February 12, 2013

Sitting Courtside In Hidalgo

Of all the places I am visiting on my basketball tour of Texas, I was looking forward to going to Hidalgo most of all. Seriously. It's a tiny town literally on the Mexican border. How can it get better than this? I have always had semi romantic notions of staying in small town America on vacations but never do it because quite honestly there's no reason for me to stay in small towns. I'm a city guy, what can I say? But Hidalgo has an NBDL team and that gives me a reason to stay for one night at least. Tuesday night their team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, were hosting the Maine Red Claws (best name and logo in the NBDL, hands down). So Tuesday afternoon, I moved in to Hidalgo's Super 8, which is literally across the driveway from the arena, at a cost of about $50 and took in some hoops that night.

The Hidalgo area was first settled by the Spanish in 1749, meaning this area was inhabited well before the Republic of Texas was created. The town itself went through a series of names before finally settling on Hidalgo in 1885. Today the town has all of 11,000 or so residents. I suppose it's sort of a suburb of McAllen (population 123,000) and Brownsville (population 178,000) but suffice it to say there's more nothing than something around Hidalgo, mostly fields for crops or cattle. For perspective for those of you reading in northern Virginia, the population of Arlington is about 190,000.

The town sits right on the Rio Grande in the Rio Grande Valley, which is one of the richest ecosystems in the southwest United States. The sizeable Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, which contains 400 species of birds and over 250 species of butterflies is nearby and serves as a significant tourist attraction in the area. In the town of Hidalgo itself, there's not a whole lot to see. The most exciting attractions in town are the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse and a staue of a giant killer bee. Apparently the killer bee was first discovered in the United States in Hidalgo. Good times!

Following the Texas Legends before them, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers were an expansion team, joining the NBDL for the 2007-2008 season. They have spent their entire six year history playing in the Rio Grande valley. In their third season, they managed to win the D-League finals and were the runner up the following season so the team has experienced some pretty good success in a short period of time. For perspective, they have as many championships as my Washington Wizards in about one tenth the time. Apples to oranges comparison, I know.

The Vipers play at the State Farm Arena which, according to the venue's website, seats between 5,500 and 6,800 for basketball. That's a little more than the Dr. Pepper Arena in Frisco holds but still way less than the 20,000 or so at Verizon Center. The State Farm Arena website lists the hockey and concert capacity but not the basketball capacity, like basketball doesn't matter or something. The hockey capacity is 5,500. I'm assuming the building holds slightly more for hoops since folks, including me, sit on top of the ice.

Just as I did in Frisco two nights earlier, I paid far less than the price of an NBA game for my Vipers ticket. My center court, second row seat in Hidalgo cost me $50, which is the most pricey D-League ticket I bought on this trip. That price compares to between $850 and $1,250 at Wizards home game at Verizon Center. This game is four to six percent of that price. Beers at the State Farm Arena are $5.75 for 16 oz. of Budweiser (cans only) so only 10 percent cheaper. Funny how the price of beer doesn't change much from the NBA to the minor leagues.

When I got to the game, I actually had a rude surprise waiting for me. The second row ticket that I bought on Ticketmaster had been sold to a season ticket holder since I bought the ticket and therefore wouldn't be honored. Instead of my second row seat, they moved me courtside on the Vipers bench side of the court. OK by me. Definitely the first time I have sat courtside anywhere and it definitely made the game more exciting, although I had to get used to players and coaches walking in front of me during the game. The game itself was a no defense affair, a 139-122 victory for the Vipers. Former Wizard Shelvin Mack plays for the Red Claws so it was good to see Shelvin play again even though he didn't have the best game of his D-League career.

But the main excitement for me in this game was the chance to get to see Royce White once again play basketball. I became intrigued with Royce last year during the NCAA tournament and have followed his saga since, a story which hopefully gets way better starting with Tuesday's game. Royce White was the 16th selection in the 2012 NBA Draft. He was selected as the second of three first round draft picks held by the Houston Rockets this past year. But to date, Royce has not played a minute of NBA basketball for the Rockets for various reasons including depth at his position, sitting out and being suspended by the team. The majority of his non-playing time has been caused by a dispute he has been engaged in with the Rockets about his mental fitness and how that affects his ability to play basketball safely. Royce suffers from general anxiety disorder which affects, among other things, his ability to travel, especially by airplane, which a number of people in the press and public have falsely latched on to as his only source of anxiety.

His dispute with the Rockets, which has been featured on ESPN's Outside The Lines and HBO's Real Sports, centered on his contention that he needs an independent qualified medical professional to have the final say on his ability to play basketball on any given day. He wrestled with this issue during his collegiate career at the University of Minnesota, where he was not entirely successful, and Iowa State University, where he played a full season and led the Cyclones in his one and only season last year in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks per game. He is clearly a talented basketball player, a fact driven home to me this past summer in Las Vegas where he dominated the paint against the Wizards in a game I attended during summer league play. Anyway his saga with the Rockets led to suspension without pay by the team on January 6 and an eventual resolution to the situation on January 23 with an agreement for Royce to report to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers on February 11, which happened to be Monday.

Sitting courtside allowed me the chance to talk to Royce before the game and let him know how much I supported him and how I hoped he didn't become this generation's Curt Flood (look it up) breaking ground for generations of players but getting blackballed in the process. Royce allowed that he could be blackballed for making his own stand but said he'd be OK financially which was my main concern. Royce is a smart guy and that comes across in interviews and conversations. He also noted that he feels lucky just to be playing the NBDL, advocating that most of the guys at this level are just as good as they are in the NBA. He's lying here and it's false modesty. Royce is better than the D-League and he's not going to be here too long in my opinion. His game was a little rusty but how good he can be showed in his passing. His second assist of the night was just gorgeous.

It took Royce forever to tie his shoes. Not surprisingly. He also wore his socks inside out. I wish I'd noticed that when I was talking to him. I'd love to know what that is about.

For some reason, I love water towers.

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