Can a non-NBA fan be converted?
I am not a basketball fan. Haven't followed the NBA since I collected sports cards more than 15 years ago. I'm one of the nameless rabble of junkies who ignore the college basketball season until it becomes relevant for gambling purposes in March. That's about it. I watch ESPNEWS, I catch scores, I know some of the players ... but I just don't care anymore. That's probably a good thing. The stack of Corliss Williamson-related memorabilia I found back home denotes I didn't exactly have an eye for the best the game has to offer.
But basketball was the cool sport at Mechanicsburg Area Intermediate School, and out of a herd mentality, I sort of followed it, sheeplike, back then. Eighth grade was probably the peak of my interest; I gave up on the sport soon after for two major reasons:
(A) I suck at basketball. SUUUUUUCK. Always have. I was a relatively athletic kid, but whenever I played basketball, I looked like I was struggling through an incredibly unfortunate case of rickets. No grace. No competence. No semblance of even infantile coordination. And yet, I kept telling myself I just needed practice. Proof of my idiocy in the results of my tryouts for the school team:
Sixth Grade: Cut. Tell myself it was a simple oversight, because the coach also cut Steve Martin, who generally was regarded as the best player in our grade.
Seventh Grade: Cut. Gross. Perhaps that coach knew something after all. Had better test it out again.
Eighth Grade: Cut. I'm sensing a trend, so I get wise.
Ninth Grade: Don't try out. I've learned my lesson.
Tenth Grade: No I haven't. I'm at a new school, so I decide this somehow translates into my having accrued skills and/or talent. It doesn't. As he cuts me, Coach White -- basically trying to hold back sad laughter -- asks, in as serious a tone as he can muster, "Can you swim?"
That was pretty much the end of my personal dalliance with anything basketball.
And then ...
(B) I hated Michael Jordan. Despised him. Never bought into his mystique. That sad, angry, insecure, how-the-hell-could-this-guy-possibly-be-so-bitter Michael Jordan everyone saw at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony? The real Michael. Everyone else saw him smiling and figured he was having a ball out there. I saw him smiling and knew it was the look of a guy who would drop 60 points on the worst team in the league and then burn down its arena just to prove a point if he could get away with it. When you dislike the best player in a sport to such a degree, it gets annoying listening to all the people who adore him ... which was pretty much everyone back then. So I simply stopped watching, stopped listening.
OK, so why am I here? Your guess is as good as mine. Blame ESPN for not having the collective gall to annul its fledgling relationship with me after the piece on my desperately pathetic codependency with the Browns. I digress.
I live in Los Angeles, a city with not just one, but two NBA franchises. Actually, that's not true. There's one franchise and one flailing, suicidal quasi-structure that moonlights as something possibly thinking about getting close to maybe being a franchise in an academic sense only. So I was sent on a quest: Go to a Clippers game, go to a Lakers game, and compare and contrast the two. To what end? To find out whether there's anything enjoyable about an NBA game for an outsider. To find out whether there's anything to drag a general sports fan into the NBA's fold. To judge just what makes the NBA tick in L.A. To gauge where these two seemingly diametrically opposed teams stand in the same city. The Godlike Lakers versus The Unequivocally Ungodlike Clippers. The odds seem stacked ... but you'd be surprised.
I decided to judge each game experience on six criteria: Preconceived Notions, Pregame Atmosphere, In-Game Atmosphere, In-Game Entertainment, Fan Appreciation and Miscellany. The game itself? Yeah, I didn't really care.
Here we go:
Nov. 11, Staples Center: L.A. Clippers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
Participants: Me and my buddy Chris Campbell, avid non-NBA fan.
Preconceived Notions: I went to one Clippers game two seasons ago with my then-live-in-girlfriend. Less than six weeks after the game, we broke up and she moved out. It seemed like Donald Sterling and all his tyranny had created a dark place that sucked the life out of my relationship, stomped on it and effectively rendered it less viable than the surface of Jupiter. A Clippers game is, naturally, where love goes to die.
But upon further consideration, if the above IS the case -- and any Clippers fan will tell you that Sterling is indeed a demon, so it seems likely -- the Clippers helped me dodge a serious bullet. That woman ended up being an epic disaster, and I was lucky to be rid of her. That I got out of trouble sooner rather than later was a pure blessing. So perhaps the curse laid upon me at that game was not a curse at all, but in fact a rebirth.
Color me in favor of Sterling and his evil empire.
Pregame Atmosphere: In short, there ain't any. Walking in, the Staples Center had all the buzzing effervescence of an abattoir. A lackluster video presentation on the scoreboard for the team intros had cartoonish cannons blasting basketballs into the ether; this roused exactly no one.
Our seats -- within the first 20 rows of the court -- were $75 apiece. We sat next to a lovely group of ladies on our left, Megan, Elena and Corrine. They were there to see James Harden of the Thunder, whom they all taught at nearby Artesia High. To our right were Sam and Erin; they were there to see Kevin Durant. So if you're scoring at home, that's seven people in our row and not one Clippers fan. Golden.
In-Game Atmosphere: While one might call this crowd "colorful" or "eclectic," one certainly will not call it "excited" or even "modestly alive." There were pockets of real enthusiasm, but few. One of the red-jacketed security personnel was actually falling asleep at his post. The most electrified the crowd got was when the Spirit Dance Team threw T-shirts into the stands, which I thought was hilarious. People begging for T-shirts of a team they can't be bothered to stand up and cheer for. Genius.
You know it's a bad sign when (1) it takes you less than five minutes to get a beer at any time and (2) I swear to God on my life, the bathrooms were mostly empty at halftime. I swear to you. Mostly empty. Never before have I seen such.
In general ... it just seemed like most people were there as an afterthought.
In-Game Entertainment: The Matsiko Children's Choir -- a group of gorgeous African kids -- killed the national anthem. The halftime show included the Bucket Boys, a group of absurdly talented bucket drummers; everyone in our section agreed they were the apex of the talent we'd see on the court that night. There were the usual uninspired show people in the crowd on the scoreboard bits, and everyone reacted typically. I saw one dude I know during one of these montages, which I feel can happen only at a Clippers game. He did not look thrilled to be caught there.
Inexcusable Oversight No. 1: They played NO SONGS THAT THE CROWD COULD SING ALONG TO. No "Shout." No "Livin' On A Prayer." Not even a franchise-obligatory "Don't Stop Believin'." Come ON, man.
As a saving grace, the Clippers' Spirit Dance Team is loaded with hot dancers. I have a thing for dancers -- some might call it a problem, but I'll let the courts decide that. Even if there were nothing else, you made the entire experience worth it. Know that you are loved. Still ...
Inexcusable Oversight No. 2: Male cheerleaders. The Clippers have male cheerleaders. Unacceptable on so many levels. First of all, are you kidding me? Second of all, you have got to be kidding me. Fail. Fail.
Fan Appreciation: All in all ... support is weak. About one in 20 or 30 people was wearing Clippers paraphernalia. Just one woman in our section was wearing a Clippers jersey, and that was of Cuttino Mobley. There were cheers during Clippers scores, but just as many during Thunder scores. Fandom seems latent.
Still, the real fans who were there were great. I chatted with Rick, loudly cheering Clippers superfan, in the section next to ours. He told me that he'd been coming for eight years to pretty much every game and that he fell in with the Clippers because he loves an underdog. Why keep coming back? "Hope," he said. "They give me something to hope for." How can you argue with that?
I also got a chance to talk with Clipper Darrell, unofficial team mascot. In his half-red, half-blue suit, he was not hard to find. I asked him for a few words, and he was happy to talk to me. He's been a Clippers fan for nine years, and this was his 356th consecutive home game. Nine years ago, Darrell was fired from a job, told that he was useless, that he would never amount to anything and that he should just give up. Despondent and frustrated, Darrell went home that night and turned on the TV. He landed on a Clippers game and heard the commentators talking about how the Clippers were hopeless, lifeless and would never amount to anything. "Right then and there, I decided they were my team," he said proudly. He's been showing up ever since. I'll tell you this: The Clippers might not be the most relevant franchise, but if they've got a couple of people like Darrell walking around, they've got a future.
Miscellany: Marcus Camby: still alive. ... There's some Swiss guy on the Thunder who has a name so unpronounceable that it broke the spell-check in my Moleskine. ... Our celebrity sightings were limited to (possibly) comedian Lenny Clarke, my future wife and "So You Think You Can Dance" winner Jeanine Mason, and porn star/"Celebrity Rehab"er/former gubernatorial candidate Mary Carey. ... Mike Dunleavy looks a lot like Principal DiPerna from "The Wonder Years." ... I could never be a journalist -- the first time I looked at the score of the game, it was already 12-8 Clippers. ... Someone needs to feed Kevin Durant a cheeseburger. ... By the second quarter, Mary Carey was gulping a beer -- suck on that, Dr. Drew! ... The Clippers have four assistant coaches, none of whom could outcoach the inevitable: The game went to the Thunder 83-79.
Nov. 17, Staples Center: L.A. Lakers vs. Detroit Pistons
Participants: Me and friend/G4's "Attack of the Show" personality Alison Haislip
Preconceived Notions: I should hate the Lakers because I was a Celtics fan growing up. In reality, though, I couldn't care less about the Celtics now and I don't remember any of their games in the '80s, so that's a wash. I actually hate the Lakers because I'm fed up with L.A. fans in general. There's a weird need to overcompensate for everything here, and sports are no exception. People puff up the Lakers to insane heights, which is understandable this season because they're the defending champs. But in the years when they're not the best team, the fans go really far out of the way to convince you that they are. It's worst with USC football -- even when the Trojans aren't nearly as good as their fans want to believe (which is almost every season), they'll try to sway you otherwise by pointing out how tough the Pac-10 is that given year, which is always hilariously pathetic.
Whatever. I don't care.
Pregame Atmosphere: Pretty electric. People milling around everywhere outside, excited. Long lines to get in; there were none for the Clippers. People are high-fiving. This is what an NBA game, I'd assume, should be like.
Best moment of the night: On our way to our seats, we walked by a twentysomething guy accosting Jalen Rose, blubbering that he's always wanted to thank him for, "Keeping it real for all the kids of Detroit." I have no clue what that means. For his part, Rose seemed to be a nice guy and thanked the fan graciously as he excitedly prattled on, and that's always a swell thing to see. Good for that guy and good for Rose.
Our seats were as close to the court as they were for the Clippers game but in the opposite corner of the arena. We paid $155 per ticket -- $80 more than the same ticket for the Clippers. Yoy. Didn't get a chance to talk to the family next to us because they seemed constantly occupied with both the game and their small child. Didn't get a chance to talk to the guy on the other side of me because he was intensely creepy and I value the hell out of my life.
In-Game Atmosphere: As you might obviously guess, a world of difference. During team intros, the crowd was on its feet, cheering. During the game, the crowd was cheering. The lesson: a winning team = passion. If you dig basketball and want to go to a real game, I can't imagine it gets much better than this. And the enthusiasm stayed heightened all the way through the game. Shockingly, unlike at other sporting events in L.A., fans were in their seats at tipoff and no one was leaving at the end of the third quarter.
In-Game Entertainment: The Lakers got a lot of things right that the Clippers got wrong. The team intros were not only full of vim and vigor, but were actually sponsored by the upcoming "Ninja Assassin" (you're welcome for the free plug, Warner Bros.). Sing-alongs were peppered throughout the game, including "Daydream Believer" and "Shout." At one point, the scoreboard cam featured a family decked out in lettered shirts spelling "E-B-O-K." They cheered, then quickly realized they were disorganized and morphed back into "K-O-B-E." Killer.
Major disappointment of the evening: the Laker Girls. It's not that they're not hot -- they are. It's not that they can't dance -- they can. But the Clippers' Spirit Dance Team, frankly, was better. And appallingly, the Laker Girls put on more and more clothing as the game wore on. By the fourth quarter, they were wearing pants! That's not how this works!
Also, I'd be lying if I didn't tell you this: It was pretty thrilling watching Kobe play. He's ridiculous. He made a circus shot that I'm guessing was all over "SportsCenter" on Wednesday morning. I'm not amazed often. Kobe amazes me as an athlete.
Fan Appreciation: Lakers fans are very, very good fans. About one in five people was wearing Lakers gear. They stand and yell. They stomp their feet. They involve their kids -- even the little ones. I have respect. So if you're one of those people, what I'm about to say doesn't apply to you.
I hated most of the people I encountered at this game, and that's for one reason and one reason only: This is L.A., and the poseurs content of any remotely acclaimed public event is high. Wannabe high rollers in sportcoats. Chicks in high heels. Ed Hardy shirts. Little dogs in purses. I loathe the existence of these people -- those who go to a game not for the game, but to be seen. The Lakers' season is like a 41-game convention for the abhorrent. And sadly ... they're the huge chunk of the attendees.
There was someone sitting in the front row near someone else who might or might not have been Kevin Connolly who got up and walked out at one point; Alison brought him to my attention. Dude was wearing a wool hat, a leather jacket and a scarf. A scarf. A scarf at an indoor sporting event in Los Angeles. Oh my God.
I knew Lakers games attracted the attention seekers like crazy-lame moths to a candle, but I didn't realize how completely they inundated the place.
Miscellany: Rudy Tomjanovich sat almost directly behind me; the one time I walked past him, I noticed he'd collected a pile of peanut shells around his feet that resembled the aftermath of the Tet Offensive. ... Still suck as a journalist -- first glance at the scoreboard, it was 10-6 Lakers. ... Kobe got booed a little during the intros, but I chalk that up to the decent number of Pistons fans in attendance. ... My Stella Artois was skunked, rendering me incapable of drinking for the rest of the game. Nothing could be sadder. ... The hooker who showed up at the Southern dinner party in "Borat" was there. ... Kwame Brown was loudly booed as he entered the game; I found it funny that the Lakers' fans cared enough to make the effort. ... Kobe dominated, and the Lakers won 106-93.
Conclusions: I mean, it's obvious, right? If you're a sports fan looking for the best game experience or a basketball fan of any kind, you're silly to not go to a Lakers game. A great team in a great venue can't be argued against.
But I don't like basketball, and that's the focus of the whole arena when the Lakers are playing ... so I was bored.
I'm with Rick and Darrell. I'll take the sleeping security guards. I'll take the relapsing porn stars. I'll take the hot dancers and the open bathrooms and the accidental comedy the Clippers have to offer. I'll pay the $75 to get drunk with a friend and cheer for the guy on the opposing team from a local high school and yell at the top of my lungs for a T-shirt I don't really want. In other words, I'll go back. And maybe one day, I'll actually pay attention to the game, get drawn in again. In fact, I'd go so far as to say I probably will.
I guess, in the end, it's hard for me to resist the underdog.
Geoff LaTulippe is a Libertarian, Phil Collins lover, Libra and writer of the upcoming Drew Barrymore film "Going the Distance." He is reachable on Twitter at @geofflatulippe