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Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Tips for the live NBA experience

By Kevin Arnovitz

Most hard-core travelers I know have at least one personal ritual they abide by, no matter where they are in the world. I like to be on the street between 8 and 9 in the morning because the best way to experience the kinetic energy of a place is to soak up the morning rush.

This morning, Kottke pointed readers to a smart list of travel tips from a blog called My Little Nomads. I liked this one:
Buy your own fruit. It sounds simple. It is simple. Just do it. You’ll love it. And I don’t mean, if there happens to be a fruit stand outside your hotel door you should buy some, because you need to have 9 servings a day. What I mean is, find fruit and buy it. Make it a daily task that you’re going to track down a fruit stand, a farmers’ market (they’re not just in San Francisco) and get some good fresh fruit. The entire process will expose you to elements of daily life you would have otherwise ignored. Trust me: You’ll have memories from your trips to buy fresh fruit.

When I was a kid, I liked to watch the middle of the second quarter of every Hawks game I attended from the very top row of the Omni. When Dominique Wilkins took a seat, I'd dash upstairs. When you're 11 years old, vertigo from the top of a 16,000-seat arena is intoxicating -- the place looks like an ant farm from above -- but looking back, the memories I have of getting up there are far more vivid.

Roaming an NBA arena unsupervised spoke to every sense.  The Omni smelt like pizza and burned popcorn. The ushers wore bright red sateen jackets, some of them even smoked and most of them knew my face. The structure was made of weathering steel, so the acoustics were trippy -- a tinny refraction of horns, music and basketball. The final ascent the top row meant a trek over a steep swath of orange, gold and purple vinyl seats.

Last night, a friend asked me what I was looking forward to most now that the NBA was returning and, for some reason, I immediately plucked this from my catalog of memories. The Omni was demolished years ago and I don't spend much time buzzing around the upper concourses of arenas, but the live experience of going to an NBA game is the thing I enjoy most.

The league is back, and if you live in an NBA city, you'll have 33 chances to attend a live game. In most places, it's still an event -- the buzz outside the gate, the pageantry, the way the colors pop on the court.

Here are some tips for enhancing your game-night experience:

Get to the game early
If your schedule allows for some flexibility, plan on arriving 90 minutes before tip-off because there are few things more glorious than watching an arena come to life. It's like your own, personal time lapse video as the lower bowl fills up little by little. You'll get a glimpse of how a game production unfolds and, most of all, you can witness pregame rituals. Watch the biomechanical miracle of a 7-foot center being stretched out by a professional trainer. See shooters like Ray Allen or Steve Novak drain 19 consecutive 3-pointers -- and figure out how they do it. Beckley Mason of HoopSpeak likes to watch Steve Nash's pregame routine -- a barrage of elbow jumpers in quick succession. Get a glimpse of which guys yuk it up with opponents at center court and which guys look like they're about to mobilize for a major ground offensive.

Sit in a seat other than your own for 10 minutes
NBA arenas have gotten fussy about your moving around, but if you can finagle it, find a different vantage point from your assigned seat. If you're down low, head upstairs and study the choreography of the NBA from above. If your seat is out of earshot from the court, try to sneak your way to closer proximity and listen to the sound of the game -- the directives from the sidelines, trash-talk, the lobbying of officials. If you're at a Wizards game, just listen to Sam Cassell.

Take people who took you when you were a kid
This suggestion comes from my friend, Jeff, a Portland native and Trail Blazers fan. Invite your dad, mom or grandfather -- whoever used to haul you to a game. Maybe it was your father's friend when your parents worked late, or maybe it was your uncle who'd lecture you on the way home from the game about the virtues of three-to-make-two or the evil genius of Red Auerbach. Whoever it is, buying a ticket to a game for another person without the expectation of repayment is one of the cooler rites of passage as a grown-up.

Smuggle in healthy food
I've never met anyone over the age of 15 who has ever been satisfied with a meal purchased at the concession stands of an NBA arena. Even the stuff that's tasty requires a second mortgage and an angioplasty. Security at the gate has gotten stiff over the past decade, but a crafty smuggler can find enough room in the pocket of a winter coat for a couple of tangerines. If you're really creative, you can press your luck. Between 2001 and 2005, an estimated 150 onigiri rice balls from a local Japanese market were smuggled into NBA arenas -- all of them by a single individual in Los Angeles.

Take rail or a bus
Sports is still a communal civic outing in many cities, but in a lot of places it's becoming less so. Hopping the subway in New York, BART in the bay, the T in Boston or light rail in Salt Lake will remind you that cities and the commonalities of the people who live in them matter. In an era when modern convenience has provided us with a lot more solitude, it's fun to reacquaint yourself with that idea, even if it adds a few minutes to your trip.

Parlor games
Before you leave the house, declare it -- best throwback jersey in the crowd, least tolerable song most likely to be played during a timeout, over-unders on number of blocked shots by players under 6-foot-5 and player on the floor most likely to win a gauntlet match. These diversions come in particularly handy if you're staring at a 24-point game midway through the third quarter.

Leave your phone behind
This isn't always a practical option, but if there's nothing in your life that's calling out for immediate attention, we dare you to attend a game phone-free. You won't have easy access to stats and you won't be able to confirm who got dealt for Joe Smith, but attending a game without the constant itch to check your inboxes is a liberating, unfiltered experience. It will bring you back to a time when going to an NBA game was an activity that completely captivated you -- almost like travel.