February 15, 2013

Blues And Basketball In Austin

After Tuesday night's Vipers-Red Claws game, I awoke the next morning and headed out on the road again to see my third D-League game in four nights and the last basketball of this quick trip. The site of Wednesday's game was Austin, or more accurately just outside of Austin, a place I hoped would be very different from Frisco and Hidalgo. In fact I had so much faith that it would be different (i.e. better) that it's the only place I decided to spend two nights on this entire trip. My one and a half days and two nights in Austin started with the Austin Toros hosting the same Maine Red Claws (did I mention best name and logo in the NBDL, hands down?) that I saw face the Rio Grande Valley Vipers the previous evening some 300 miles or so south of Austin.

Austin, contrary to what the Lea Thompson's character in the original Red Dawn movie believed ("Wrong, Commie! It's Houston!), is the capital of Texas. It is also the music center of Texas which is why I've wanted to visit Austin for years. I've already checked Memphis, Nashville and New Orleans off my list, it was time to hit Austin. Austin's music history is one of country and blues, with Willie Nelson, Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan all having associations with the town. I hoped I could hear some good music while I was in town in addition to watching hoops. I was determined to find some after the Toros and the Red Claws game and then again the next night.

The Austin area was first settled in 1830, the year that Mexico decided to close then Tejas' border with the United States to stem what had become a troubling number of American settlers crossing the border. In 1839, the capital of what was at the time the Republic of Texas was moved to the Austin area and incorporated as Waterloo. The name was changed shortly thereafter in honor of Stephen F. Austin, the "Father of Texas," who brought the first significant number of American families to settle in the Texas. Today, Austin is big to support the state capital and the University of Texas. There are about 650,000 residents in Austin, a far cry from the 11,000 in Hidalgo.

Unlike the Legends and Vipers who joined the NBDL as expansion teams, the Austin Toros are one of the three surviving original D-League franchises, along with the Tulsa 66ers and the Canton Charge. And just like those other two original members of the league, the Toros didn't begin life where they are now. The team started out in Columbus, Georgia as the Riverdragons in 2001 but moved to Austin after four seasons in 2005. The Toros are the defending NBDL champions although last year's championship won't necessarily translate to success this season as teams in the D-League tend to change over personnel fairly quickly. There is exactly one player, Jamarr Sanders, on this year's team who spent time in Austin last season.

The Toros actually play a little more than 20 miles from Austin in a suburb called Cedar Park. Their arena, the cleverly named Cedar Park Center, seats about 8,000, so it's larger than the arenas in Frisco and Hidalgo and it shows. The Cedar Park Center is the only one of the three D-League arenas I went to with a center scoreboard and instant replay. It gets closer to an NBA experience but with the replay on the scoreboard, there's no space left for stats, which are displayed annoyingly infrequently. As I did the previous night in Hidalgo, I once again sat center court second row for the game and paid far less than I would for an NBA ticket, in this case $40. Beers at the Cedar Park Center are $7.75 for a 24 oz. Budweiser about the same as the other two arenas. My friend Mike texted me during the game with the rhetorical question "Why is beer so expensive everywhere?" Because people buy it at that price, that's why.

The game was competitive into the fourth, when the Toros managed to break the Red Claws' spirit and pull away for a 111-94 victory. The game experience was a good one just like the night before in Hidalgo. My disappointment in the overly kid catering environment in Frisco didn't carry over to Austin or the Rio Grande Valley. I'd go back (but probably won't) to games in either of those places. I managed to track the Wizards-Pistons games on my phone during the game. Our winning streak was ended at four. Just can't beat Detroit this year.

The interest in Wednesday's D-League game for me was to see former Wizard Shelvin Mack play again. And I saw Shelvin play a lot Wednesday night as he logged all 48 minutes with the Red Claws down to only eight healthy players. Shelvin was the Wizards second round draft pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. He lasted all of his rookie season before being cut in training camp in favor of either Jannero Pargo or Earl Barron, depending on your perspective. Shelvin is consistently on the top of the D-League's prospects call up list and has had stints in the NBA twice this season, once with the Wizards and once for two 10-day contracts with the Philadelphia 76ers. 

Watching Shelvin's game, it's clear to see why he's bouncing between the NBA and NBDL. He's clearly the leader of his team. He calls all the offensive sets and defensive assignments, handles the ball every time up and makes sure his team is paying attention to the shot clock. There's no doubt he understands the game very well and he's serious about what he's doing. But he's also physically limited. He's not really quick enough or skilled enough to play point guard in the NBA as a guy with heavy minutes and he's not really long enough to defend or rebound against taller shooting guards. Shelvin's invariably in place to rebound or right in his guy's face on defense but he lost rebounds to an opponent taller than him and couldn't reach a few fadeaway jumpers from his counterpart. I hope the D-League serves him well and he gets back to the NBA again this season. I appreciated Shelvin coming over and saying hi to me before the game. As Royce White told me the night before, Shelvin's a good dude.

Fans in Austin are hard core. Some dude brought a giant Shelvin Mack head to wave at Shelvin and taunt him.
I didn't stick around much beyond the final buzzer for this one. I needed to get a beer or two in a blues club somewhere quick. Wednesday night I decided I'd take about any music played competently whereas Thursday I thought I should be more selective and serious. Austin's main drag is Sixth Street, sort of an equivalent to Memphis' Beale Street or New Orleans' Bourbon Street, although way smaller scale than the latter. Wednesday night I bounced between a couple of clubs with bands playing bad George Thorogood or Tom Petty covers before settling in at Latitude Thirty, a club on San Jacinto Boulevard, for a couple of Lone Star beers and a partial set. At one time while I was there, the club actually had four musicians and three patrons; most people were stepping in for $2 shots before quickly moving on, probably for another $2 shot somewhere else.

Sixth Street by day. It looks much different (i.e. drunker) at night.
Thursday night I weighed my options more carefully, ultimately choosing to see the Big Guitars From Texas at Antone's on Fifth and Lavaca over Tift Merritt and David Wax Museum on Sixth Street. If there is a club to know in Austin, it's Antone's. The place was founded by Clifford Antone in the mid-1970s and has been played by many blues legends, including Clifton Chenier, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Stevie Ray Vaughan. So as this may be my only night spent in Austin, I had to not pass this one up.

Little did I know but Big Guitars From Texas were nominated for a grammy in 1986 in the Best Rock Instrumental Category (they lost to Jeff Beck) for their instrumental Guitar Army. This show was a reunion and benefit show for one of their members, Evan Johns, who played but who clearly was ailing, preferring to sit through the show. And ultimately the show was a great ending to a quick trip, a four guitar mostly instrumental show to send me back to D.C. with some good memories. I clearly didn't spend enough time in Austin. Live and learn.

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