This One Time, At Sparks Camp

“That’s odd”, I thought to myself. “Why would they start a weekday pro basketball game at noon?”

Way back when, while laying out the schedule for the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour, I wasn’t looking at starting times – just dates. But now that the date was at hand for my first visit to a WNBA game, I was down to the details. Like a 12:00 PM tip-off for the L.A. Sparks vs. the Tulsa Shock.

I shrugged it off, thinking there was an evening event at the Staples Center that required a lot of set up time. No biggie. Into the car and off to downtown L.A. But once there, I was greeted by a sight that would buckle the knees of any sports-event-attending grown man.

School buses. Lots and lots of school buses. And all of them disgorging kids. It was the L.A. Sparks annual Camp Day game. Noooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!

See it turns out that once a year the Sparks, in a brilliant PR move, host a game in which they offer ridiculously low group rate pricing to any summer camp willing to round up their charges and bring them into the Staples Center. And evidently they get a lot of takers.

As I sat in my upper level seat, never before had I been so thankful that I was not courtside. Or anywhere near courtside. For laid out before me in the lower bowl was a veritable ocean of kids dressed in different colored T-shirts. Every color of the rainbow was well represented – as well as some colors that didn’t make the rainbow’s starting team.

I started to make a quick mental tally of the fans in attendance that had no apparent affiliation with a camp. I’m guess-timating here, but I think the number was seven. The other 14,406 were either comfortably under the pre-teen cut-off point, or – God help them – the counselors charged with making sure nobody was eating the pre-owned gum stuck underneath their seats.

While the crowd may not have been entirely knowledgeable, one thing was indisputable – they were energetic. This day was downright heaven-sent for most of them. Not only were they being allowed to use their outside voice while inside, but they were being begged to do so.

Whoever was operating the giant overhanging video screen clearly programmed it on a constant loop and went out for lunch. At alarmingly regular intervals, the screen displayed graphics designed to instigate “More Noise”. And being the good campers that they were, the kids were more than happy to oblige. The “De-Fense” chant graphic evoked a solid response, but absolutely paled in comparison to the efficacy of the general scream-provoking Noise Meter graphic.

Nothing remotely approached however, the frenzy that broke out when the SparKids dance team took the floor during a time-out to toss t-shirts into the crowd.

You learn something new every day, and on this particular one I learned that there’s a big difference between mixed-crowd noise and pre-pubescent crowd noise. The former contains voices of varying pitch and tone, all blending to create the familiar “roar” of the crowd that we’re all accustomed to. The latter contains only voices with high pitches. Extremely high pitches. Which, in unison sound exactly like Southwest Airlines flight #632 taking off – from the section of seats adjacent to yours.

The game itself, while not completely an after-thought, definitely took somewhat of a back seat to the Camp Day experience. Most of the time-outs, and certainly the breaks between quarters were extended well past their normal length, in order to facilitate a parade of other activities. There was an on-court emcee for these proceedings, who was drowned out most of the time by the background music – as is the case at most events I attend that are hell-bent on eradicating even the threat of momentary silence.

I wondered how the players felt about Camp Day. Pro athletes are slavishly devoted to maintaining some semblance of routine, and I can’t help but think that they weren’t wild about playing a game so early in the day. The visiting Tulsa Shock had to be especially cranky, since in addition to having to be up and at the arena early, they had to cool their heels during all of the extended time-outs, while bearing all of the shrill noise throughout.

Even the Sparks had to be less than delighted. Sure they had a boisterous home crowd, but a lot of that noise was extraneous to the action on the court. And especially in the second half, a quick glance around the arena surely revealed to them that the vast majority of the crowd appeared to be paying zero attention to the game itself.

The Sparks are a hustling, easy-to-like team that was dealt a crippling blow when their star, the 2008 WNBA MVP and former Tennessee All-American Candace Parker was injured and lost for the season just ten games after it began. This came on the heels of the retirement of the long-time face of the franchise, Lisa Leslie – a star that shone so bright, her name now adorns the corners of the Staples Center court during Sparks games.

Consequently, the Sparks have gone from being just one game away from playing in the WNBA Championship last year to a record of just 5-15 heading into today’s game. And as it was, the only team in the WNBA with a record worse than that of the Sparks is the Tulsa Shock, the opponent on this day.

But if I expected a lackluster mid-day effort from ostensibly the two worst teams in the league, I was thankfully mistaken.

To be continued…

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