Wednesday, January 27, 2010

I Have Failed as a Laker Fan

Last night, I broke my three-year drought of attending NBA games. During that span, I've watched hundreds of NBA games on TV, online or at a bar. And when I say hundreds...I mean that there simply were not thousands of games played for me to watch. Consquently, I'm a lightweight NBA junkie. A very, very, very poor man's Kelly Dwyer if you will. Which, in junkie terms, means that I've taken a couple of hits while Kelly has been high for 15 years straight. But I digress. I'm a junkie who watches, but who has been completely absent from NBA games.

Last night, the homie Dae and I boarded 14 different escalators before climbing the final peak of the Verizon Center to fill two seats in section 431 seconds before the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers tipped off versus the utterly mediocre Washington Wizards. Seconds after Andrew Bynum won the tip for the champs I realized something: the NBA game is really quick.

Yeah, you get that when you watch on TV. But it's different when it's live. Maybe it's different when it's live and you're more than a free throw lane away from the court. But it's definitely different. And it's definitely much, much quicker than a person may be prepared for. That is not the point of this post, though. I do, after all, need to explain its title. Which we will get to. Eventually.

The hapless Wizards played with great hap during the first 18 minutes of the game. They held a lead for the bulk of the first quarter and remained very competitive even after they had given it up. Late in the second quarter, ShanWOW got loose. Three times. One of which was a backdoor lob play I've seen the Lakers run a few dozen times. Apparently, they don't get that YouTube channel in our nation's capital because no one wearing a Wizards jersey saw the Top 10 Plays nominee coming. Apart from that oop, the Lakers offense still looked very kinky for much of the first half, but they did start spitpolishing their own offensive glass. And Wizards players began mistaking Lakers for their teammates. In seven shot clocks or less, all of the haps were sucked out of the franchise that Abe Pollin built. With a 16-point halftime lead, I started thinking of tacos. And I got pretty excited about that.

From my perch, I noticed a few things about the NBA game experience. Firstly, there is a whole lot more audience participation now than the Verizon Center played host to three years ago. Most of it is egregiously sponsored. And much of it seems to come at the expense of the poledancers who may otherwise be known as cheerleaders.

The cheerleaders...or dance team...or whatever the half-nekked hot chicks should be called are still part of the game experience. They're just not very pronounced anymore. Instead, during breaks in games there are tried and true gimmicks like the Kiss Cam and and the Chipotle burrito launch. There was also dancing performed by the Beat Ya Feet Kings, which is a group of young dudes from DC who kinda sorta spaz out while go-go music envelops the inside of the arena like it tends to do outside the arena on 7th Ave. The cheeleaders, meanwhile, pommed their poms in a quiet gray space tucked in to one corner of the arena. Or, on occasion, in one of the stairwells in the lower bowl.

There was also something called "This or That," sponsored by Sprite and scored by Black Sheep's clever licensing company. In last night's episode, Caron Butler recorded a series of answers to very simply framed questions aimed at identifying his personal preferences. Two brief phrases would smash wipe onto the screen of the jumbotron. ("Big East or ACC?") Cut to Caron standing between the two phrases and choosing one over the other. (It wasn't ACC.) Before one of Kobe's old workout buddies would answer, he would pause long enough to give the crowd time to shout out their own choices. After the Butler announced his preference to each question, some of the crowd would cheer as if he had just validated their taste for this or for that. Which he pretty much did. Although that was only the second most important public service he provided last night.

At halftime, a young woman from San Francisco balanced herself on a very, very tall unicycle. She also used her feet to toss small bowls on top of her head. It was a certain kind of ridiculous that is better seen than described.

A minute or two before the Wizards inbounded the ball to begin the second half, Kobe Bryant emerged from the locker room. He was the last Laker to do so. A couple of his teammates had preceded him by 10 minutes. The rest straggled back on to the court in groups of two or one with no deliberate speed. The Wizards, on the other hand, were all back on the court nearly as soon as the unicycling, bowl-tossing woman left it. They were uniformly covered in their head-to-toe warms and they half-sprinted through lay-up lines. Like a hungry high school team. Or a battered NBA franchise hoping to acquire the right to draft John Wall.

As Kobe waited for the second half to begin, he stood next to Pau Gasol. More correctly, Pau wandered over to stand near him. The two gestured with their arms about some scenario known only to them that would presumably enable the Lakers to pile more points on the Verizon Center scoreboard. Or to prevent the Wizards from doing so. After they reached agreement about this scenario, Pau swung his right arm upward and grabbed Kobe's head as a big brother might do to a little brother. It made me question all the analysis of Kobe's innate asshole-ishness. Maybe it's not the virtuoso's duty to lower himself to blend with the orchestra. Maybe it's the orchestra's job to aspire to meet the standard of the virtuoso. Maybe Kobe doesn't need to be a rally-the-troops kind of leader. Maybe the locker-room hydra of Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom and the Spaniard is the rightful condutor for Phil Jackson's brilliant compositions. Maybe Kobe only ever needed to be the master violinist (and occasional player of the entire string section). Maybe that's a cliched analogy doubling as a sad apology. Whatever the case, Pau pawing Kobe's scalp was my favorite moment of the game that didn't involve Shannon Brown.

When the third quarter finally began, the Lakers offense actually started creating points. Imagine that. They seemed to be spread mostly between Kobe and Pau. But that didn't matter much as the Lakers score mostly went up and the Wizards score mostly did not. With about four minutes remaining in the third--just before the Lakers decided to go back to sleep--I leaned over to Dae and asked, "Do you think any Laker fans would join me if I started a 'We Want Tacos!' chant?" One of the 75 true Wizards fan in the building laughed, shook his head and sighed all at the same time.

It seemed like a reasonable question, though. There were no empty seats I could see as I scanned the bleachers of the Verizon Center. Squatting in most of those seats were people wearing purple and gold. Or forum blue and gold, if you prefer. A lot of #24 jerseys. A few #8s. Some #16 jerseys. (But a whole bunch of Spanish flags.) A #17 jersey here. A couple of #32s over there. Even a Sasha Vujacic. While Kobe shot free throws during the first quarter, a chant of "M-V-P!" broke out. A smattering of boos countered it. According to my ear, it sounded like 70% the former and 30% the latter. (That means a lot more for Kobe than against.)

So...I started thinking of milestones. If the Lakers could hold the Wizards to 70 points after three, there was a strong possibility they would be in taco range late in the fourth. (If you've never witnessed a blowout Laker win in Staples Center, there's a long-standing promotion whereby if the Lakers can prevent their opponent from scoring 100 points, all fans in attendance can redeem their ticket stub for free tacos at Jack in the Crack...I mean Jack in the Box. That promise of being able to hold two cornshells dripping with grease has inspired a tradition whereby Laker fans chant "We Want Tacos!" whenever the defending champs are getting close to putting a Staples Center game in the refrigerator.) At the end of the third quarter last night, the Lakers led 87-72.

During the break between quarters, I noticed two things. The first was something I had observed earlier in the game. Several times. The second was something that could help make my taco dream come true.

The repeated thing I noticed was Phil Jackson wandering onto the court, clipboard in hand, sketching patiently while play was stopped and players caught their breath on the bench. I think they call that a timeout. Most times, Phil would huddle his team near the end of this stoppage to tell them something. Mostly, he sketched.

The other thing I noticed is that Dae and I were seated in the Espana section for there were dozens of people cloaked in the yellow and red of the Spanish flag. Many simply wore the flag itself like it was a double X hoodie. A small group of them--teenagers mostly--screeched a single word, "GASOL!!!!!!!"

I thought about pitching the teenagers on the idea of starting up a "We Want Tacos!" chant if the Wizards hadn't hit 100 by the 46-minute mark. After I heard Pau's acolytes speaking Spanish when they weren't making his surname echo off the rafters which hung just a couple of yardsticks above us, I thought it may take too long to explain my taco dream. I also thought that request would be one car in the xenophobia train that I probably shouldn't board.

Into the fourth quarter the game trudged. The Lakers had really run away from the Wizards in the second. They got a little bit more separation in the third, but gave most of that back before that quarter ended. The pace favored the champs throughout as it remained ironically fast. They played mostly to a draw in the fourth--with ShanWOW, Odom and Jordan Farmar catching grooves to compliment the Pau + Kobe show. The Laker lead was secure. With just under three minutes to play, the Wizards notched points 96 and 97.

Nearly a quarter of the people in 431 and the adjacent sections had departed into the chilly Washington night by that point in the game. Even some of the Laker fans had vacated early. I quickly discarded the notion that I could rally my purple and gold comrades for an amusing act of hubris. If there was going to be a "We Want Tacos!" chant in the Verizon Center, I would have to start it alone.

Possession of the ball changed a couple of times. The Wizards held on 97. Sixty-some seconds remained. The shot clock turned red. A Wizards possession looked as if it would end horribly. I finally summoned the courage to stand up and answer my own prayer.

Which is exactly when Caron Butler performed his second act of public service that night.

An errant pass from...I don't remember which of Caron's teammates...morphed into a loose ball floating toward half court. A Laker pursued it, but was a step behind the Butler. Caron coralled it and heaved the ball in the direction of the shot clock. Just as I rose from my seat, the dreaded 98th, 99th and, yes dear readers, 100th Wizards points of the game swished in. There would be no taco chant that night.

As soon as the ball oozed through the net, I regretted that I didn't begin screaming "We Want Tacos!" two possessions prior. That's really when the Lakers could have used it. And that would have allowed enough time for some other simple-minded Laker fan (or 300) to join me in slapping the home team in their 14-30 faces.

But I didn't do it. And I wouldn't get to do it. I didn't get to do the "We Want Tacos!" chant outside of Staples Center.

I failed as a Laker fan.


Mark said...

Better make sure you get your tickets early for next year. It would be a nice touch if you wore a giant taco costume. Who knows maybe you can become Taco Man. Enjoyed the read.

Red said...

Your brave little cousin would have started the chant. I'm not really a crazy Laker fan, free stuff isn't that great, and I hate tacos; but I would have jumped at the chance to be a loudmouth.

Uncle Monty said...

In failing to get a taco chant started, you've actually succeeded as a Laker fan.

donnie said...

1. I've seen that woman on the bike, and I think she's amazing!

2. After the Jordan era, I believe the NBA had to market the NBA as an attraction you could bring your family to (I think the NFL is still trying to do this with poor results). But stuff like the Kiss Cam, Burrito races (donuts in Chicago) and zany Carnivale' like half time attractions help keep the attention of those who aren't truly there for the game.

rashad said...

You forgot to mention the Chik-fil-A faux giveaway that hinged upon Kobe Bryant missing two free throws...

the_capital_t said...

@Mark: Ion'tknow about the taco costume. Thanks for the words.

@Red: Of course. You are my favorite loudmouth.

@Uncle Monty: I think the chant has actually evolved into what could be a really cool, semi-arrogant meme. Fitting for the average Laker fan.

@donnie: Haven't been to an NFL game in over a decade. I know the business needs the casual fans, but it's a shame that the game becomes so grossly secondary.

@rashad: I was middlefingering that one on some "eff your chicken sandwich" steez.