Pacers, 500, Fever — all eyes on Indianapolis

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)

For the first time in a decade, Indianapolis will host the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals this weekend — the Pacers play the Boston Celtics Saturday and Monday in Gainbridge Fieldhouse downtown.

On Sunday afternoon, as is tradition dating back to 1911, the Indianapolis 500 will occur about seven miles to the west. The crowd should exceed 300,000, making it again the most attended sporting event (non-marathon) in the country.

And while Caitlin Clark and the Indiana Fever aren’t in town this Memorial Day weekend — they are on a West Coast WNBA road swing — there remains excitement over the arrival of one of America’s most popular athletes. They’ll at least be on television from Los Angeles and Las Vegas on Friday and Saturday, respectively.

In short, Indianapolis sports is cooking.

This isn’t necessarily new, but it is a new wave of local action. The Pacers haven’t made it this far in the playoffs since 2014. That’s also the same year the NFL Colts hosted a playoff game. A breakout star like Clark has never played for the Fever.

Indianapolis has long been a big event sports town, punching well above what you’d expect of a city of only about 880,000 residents.

That’s mainly due to its Indianapolis Sports Corp. The non-profit founded in 1979 has become so adept at bringing major events — and major money — to central Indiana that it has become the envy of the nation.

Auto Racing: 101st Indianapolis 500: Overall view of miscellaneous action during race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Verizon IndyCar Series.
Indianapolis, IN 5/28/2017
CREDIT: Simon Bruty (Photo by Simon Bruty /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
(Set Number: SI881 TK2 )
Some 300,000 people will cram into Indianapolis Motor Speedway Sunday for the 108th running of the Indy 500. (Simon Bruty /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

A city that was once derided as India-no-place transformed its once-sleepy downtown into a convention and sports-minded hub of hotels, restaurants and stadiums. It’s big business.

Indy has hosted the Super Bowl, college football's national title game, the annual NFL scouting combine, the annual NASCAR Brickyard 400, the NBA All-Star game, numerous men’s and women’s Final Fours, Big Ten football championship games, Big Ten basketball tournaments, 19 different US Olympic team trials, the 1987 Pan American Games, a world gymnastics championship, a FIBA World Basketball Championship and just about anything else imaginable.

Creativity often drives the accomplishment.

For example, Indy needed a way to lure the USA Swimming Olympic Trials back from Omaha, Nebraska, where it's been held since 2008. So the city will construct a temporary pool on the floor of Lucas Oil Stadium, where the Colts play. That should allow for a seating capacity of about 30,000 when the trials run from June 15-23. Omaha couldn’t do more than 14,000.

Those kinds of events are great for the tourist revenue they bring in and the prestige that comes with hosting.

This weekend is different, though. This is local.

The 500-mile race is an annual Memorial Day staple. And yes, there are plenty of out-of-towners in attendance, but it is mostly about friends and families, reunions and reminders. They sing “Back Home Again in Indiana” before the race for a reason.

The race is a culmination of about a month of festivities, time trials and events. This year offers an extra pop from the entry of Kyle Larson, arguably the best driver in the world who will attempt to win in Indy during the day and then at NASCAR's Coke 600 in Charlotte, North Carolina, that night.

The massive track is located in a neighborhood — technically in Speedway, Indiana — surrounded by houses, stores and even a work-a-day American Legion Hall. Four holes of the public Brickyard Crossing golf course are actually located inside the oval; the other 14 along one side of the grandstands.

The Pacers, meanwhile, are the city’s original professional franchise, dating back to 1967 when they were a founding member of the old American Basketball Association. The Colts didn't arrive from Baltimore until 1984.

The franchise has never won an NBA title (the Reggie Miller-led team lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2000 Finals) but the fan passion around the franchise, and all things basketball, has been constant.

All of which makes this weekend a somewhat unique one in Indianapolis.

Being the center of the American sports universe isn’t new to the place. Making it personal — their teams, their traditions, their race — is the thrill.