Of course I’m not talking about the MVC, the WCC, or the MAAC – or any of those conferences for which there is but one invitation to The Big Dance. These tournaments mean everything –perhaps too much, as a team that dominates its conference during regular season play can have one bad night and see its season go down the drain. Certainly there is drama of the highest kind in the alphabet soup conferences.
No, I’m talking here about the glamour conferences. The ones that dominate media coverage of college basketball. The ones that are amateur in name only. The home of “one and done” players putting in their time before heading to the NBA. The Big East, the Big Ten, the ACC. These conferences have traditionally sent at least four teams to the NCAA tournament each year, and as they’ve grown in size by engulfing major media market teams from smaller conferences, they’ve gained even more at-large bids.
One could argue that the drama for these conference tournaments has been usurped; pretty much every team with a decent record is going to the NCAAs. When you really get down to it, you could actually make the case that winning one of these tournaments is detrimental to a team’s chances for March Madness success. For example, no Big East team has won the NCAA title since the conference expanded to 16 teams and instituted a conference tournament that brings to mind the Bataan Death March. Coincidence?
I do not bring this up merely to watch myself type. I had a decision to make.
We were young. We were giddy.
Wait, let me start again…
We were giddy. Blame it on Sean McGonagill.
Doc and I were still basking in the glow of one of the most unexpected treats we’d ever witnessed on a college basketball court – a freshman tossing in 39 points over, under and around everyone in sight, while wearing headgear from the Hannibal Lecter Collection.
So it was only natural that the seedling of an idea that had been germinating for a few days began to sprout and ripen at an alarming rate. I’m talking Jack and the Beanstalk stuff.
A little background…
See, way back at the beginning of the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour’s Winter Sports Swing, the first casualty of fickle weather had been a scheduled pilgrimage to Ithaca, NY, where through a sepia-toned lens I planned to vicariously re-live my own college basketball “playing” days, if I may be somewhat expansive when using that term.
There we were with 70 or 80 of our closest friends, on a night that a dog wouldn’t have sent us out into.
I was with old friend and hoops aficionado Doc, and we were making the best of a bad situation. Ice-stormed out of an originally scheduled pilgrimage to see Doc’s beloved Syracuse Orangemen play against Connecticut, we had opted for a somewhat less glamorous Division I basketball contest – an Ivy League game.
We were at Brown University’s Pizzitola Center, where the Bears were playing host to the Columbia Lions. Somewhere in there was a joke about tigers just begging to be cracked, but we were still a little despondent about the weather having forced us to stay close to Doc’s Pawtucket, RI home.
My friend Doc has worked for the Syracuse University Athletic Department for each one of the 34 years I’ve known him. But if you were to contact SU, they’d tell you they’ve never met him. They really should make the effort, for Doc has been the best unpaid PR agent the Orangemen have ever had.
Many years ago Doc relocated to New England for reasons of love and money, but that hasn’t deterred him from his appointed rounds as Diehard. Should anyone doubt his passion, consider the following…
Immediately upon moving to Rhode Island, Doc applied for and was delighted to receive license plates that read “ORANGE”. When the time inevitably came for him to get a new car, he did his research and negotiated a sweet deal on a leased vehicle. Except for one tiny thing. Almost as an afterthought, he was told that he wouldn’t be able to transfer his existing plates to the leased car.
Houston, we have a problem.
A team of diplomats worked through the night to find common ground, before the dealer finally caved in and agreed to tackle the administrative red tape necessary to keep Doc and his ORANGE plates together.
Hearing this story didn’t faze me (or anyone else who knows Doc) in the least.
I’m not exactly sure what he was talking about though. For me it was easy. Airline service to Hartford is plentiful, and from there it’s a short drive via either I-91 or I-84 to Ellington, CT.
Perhaps Mr. Wolfe had problems at the car rental counter. Or maybe I’m missing his point.
No matter – despite his warning, it would have been inconceivable for me to conduct a sports walkabout that didn’t include a stumble down memory lane. See, there’s high school basketball, and then there’s Ellington Knights high school basketball. I know this because back in the day, I proudly wore the purple and gold.
Just walking into Loyola Marymount’s Gersten Pavilion brought about a wave of nostalgia – if it’s possible to be nostalgic about something that happened only ten months ago. For it was here that I went “live” with the first test event that ultimately led to the formation and international accreditation of the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour.
That was a memorable evening, made more so by the LMU Lions’ upset of #9-ranked Gonzaga University. It was the first and only time that Gersten had ever played host to an LMU victory over a Top 10 team. A good omen, to say the least.
Well, never mind that – it’s time to tell you about the L.A. Sparks annual Camp Day, in which they schedule a noontime game against some poor, unsuspecting opponent and then offer cut-rate tickets to every summer camp in SoCal. Works like a charm. This year over 14,000 kids, armed with vocal cords of steel, descended upon the Staples Center, where a Sports Fan on a mission to experience the WNBA had unwittingly wandered into the aural blast zone.
Although I hail from Connecticut, the current epicenter of women’s college basketball, I’d be lying if I said that I’ve really paid much attention to women’s hoops. On television the game always struck me as plodding, and played way too far below the rim for my tastes. But mostly it’s the lack of serious competition that’s kept me away.
See, while NCAA women’s basketball has exploded in terms of participation, it still hasn’t reached the point at which there are dozens of teams playing at an elite level. So if you want to see the best women’s basketball in the land – played by teams like UConn, Tennessee and Stanford – on most nights you’re probably going to witness a blowout. That’s why I only tune in when the women’s NCAA tournament has reached the Sweet Sixteen stage. And even then the competition is often disappointingly lopsided.
In preparing to see the game played at the professional level though, it struck me that the skill levels of each team must be more or less equivalent – and so I looked forward to a competitive, talent-on-talent contest for my inaugural WNBA game. And as has rarely been the case during this journey, I was exactly right. Except for the screaming kids part.
For sure the WNBA game is competitive. Maybe it was my imagination, but it seemed that even the player introductions were hotly contested. The pace of play here compares more than favorably to an NBA game, especially in the transition game. The women push it up and down the court with abandon, almost completely eschewing the familiar walk-it-up “tempo” of the men’s pro game.
The other thing that jumps out at you is that the WNBA plays a much more physical game than you see in women’s college hoops. It’s not quite a night out with Snooki at the Jersey Shore, but let’s just say that the ladies come fully equipped with elbows – and they know how to use them. And by turning pro, the women have earned the right to an additional foul in each game. Despite playing the same 40-minute game (in four 10-minute quarters vs. two 20-minute halves) WNBA players are disqualified after six fouls instead of five as in the collegiate ranks. Based on the fact that three players fouled out of this game, those extra fouls clearly don’t go to waste.
As the game progressed, I came around to the conclusion that the previously mentioned lack of an above-the-rim game actually works in favor of the WNBA. While the entire culture of the NBA is seemingly built around the dunk, for obvious reasons the women don’t give it a thought. Instead they do quaint things like run plays and look to pass the ball to the open shooter. And they hustle constantly. For all the time spent on the floor diving for loose balls or taking offensive fouls, the WNBA should be sponsored by the National Strawberry Growers Association.
And what’s this? A full-court press defense? In the middle of the game? The WNBA clearly does not have an effective Player’s Union to address these egregious management demands.
While the rules are basically the same, there are nuances to the women’s game that makes it play quite differently than the men’s. For example, the women still “jump it up” on held ball calls, instead of the democratic but boring alternating possession practice of the men. It was comforting to see however, that you could always rely on at least one constant throughout all of pro basketball: the WNBA refs don’t call traveling either.
I had to tip my cap to the visiting Tulsa Shock. Coming into the game with a record of 4-16, they’re all but out of the playoffs already, and playing an early game on the road in front of a loud but largely disinterested crowd. They could have mailed it in. But despite having been down by ten points or more for most of the second half, Tulsa made a spirited comeback.
With 2:36 left in the game, having cut the Sparks lead to four points, the Shock unnerved them into a shot clock violation. Coming out of a subsequent L.A. time-out, Tulsa knocked down two foul shots to make the score 72-70. A clamp-down defense led to a game-tying basket, after which the Shock slapped on a full-court press, stole the ball and scored again to take the lead. It was just that quick.
It brought to mind the famed “40 Minutes of Hell” style of play that made the University of Arkansas NCAA champions in 1994 and national runners-up the next year. Which isn’t quite the journalistic reach that it appears to be when you take into account that both that Arkansas team and the current Tulsa Shock share the same coach – the legendary Nolan Richardson.
The reeling Sparks were desperately in need of a boost from the home crowd. Uh-oh. Houston, we have a problem.
Up until this point in the game, the most popular people in the building were, in inverse order: (3) Sparky, the fuzzy dog mascot; (2) the few roving concession vendors that were brave enough to show up for work that day; and (1) the cameramen.
Apparently there is no greater joy to a child than that which comes from being captured on camera and displayed on an arena video board. The euphoria that enveloped these kids when this occurred made Christmas morning seem like Bath Time in comparison. So the crowd was a tad bit unfocused with regard to the actual, ummm…game.
But despite this distraction – and despite the fact that ants had fully invaded the pants of the vast majority of the crowd sometime around mid-third quarter – the kids rose to the occasion.
With the score tied at 76 and the Shock setting up for a final buzzer-beating shot to win, the crowd pulled it together (albeit with the help of a video board prompt) for an eardrum-piercing chant of “De-Fense”. And when the Tulsa shot narrowly missed, I was surprised to hear a definitive unsolicited roar from the crowd. How do you like that? All visual evidence to the contrary, a good chunk of them actually knew that the outcome of the game rode on the result of that shot.
The enhanced attention span carried over into the overtime. When the Sparks struck first on a three-pointer, another unprompted outburst occurred. And another, even larger one when the second of two free throws by Ticha Penicheiro gave L.A. an 85-81 lead with just 13.8 seconds left.
After a few traded free throws finished out the game with a Sparks 86-83 win, L.A. forward Tina Thompson took the microphone and thanked the crowd for coming out: “This is the loudest game of the year, and every year and we appreciate you.”
At that point, we were all Happy Campers, both figuratively and literally.
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…
Savvy readers of yesterday’s post on my NBA two-fer may have noticed a glaring omission in my description of the contrasting environments of a Lakers and a Clippers home game. There was nary a word about the Laker Girls – or their lesser-known counterparts, the Clipper Spirit. Well let me fix that right now.
The Laker Girls are a sports institution, as are their football alter egos the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. Watching them perform during time-outs is like having an extra show-within-a-show. That’s part of the overall experience that makes a Lakers game so unique. They are talented, they are gorgeous, and they are as classy as you could possibly be while wearing outfits the size of cocktail napkins. Even my better half, The Bird, could find nothing to dispute about that statement.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…No wait, that line is already taken. Why does that Dickens guy get all the best material?
I’m sitting in the Staples Center watching the Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs warm up, beginning for me a unique day/night double-header, in which I would witness both ends of the NBA basketball continuum. The game just about to start featured basketball royalty, while the game that awaited in the evening featured the Los Angeles Clippers and the New York Knicks. Need I elaborate?