly intimate feel. While calling it a Fieldhouse is pushing it (I think of Allen or Cameron when I think of Fieldhouse: bleachers, close to the floor, people cramped into tiny spaces) it does have an old school feel as well. Part of that is the effort made to play up the history of Indiana basketball. There are grainy photos of Pacers’ draft picks, All-Stars, championship teams from the ABA days in each hallway. There are quotes concerning basketball by famous Hoosiers inscribed into the walls. Our suite featured two photos: one, an old black and white photo of the interior of Hinkle Fieldhouse at Butler; the other of Reggie Miller shooting from the wing, with Spike Lee behind him, during one of his outbursts against the Knicks in New York. You definitely feel the weight of Hoosier basketball history when you stroll through Conseco.
Like most NBA teams, the Pacers work hard on in-game atmosphere. A cute blonde with an incredibly annoying voice “emceed” each timeout, directing shooting contests, stunt performances, and mascot hijinks. A DJ spun extended tunes during timeouts, and controlled the music during play. I knew I was in Indianapolis when the DJ introduced himself as “DJ Paul B” or something like that. No Funkmaster Flex here in the Midwest! We keep it simple. His choice of music was decent, though, and he kept the mostly young crowd into the game.
As for the game itself, the Pacers did what they’ve done in most of their games this season: they ran out to a big lead (21 points this time) and struggled to hold on down the stretch. Friday night they blew a 17 point lead in Philly and lost in overtime. The short bench they’ve been playing with (eight players suited up both Friday and Saturday) caught up to them in a week that had five games on the schedule. This was Ron Artest’s first home game after his two-game mini-suspension for all his madness last week. It was also his birthday, so the typically forgiving Midwestern crowd cheered when he was introduced for the starting lineup. Had I not been in a suite, I would have lustily booed him. Instead, I remained silent. I really like the way this team has been built, and they way they play before fatigue takes hold. Stephen Jackson looks to be as good as advertised. Fred Jones has expanded his game. James Jones can contribute off the bench. Jamaal Tinsley came back in better shape, both mentally and physically, than last year. He’s still far too careless with the ball and with shot selection, but he’s also learned how to tone it down some. Austin Croshere is a solid outside threat. Artest is one of the 10 best players in the league when he wants to play. And Jermaine O’Neal is showing that last year’s MVP vote tally was no joke. He’s turned into a true leader on and off the court. I won’t hold my breath for Jonathan Bender to ever be healthy or to contribute when he does, but getting Reggie Miller, Jeff Foster, Scot Pollard, and Anthony Johnson healthy will give Rick Carlisle an incredibly deep bench. And watch out, but the Pacers have routinely been scoring over 100 points a game. They’ve been giving up a lot, too, but their offense seems to flow much better than it did a year ago. There will be more detailed breakdowns of the Pacers in the months to come.
It was idiotic that it took me over a year to finally make it to Conseco. We just discovered last week my wife can get discounted Pacer tickets at work, so I trust I’ll make it back again this season. It definitely lived up to the hype, though. While I’d rather watch a game in a rustic, on-campus bandbox, if I have to live in an NBA city and follow that league closely, I might as well have an arena as nice as Conseco to call my own.
Two quick notes about the pictures. First, the astute basketball fan will be able to find Larry Bird near the center of the pic named for him. He was sitting all the way across the arena, and that was as close as my camera could zoom. Also note the usher in the aisle behind him keeping people away. Secondly, Indy’s Spike Lee was a man in a Knicks sweatshirt (blue and orange in the pic) who stood for almost the entire game yelling at the refs and Pacers, cheering for the Knicks, and generally acting like a stereotypical, old school, East Coast hoops fan. He was great fun to watch!