“Do we go to Indiana?”
That was the text message I sent a friend, Nick, a couple of Friday nights ago, mere minutes after the Knicks averted disaster and eliminated the Celtics, disposing of a current rival to set up a series with an old one. It was simultaneously a question and a suggestion. Having jobs and all, we had to wait until the schedule for the upcoming Knicks-Pacers series was released to see if we could indeed swing this semi-crazy idea, and thanks to the NBA’s bizarre scheduling, it was plausible. Game 3 was to be played on Saturday night at 8:00 PM, giving us a reasonable window on each side of the weekend to get ourselves out there and back.
And when we discovered the hysterically-low cost of spending a day in Indianapolis going to a second round playoff basketball game – and naturally comparing it to doing the same in New York or another major city – it became a no-brainer. (The face value of our ninth row, upper deck ticket was $20.90. I do not know what year it is in Indianapolis.) Or at least as much as driving 1,400 miles in a 46-hour span to watch a basketball game in a minor city could ever be a no-brainer.
So we went.
Twice prior I had taken trips to see my teams play in the playoffs on the road, but neither time did I leave the northeast. Almost a year ago to the day, I went to Washington D.C. to watch the New York Rangers lose a Game 4 to the Washington Capitals. About year before that, Nick and I decided to trek up to Boston on a Sunday for the first Knicks playoff game in nearly a decade. If you’re reading this you’re probably familiar enough with what happened then, but if you need some refreshing, I’ll simply bring up Kevin Garnett’s wayward leg, Toney Douglas crashing to the floor, Ray Allen swishing a wide open 3-pointer and TD Garden shaking. Two trips, two losses.
But THIS was a real journey. And not that you really need this level of clarification, but a road trip from New York to Indianapolis is certainly not anything like a “road trip” to Boston or a “road trip” to Washington D.C. For someone born and bred in the northeast, traveling to and eventually being in the latter two cities means you remain safely in your comfort zone.
We left Friday night at around 10:45 PM, in part because it would put us on track to hit Indianapolis sometime mid-Saturday morning, and in larger part because I wanted to watch Game 5 of the Rangers-Capitals series. The Caps won on an overtime goal by Mike Ribeiro, which put me in a less-than-ideal mood in the immediate moments before embarking on a near-12 hour drive (it ended up being the last goal the Capitals scored in 2013…Rangers-Bruins starts this Thursday, thank you very much).
The very beginning of a long road trip is filled with adrenaline. Even though you know you’re not going to get to your destination for a good long while, the first hour or so seems to fly by. In this specific case, that may have been aided by there being a few things to actually look at as you travel. Even if it’s Newark Airport and its adjacent Budweiser factory, it’s something. But soon, it all disappears and you’re in the middle of Pennsylvania and there is nothing. And Pennsylvania is ENDLESS.
West Virginia makes a short cameo, greeting you with a sign that reads “WILD AND WONDERFUL”. I’m not so sure about that second part, but the 25 minutes that it took us to cut through the narrow sliver of the northern part of the state before we hit Ohio are the only 25 minutes I’ve ever spent in West Virginia, so I admit I’m just assuming here.
Backtracking a bit, once you hit the middle part of Pennsylvania is where, if you’re from an area similar to myself, you really start to enter a distinctly different world. I grew up in central New Jersey, so it’s not like I’ve never seen a farm, or a mountain, or trees, or any other space where I could look in any direction and not see skyscrapers or anything. You could fall into a coma and wake up a 10-minute drive away from the house I grew up in, and could conceivably convince yourself you’re in Nebraska. So it’s not the emptiness that makes the difference.
Really, it’s the billboards.
Maybe a hundred feet after you finally cross the Ohio-Indiana border driving west on Interstate-70, you’re greeted by a white-backed sign with red block letters that reads “AVOID HELL. REPENT. TRUST JESUS.” Uplifting stuff.
And before and after that, there are others that stick out; advertisements for RVs from a fellow named Tom Raper, for buy/sell/trade gun depots, anti-Barack Obama/Save Our Coal Jobs ads and ever more Christian messages – my personal favorite being “AMERICA – BLESS GOD”. I honestly don’t even really understand what that means.
With its rich basketball tradition, Indiana’s highways do also include signs for multiple attractions for the sport. You can find the gym from Hoosiers or the state’s basketball Hall of Fame. Part of me wanted to visit the Indiana Hall of Fame in the faint hopes of discovering there was an entire wing devoted to Indiana’s 2000 Mr. Basketball. But we didn’t have much time to waste. We had to get to downtown Indianapolis as soon as possible because there was a game to go to.
Turns out there was actually a crap-load of time to waste. We arrived in downtown Indianapolis at around 10:30 AM on Saturday morning. And if we needed any reminder that we weren’t in a truly major city, we saw about 12 people walking around the entire downtown area, maybe a six block radius that includes nice hotels, restaurants and bars, a basketball arena and a gargantuan football stadium. The eeriness was quickly interrupted while we were waiting at a red light, as a car with four middle aged African-American women pulled up next to us and motioned for us to roll down the window.
“Tell me you’re from New York and you’re here for the Knick game!?” shouted the woman in the passenger’s seat, obviously seeing our New York license plate. “We thought we were the only ones!” she responded after we affirmed that yes, that was indeed what we were in Indianapolis for. You were not the only ones.
As we walked around after lunch looking to kill time, a man spotted my friend’s Knick jersey and told us that the team’s hotel was just around the corner, and that the bus was waiting outside so they must be getting ready to board. Without clear direction we made a few turns and saw a small group of people, a few in Knicks gear, but mostly individuals with various photos and postcards and basketballs hoping to turn them into collectables, waiting by a small side door and a bus. Some of these people knew each other, clearly, from having done this before. Without much interest in autographs or anything like that, we didn’t fight like some others did to approach the railing separating the players from the crowd, but we were less than 10 feet from them as they came out one-by-one and boarded the team bus.
Amar’e Stoudemire was the first one to emerge and spent a solid minute signing autographs. Chris Copeland obliged to the small crowd too, but everyone else – James White, Pablo Prigioni, Steve Novak, Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin, and Earl Barron got on the bus without stopping. Then the bus pulled away, so apparently the head coach and most of the starting lineup takes a separate bus to the arena than the rest of the team. I’m unaware if this is a regular practice with the Knicks and/or throughout the league.
On the outside, Banker’s Life Fieldhouse is a modern NBA arena. On the inside, it’s a clear homage to the amateur tradition of Indiana basketball. I don’t use the term “amateur” to take a shot of any sorts, I use it literally. When you walk into the main doors of the arena, you’re brought into a faux fieldhouse, a rotunda below a v-shaped roof with windows up the sides allowing natural light to shine through. After your tickets get scanned you’re generally in a standard American sports venue, but before that, you might as well be in Hinkle, or I imagine a number of high school gyms throughout the state. It was quite nice, despite the guy holding a large sign that read “HICKS HATE KNICKS” for all to see.
The best part about going to a road game is the immediate kinship with people you’ve never seen, which is borne simply from wearing certain colors. At home sporting events, sometimes fans rooting for the same team get in fights. I’ve seen this happen multiple times at Jet games, which maybe says more about Jet fans than anything else, but let’s not get into that. But on the road, especially in a place that’s pretty far away, you’re automatically high-fiving, bro-hugging or fist-bumping every person you see in the same garb as you. You don’t need to know anything else about them other than that they’re rooting for the same team as you, that you’re in enemy territory, in this thing together.
As you know, the game sucked. The Knicks, in particular, sucked. A lot of the trip made me feel like I was in a different world, and the three hours or so inside Banker’s Life Fieldhouse contributed to that feeling greatly. In these playoffs, the Knicks have mostly looked like a complete alien life form in comparison to the team that won 54 games during the best regular season in the past 16 years. In Game 3 in Indiana, the Knicks played slow, uninspired, didn’t take or make 3-pointers and made Roy Hibbert look like Rik Smits, who appropriately was shown on the big screen during a TV timeout to thunderous applause. At some point, so was Jeff Foster, and I think the applause for him was actually louder than the one for Smits. That was weird.
We tried to go out and sample some of the Indianapolis nightlife after the game, but to say we weren’t exactly welcomed by the locals would be a bit of an understatement. A bit battered after such a crap game and with a long, long drive home the next day we decided to get some sleep instead of fight through the heckling and dirty looks and all that came with bar-hopping in downtown Indianapolis after a Knicks-Pacers game in which the Pacers won going away. Three trips, three losses.
The next day we hopped in the car and journeyed back East, through Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, back to looking at the billboards, back to flipping through the radio alternating Christian rock and country music, back to driving the long, barren highways.
Different worlds, for sure.