Andrew Unterberger, TBJ’s traveling hoops correspondent, is somewhere in the Midwest, sending out his reports. Here’s the latest…

I got to Indiana a day early from Cleveland, and was able to catch most of the Thursday night games on TNT the night before I saw the Pacers play the Rockets at Conseco Fieldhouse. (I spend two months touring NBA arenas, and what do I start itching to be able to do again? Watch nationally televised hoops games at home. Sickening.) But at least I had the whole next day to spend in Indiana, and it was an absolutely beautiful day in the Midwest, a crisp, sunny 72, which I started off with a Hoosier tenderloin and root beer at the Mug n Bun Drive-In. (Under-utilized concept on the East Coast, the drive-in restaurant — it’s like having a picnic without having to abandon the creature-comforts of being indoors.)

On the advice of my friend Kyle, I swung by Lucas Oil Field, the Colts’ stadium (“Warrants at least one ‘<gasp> Holy hell is that huge,’” said he) and Hinkle Fieldhouse, home arena for the recent NCAA darling Butler Bulldogs. No kidding about Lucas Oil, which was being used for some sort of national Bands of America competition, turnout for which seemed better than for that of the Pacers game. Hinkle Fieldhouse was cooler, not only because I was able to go inside and take some pics (gorgeous hardwood court, fantastic color scheme), but because there was also free entertainment to be had by way of a nearby Butler soccer game, against heated Horizon League rivals Cleveland State. A perfect day to soak in a half of the other round-balled sport, though it was a bit of a culture shock after watching so many live hoops games — after CSU scored a goal, my neck reflexively craned to the non-existent JumboTron for a replay.

The whole day was a great appetizer for a Friday night hoops showdown, at a stadium that had been hyped to me as one of the best in the NBA.

The Stadium: Upon stepping into Conseco Fieldhouse, I instantly understood the acclaim. The entry pavilion designed to look like a train station, there was immediately a sort of personality, a distinctiveness that most of the other stadiums I’d visited so far couldn’t seem to have cared less about conveying. Even with the potentially-gimmicky train station motif, the whole thing still looked organic, old-school even, like a stadium that had already lived through several generations of Pacer fans. So many of the other East-Coast arenas seemed intent on pushing a kind of forced modernity that this low-key, high-character stadium felt like Wrigley or Fenway by comparison.

Once I got inside and started to walk around a little, I found that the stadium’s interiors were even more impressive. There were your requisite concession stands, swag shops and kid-attractions, but surrounding all of them was this pervasive sense of history. There were countless displays of Pacer cultural artifacts — classic uniforms, old newspaper clippings, signed photographs, just about everything short of Roger Brown and George McGinnis offering handshakes outside the men’s bathroom. It was educational, it was visually compelling — “Like a museum,” a fan named Bob sitting behind me at the game aptly put it. When Bill Simmons (60/30 Sports Guy Reference Counter: 2) suggests that the Basketball Hall of Fame rightly belongs in Indiana, this is why.

But the best part, without a doubt, was the gift shop. I hesitate to use a word like “breathtaking” to describe an NBA souvenir stand, but I legitimately emitted a gasp or two when I walked into the Conseco Home Court. I’d been so roundly disappointed with the selection at most of the stadiums thus far — most notably the Stuckey Jerebko Stuckey Jerebko Stuckey Jerebko spread at Auburn Hills — but the Home Court had an obscene array of hats, jerseys and paraphernalia. The jersey spread was particularly impressive — not only every current player you could possibly want, but a fantastic retro section, dating back to the ABA days and even including a Celtics Bird throwback. (Interestingly, though, no repping for any of the Palace Brawl-era players — wounds still too fresh on that one I think.)

I was like a kid in a tan-colored candy store. I’ve never even rooted for the Pacers that much, but I still could have dropped a couple hundred bucks in that place without batting an eye.

The Game: The Pacers were taking on an unfortunately short-handed Rockets squad, with both Aaron Brooks and Yao Ming out with injury. (The latter was especially a shame, considering I’ve still never seen the Great Wall live and was looking forward to marveling at his grandiosity.) Still, the Rockets were probably the deepest 1-6 team in the NBA, and put up an impressive fight, keyed around an impressive offensive outburst from Indy native Brad Miller (23 points, 8 rebounds), whose succession of top-of-the-arc threes garnered a lot of sarcastic enthusiasm from the crowd. (“You can’t STOP that!!“)

It was especially for me cool to see the Pacers’ Roy Hibbert in action. The third-year big man from Georgetown has done an impressive job of growing into his own skin, and he was beautiful to watch go to work in the post. “With his size and touch around the hoop,” Pacers blogger Jared Wade of Eight Points, Nine Seconds told me, “There are simply some plays where, if he makes his move properly, not even Bill Russell could cause him to miss.” Couldn’t agree more. Once he got in deep, it seemed like Hibbert was playing himself more than playing his defender — either his shots went in or they didn’t, but he was controlling his own destiny, and the opposing big was basically helpless. This guy could absolutely be an all-star before too long.

The game stayed exciting basically the whole way through, with the Pacers frequently falling behind, then surging back on a barrage of threes from Mike Dunleavy, James Posey and even TJ Ford. (I imagine this kind of pacing is not infrequent for a team like the Pacers this season.) They were within a three in the game’s waning seconds, but Shane Battier mummified Danny Granger at the top of the arc (as he had done all evening — fun guy to watch play D), and he was forced to give it up to Darren Collison for a well-off-the-mark three. Final score: Rockets 102, Pacers 99.

The Fans: The turnout wasn’t fantastic, especially at first, and a scalper named Slick who I talked to outside of the stadium said that this was a recurring problem (“We didn’t make a dime,” he bemoaned of the Pacers’ recent home victory over the Nuggets. “One of the worst nights we had in two years.”) but it was still better than most of the East stadiums I’d visited so far. And while the energy was a little lacking in the early going (all the Pacers’ players pre-recorded cries for the fans to get on their feet and/or make some noise fell on deaf ears), it really picked up as the game went on, and in the final minutes, it got legitimately impressive, with the fans getting whipped into a frenzy over every unwarranted whistle or foul call, living and dying with every made/missed three.

Everyone I talked to insisted that things were getting better, too. “Three years ago, there was barely anybody here,” a longtime fan named Ravi told me. “I think the Pacers are starting to do a good job of making sure the players have character. We just didn’t like the players that we had.” His friend Bob, an ex-Pennsylvania resident who was bowled over by the local passion for basketball upon moving to Indiana, believed it was only a matter of time. “If they get a basketball team like they had with Reggie Miller, it’ll come back to that [fan level]. It’s that basketball heritage.”

Ultimately, it seemed like those in attendance at Conseco were coming back around to the team, built around guys like Collison (“He gon’ be on it for the future,” said Slick), Granger (“I suspect he’ll be an All-Star this year,” said Ravi) and Hibbert. “The fans finally have some promising young, high-character players who can actually get out on the break and dunk and stuff to root for,” said Jared. ” That hasn’t been the case for a long time and as the W-L record starts to improve over the next year or two, I think the fans will be back. It’s Indiana after all.”

Most Popular Jerseys: Quite a spread for the current players — almost everyone on the team was represented by at least one person, including Dahntay Jones, TJ Ford and even AJ Price — but Tyler Hansbrough probably had the most of all. And for the retro, still no fucking with Reggie.

Local Pop Culture Tie-Ins: An absolute no-brainer — before the Pacers prepped for their final possession, they played the famous “I’ll make it” huddle scene from the climax to Hoosiers. Frankly, I’m amazed they had the restraint to show it only the one time.

Also Worth Noting: Two complaints, quite literally my only complaints from my visit to Conseco, minus the team losing anyway. First, the building had its own sort of specifically demarcated cheering section, where a number of particularly passionate (and possibly monetarily compensated?) fans led countless player-specific chants and tried unceasingly to get the rest of the crowd pumped up. They had one of these in Detroit, too, and to me it just seems tacky, and a tad bit desperate — if you can’t get that kind of college-type atmosphere at your home park organically, trying to force it like this isn’t an acceptable substitute.

The second is about Boomer, the Pacers’ blue feline mascot. Not necessarily terrible, but the more of these mascots I see, the more I’m thinking that if your team name doesn’t have the name of a person or animal in it, it’s probably best just to forgo the mascot element altogether.

Swag Acquired: I got a #50 Hansbrough home jersey from the half-off rack. Probably should have gone with Hibbert instead, but I was able to justify this one more by reminding myself how much the Psycho T duds would piss off my UNC-hating roommate.

Sirius / XM Jam of the Day:

N.O.R.E. – “Nothin’” (Hip Hop Nation, XM 67). Fantastic Neptunes-produced holdover from the early 00s, the golden age of Eastern-influenced hip-hop. Notable for being the only rap song in history to reference both Creed and Smash Mouth.

Coming soon: My visit to the United Center, to catch the Bulls play the Wizards in a match-up of Calipari-weaned, #1-pick point guards. Hoping the rest of the guys just chill on the sidelines and let these guys go one-on-one for at least a quarter or so.