March 25, 2014

Courtside Again

It's the last full week of March, meaning we are less than one month from the end of the 2013-2014 NBA season. This past weekend found the Wizards on their last west coast swing of the year, one that netted them a disappointing 1-3 record. It also saw me back on the road to watch hoops for the third time this month and last time (I think) in this NBA season. I knocked out Philadelphia and Milwaukee earlier this month; this past weekend I spent some time in the NBA's minor league system on my second (potentially annual) NBDL trip. Last year I took a swing through Texas. This year, I picked New England and the first stop was the birthplace of basketball itself: Springfield, Massachusetts.

The last time I was in Springfield was in the late 1990s when I visited the Basketball Hall of Fame with my dad. I grew up about 35 miles away in Glastonbury, Connecticut and I never in my wildest dreams or nightmares imagined I would end up on vacation there 30 years or so after graduating high school nearby. It is what it is. It's funny how life works sometimes. But in visiting last weekend, I found a side of Springfield I never would have imagined or discovered had I not gone back. There's some genuine history worth discovering in that town and of course, there's a D-League franchise playing downtown. I'll strategically omit my time at the Hall of Fame while I was in town from this discussion so I can dedicate an entire post later on to my couple hours in that building.

On my first NBDL tour last February, I set out to get a flavor of what life in the minor leagues was like for the players, and, by extension, the fans. I intended to continue that theme this year and hoped to discover something new. One of the real treats of last year's trip was sitting courtside for the first time at a professional basketball game when I visited Hidalgo, Texas to watch the visiting Maine Red Claws take on the home Rio Grande Valley Vipers. When it came time to purchase game tickets for this trip and courtside seats were available in Springfield, I thought why not do it again. So I did.

Springfield and Hidalgo share a common thread in that both have minor league NBA franchises. But the similarities between the two cities pretty much end there. Hidalgo was established by Spanish settlers in 1749 but boasted few residents until well after it's founding and absorption into the United States. Today, the place has all of about 11,000 inhabitants. Springfield was established in 1636 as the northernmost outpost of the English Connecticut Colony and today has a population of a little more than 150,000 with a metropolitan area population of about 700,000.

Springfield's self appointed nickname is the "City of Firsts" and there are indeed a lot of firsts here, some important and some silly: first dictionary, first dog show in the United States, first American made automobile, first witch trial (enlightened! woo hoo!), first UHF television station, first "Springfield" and so on and so on. It's also the birthplace of Dr. Seuss, which I will refrain from discussing further than this one sentence because of my personal aversion to all things Dr. Seuss (too chaotic - makes my brain want to explode!). Despite having passed through the city many many times by car on my way from home to upstate New York and back over a slightly less than 10 year period, I didn't have any idea of Springfield's history. I guess we sometimes take the least interest in the stuff around us. Or at least maybe I do.

The Arsenal at the Springfield Armory.
But Springfield's greatest contribution to American history is arguably through George Washington and Henry Knox founding the Springfield Arsenal in the city in 1777. After Washington established the site for the Armory, the location was used as an arsenal (a place for weapons storage as I learned last weekend) during the Revolutionary War. After independence was achieved, manufacturing began in 1794 and the Armory maintained continuous operation until 1968, when the United States decided to privatize all weapons contracting.

The Amory produced the first American made musket in the year it opened and later produced the famous Springfield Rifle and M-1 Garand, which helped the allies win World Wars I and II respectively. As much as I loathe guns and the misinterpretation of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, I cannot deny that the Springfield Armory occupies an important place in the history of our nation and it's difficult to criticize anything which helped us win the two World Wars. The arsenal component of the Armory is now part of the National Park System and was worth the hour and a half inside the place to understand more about what happened there.

But the real attraction for me was basketball. Springfield acquired an NBDL team in 2009 and re-named the franchise the Armor in tribute to the city's importance in U.S. history. The franchise was moved from Anaheim where they were established as an expansion team to the league in 2006. In 2011, the team entered into a single affiliation with the Brooklyn Nets using a hybrid model, meaning the team is locally owned and operated with the exception of basketball operations, which is run by the Nets. This means the Armor run the same offensive and defensive schemes in Springfield as the Nets do at the NBA level, allowing them to assign players to the D-League without losing continuity in player development.

The first year in Springfield was not a good one for the Armor, posting a D-League worst-in-history 9-43 record. But failure one year does not necessarily breed failure the next in the NBDL due to the almost complete lack of roster stability year after year. Two years after their nine win season, the Armor finished the regular season first place in the Eastern Division. This year, the team is mired in the middle of the East Division with a losing record and likely on the outside looking in when it comes to playoff time.

Downtown Springfield's MassMutual Center.
The team plays in the 41 year old MassMutual Center right downtown. Of the four NBDL arenas I have visited to date, this is the only one in an urban environment, which I appreciate even though the area around the arena was less salubrious than I would have liked. I had actually been in the building before. The last time I was there was in 1989 to see the Moody Blues in what was at that time known as the Springfield Civic Center. Both the Moodies and the building have aged quite a bit since then although the building did manage to get a facelift, with a fairly attractive new skin added over the original concrete structure since the last time I was in town. The building seats about 7,300 for basketball, so it's about a third of the size of Verizon Center in Washington.

Like last year's trip, the price of D-League tickets this year was way lower than my Wizards season tickets; I quite honestly splurged for these tickets, opening up my wallet and spending $80 for my courtside seat. That seat in Washington will cost Wizards season ticket holders $1,650 per game next year. I love courtside seats and I'd love to spend one game sitting there in Washington someday even though I know it might cost a ton of money. The only drawback to courtside seats is the constant walking back and forth and standing in front of you that the coaches and players engage in. It makes watching the game challenging sometime, as shown at the top of this post and just below.

Even though the seat cost was lower, one thing comparably priced in the arena to the NBA level was beer, although the MassMutual Center's 20 fl. oz. domestic beers were a little more reasonable at $7.00 per cup than at Verizon Center (where they are $8.50). The best part of the beer sales action was the fact that Molson Canadian was considered domestic along with Bud Light and similar light-ish beers. Ironically, Samuel Adams, brewed in the same state as Springfield, is considered an import and costs fifty cents more. I stuck with the Molson!

Um, coach, can you move a little so I can watch the game?
I found that hoops in Springfield is much like Frisco, Hidalgo and Austin was last year, although it was nice to find the venue in a downtown area rather than in a suburban setting. The arena was about the same size as those three places but, unlike Frisco and Hidalgo, was equipped with a  center scoreboard and replay monitor. The place was packed, mostly with kids since it was apparently some kind of Read To Achieve event that included a several minutes long parade of what seemed like 500 or so kids around the perimeter of the court. It was also Fan Appreciation Night, which may have had an effect on the attendance. I was disappointed that we missed Superheroes and Fairy Tales Day by a couple of weeks. That would have been fun to see. They don't have that sort of event in D.C.

Watching D-League basketball in a filled, lively arena that looks like the MassMutual Center does on the outside makes it easy to forget what kind of desperation some of the guys on both teams are playing with. It looks so polished and professional despite the size of the arena. I just had to keep reminding myself that these guys are playing for something akin to minimum wage, just hoping to get to the NBA and some sort of reasonable payday. 

Some of the players are honestly just living out a dream, chasing something that likely won't ever happen for another year or two before moving on with their lives and hoping to land a career or at least a job. Others are former NBA players trying to get back into the league and the rest (which is a very small minority) are working hard and hoping someone at the NBA level notices something about their game which fills a spot on their squad either for game action or just to provide a body in practice. There's a lot of risk and very little hope at this level of ball but that very little hope is keeping some of these guys going day after day for probably less than $20,000 for a season plus some sort of per diem.

The game itself was competitive, probably the most exciting D-League game of the four I saw to this date, with the home team winning behind a strong third quarter where they pulled away and held on despite being down two at the half. Unlike some of the games I saw last year, which featured players I knew such as former Wizard Shelvin Mack and then-Rocket Royce White, there was nobody I was particularly focused on watching in this game on either team. Devin Ebanks, who was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round of the 2010 draft and was a top D-League prospect, was inactive for the Armor (I think honestly he quit the team). The only other recognizable name on either team was the visiting Canton Charge's Kyrylo Fesenko, who played four years with the Utah Jazz from 2007 to 2011. Although he played, he had little impact on the game despite his 10 rebounds.  I can't see him making it back to the NBA. He just doesn't look like he's in good enough shape to do so.

It ended up being a fun night and I'm glad I stopped in Springfield to find a place I never really knew and see some more D-League ball. Often when I travel, I have chance meetings with total strangers that enrich my trip. On this trip I actually had a chance meeting with a friend, which is astonishing to me that I would know someone in a 7,000 seat arena hosting a minor league basketball game. Through the magic of Facebook, with me lamenting a pre-game meal in a local bar festooned with New England Patriots and Boston Red Sox memorabilia, I found out my friend and fellow former Marillion obsessed fan Jeremy, who I knew from architecture school would be at the game with his son. It was good spending a half hour or so courtside catching up on some old times and current goings on. Worth every penny.

Catching up with an old friend courtside in the second quarter.

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