Conn: Finding some beauty and joy in a meaningless NBA game | Illin

JUSTIN CONN

I sat with my 13-year-old son in a sports bar in Indianapolis on the afternoon of March 20, enjoying fried food while we watched Illinois lay an egg against a Houston team that also couldn’t shoot straight.

It was the second ugly game of the tournament for Illinois and one of many hard-to-watch games in the NCAA tournament. It’s an event I’ll always cherish, but in reality it always has its share of dud games.







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Justin Conn, right, and his son Sully hang out at the Brothers Bar & Grill in downtown Indianapolis, where they had lunch and watched Houston beat Illinois in the second round of the NCAA tournament.


JUSTIN CONN


Defending is one thing, but bad decisions and missed open shots are frustrating to watch. Illinois, in particular, looked… stiff.

After the game, Sully and I drove to Gainbridge Fieldhouse to watch an NBA game between the Pacers and the Portland Trail Blazers. The tickets were bought as a Christmas present for my 13 year old son who is a huge fan of Blazers star Damian Lillard. But Lillard was injured and both teams are in tank mode at this point in the season.

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Central Illinois Sports Editor Justin Conn, right, stands with his son Sully in front of Gainbridge Fieldhouse before the Indiana Pacers vs. Portland Trail Blazers game on Sunday, March 20.


JUSTIN CONN


Before the game, we had a chance to meet with former Central Illinois Illini reporter James Boyd, who now covers the Pacers for the Indianapolis Star (you should check out his coverage at indystar.com/pacers). During our conversation, James mentioned what it was like watching players shoot around a gym – even players being tried out for 10-day contracts.

“It’s incredible,” James said. “They do 90 percent of the footage they do in an empty gym.”

The gym was far from empty when the starting rosters were announced — Sully and I were surprised by the size of the crowd for a game between two teams from the playoff chase — but we hadn’t heard from more than two or three names the starter. At least not in the NBA rosters.







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The view from our seats at the Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.


JUSTIN CONN


I didn’t think about what James was telling me at the time. The thought that went through my head was: How am I supposed to watch this 2½ hours?

Then, in the first quarter, the Pacers alone made more open jumpers than Illinois and Houston for much of the game we’d just watched. This Blazers team is by no means strong defensively, but the Pacers’ offensive attack was a joy to watch. We both started identifying guys on every team that Illinois could have really used that day — it was the bulk of the Pacers’ roster.

And that was before the greatest basketball game I’ve ever seen live (and, bonus, one unforgettable father-son moment!).

It was the kind of play that probably doesn’t happen in a game with playoff implications on the line. The Pacers, up 22 points in the second quarter of a meaningless game, were having fun. Anyone who says pros don’t play for the joy of the game should check out this game.

It started with a pass from one of the newest pacers, Tyrese Halliburton – the player my son was looking forward to the most since so many others were missing. He fired a baseball pass halfway down the field at longtime Pacers favorite Lance Stephenson, who ran down the right touchline. Stephenson caught it over his shoulder with both hands like a wide receiver, then dropped a behind-the-back bounce pass to a grazing Oshae Brissett. Stephenson didn’t even turn to see what had happened, instead posing in front of the Pacers bench when Brissett flipped, jumped, double pumped and dove backwards when he was fouled.







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Pacers forward Oshae Brissett, 12, poses after his dunk while teammate Justin Anderson reacts in disbelief.


Bally’s Sports Indiana


“I was like, ‘Why is everyone screaming?'” Stephenson said after the game on Bally’s Sports Indiana. “Then I saw the replay and I was like, ‘Oh my God!'”

Me, Sully, and pretty much everyone else in town – including Pacers guard Justin Anderson – went insane. The game was an example of what pro players are capable of when they loosen up a bit out there.

An NCAA tournament game will never have this atmosphere—the pressure is on from start to finish when your season is at stake. That makes the tournament unique.

It’s just not always nice basketball.

Contact Justin Conn at (217) 421-7909. Follow him on Twitter: @jconnHR

Updated: April 1, 2022 — 5:54 pm

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