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Saturday, October 11, 2008
Updated: October 12, 6:14 PM ET
NBA takes game outdoors, and thrills turn to chills

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

Suns vs Nuggets
In the cool night desert air, the Suns and Nuggets played an exhibition in Indian Wells, Calif.

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- Turns out that you don't necessarily need double rims, chain nets and a cement court for outdoor roundball authenticity.

The shivering Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets couldn't have been more aware Saturday night that the best basketball league in the world had taken the game outside for the first time in more than 35 years.

For all the familiar and extravagant NBA comforts you could have picked out at the roofless Indian Wells Tennis Garden -- a new hardwood floor, state-of-the-art clock technology and all-leather courtside seats flown in from Phoenix -- there was only one topic of postgame conversation from a historic, thoroughly unclassic 77-72 preseason win for the Nuggets.

The moonlit sky?

Try the c-o-l-d.

"Good idea," Denver's Kenyon Martin said as he passed a media pack on his way to the comparative warmth of the visitors' locker room, draped in towels because NBA teams don't travel with blankets.

Outdoor Types

On Saturday, the Suns and Nuggets squared off in the first outdoor NBA exhibition game since 1972 and the first ever in the United States. The game took place at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, Calif.

Here's a look at other notable occasions when America's two primary indoor sports -- basketball and hockey -- decided to take it outside.

NBA
Sept. 24, 1972: Phoenix Suns 116, Milwaukee Bucks 103 (exhibition)
The Suns played in the NBA's sole outdoor preseason venture before 2008 and defeated a Bucks team led by Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on a baseball field in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

WNBA
July 19, 2008: Indiana Fever 71, New York Liberty 55
This was the only regular-season outdoor professional basketball game to date -- men's or women's. More than 19,000 fans attended the game at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York. Although the game was played at night, the temperature at tip-off was 87 degrees.

Women's College Basketball
Dec. 18, 2006: Arizona State 61, Texas Tech 45
The game was called on account of rain with 4:18 remaining in the second half. It was a mere 56 degrees at Chase Field in Phoenix at tip-off, and players were allowed to wear long-sleeved shirts under their uniforms. A crowd of 7,791 scattered throughout the 49,000-seat stadium.

Dec. 27, 2000: Tennessee 67, Arizona State 63
In the first outdoor game in women's college basketball history, Tennessee topped Arizona State. A crowd of 16,282 attended the game at Chase Field (then Bank One Ballpark), setting a single-game Pac-10 attendance record. Proceeds from the game went to breast cancer research.

NHL
Jan. 1, 2008: Penguins 2, Sabres 1 (shootout)
A record 71,217 fans packed Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo for the 2008 Winter Classic, the first outdoor NHL game to take place in the United States. Sidney Crosby scored the game-winning shootout goal.

Nov. 22, 2003: Canadiens 4, Oilers 3
The 2003 Heritage Classic was held in Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium, home to the Eskimos of the CFL. Temperatures registered around minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit. The game was attended by 57,167 fans, then an NHL record.

Sept. 27, 1991: Kings 5, Rangers 2 (exhibition)
The teams played in an outdoor arena behind Caesars Palace in Las Vegas before 13,007 people. The rain stopped before the game, but many insects, including grasshoppers, flew on and around the ice.

College Hockey
Feb. 11, 2006: Wisconsin 4, Ohio State 2
Wisconsin took on Ohio State at Lambeau Field in the Frozen Tundra Classic in front of 40,890 fans.

Oct. 6, 2001: Michigan 3, Michigan State 3
These two rivals took part in the Cold War game at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich. More than 74,000 people packed the stadium, setting the world record for the largest crowd ever to see a hockey game.

-- ESPN Research

"Wrong time of day."

Said Suns guard Steve Nash: "I don't think anyone expected it to be this cold here. It felt like Edmonton, Alberta … not Palm Springs."

Added Suns center Shaquille O'Neal: "It was colder than a mother------ out there. And you can quote me on that."

There weren't too many snide remarks about what the wind did to Shaq's free throws. He missed four of his five combined field goals and free throws, but was hardly alone.

The teams combined to clank 24 of 27 attempts from 3-point range. Both teams fell well short of the 40 percent plateau from the field, numbers that both parties agreed were affected more by the weather than by preseason rustiness.

Mere days after temperatures in the 100s, Saturday's continuously crisp breeze dropped the temperature at tip-off to about 70 degrees. The temperature later dipped all the way down to 64 degrees -- accompanied by gusts of 15 mph -- by the fourth quarter. The league staged its outdoor experiment here because the California desert is one of the few places on the map where you can pretty much guarantee it won't rain, but the unseasonably strong gusts made it much colder than it sounds. Finding ways to stay warm on the bench became the evening's prime mission.

The Nuggets -- who were missing the injured Carmelo Anthony (finger) and Allen Iverson (knee) -- missed 20 of their 38 free throws and shot 36.3 percent as a team. Still, they controlled the second half. Phoenix played without Amare Stoudemire (eye) and Leandro Barbosa (family-related absence), and only one of its players scored more than 10 points (Nash had 16). The Suns registered a success rate of 31.6 percent from the field and generally coped so poorly with the conditions that new coach Terry Porter came away calling it a game "you can't evaluate."

So maybe it's not a coincidence that the NBA hadn't scheduled a game outdoors since 1972, when the Suns and Milwaukee Bucks played two fully sanctioned exhibitions in Puerto Rico. Even when think you've found a spot where you can be reasonably sure how the weather will behave -- it was feared that temperatures might be too hot with an earlier tip-off time -- you can be way wrong.

"That really wasn't the point of the game, to shoot a high percentage," Nash said. "The point was to come out here and see what it's like to go up and down outside and put NBA players in this situation."

Question is: Now what?

The word is that the game's local organizers -- whose $77 million jewel of a stadium goes unused for roughly 300 days a year without big league tennis or a major concert in town -- are pushing to make this an annual event. It appears that the Suns will indeed be back next October, at the very least, with sources here indicating that Phoenix and Golden State are tentatively scheduled to meet in another exhibition game next season.

Should they come back now?

Do we even dare bring up the possibility of an outdoor regular-season game someday?

"It's too early to say if we'd ever play a regular-season game outdoors," NBA president Joel Litvin said shortly before tip-off. "We'll see how our fans and players enjoy this game and then assess whether it makes sense to do it again, whether as another preseason game or perhaps as a regular-season game."

Not even Nash, with his Canadian hockey background and general open-mindedness, can imagine exposing a game that counts to the elements.

Well aware that Pittsburgh and Buffalo didn't seem to mind heavy snow in January when they hooked up for the NHL's Winter Classic, Nash said: "You're not shooting 25-foot jump shots 25 feet in the air in hockey. The puck is heavier, it's down near the ice. … Obviously, you could [play a regular-season NBA game] outside because the wind is the same for both teams, but it just adds an element that I think is too much of a varying degree."

Said Suns forward Grant Hill: "You never know. I never thought we'd have a preseason game outside. But we have a lot of guys worried about their stats, percentages and all that. The majority of us here are very conscious of that."

Yet Hill went on to describe this as the first exhibition game he's "ever circled on my calendar," which is why it was largely described as a welcome intrusion on the drudgery of the preseason. An undeniable buzz and curiosity came from those famously laid-back Southern Californians as a sellout crowd of 16,236 filed in.

Charles Barkley, who was working the game for TNT, called on the Suns to play this game at Chase Field where "regular people," as he described them, wouldn't have trouble getting tickets with some 50,000 seats to fill and where they'd be safe from unexpected rain thanks to the stadium's retractable roof. But once the broadcast started, Barkley amended his own suggestion and called on the league to move February's All-Star Game in Phoenix to Chase Field. The All-Star Game, as the Chuckster noted, is an exhibition game, after all.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, meanwhile, checked in via e-mail with the reminder that he's been pushing for outdoor basketball almost since he came into the league back in 2000.

"I've been trying to get permission to do a late-September charity tour for years," Cuban said. "I think it would be great PR and fun to take several teams and play a tour of outdoor football arenas in non-NBA cities to build the popularity of the game. As successful as we've been in building the popularity of the game around the world, the same efforts across the country would benefit the NBA as much, if not more. How much fun would it be to play in front of 50,000 to 100,000 people and build marketing momentum leading into the season? Hopefully the Phoenix game will be a first step."

Of course, by the chilly fourth quarter, Barkley was calling the game with a scarf wrapped around his neck.

"If it was a warm wind, it probably wouldn't have been so [difficult]," said Nuggets coach George Karl. He reported that his players had trouble with court traction and the mere function of sweating in the chill.

"But I'm glad we did it. It's an experience. We [just] might want to start the game at 5 o'clock maybe instead of 7."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.