I have a rule about going to sporting events: If I can’t see it better in person than I can on TV then I’m not interested in going. The hassle of parking, costs and crowds just isn’t worth it if I could see the action better from my couch. But last Wednesday my brother and I got tickets 8 rows behind the Washington Wizards bench for their matchup against the Detroit Pistons. There were two things I notice simultaneously about the game: How familiar it is and how foreign it is.
The best part about being down low is that the little details are far more noticable at the ground level than they are at the TV level, but the larger themes are lost almost completely. The humanity of the players is evident as is their awesome athleticism, their comfort (or discomfort) in their bodies and the easy way they move through their warmups, completely oblivious to their surroundings, the actor’s fourth wall firmly in place. It’s their court, their ritual, their game; we’re just visiting.
The first thing I noticed about the game was the speed. While the game that they played on the court isn’t unfamiliar, in fact, it was far more familiar than I had expected it to be, the speed and intensity at which they played it was unlike anything I’d experienced. Perhaps because of the low quality of the teams, all I notice almost the entire game is the speed and intensity of the play. I’ve played pickup games in gyms before, I’ve watched pickup and high school basketball played, and the NBA is exactly like this and nothing like this. The size and speed of the bodies moving in reduced space and reacting to things I was only barely aware of.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to watch two top quality teams really go at it. Given that this was the Wizards and the Pistons, two teams at the bottom of their conferences both in what seems to their fans like an never-ending cycle of rebuilding, neither team looked incredibly invested (and many of the players looked incredibly uninvested) in the outcome. It’s clear from sitting courtside why so many folks I talk to prefer college hoops to professional: effort. The kids in school give 110% every night (or so I’m told; I can’t stomach watching kids shoot 29% from the field no matter how hard they hustle). The pros might not go as hard (their season is 60-70% longer), but damn if they don’t go better. Watching Brandon Knight during warm ups he hit 11 consecutive 3s, then another 5 in the game.
Extrapolating from Knight’s career night (32 points), I imagine that with high quality, precision teams like the Bulls and the Spurs, teams with a level of discipline that the Wizards have never known and the Pistons can only remember (Joe D: where’d it all go wrong?!?), the crispness of the game would pop more than it did with the Wizards and the Pistons. More than that, watching LeBron or Kobe, true superstars (a quantity that this game lacked entirely) at work must be truly inspiring.
Which is not to say that this game didn’t have its own drama, though the drama was very different than the kind of drama that watching the game on television manufactures. Without the score, time and replays constantly in my face even simple things like knowing what the score was became difficult. It took me awhile to locate a scoreboard (the overhead screen was difficult to see from our seats) to even know who was ahead. The rhythm on the court was dramatically different. Timeouts seemed shorter, halftime flew past. But finding the kind of timing that I expected from watching games on television just never occurred. It was much more like watching a high school basketball game with my brother: sitting, talking, responding to the game and everything else going on in the arena. Without the cohesion of the commentary weaving together a narrative the game is a distinctly different animal, a more familiar animal, one whose pace and organic nature are simultaneously more human and relatable and simultaneously more intense and incredible than anything I’ve seen before (though the commentating on this game will be remembered for a long time, I found out after the game).
My takeaways from the game weren’t technical. My basketball IQ is very low and watching the game at such high speed up close was overwhelming: like trying to watch “La Dolce Vita” after one year of learning Italian. The things that I took away were more human, more universal, things that anyone might have picked up from watching a new group of people interact. Most of these insights are about the Wizards, as I was behind their bench, and they are not encouraging for Wizards fans.
The Wizards don’t look like a good team on the floor and they don’t act like a good team on the bench. They’re not belligerent or rambunctious, but neither are they attentive or mature. Their body language is disinterested bordering on disrespectful. They have no enthusiasm for their coach, Randy Wittman. Wittman himself appears to be the NBA’s John Kerry: completely befuddled. In huddles he looked confused and irritated and never really seemed in control of the situation. Sam Cassell, on the other hand, looked irritated, angry and in charge. He was getting in guys’ ears, bringing John Wall back to the huddle, and generally trying to harass his team into caring.
Despite the Wizards’ lack of intensity, despite the fact that both they and their opponent are at or near the bottom of their conferences, the game was still enjoyable. Sitting that close to professional athletes, experiencing even the late-arriving, unenthusiastic Washington crowd, seeing the physical feats and experiencing the rhythm of a fast paced, upbeat game was exciting and enjoyable, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat (and hope to do it more regularly once the Sonics return to Seattle!).