Like most folks who lived in Indianapolis during the 1990s, I have a soft spot in my heart for Reggie Miller. Before Peyton Manning took the Indianapolis Colts to the upper echelon of the professional sports world, Reggie Miller was helping to make the Indiana Pacers a force to be reckoned with in the NBA. Before the Reggie Miller era, the Pacers organization mostly floundered in the bottom half of the league. That fact was particularly hard to swallow for many Hoosiers because we like to think that we own the game basketball. Indiana was rightly proud of our high school and college basketball pedigree, but the NBA team had never sparked as much passion from our hoops fans. Sure, pro basketball had seen success in the late 60s and early 70s with the ABA Indiana Pacers winning three championships, but since the two leagues merged, the Pacers had mostly struggled. Then came a gangly, 6’7″ sharp shooter out of SoCal who would spend his entire career bringing the Pacers out of obscurity and into the spotlight. The beautiful and impressive Bankers Life Fieldhouse could well be called The House that Reggie Built.
But here’s the thing about Reggie Miller–if he had been on any other team, I’d have hated his guts. Reggie is legendary for his long range marksmanship. He is, undoubtedly, one of a handful of the very best 3-point shooters basketball has ever known. He is probably just as legendary for his brashness and trash talking. I have never been much of a fan of brash, trash talking athletes. In fact, they normally make me sick. I think there are a lot of other Hoosiers who could relate to my feelings. We like to say, when you score, act like you’ve done it before. But somehow, Reggie was different.
During Reggie’s career, the Pacers developed a fierce rivalry with the New York Knicks. The two teams battled each other in several intense playoff series and they turned into absolutely bitter and heated affairs–so much so that they captured the attention of a national audience. Whenever the Pacers and Knicks played each other it was can’t-miss-television. Some of the drama was because of the images of the two cities. The sophisticated, urbane Big Apple vs. the Backwoods Hicks from India-no-place. Celebrities like Spike Lee encouraged this perception and added fuel to the rivalry. The Pacers vs. Knicks rivalry was even featured on an episode of Seinfeld which poked fun at Reggie and the Pacers.
Hoosiers are a proud lot but we also have a tendency to harbor an inferiority complex. We are rightly proud of our capital city. Indianapolis has gained a much more sophisticated reputation in the last decade, even earning the right to host a Super Bowl, but in the 90s that reputation was only just beginning, scratching and clawing its way out of the cornfields. We still fought hard to project an image that we belonged in the same conversation as some of the better known of America’s cities and sports was one of our best ways to showcase what we had to offer. Nobody hosts a sports event as well as Indy, just ask us! So when our beloved Pacers took on the Knicks, it became a good vs. evil scenario. We felt like New Yorkers looked down on us (because they pretty much did) and it didn’t sit well–not one little bit.
That’s why Reggie’s bold, braggadocious antics didn’t bother us like they might otherwise. In fact, we embraced it. Here was a guy wearing Indiana on his jersey who was getting under the skin of those smug city-slickers. He was beating them and rubbing it right in their faces and we lapped up every minute of it with gleeful exuberance. Had I been watching all of that from the perspective of someone without a dog in the fight, I’d have absolutely hated Reggie. But I was watching it from Indianapolis and I couldn’t get enough of it. He was our guy and he was showing up those East Coast Elites who thought they were so much better than us. Spike Lee loved to sit court side and show out for his beloved Knicks. Reggie would hit a big 3-pointer and he’d go right at Spike, yapping at him and putting him in his place. That famous moment pictured at the beginning of this piece is Reggie giving the choke sign to Lee. Oh how I would have hated that moment had I been a fan of some other team, but the Pacers were my team and Reggie was my guy and he was scratching my itch and the itches of a legion of other Pacer fans who had always battled our inner feelings of inferiority. It felt good to watch one of us stick it to those hoity-toity snobs who always wrote us off as insignificant rubes.
ESPN produced a great documentary in their 30 for 30 series a few years ago called Winning Time. It was all about Pacers vs. Knicks rivalry of the 90s and how Reggie was able to get under the Knicks’ skin and ultimately vault the Pacers to new levels success and respect. I’ve seen that documentary several times. I watched it for the first time in a while earlier this week and a new perspective immediately dawned on me.
The feelings and emotions I was experiencing watching Reggie Miller and the Pacers in the 90s must be very similar to those that President Trump’s support base feel.
Trump has brought a brash, braggadocious, trash talking style to the White House. It has turned off all those on the left and most of those in the middle. It has raised the question in many millions of minds, how can anyone still be in support this guy?
Now I know the answer to that question. They are like I was as a fan of Reggie Miller and the Pacers in the 90s. They see their guy sticking it to those they see as elitist who look down upon them. They would never put up with that kind of nonsense if Trump were on another team, but he is on their team and they are loving to watch their guy attack liberals, their version of the smug Knicks and their Spike Lee-like fans.
That’s what we’re dealing with. It’s not going to change. I relished being in my position as a Reggie/Pacer fan. Back then, whenever I heard or read of how upset we made people, I didn’t feel shame, I felt proud…yeah, Reggie, you’ve got them really mad now, way to go and keep it up!
While it doesn’t change anything, necessarily, at least now, thanks to Reggie Miller, I can can relate to the emotions of a Trump supporter. But my analogy stops there.
Basketball is a nice pastime and distraction, but it isn’t all that important in the greater scheme of things. The President of the United States is a different ball game altogether.
That’s what worries me.