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Sunday, May 19
The Indiana Daily Student

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How a three-year pushback helped Indianapolis create the All-Star Weekend it always wanted

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Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories about NBA All-Star Weekend by students in an IU Media School sports reporting class. Read the rest of the stories on our website. 

INDIANAPOLIS – Generally at this time of year, the south-facing brick wall of 109 S. Pennsylvania St. only features a painted mural of the Indiana Pacers’ schedule. 

It neighbors Gainbridge Fieldhouse, the home of the Pacers, greeting visitors at the west entrance. A short walk from the Fieldhouse leads to an intersection, where a right turn down Georgia Street splinters off into some of the city’s more iconic venues – Harry and Izzy’s, St. Elmo and more. 

After three blocks, a stoplight and a T-intersection appear in front of the east doors to the Indiana Convention Center. This, usually, is just Capitol Avenue. It’s a one-way directing drivers south, where traffic then sees Lucas Oil Stadium in full view at the next intersection. 

Mid-February in Indianapolis is typically a quiet time. But this is not a typical year. 

Over the three-day stretch from Friday to Sunday, Indianapolis’ downtown area transforms to the campus of NBA All-Star weekend. Indy is rolling out the red carpet for its esteemed guests, hosting the NBA’s annual showcase weekend for just the second time ever, 39 years removed from the first chance to do so in 1985. 

Over top of the schedule mural currently hangs a Nike advertisement, depicting some of the acclaimed brand’s top NBA All-Stars: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and more. Tyrese Haliburton of the Pacers joins them, reminding fans this is still the oft-subdued Indiana state capital. 

Georgia Street’s windows of the bars and restaurants lining it each display neon ‘NBA ALL-STAR 2024’ signs. Capitol Avenue is now NBA All-Star Home Court, one of 34 street signs changed for the weekend in honor of the event. Just south, Peyton Manning’s statue outside of the Colts’ home is the foreground for larger-than-life images of Victor Wembanyama, Damian Lillard and Haliburton on the football stadium’s north retractable windows. 

“You’re going to know that you’re right in the middle of an All-Star experience,” Danny Lopez, the vice president of External Affairs and Corporate Communications with Pacers Sports & Entertainment, said. “It’s designed that way so that you feel this event.” 

It’s a collective effort from the city to put on a show fit for a league estimated to be worth multi-billion dollars. Yet, this opportunity was already supposed to have happened.  

In 2017, Indianapolis originally won its bid to host All-Star in Feb. 2021. However, complications due to COVID-19 forced the league to move the game elsewhere. In earning a second chance three years later, Indy is making the most of it. 

***

Dianna Boyce’s position with PS&E didn’t exist before June 2019. 

Formerly the director of communications for Finish Line and the 2012 Indianapolis Super Bowl Host Committee, Boyce was named vice president of NBA All-Star 2021, Inc. She had her latest assignment: overseeing another special February weekend in Indianapolis. 

In accomplishing goals set out for the weekend, day-to-day coordination was required to keep in lockstep with both the league and her own All-Star committee, as well as numerous other Indianapolis community leaders and departments. These plans were already well in motion before the world’s shutdown at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. So when the path forward under the budding difficult circumstances changed the conversation from how the event would come about to if it could at all, Boyce and her crew were cautiously optimistic. 

“We wanted it to be the most fan-centric All-Star the NBA had historically seen,” Boyce said. “To do that in an era where COVID-19 was a thing and to not be able to have fans experience things, it just wasn’t everything we had hoped it would be.” 

In 2020, the late finish of the season prior due to COVID-19 pushed back the NBA’s start date from October point to December. All-Star itself was pushed back as well, and it became a one-night, made-for-TV production that took place March 7, 2021. Indianapolis, however, was already committed to hosting the Women’s Big Ten Basketball Tournament March 9-13, and it would’ve been too strenuous to host both in such quick order. 

Instead, All-Star moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where only about 1,500 fans were in attendance that evening. To execute such an event in Indianapolis, under strict COVID-19 attendance guidelines, wouldn’t have been to those same fan-centric principles Boyce’s committee initially desired. All of that combined helped lead the NBA to a 2024 timeline with Indianapolis. 

Still, PS&E staff worked tirelessly throughout 2020 to reinvent modes of touchless entry while still maintaining a secure presence. With other events still planned, the goal was to get people back into the stands by all means possible.  

“We were one of the first to get back out there and start having games and events again,” Lopez said. “It was just because we were open.” 

The Fieldhouse re-opened to Pacer fans in Jan. 2021 — a month before the originally scheduled All-Star Weekend –– but not completely.  

Under limited fan capacity as the pandemic was closer to its peak than its resolution, Gainbridge Fieldhouse was also in the midst of renovations that were greenlit in 2020. The money was already spent to go through with the multi-phase upgrades to concourses, seating and other aspects in and around the arena. 

The timing to eventually host three years later was the league’s call, not Indy’s. Lopez wouldn’t call it a silver lining, but the new timeline allowed Indy’s vision another chance to come to life. 

Renovations were completed fully in 2023, and the city’s reliance on hundreds of people on host committees and thousands more volunteers meant running the event up to the standard of past Super Bowls, Final Fours and NFL Combines wouldn’t have been possible during the pandemic. Now in 2024, Indianapolis expects around 125,000 visitors over the coming days. 

“For us to be able to do it our way, the 2024 timeline is actually better,” Lopez said. 

***

The feel of All-Star’s presence washes over visitors upon arrival in Indianapolis. 

A full-size basketball court and banners welcome out-of-town travelers in the airport’s main atrium, just 13 miles from downtown. All three venues holding the majority of scheduled events – Gainbridge Fieldhouse, Lucas Oil Stadium and the Indiana Convention Center – are within walking distance. More than half of the city’s 8,000-plus hotel rooms are connected by covered walkways to the various destinations, which is important for those hailing from warm weather locations entering the forecasted sub-50 degree temperatures. 

Members of PS&E attended the previous All-Star events leading up to this one, taking bits and pieces of what they liked from Cleveland’s 2022 showcase and the Salt Lake City festival in 2023. But Indy’s approach would always be different. 

It started with Larry Bird, the Pacers’ then-president of basketball operations, hand-delivering the bid to the NBA’s Manhattan offices by way of driving an IndyCar down Fifth Avenue in 2017. From the onset, Indy was willing to go above and beyond.  

“It’s really just an all-in type of approach,” Lopez said. 

Bicentennial Unity Plaza, now residing where a parking garage did three years ago, experienced its grand opening in August 2023. As such, it was the final completion of $400 million in renovations to the areas in and around Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Throughout the city, indicators of the NBA’s takeover are intermixed with new and existing displays of art and culture, a part of PS&E’s efforts to show off the new temporary center of the sports world. 

The central theme everything connects back to is what PS&E is marketing as Indy’s home court, where the fan is treated as the All-Star. 

“It’s just an awesome finished canvas that we get to showcase to the world,” Boyce said. 

***

Along with a brand refresh and new uniforms in 2017, the Pacers introduced a singular slogan that has been prominently featured ever since: ‘We Grow Basketball Here.’

Seven years of preparation, growth, development and coming together culminates in this three-day stretch –– marrying together a state’s rich love for basketball and the sport’s top performers. Some of the most defining moments in planning for it –– few by chance, others by circumstance –– have evolved since learning of a second chance to do right by Indianapolis’ original plan all along. 

In an appearance on J.J. Redick’s The Old Man and the Three podcast in Nov. 2023, NBA commissioner Adam Silver told Redick the theme of this season is short and to the point. For a spectacle-driven league that has cast a wide shadow in so many aspects of culture and society, Silver wants to bring the NBA “back to basketball.”

There’s no better city for it.

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