November 9, 2014

The Great White North

In case it wasn't obvious from some of my recent posts on this blog, I am just a little more than happy about the 2014-2015 NBA season being underway. It helps a ton that the Wizards got off to a 4-1 start in their first five games, their best start to a season since the 2005-2006 season. But the Wizards' fan-friendly schedule is also fueling my enthusiasm: seven of the first nine weekends of the Wizards season (so...the weekends in calendar year 2014) feature either a Friday or a Saturday home game, which means I get to see the Wiz in person at the Verizon Center every weekend but two before the new year. How awesome is that? "It's very awesome" is the answer.

This past weekend, however, was one of the two 2014 weekends without a home game; the Wizards played in Toronto Friday night and then in Indianapolis Saturday night. Now the second weekend of the season is a tough one to go without a home game, so the schedule this past weekend left me with basically two options: stay in D.C. (or Arlington actually) and watch on TV, or head out of town and see my team live. Rather than mope around our nation's capital, I chose to head to Canada for my first ever basketball game north of the border.

If my memory is at all correct, I believe it had been more than 20 years since I had last visited Toronto. Attending school in Michigan and upstate New York meant Canada was really close and Toronto was the closest (and really only) major Canadian city you could drive to so I think I visited three or four times in the seven and half years I spent in school. I was excited to go back to see how much the place had changed and how the city looked from a basketball fan's perspective. The last time I visited after all, Toronto didn't even have a basketball team.

My hope for this past weekend was to fly in Friday afternoon (which I did); see the Wizards either beat the Raptors or at least play a very competitive game Friday night; play tourist in Toronto on Saturday  and find somewhere to watch the Wizards-Pacers game despite the Maple Leafs playing that night (which I did); and come home Sunday (which I did) with a couple of more wins under the Wizards' belt, sitting comfortably at 6-1 and occupying the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Wow! That previous sentence was long. Let's move on.

Getting ready for the opening tip. The game was competitive to this point.
The plan worked perfectly. Except for the Wizards-Raptors part, which was the whole reason I went to Canada in the first place. It was a complete disaster and by far the worst performance of the young season. The game wasn't competitive at all; not even the opening tip was in doubt. The Raptors got off to a 14-2 lead and never looked back from there. They thoroughly dominated the Wizards in every facet of the game; we looked like a lottery team playing the best team in the league. And Kyle Lowry by the way is super impressive up close in a game watched from the first row behind the hockey boards. He was quicker and faster and on most plays a couple of steps ahead of everyone on our team (he ended up with a triple double). I know it was one game of 82 but this was the first real test of the season for the Wizards and they failed. Miserably.

So because the game was so terrible, the preceding paragraph is all I'm going to write about the actual action on the court. But I think there's a lot more that was interesting about the game experience in Toronto, starting with the Air Canada Centre. 

Historically, sports arenas in cities have occupied a significant place in the city's fabric. Sport is a public spectacle and the sporting arena, be it for basketball, baseball, hockey, football or any other sort of sport, essentially becomes a public space within the city on game day. These days, the actual building of course is restricted to paying customers, but the event is for the city really, not for the small percentage of the city's residents who happen to be attending on any given night. 

Given the public nature of what goes on there, the arena as a public building has historically been sited  in some important manner within the city, usually adjoining some grand public space or occupying a site with important relationships to other key structures within the city fabric. Most NBA arenas I have visited over the last 20 or so years follow this model, be it Madison Square Garden in New York or the American Airlines Center in Dallas. Even the US Airways Arena in Phoenix, which I find to be a city almost wholly lacking in urban planning, has significant plaza space outside some of its entrances.

The Air Canada Centre as seen from the CN Tower.
I have to say that the Air Canada Centre completely breaks the traditional mold of the sports arena being sited in a publicly important way. And I don't think that's a positive. The building is located in a tight urban neighborhood just south of the current Union Station in Toronto and it is packed up against the elevated Gardiner Expressway to the south, which limits an identifiable presence for the building from that side within the city, except to automobile traffic on the Expressway. The building is actually difficult to recognize, mostly because it is so close to other buildings and the signage on the arena is so reserved. You could use "difficult to see". I'm being nice with "reserved".

But the biggest reason the arena is hard to spot is probably the most admirable feature of the design, which is completely and totally ironic. And I'm talking actual ironic, not Alanis Morissette ironic (I figured that was appropriate since she's Canadian and any shot I can take against that stupid song is worth it). Before the construction of the Air Canada Centre, the site where the building is located was occupied by the Toronto Postal Delivery Building, an Art Deco building built in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The building, or more accurately the building's facades since the majority of the building is gone, was protected by the Ontario Heritage Act, which meant that the skin of the original building needed to be incorporated into the exterior walls of the Air Canada Centre.

This requirement to keep the majority of the exterior walls of the Postal Delivery Building causes two problems. First, the entire east facade and a significant portion of the north and south facades of the ACC are defined by the Art Deco remains of the Postal Delivery Building. This makes the arena look decidedly un-arena-like. Despite the preservation of the wonderful reliefs depicting the delivery of mail via all sorts of transportation, it doesn't scream public assembly space, which I think it sort of needs to.

The south facade of the Air Canada Centre. The roof of the arena can be seen at the top of the photo.
The second issue I have with the design is the original Postal Delivery Building is not large enough to hold a basketball and hockey arena so the envelope of the building is not confined to the original structure; it ends up way west of the original building and pokes up above to accommodate the main space within. The design of this part of the building is deliberately deferential to the historic fabric of the preserved city fabric and ends up having little character at all in my opinion. The issue with this is that the west side of the building, which is most visible from within the city, ends up just being blah. It could be a commercial building of some sort it's that nondescript.

While I'm in general not a fan of the building, I will say that the north side of it is mostly a success. That side of the building is a combination of new and old fabric but it is all completely enclosed and connected to Union Station to the north, creating a grand promenade and main entrance. It's really a pretty cool interior space once you find it. The issue is finding it because it's not easy to do. I suppose an interior gathering space outside an arena this far north on the globe is something we don't have to deal with in Washington. It's a good solution. I just don't like it considering the way the rest of the building is designed.

The other thing I'll say about the building (and this is really not about the building at all) is that it's loud! The game I attended last Friday was the Raptors' sixth overall and third home game of the year and it sounded like a playoff game in D.C. I know the game was a rout, but the crowd was into the game in a serious way from the opening tip and loud chants of "DE-FENSE" (or "DE-FENCE" I guess) were heard just five minutes into the game when the rout was already on. This atmosphere is both a credit to the Toronto fans and an indictment of the crowd at Verizon Center. Here I was in a city which is supposed to be about hockey watching a team with five winning seasons in its first 19 and I was impressed by the noise in the first week and a half of the season. And this was actual crowd noise, not some stupid piped in sound like they have in Miami or Boston. I'm going to make a personal commitment to make more noise at Verizon Center from now on.

Fourth quarter: me, TV and a tall glass of Molson Canadian.
While Friday night in Toronto was a total loss in every sense of the word (I ended up watching the fourth quarter in the bar below the arena while nursing a glass of Molson Canadian), my experience in Toronto had its bright spots. I managed to find some great food at the Queen and Beaver Public House and Bier Markt (try the poutine, I mean why would you not?) which came with some great Canadian beer. I also managed to walk on the Glass Floor at the CN Tower, which is literally a transparent floor 1,122 feet above the plaza around the Tower below. Its pretty freaky looking down at your feet and seeing the ground more than a thousand feet beyond the surface you are standing on but ultimately the Wizards' performance the night before was a whole lot more scary. Plus, I "held on" to the walls of the building, like that's going to do me any good if the glass, which was vibrating I swear, actually collapsed.

So the first weekend without a home game in Washington was a disaster. There's one more before 2015 in mid-December. That weekend we play a Friday night game in Miami. I'll be there for that one too. Hopefully it goes a little better than this past weekend.

On the CN Tower's Glass Floor. The glow behind me is the light from below. iPod camera is only so good.
My feet on the Glass Floor. Freaky stuff!

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