All quiet on the Midwestern front

Dan Wetzel

INDIANAPOLIS – As a card-carrying member of the rabble-rousing media in these overheated times, allow me to let you in on one quite obvious secret: We love fights. The media is pro-conflict – verbal, physical, whatever.

Which is why the NBA's Christmas Day offerings, featuring Kobe vs. Shaq and the first matchup between the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers since last month's brawl, is a big deal.

Maybe you saw the replays on television.

One thing I am sure you heard, or read, or heard again and again was how the fight was a sign of the coarsened relations between fans and athletes, how it was a terrible black eye for society, how they ought to string cages around the court to protect everyone from each other, how this was so really, really bad that not just the NBA, but sports as a whole, would never, ever recover.

We're talking "Around the Horn"-level outrage here.

With this in mind and the big game coming up, I was dispatched here to the Heartland to take the pulse of the city. My hope of course was that one of those wrists would yield a fan ready to spout off with wild threats against the Pistons.

Because that would make for an easy, rabble-rousing column and then I could sip eggnog all weekend.

I didn't get to interview the entire city of Indianapolis, or even all 15,412 fans who attended Wednesday's game against the Philadelphia 76ers. But I talked to a bunch of them. A typical comment:

"Nothing will happen, it'll be calm," predicted Tim Costello, who wore a "Free Ron" (as in Artest) T-shirt, so I thought he might get volatile for me. "That thing was weak. I'm not even going to boo."

You're not going to boo?

"No way man. We're above that here."

I suspect there will be boos, and some signs making fun of Detroit fans. But other than that, the big battle has the makings of a big bust.

Maybe it is the holiday spirit. Maybe the sweet soulful songs the Easter Star Church Choir performed on the main concourse of Conseco Fieldhouse put everyone at ease.

Maybe it is just Indiana, where the crowd is long on families and short on beer lines.

Whatever it is, there is no bloodlust. There is no passion for revenge. There are a heck of a lot of nice people who just aren't that worked up over something the media keeps telling them to get worked up over. People here seem more embarrassed than energized by this foolishness.

"I hope [Pacer fans] would not stoop to that level," said Jennifer Farley of Brownsburg, Ind., attending Wednesday's game with her husband and 10-year-old son.

"I think the crowd will show a whole lot of class," said Bill Shelby of Shelbyville, Ind. "Just let them play ball."

Maybe it would have been different if Pistons fans brawled with the Bulls, or the Knicks, or the Sixers.

But maybe not. I searched all over Conseco Fieldhouse on Wednesday, outside on the snowy streets, in stores and even a local dive bar looking for an NBA fan who thought like they were supposed to think. Couldn't find anyone.

"Can't see that happening again, not for a long time," said Austin O'Brien, who was shopping for Pacers shirts at the downtown mall. "Fans aren't that bad. Players aren't that bad. It was just a one-time thing."

If anything, Indiana fans are angrier with commissioner David Stern for suspending all their stars than they are at the Pistons. For the most part, they even understand the misbehaving Detroit fans aren't indicative of all Detroit fans.

"The [fans] who were left over [in the Palace] at that point in time were the wrong ones," said David Hahn of Noblesville, Ind. "I have friends in Detroit and they are ashamed, too."

So we'll see. Maybe the Hoosier Hooligans will come out on Christmas Day. Maybe the families will stay away and fanatics will take their places. Maybe TV will get its ratings boost.

Maybe sports, as all those blathered talking heads would have us believe, really did suffer irreparable harm that one night.

Or maybe the entire aberration was just overblown.

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