There is one small problem with the "road fan" concept in the NBA, however: There is nothing inherently significant about attending an NBA road game. In baseball, there is an unmistakable novelty attached to attending a different ballpark for the first time. Since the death of the stadium and rebirth of the park, being a baseball road fan has regained its appeal. My buddy and I attended a mid-season Pirates/Nationals game at PNC last year and even though we couldn't have cared less about the game, the whole afternoon couldn't have been more enjoyable. Every baseball park is like a new world to explore. You don't even need your own team on the field to enjoy the experience. In the NFL, while each stadium is a little different, it's really the unique gameday atmosphere of each city that makes the travel worth it: the tailgaiting, the fans, the traditions....the overall experience in each city is always unique. Plus, with only 16 games in a season, every game is a big game.
The NBA doesn't have any of that. For all intensive purposes, an arena is an arena and based on my limited experience, there is nothing particularly special about the "atmosphere" in any given city. For the most part, over the course of an 82 game season, a team is only going to play a few truly meaningful or memorable games and the rest are just forgettable snoozefests attended by tons of corporate types entertaining their clients and season ticket holders paying their dues to get playoff priority.
So, the point is that traveling with your team in the NBA lacks the cache' of the other two major sports. Given this reality, when picking my destination and game back in December, I tried to ensure that regardless of how the season went, my game would be memorable. Thus, I settled on the March 6 Cavs/Celtics tilt. Aside from the fact that I assumed that the game would have a meaningful impact on conference seeding, I figured that even if one of the two teams went in the tank, I would still get to experience the whole Celtics . . . you know . . . thing. As a Cleveland fan, I don't really know anything about tradition. Sure the Browns were great before the merger but that almost doesn't even count. If your team hasn't won in the modern era of its particular sport, it's hard to say that the fan base has truly been enriched by tradition. Now I know the Boston Garden is long gone but I thought that there would still be something special about going to a Celtics home game . . . just because, well, it's the Celtics. Bird, Russell, McHale, Havlicek . . you get the point. Just because I may hate the Celtics, it doesn't mean that as an NBA fan, I can't appreciate their cultural relevance.
Having decided upon my game, I hit Craigslist hard for about a month and found a Celtics season ticket holder willing to part with his 3rd row floor seats (about 10 feet beyond the baseline by the Celtics' tunnel) for a fairly reasonable price (Yes, I know it's shocking that my CMCR press credentials weren't enough to get me in with the rest of the mainstream media). Thus, last friday afternoon, the significant other and I headed for Beantown.
So, without any further windup, I'll give offer my observations from the evening. You'll notice that I don't have much to say about the game and really, there are two reasons for this: 1) It was a terrible game and in my opinion, aside for a few disturbing trends, was an aberration rather than a harbinger; and 2) It's really hard to understand the x's and o's of a game when you're attending it, especially when you're sitting at court level. I mean I figured out that our guys were dominated down low, but in terms of Boston's defensive schemes or any really insightful observations as to why we were dismantled, I would need to see the tv footage. Ok, oberservations:
As I said earlier, there really isn't much you can do with a basketball arena. There may be some unique ones out there but I certainly have been to one. Still, I expected that there would be at least something unique about TD Banknorth. After all, it is home to the most successful NBA franchise in history in a city that prints money. However, after attending a game in "the new Garden," I'm pleased to report that I was wrong. There is absolutely nothing noteworthy or significant about it. It's built on top of North Station and I found it hard to tell where the station stopped and the arena began. Everything in the place is a little bit drab and underwhelming. The concourses seemed a little bit narrow and poorly appointed. The concession stands were uninteresting and the merchandise shops were small and forgettable. Inside the arena, the dimensions actually look similar to the Q. It seats about 2,000 fewer people than the Q but you can't really tell just by looking at it. About the only noticeable difference other than the parquet floor is the ugly urine colored seats. Overall, although my expectations were probably a little bit too high, I was completely underwhelmed by the place. Without all the banners hanging from the rafters, it's just another sterile NBA arena. Even my girlfriend, who has never been one to heap compliments on anything Cleveland-related, admitted that she preferred the Q to TD Banknorth.
This was by far the most shocking aspect of the night for me. I was walking into the home of the defending NBA champions, the most storied franchise in the sport, on a night when they would be taking on perhaps their biggest current rival with Eastern Conference supremacy on the line . . . and I was wearing the colors of the other team. I thought for sure that people would be getting in my face. As we made our way to our seats, I was a little surprised that there was absolutely NO buzz in the air . . . no "let's go Celtics" chants in the concourse . . . no yelling or high-fiving among fans. It was, for lack of a better word, weird. When we arrived at our seats, I observed the other individuals in the immediate vicinity, figuring that I was destined to have a few words with at least some of these people throughout the course of the night. Sitting directly behind us was a young kid, about high-school age, and his overly made-up high-school girlfriend. He had obviously been given the tickets by his father and seemed more concerned with impressing his female companion than anything related to the game. To our left was a 30-something woman, at least 200 pounds, attending the game by herself. I gathered throughout the course of the night that she was a) a season ticket holder, and b) attended the game for the sole purpose of getting absolutely shitfaced. I'm not kidding when I tell you that she sat there the entire night pounding beer after beer without saying anything to anyone. It was bizarre. By the end of the game she was an absolute mess.
To our right were a couple of 20-something guys that looked and acted like they'd rarely been out of their mothers' houses or spent much time away from playing World of Warcraft. It's not like we were sitting in the cheap seats and these guys didn't know the first thing about the Celtics. Throughout the game, they would take turns offering inane observations while the other would act like he had just been given color from Hubie Brown. I couldn't help but be reminded of the following exchange from The Waterboy:
Paco: Look at Bobby tackle. I haven't seen a tackle like that since Joe Montana.
Walter: Joe Montana was a quarterback, you idiot.
Paco: I said Joe Mantegna.
. . . except the guys sitting next to me could've both played the role of Paco. In front of these two oracles of NBA wisdom sat a group of 65+ grandparents that looked like they got lost on the way to Country Kitchen and ended up at an NBA game. Suddenly, I was starting to get worried that there wouldn't be a serious Celtic fan in the vicinity to get in my face and make things interesting. Then, about 10 minutes before tip, my fears were allayed when two gigantic meatheads-walking stereotypes if you will-sat right down in front of me. The one was wearing gigantic diamond earings, a massive diamond encrusted watch, a gold and white "Bird" USA Basketball Jersey, and was sporting some religious ink on his shoulder. I was sure that this guy was going to turn around and get into it with me at some point.
Now, you guys all watched the game. The Cavs absolutely laid an egg. I mean other than about a 5 minute stretch in the second quarter, the Celtics absolutely OWNED the game. Plus, the game featured a skirmish in which Varajao and Z completely overreacted to a hard fould by Glen Davis. This was exactly the type of game in which, if I were at home at the Q and the Cavs were dominating, I would be absolutely crucifying any opposing team's fans. Well, would you believe that I spent the entire night standing up and yelling for the Cavs and got no more than a few glances from the guy in front of me. I mean nothing! I was shocked. This was Boston. These fans were supposed to be merciless. Yet, I stood up the entire game and didn't receive a single insult. Moreover, the atmosphere in the arena was terrible. If I didn't know better, I would've thought I was attending a January matinee against the Bobcats. I mean the fans got a little loud when the Celtics dropped the hammer in the 3rd but other than that, the only times they made any noise all night were when Lebron blew the dunk and Rondo came back from the gimpy ankle. I was astonished. Maybe one or two chants, standing for a couple of possessions . . . but other than that, nothing. I don't know why the energy level in the building was so flat but here are my best guesses:
1. Boston is and always will be a Red Sox town. Walking the streets all weekend, you would've thought it was October. Red Sox gear everywhere. Just because the Celtics are a legendary franchise, it doesn't change the fact that Boston's first love is baseball. The same could be said for the Browns in Cleveland. We may love the Cavs and adore Lebron but the Q will never match the type of atmosphere that could exist in Browns stadium if the franchise ever stopped trying to murder professional football in Cleveland.
2. This Celtics team....doesn't look like the old one. I know I'm going to get a lot of flack for saying this but there is something very different from Bird, Cousy, Cowens, Havlicek, Heinsohn, McHale and Walton when compared to KG, Allen, and Pierce. I'm sorry but Boston isn't exactly known for embracing cultural diversity. I have absolutely no way of backing this up (and I know guys like Russell stand in direct opposition to the point) but I just get the impression that Boston would be a little happier to root for white superstars.
3. This team was not built organically. These Celtics fans went from hoping to land Oden or Durant and praying that Doc Rivers would get fired one day to being a title favorite the next. I've used the analogy before but it's like a mother waking up one day and being handed her baby without ever being pregnant. Unlike Cleveland's relationships with the Cavs, Boston fans never went through the growing pains with their team. I know we've gone through a lot of roster turnover but essentially, we've watched our "core" guys go from lottery team to perennial contender over about a five year period. Boston fans probably know that Kevin McHale and Sam Presti have more to do with their team's success than shrewd management or player development. You can just tell that these fans don't quite connect with their team in the way that you would expect. There are only two players that really seem to have a special connection to the fans: Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo. This makes total sense. Peirce is a career Celtic and Rondo is Boston's guy. As I've said, you develop a special connection to a player when he makes his breakthrough with your team. Do Boston fans love Garnett? Of course. Still, it's just different. The connection isn't the same. (Side note: Does anyone else think it's a little ridiculous that everyone is blowing Garnett for being "so intense" that he can't even sit on the bench while he's injured? I mean if J.R. Giddens pulled the same thing, would the Boston media slobber all over him like they've done with KG?)
Completely contrived: The opening video during player introductions was WAY too long and reaked of the idea that this was a franchise that had a lot of tradition but didn't know how to incorporate it into the present. It featured tons of old game footage, former player interviews, and speeches by Red that all had the cumulative effect of lulling the fans to sleep rather than pumping anyone up. The video culminated with the obligatory "Kevin Garnett is intense!" shot of KG growling into the camera. Objectively speaking, it just didn't do it for me and surprisingly, I got the impression that even the Celtics fans were a little bit over it.
The in-game entertainment was horribly cliche'. Lots of clips from Hoosiers and 300. Lots of "fan cam" timeouts. Overall, there was not an ounce of originality on display the entire evening, which, in all fairness, could really be said for any NBA arena including the Q. Every place is doing the same tired annoying stuff during every break in the action.
Kendrick Perkins is huge. Mikki Moore is massive and looks a little like Busta Rhymes. Big Baby Davis is extremely short and wide and has the potential to sport some Antoine-Walker-like neck fat later in his career. Rajon Rondo looks like a Somali Warlord. Paul Pierce looks like a catfish.
1. If you attend a road game, you can see why the people that know say that the role players are the reason that it's so hard to win on the road in the NBA. Sure Lebron stunk up the joint but the more alarming trend was how tenative some of our role players were. Everyone just looked terrified that they might make a mistake. Sure guys like Gibson, Hickson, and Pavlovic can give you a handful of passable minutes when they're feeding off the energy of the home crowd but on the road, they're complete liabilities. About the only one who looked comfortable is Varejao who, no matter what the venue, always plays with energy and reckless abandon. I walked away feeling even more convinced that the Cavs need homecourt all the way through to win a title. Sure they have a chance to win a series against a team of equal or greater talent without the home court...if Lebron pulls another game 5 at the Palace. But, there's no way he's doing that in two consecutive series and without it, the Cavs don't have the bodies to win two consecutive series against good teams without having both of them begin and end at home.
2. I couldn't believe how badly Mike Brown messed up the game. The Cavs got outplayed in the 3rd and as I recall, began the 4th down 9. Now, on the road against a good team and down 9, you know that if you don't start closing the gap and take the momentum early in the quater, the game is going to get out of reach. So, what does Mike Brown do? Put Lebron on the bench and start the quarter with Gibson on the floor and Szczerbiak guarding Pierce. Shockingly, Boston blew the game wide open. I just couldn't believe that Brown was essentially conceding a game that wasn't even a double-digit deficit with a full quarter to play. I really like Mike Brown but that decision was indefensible.
3. If Garnett isn't in there, the Cavs should be running the offense through Z. Again, we figured this out about 40 minutes too late. Nobody on the Celtics outside of KG has the combination of size, instincts, and footwork to guard Z down low.
4. Having Marbury on the Celtics is like having a double-agent working for our team behind enemy lines. I have absolutely no fear for his game and I'm thrilled about the possible destruction he could cause in Boston. After a week, Celtic fans are already a little uneasy every time he steps on to the floor. A part of them is rooting for the great reclamation story but deep down, they're all a little disgusted with the fact that they have to root for such a despicable guy. Overall, in light of the cries of "don't shoot" I was hearing from the faithful every time he touched the ball, I get the impression that things between Marbury and Boston fans are going to end badly...and if he tries to do anything other than bring the ball up the court come playoff time, the fans, and more likely, Garnett, might kill him.
5. Our frontcourt is soft but you didn't need me to tell you that.
Overall, it was a strange night. The experience was a little bit of a letdown...the team's performance was terrible...and yet I came away oddly satisfied. Maybe it's just because I realized that as NBA fans, we're not missing anything. Attending a game at the Q is just as good, and I would even argue better, than attending a game in Boston.
One final note: It's a special feeling walking into an opposing arena knowing that Lebron is on your team. It's like showing up to a gunfight with a machine gun and knowing that everyone else is carrying a civil war pistol. The sheer terror harbored by opposing fans toward Lebron is palpable. Sure Lebron had a horrific night, but you know what: Boston fans are still terrified of him. And as you and I know, they have every reason to feel that way. We may have lost the battle on this night but I still believe in our chances to win the war.