INDIANAPOLIS – Two moments stand out. Well no. That’s ridiculous. Much more than two moments stand out from the most beautiful evening of a wonderful week here in Indianapolis, the Indiana Pacers 25th Annual “Come to Our House” Season of Giving Dinner at the Gainbridge Fieldhouse, where the franchise opens its doors to 600 of ours most vulnerable neighbors, people affected by homelessness, to serve them a hot Thanksgiving meal.
That was Tuesday. Two moments stand out, and by that I mean two hundred moments. Two thousand moments.
But let’s start with two. Otherwise it’s just too much. Too overwhelming, this sea of people getting off buses, traffic on Delaware Street halted as mothers and fathers and children and babies exited those buses for the Fieldhouse’s front pavilion. Tables await, more than 50, surrounded by chairs that were empty minutes ago and are now full of people of all shapes and sizes and backgrounds.
They’re here to eat, but not yet. First a few words from our hosts. Pacer’s TV voiceover Chris Denari stands behind a microphone on a stage, greeting the group and thanking our hosts. He mentions US Foods and the Pacers Foundation, as well as team owners, president, general manager, coaches and players, and then he brings on stage the event’s host, the franchise’s cheerful face, point guard Tyrese Haliburton.
A few more words from Haliburton, actually a Q&A with Denari. Just to give people a glimpse of something they don’t see every day: A true NBA star, larger than life.
Out in the crowd, at those tables, people are glancing at the nearby banquet tables. They’re looking at something else they don’t see every day: a real hot meal cooked just for them.
In this arena, where something magical had happened just 16 hours earlier – the Pacers had beaten Orlando to their fifth straight win, led by 18 points and 14 assists by Tyrese Haliburton – something very real is happening.
Table by table, the guests of honor are invited to the buffet, where they are served by coaches and players. The first person in line is a middle-aged man, short and thin. If he’s taller than 5-4 or heavier than 120 pounds, you could knock us both over with a feather. He wears a knit hat that doesn’t quite cover the tattoo on his forehead, a spider web crawls to his eyes.
The man’s coat is stained and frayed. He smiles. First is the salad station, and 6-6 Pacers guard Chris Duarte scoops lettuce and tomatoes onto the man’s plate. The man begins to slide down the line, but Duarte stops him from adding carrots. Next comes the salad dressing station, where Melissa Pierce has the ladle. Her husband, Pacer’s assistant Lloyd Pierce, is out with the filling.
The man with the spider web tattoo asks about the ranch. Melissa serves him and asks how he is.
“I can’t complain,” he says.
This is the first moment that catches your eye.
Buddy Hield’s greatness today isn’t in his skill, it’s in his green beans
Every pacer was here. All of them serve food. The people coming through the line don’t seem that impressed. They didn’t live the life of you and me, you know? They’re not on their phones, following these guys on Twitter, or checking out highlights, or reading, you know, a story like this.
Next to me is Buddy Hield, who became the nation’s second-biggest scorer in Oklahoma in 2016 and has since scored nearly 8,000 points in the NBA, many of them in this building where he’s now serving green beans. The people passing by are more interested in the green beans. At one point, standing over the fresh fruit salad with my own ladle, I’m about to ask Buddy what it’s like, how good it must feel to be able to help people from a completely different perspective. Most of the time, fame is his currency. Now it’s the green beans.
Then a man of unspecified age – he looks 50 but is probably much younger – comes down the middle of the line, not to get more food, but to make a confession:
“Don’t be mad at me,” this guy tells Buddy, “but Kobe is my favorite player. Hey, you can play too!”
Buddy smiles at the guy. You should see that smile, so reassuring, so calm, so easy to give. Buddy understands his role in this moment. He’s here to serve and he serves up a smile and a fist to the Kobe fan. The Kobe fan bumps Buddy’s fist and happily walks away.
This is not the second moment that stands out. There were so many, you know? Myles Turner is serving the turkey, and unless he were nearly 7ft tall, you’d never know he was a basketball player. You’d think he’s just a guy who serves turkey because serving turkey is the best thing he can do with his time.
Along with Myles, Pacers Vice President Jim Morris is one of our town’s unsung heroes. Ever heard of Jim Morris? No? Good, he likes it that way. But the likes of Jim Morris – and Earl Goode and a few others whose names you may not know – are the beating hearts of our city. You can’t see or even feel a heartbeat, but trust me, you wouldn’t be here without it.
Morris serves cranberry sauce. Wearing a silly chef’s hat. As happy as I’ve ever seen him, and this is a man who knows popes and presidents. But it tastes best with cranberry sauce.
This is not the second moment either.
Chris Duarte has a heavy lettuce scoop
The best thing about Chris Duarte? He has no idea how special he is. Seriously, he greets everyone like they’re special.
In Duarte’s defense, he’s right. These folks, who come from homeless shelters all over central Indiana, are the honored guests here. And Duarte gives them that feeling. His eyes water as he greets them and smiles and listens. I’m not sure most of these people know who Chris Duarte is apart from the super nice guy serving the salad.
The worst thing about Chris Duarte? He has no idea how much salad to serve. His station is first, and he fills her plate with salad, leaving room for a few pieces of fruit and nothing else. It might take three people walking past Duarte to inform the rest of the waiters at the buffet table: Do you have extra plates.
By the time most people get to Hield and the green beans—or Pierce and the stuffing, Max—they need a second plate for Myles Turner’s turkey and Jim Morris’ cranberry sauce. And we haven’t even mentioned Pacers Sports and Entertainment President Rick Fuson and the candied yams. Or ABA Pacers legend Darnell Hillman and the holiday ham. Oh, and that’s the talented Pat Boylan serving pumpkin pie at the end.
This is a buffet line only. There are snakes all over the Pavilion, with servers like Bennedict Mathurin and Isaiah Jackson and Haliburton and – well, it’s every player. Team President Kevin Pritchard is here serving. That’s what Coach Rick Carlisle is like. That was early Tuesday night, remember, a day after the Pacers played Orlando and a day before they played Minnesota. This is how players and coaches spent their days off.
At the exit doors, where 600 well-fed people return en route to their buses and all that lies beyond, the franchise has placed an array of cold-weather items: an Indiana Pacers knit hat, an Indiana Fever ear band, gloves, blankets, towels , more.
So many wonderful things, and people are grateful. Players and coaches, members of Herb Simon’s family, pacemates, broadcasters like Quinn Buckner and a gloriously celebratory Mark Boyle. Thank you all.
The guests are grateful too. After finishing his meal before finding his bus, a guest finds a piece of paper and even an envelope and writes someone’s name on the outside. You would recognize the name. This man, this guest, he spoke to one of the organization’s most prominent members. The name on the outside of the envelope is not important here. What matters are the two words on the card inside.
This is the second moment that stands out.
Find IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter at @GreggDoyelStar or at www.facebook.com/greggdoyelstar.
More: Join the text conversation with sports columnist Gregg Doyel for insights, reader questions and Doyel’s behind-the-scenes look.