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Too bad Pacers picked fiction over fact in honoring Indiana tradition

David Haugh
Chicago Tribune
Pacers fashion statement flunks history test.

Blue sky and a Caribbean beachfront beckoned as I asked my wife and son to wait just 10 more minutes to leave our hotel room.

While flipping through the channels after lunch one day on vacation two weeks ago, I came across "Hoosiers,'' a movie this son of the state always struggles to turn off, one of the three best sports flicks ever made. Sure, sunshine and water awaited us but so did the dramatic scene in which Jimmy Chitwood walks to the front of the church during a Hickory (Ind.) town meeting and announces his plan to play for the varsity basketball team conditional on coach Norman Dale staying.

"I play, coach stays,'' Jimmy says. "He goes, I go.''

Jimmy speaks, the townsfolk revote, and Coach Dale keeps his job on the way to an unlikely state championship. It gets me every time. Even nearly 30 years after the movie's release, nobody loves it more than those of us who grew up in Indiana; native Hoosiers who understand the uncommon and, yes, occasionally unhealthy importance placed on basketball in a state where kids learn to drive on tractors and to the basket.

Everybody relates to "Hoosiers,'' a classic that has aged as well as Gene Hackman. When people ask about my hometown — North Judson, Ind. (pop. 1,764) — I often advise them to think of Hickory. They usually go, "Ahhhh, OK.''

But the fact that art imitated life so well in the movie's case doesn't justify the Pacers trying to make life imitate art in return just to make more merchandising dollars. Professional sports ruin so many things in the name of money. This just makes the list longer.

When the Pacers unveiled the red-and-gold uniforms Tuesday they will wear in select regular-season games next year in a partnership with MGM to celebrate the movie's 30th anniversary, an entire state practically nodded in approval. They look like the same ones Hickory High wore in the movie, except for baggier shorts. They should have been modeled after the uniforms worn by the 1954 Milan team — the real Indiana state champions instead of a fictitious team in a film based on reality.

"Our team will be honored to wear the Hickory uniforms because of the attention it will bring to the storied history of Indiana basketball,'' said Pacers President Larry Bird, a French Lick native.

ESPN's SportsCenter tweeted the uniforms were "awesome.'' GQ Magazine called the decision "genius.'' Pacers legend Reggie Miller endorsed them, as did writer Angelo Pizzo, who co-produced the 1986 film with director David Anspaugh. It was considered the state's boldest fashion statement since former Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight's plaid sport coat.

Hoosiers everywhere marveled. And everyone missed the point.

Remember when throwback uniforms paid tribute to people and places that really existed? What's next, the Dallas Cowboys dressed as the Dillon Panthers — the fictional stars of the TV show "Friday Night Lights"? At least the "Rocky" statue in Philadelphia merely represents the idea of an underdog — not an actual underdog boxer forgotten by the time tourists climb the Philadelphia Art Museum's steps.

If the Pacers wanted to pay tribute to the rich heritage of Indiana high school basketball — the root of why the state is rabid over the sport — then they should have honored the team that inspired the movie, not the team in it. Instead it would be a miracle if half the people who will buy Hickory jerseys even know tiny Milan in southeastern Indiana from the city in Italy. An entire state just got dumber. Thanks, Pacers.

Hoosier son: Dad, where is Hickory?

Hoosier dad: I think it's next to Pawnee, that town in "Parks and Recreation.''

Hoosier son: Can we go there sometime?

Hoosier dad: Uh, ask your mother.

You won't find Hickory on an Indiana map. You have to look in a Pacers marketing plan. In a state that claims to care about basketball's role in its history, the Pacers supplied the latest proof that it's all about money — not educating a fan base, honoring a cherished memory or doing the right thing.

In January, the Indianapolis Star chronicled the dire straits of the Milan '54 Museum. Think the shrine to the state's most famous high school basketball team ever, in a town of 1,864 people, wouldn't have received a financial boost from the Pacers marketing Milan jerseys and apparel? The NBA cares most about pairing a major-movie empire with a small-market team always looking for ways to enhance its profile. Customers only really care if the slick, new jersey fits.

"The Hickory uniform … will serve as an inspiration to fans everywhere that no matter how improbable the challenge may be, amazing things can be accomplished through teamwork, determination, heart and hustle,'' the gushy press release read.

Wearing jerseys with M-I-L-A-N on the front would have provided a truer inspiration of the same principles. This is one happy ending Hollywood blew.

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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