So, I went to the Prudential Center in Newark to see the Nets play the Golden State Warriors last night. I think it was as nice of a live professional sports experience as I've been to in years. Please don't stop reading.
I know. I was watching two teams with losing records; one with no shot and one with almost no shot of a postseason, as we head into the 66th game of a long 82 game season. The Nets new ballyhooed acquisition, Deron Williams, couldn't play. It was cold and damp out and, well, it was night in the Port of Newark, NJ. One was bound to ask to ask oneself is this really "where amazing happens?"
Well, let me tell you what happened: On the court, a close competitive game was played, decided by four points in last ten seconds. I watched the preternaturally talented Brook Lopez hustle, dive (in the second quarter), defend and score the last 9 points of the game -- like a star does -- to lead all scorers. I watched David Lee, like he does, quietly, appropriately and selflessly accumulate another double-double. I watched Stephan Curry and Monta Ellis dart, slash and score with a repertoire of offensive moves where not one move looked at all like the others. I watched Sasha Vujacic for four quarters personify the charming basketball adage shoot-to-get-hot-shoot-to-stay-hot. I observed Anthony Morrow take and make big shots all night because, you may not have known, he played for Golden State before he went to the Nets and this was his first time "hosting" his old mates. No wonder he scored a season-high 22. Nice little storyline for anyone who knew the story. End to end, for 48 minutes I saw quality professional performances and serious competition. And, "amazingly" there might've been only about three dunks the whole night.
Both teams' coaches - Avery Johnson (Nets), Keith Smart (Warriors) bounded up and down in front of their benches, imploring their players and "encouraging" the referees. Television likes to give you the coaches' reactions. Mostly, grimaced tight faced men or maniacs raging and apoplectic. But in the arena you can see the players on the floor responding to their coaches. That's how it works away from the camera's limited view. I saw these players asking their coaches for instruction, owning up to their errors and, wait for it, listening.
I'll tell you who else was listening, the crowd. No, it was not a packed house but that didn't diminish the experience. (Note to sports fans: you shouldn't need social proof to tell you whether something is interesting or not.) The crowd was excited, loud and cheering when there was really was something to cheer and oooh-ing and aaaah-ing when there was actual drama. Thank you, thnak you, thank you to the in-arena entertainment director who let the sounds of the game fill the arena much of the time instead of feeling compelled, like so many arena's do, to fill every audible moment with obnoxious faux-excitement fabricated sound track. In this way the fan was respected, not treated like Pavlovian Dogs who need bells rung to animate them.
Respect begets respect. Nets GM Billy King sat the entire game just a few rows in front of me, in regular seating section not sequestered in a hyper-expensive-exclusive box. He casually interacted with fans who knew who he was but did not molest him with their sportstalk radio theories on life. Billy just sat among us, one of us. When Kris Humpreies was called for a questionable goaltending, he turned to me -- I mean, we are complete strangers -- and with a hand up in the air asked me earnestly like he was asking a close friend for relationship advice "How is that goal tending?" I said I didn't think it was. "No way," he shook his head smiling incredulously, turning back to the action.
He was not the only celebrity. Justin Tuck introduced courtside got a huge roar from the crowd. And, yes, Kim Kardashian came to see her boyfriend. But except for one creeped-out guy -- a late twenty-something guy with way too much mousse in his hair and too much belly over his belt so he wears his button down shirt untucked, you know the type, probably doesa lot of backward baseball hat wearing on the weekends -- who walked by her pretending that nobody could possibly know what he was up to with his cell phone in hand extended out from his girth, clicked a cellphone pic of her -- dude, you know who you are -- then walked a few seats down and gave the fist pump to his boys exclaiming "I got it!" . Other than that idiot, arguably the most famous person in America got to chill out and watch a basketball game without it becoming a media event. Sure people approached her but they did so quite normally, on their way to sit down. All in all, we all just let her be.
After the buzzer sounded and the home team won (they're third in a row!) I stayed to chat with some guys I know who were in town from Golden State. And you know what I saw? First I saw Avery Johnson talk to what was obviously some youth league. Despite his incredible expenditure of energy in close win, Johnson gave these kids all he had and they loved it. On the other end of the court another youth organization of some kind took pictures with players from both the Warriors and Nets who came out after their showers. Then, whole court was opened to close to 100 fans to take fouls shots where the pro's take them. Nets execs in their suits, without the slightest hint of anything but playfulness, fetched the rebounds.
The game started at 7pm. If you had the experience I had and lived in reasonable distance from the Pru you were home by 10:30 with a smile on your face, the local TV news just ahead of you.
Look, I'm a sportswriter and I teach sports business at major universities. I can get pretty jaded about things. But last night, well, maybe I didn't see "amazing" but I had a near perfect regular season game experience that lacked for nothing. It didn't need to be "amazing" I just needed it be exactly what it was, which was fun. I guess I just don't read about stuff like that enough. So, I thought you should know. Stuff like this still goes on. Last night, it happened in Newark.
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