Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Recently there's been an increasing amount of discussion surrounding the level of spectacle employed during NBA games. This may have stemmed from the fiasco that occurred during the first Hornets-Spurs game, although the incident isn't being brought up that often, so it doesn't seem to be the crux of the issue. The debate was initiated by Commissioner David Stern, who had this to say about the matter:
"I think they're ridiculous. I think that the noise, the fire, the smoke is a kind of assault that we should seriously consider reviewing whether it's really necessary given the quality of our game. It may be that these are the maniacal rantings of a fan from a different era, and I recognize that. But I'm sitting there, waiting for the next cannon to go off and then the fire heats up the arena, so the temperature in the arena raises by 15 degrees. That's if you can see it, because you're still waiting for the smoke, which is chemical, to clear, which invariably isn't done until the end of the half. But I always bite my tongue because I say, ‘I'm not the demographic that likes to be assaulted by loud rap, smoke, pyrotechnics and chemicals. I'm outdated.' But I think it's time for us to say, ‘Hey guys, let's look at it one more time.' And then we can talk about entertainment as well, but that's a subject for another day." (National Post, 3/12/08)
Stern's comments were quickly followed by similar remarks from Gregg Popovich, who chose to focus more on the safety issues involved:
"When you get that powder and all that stuff on you, people, I think, that have lung problems are really endangering themselves," Popovich said Tuesday night, shortly before tip-off of Game 5 of the Spurs' second-round series against the New Orleans Hornets. "They can't ingest that stuff, you know. It is dangerous. But in general, every time I'm at a place where they do pyrotechnics, I just tell myself, there's going to be an accident. It's like the stop sign that doesn't get put up until a kid gets killed." (Sporting News, 5/14/08)
They approach the topic from different angles, but it seems to me that their reasons for being opposed to pyrotechnics et al. compliment one another. A while ago, Hardwood Paroxysm actually chose to broach this topic by giving several suggestions for how to improve the NBA Live experience.

I agree with the general consensus amongst the people I've referenced so far, but the reasons I feel strongly about it are probably more closely aligned with Hardwood Paroxysm than with Stern and Popovich (not to say that Stern and Pop don't make good points). NBA arenas are far too saturated with needless distractions, and it undermines the beauty of the game while also being condescending to fans.

The most recent NBA game I attended was a Spurs-Bulls game at the United Center during the latter half of this season. I had just moved to Chicago and had never been to a Bulls game before, although to act like I really need a reason to go to an NBA game is a little disingenuous. What was so unique about my experience was I took my good friend Dan, who was born and raised in Argentina, and had never been to an NBA game. The peripheral entertainment hardly phased me, I had seem it all a million times. In fact, Dan was shocked and amused when I correctly predicted that during an upcoming TV timeout that the screen on the scoreboard would feature a donut, a cup of coffee, and a bagel racing one another for no apparent reason.

Although Dan found my prescience amusing, for the most part he found everything else aside from the game distasteful. Like many Argentinians, Dan is a fan of basketball, and thoroughly enjoyed seeing the game played at its highest level (I'm gonna refrain from making any jokes about the quality of the Bulls). But he found the music, the dancing, the pyrotechnics, and all the other distractions thoroughly, well... distracting. If anything, he felt disrespected by the whole affair, as if it suggested that he didn't have the patience or focus to sit through a 20 second time out without seeing a bull dunk after being shot out of a cannon.

It all added little to the experience while undermining his ability to converse about the game as it went on. Basketball, as anyone who reads this blog will probably agree, is not merely an exciting but an intelligent game and it merits reflection. Obviously live-blogging wouldn't be so popular if NBA fans didn't yearn for some type of public sphere in which to engage in debate while the games are occurring. Arenas could, shockingly enough, serve a similar purpose if fans were not constantly overstimulated.

In A.J. Liebling's book The Sweet Science he speaks eloquently about the demise of boxing clubs and how their increasing rarity not merely signaled the demise of a great sport but of a unique democratic space. Obviously I'm not saying that if you got rid of the pyrotechnics at the Quicken Loans arena it would begin to resemble a New England town hall meeting. Liebling wouldn't say that either. But he was acutely aware of how valuable open and dynamic public space is, and how fiercely it must be guarded.

I understand that a significant portion of the game is about entertainment, and that creating an environment that is inviting not just to the hardcore fan but to both children and the more casual fan is important. But when I was a kid, I used the timeouts and breaks between quarters to ask my father about the game, rather than stare mindlessly at a mascot performing some parlor trick. It wouldn't hurt if we used that time to encourage thoughtfulness about and appreciation for basketball instead of merely allowing the game to serve as a vehicle for a society addicted to spectacle.

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