Sportswriters aren’t supposed to cheer for a team, let alone pray. No one said that rule applies to columnists, though.
That is why I am hoping — make that praying — Danny Granger’s health allows him to return and play a key part in this special season.
The exact moment Granger became my favorite Pacer is forever etched in my mind.
It was Nov. 1, 2008, the home-opener against Boston. Indiana still was reeling from the tumult and upheaval of the past few seasons.
Fans entered Conseco Fieldhouse desperately wanting a reason to believe in this team — what used to be their team — again. I know because I was one of them, there as a fan, not a reporter.
Back-to-back losing seasons were the least of Indiana’s problems. It had been four years since the infamous “Malice in the Palace” at Detroit, but the hangover was palpable and prolonged. The best team in the Eastern Conference was dismantled, and the draft lottery was the season highlight for the next few years.
Granger was dropped into this mix at the franchise’s lowest point, the 17th pick in the 2005 draft.
It wasn’t long until he became the face of the franchise, a low-key, clean-cut, silky smooth forward. In many ways, the New Mexico grad was the antithesis of the brash mix that took down the team a year earlier.
A civil engineering degree, a passion for comic books and a deeply religious background made Granger something of an anomaly. He turned down admission to Yale to play basketball at Bradley before transferring to the Lobos.
A solid player early in his Pacers career, he grew into the starter in 2007 after the departure of Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington.
It was five years ago this week, though, that Granger literally made his mark in a way that won the hearts of Indiana fans.
With the Eastern Conference’s top team, Boston, in town for opening night, the Pacers put on a show. The Celtics went down 95-79 before a raucous crowd.
Granger’s 20 points led the way. But it was his heart, more than basketball skills, that won the night and cemented the Pacers captain’s legacy.
As Boston’s Paul Pierce dove over Granger in a loose-ball scramble, the full force of the Celtic’s torso drove Granger’s face into the floor.
Daily Journal sports editor Rick Morwick, who had a front-row seat to the action, wrote about what happened next: “(Granger) literally left two front teeth on the court, courtesy of Paul Pierce rolling across his head, but didn’t leave the game.
“He ran off the court, grabbed a mouthpiece and then continued playing at the end of the official’s timeout that gave mop crews time to remove tooth fragments and blood from the floor.”
It was a moment that was larger than life for a wayward franchise, one of those “I don’t believe what I just saw” scenes. Granger ignited his teammates and the fans.
“For the first time in a long, long time, they played like they actually knew each other and like they actually cared,” Morwick wrote at the time. “They played hard, played passionately and played physically. Perhaps no player on the floor, or in the entire NBA that night, personified all three qualities like Danny Granger.”
Five years later, Indiana now is seeing the results of those first moments when the Pacers again found their soul.
Most unfortunately, Granger is injured after missing almost all of last season. While the prognosis is good, with a return predicted in two weeks, what that means in terms of a contribution is an open question. No doubt, an 80 percent Granger could be decisive for a team that needs better bench play to bring home a title.
In some ways, it is a testament to how far Indiana has come to note it does not depend on Granger like it did in those lean years. As the Pacers showed last season, they have plenty of weapons.
Still, it would be most cruel if lingering injuries kept Granger from sharing in this moment on the court. He deserves to be here. He earned that right five years ago and every day since as he showed himself to be the heart of this team.
So, tonight, as Indiana hosts Toronto in the midst of four-games-in-five-night stretch, I’ll be cheering for our Pacers.
Amid the cheers, though, there will also be a prayer. Get well soon, Danny. You have earned this moment, and we want to share it with you.
Bob Johnson is a correspondent for the Daily Journal. His columns appear Tuesday and Fridays. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.