Welcome to another instalment of Project America: my ongoing quest to finally experience first-hand all the quintessentially American pastimes I grew up watching on TV in Australia
I almost can’t believe it has taken me this long to go see an NBA game here.
I started playing basketball when I was about eight years old. All my siblings played. I don’t recall any of us except my brother being exceptionally good at the game, but playing basketball, traipsing across the northern suburbs of Melbourne to YMCAs and high school gyms, is what our family did on a Saturday. We all played plenty of other sports — I was especially enthusiastic about joining every single sport available, despite being pretty average at all of them — but basketball is the only one in which I remember my dad taking an active interest, and I think it was the one thing he had in common with all of us, and that all of us had with each other, growing up. I also gave up basketball earlier than my siblings — as other sports consumed more and more of my spare time, it became to difficult to get to the games, and I stopped playing around 12. I recall giving up basketball was really difficult decision — not so much because I loved playing (although I do recall that I was just getting decent at it), but because it cut that thread I had with the rest of my family.
The same time I started playing basketball also coincided with the peak in popularity of the Australia’s National Basketball League. You’d never know it now, but there was a time when NBL games were played in big stadiums, with sellout crowds and players who were household names. I was a devoted Melbourne Tigers fan, and dad (and my friends’ dads) took us to games pretty regularly. Why it got so popular then and why it’s so unpopular now is something I can only speculate on. Its rise certainly coincided with the NBA, and players like Jordan, as global brands. Around the same time, Australian Luc Longley was playing for the Bulls. I have heard mismanagement and poor sponsorship choices are partially to blame in why the sport is so unpopular that games are now played at the freaking State Netball and Hockey Center. Perhaps it was because big name local players like Andrew Gaze, Shane Heal and Chris Anstey failed to make an impact in the NBA. Perhaps it was because the newer players started skipping the NBL altogether to play college ball in the states. I can’t say for sure, though.
Around that same time, I got really, really into the NBA. Sort of. I find it difficult to explain this to Americans, and it seems weird in retrospect, but it seemed so normal at the time. I was really, really into the NBA as a brand… even though I’d never seen a game.
Some credit should go to Target, which started selling NBA licensed products around the time I was starting to think more about the clothes I bought. Though I think much also belongs to my cousin, a big rap/hip hop fan who introduced me to the fashion stylings of that subculture. A tomboy already, I started wearing baggy Cross Colors jeans with basketball singlets and caps, and basketball became my primary sartorial influence. I chose the Charlotte Hornets as my team — Target mostly stocked Hornets and Bulls gear, and I think I thought the latter was too obvious. Alonzo Mourning was my favorite character — I always played him on NBA Hangtime on my N64 and had posters all over my wall. Again: I had never seen a game. This was well before the luxuries of cable TV (which existed but not in my household, nor anyone I knew) or YouTube (though weirdly, we did have the internet, but I can’t recall ever looking up basketball online).
What’s really weird is I’m not even sure I ever associated my interests with the NBA and the NBL. I loved the NBL for the games and the experience and the fun of hating South East Melbourne Magic and North Melbourne Giants, but I never wore a jersey (actually, once I did; I was one of the kids who played at halftime and it was so cool), and my interest in the players was about how many goals they made, not as icons. I had seen clips and photos of the NBA, of course, and perhaps even then I recognised that it was a very different game, very focussed on individual players and dramatic feats of athletic ability, while the NBL wasn’t really that different to the team-focussed, dunk-less basketball I was playing, except they were much better at it.
This is all a very long-winded way of saying that NBA basketball and I have a long history together, and yet for some reason I had still failed to see a game until very recently.
I’d like to tell some really great story about why I finally got my act together and bought tickets, but there isn’t one. I said to The Boy “Hey, we should really go see an NBA game” and he went and bought tickets… and then he realised he was going to be in Austin that week, and we couldn’t easily refund the tickets, and I couldn’t find anyone else who wanted to go with me, so I went alone.
This was all like a month or so ago. I’m just finally getting around to writing about it now.
The game was the New Jersey Nets (who, I just discovered, are now called the Brooklyn Nets, complete with a new logo straight off the Hipster Branding tumblr) versus the Portland Trailblazers.
After a rousing national anthem played by a trombone group, the game got off to a kind of slow start. A quarter in, I was a bit underwhelmed. I’ll admit, I was torn between which team to support. Obviously the Blazers were the obvious choice, but I’m ashamed to say I was swayed by the pretty-boy looks of one of the Nets players. Looking him up now, I’m slightly sickened to discover he’s married or divorced or something with Kim Kardashian. So that’s embarrassing. Anyway, at quarter time, I decided I wasn’t going to have any fun if I didn’t emotionally invest myself in some of the game, and it seemed logical for me to support the home team, so I did that.
I want to say that’s why the game got suddenly more engaging, but I’m not entirely sure.
The one thing I can say definitely is the NBA basketball is the most ADD event I have ever attended. From about quarter time onwards, we were bombarded with entertainment, music, commentary, giveaways, performances, contests… I would say we spent more time watching non-basketball things than the actual game. Every time out, we’d get cheerleaders, or a free-throw competition, or a blimp would drop gift certificates on our head, or perky teenagers would slingshot t-shirts into the crowd.
The worst thing I saw was a bunch of 10-year-old cheerleaders. I know it was supposed to be all innocent, but you bring out a bunch of adult women in hot pants shaking their arses in what is supposed to be at the very least titillating, then bring out a bunch of really young girls in hot pants to dance around the court, and tell me that isn’t a little bit creepy.
During the actual play itself, it felt equally choreographed. The jumbo screens instructed the audience in what to cheer and blasted us (like really blasted us; the little kid next to me had industrial ear covers, and before the game I laughed to myself, “Oh those overprotective American parents”. Half an hour later, I wanted to steal them off his little head) with jock jams. Those of us sitting behind the goals were given these blow-up batons to clang together whenever the other team was taking free-throws, which seemed incredibly mean-spirited.
By the end of the game, I felt completely exhausted from sensory overload, and at the same time, the experience felt very passive. You just kind of sat there and did what you were told and you would have fun — and I did have fun, but it was all very surreal.
The weirdest thing — by far the weirdest thing — is this thing that happens at every Blazer game (maybe every NBA game, I have no idea) where if the home team scores 100 points, everyone wins something called a “chalupa” from Taco Bell, which is a Tex Mex fast food chain here which looks repulsive. The internet tells me that a “chalupa” is a plate of tostadas, but at Taco Bell, it is some sort of deep fried taco. When the crowd got to 98 points, the crowd started chanting. “CHA-LU-PA! CHA-LU-PA!” Blaze the Trail Cat, the Blazers’ mascot, appeared on the jumbo screen in a poncho and sombrero, shaking maracas. It didn’t feel like it was in good fun. It felt like, “Hey, you better get this shot because we want to save $1 on fast food!” Like if the player missed the shot, they were robbing the crowd of their dinner. I though maybe I was just reading too much into it, but my workmates say they’ve seen players get booed for missing a “chalupa shot”. Fortunately, one of the Blazers got the 100-point shot and we all received a coupon for a free seasoned beef chalupa.
The game itself, what occurred amongst all this other stuff, was actually great. I’ve heard a lot about how bad the Blazers were this season, but it was certainly the best basketball I’d ever seen in person. The third quarter, when the team got a small lead, was especially good:
Did I enjoy myself? I… think I did. I would go again, but only once in a while. I think I would rather watch the games in a sports bar or at home. It still feels like a very different game to the one I enjoyed as a kid.