December 29, 2014

The Quest

Chicago, November 2010. Sunday morning at the Bean after a Wizards loss the night before.
About a couple of weeks ago, I was in south Florida to watch my beloved Washington Wizards take on a team I am equally but totally oppositely passionate about…the hated Miami Heat. The game was sloppy, but the Wizards prevailed ultimately because they are a better team than the Heat, not because they played better on that particular night. That still sounds weird after almost a decade and a half of disappointment watching the Wizards lose a lot.

My stop into AmericanAirlines Arena right on the water in downtown Miami earlier this month represented the tenth different NBA arena in which I have seen the Wizards play an NBA game. Overall, I have now seen an NBA regular season or playoff game played in fourteen different buildings over the last almost two decades. Since there are only 29 different arenas (the Clippers and Lakers play in the same building), I'm pretty much figuring I should see them all at this point, right? Right! I mean I'm about halfway done anyway.

So this is not exactly a new thing for me to try to achieve. I've been thinking about knocking off every arena in the Association for a good six or seven years now. This is just the first time I have put it all down in writing for the record. My ultimate goal here is to see the Wizards play in every current arena in the NBA against each home tenant. I figure once I get to that point, maintaining the complete collection will just mean traveling to any new arena the year it opens. The tough part will be getting there to begin with.

For now, I'm contenting myself with some interim goals, which allow me to declare more success than seeing the Wizards play in every opponent's arena. The first is to make it to an NBA event in each city, whether it be a regular season game, playoff game or All-Star event. This allows me to take credit for watching hoops in arenas before I was a Wizards fan and taking in random NBA games just because I happen to be in an NBA city on game day. The second is to see an NBA event in the current arena in each city. This group should be a subset of the first. Watching a Wizards road game will be a subset of both, unless I'm way off in my logic here.

So with all that said, here's my progress to date. I'm proud of what I've accomplished so far, but I realize as I wrote this post that I need to do a whole lot more traveling away from home. And fast!

Atlantic Division
I've lived in the northeast of the United States pretty much constantly since my family moved to this country in 1979, so it's no surprise to me that I've made out pretty well in this Division. I have just one arena to visit (in Brooklyn) and I'll take care of that when I take in the Rising Stars Challenge at Barclay's Center during All-Star Weekend this coming February. There's still some work to do Wizards-wise here but I'm feeling pretty good about the Atlantic.

The first game I ever saw in person was a New York Knicks / Toronto Raptors game at Madison Square Garden two days before Christmas in 1995. I was a Knicks fan at the time living in upstate New York and I surprised my dad (who was also following the Knicks in Connecticut) with a pair of tickets for an early Christmas present. The only memories I really have of that game are sitting in the upper deck end zone in MSG while my dad continually expressed amazement at Damon Stoudamire's last name. For some reason he just couldn't get the pronunciation right and Stoudamire's name was called a lot that night as he was pretty much all the talent the Raptors had that season.

My dad and I would end up at four more Knicks games over the next couple of years always in the upper deck and always in the end zone. To this day, I haven't seen a ball game at Madison Square Garden closer than those seats my dad and I had those three years. Each time I went to see the Knicks, New York seemed overwhelming to me despite the fact that I sort of knew New York pretty well at that point. We rarely seemed to know what we were doing and our time in New York seemed to last less than an hour longer than the game itself. It was in and out. I have tickets to the All-Star game there in a couple of months. I can't wait to go back as a more experienced hoops fan.

Our time at MSG was confined to the upper end zone because the Knicks in the late 1990s were good; the Boston Celtics, who were located about the same distance from our house in Connecticut, were not. In fact, they were pretty terrible. This was the Rick Pitino era when the Celtics seemed to have about 35 small forwards on their roster who Pitino would constantly be switching in and out of the game. So after the first couple of years of my dad and I seeing Knicks games in person, we decided to travel to Boston a couple of times to see some games in some better seats, which were plentiful in those days.

Ask my opinion of Boston teams and I'll tell you I pretty much hate them all. But I love the city of Boston and the neighborhood around the TD Garden (or the Fleet Center as it was known in the late '90s) is no exception. Heading to Boston was an opportunity to stop into an Irish pub for a pint or two and some shepherd's pie before heading over to the arena to watch the C's lose. I can't wait to get back there to watch the Wizards sometime in the next few years. 

While the Gardens in New York and Boston were my first two pro basketball experiences, Philadelphia and Toronto have been knocked off the list this year. I think the Atlantic is in good shape, although I need to make sure I go back to a few places when the Wizards are in town.

Central Division
My progress in the Atlantic Division is almost 100 percent complete in a couple of columns but remains incomplete from a Wizards perspective because of the sort of haphazard way I've engaged the NBA since I became a serious fan in 1994. My progress in the Central Division, which pretty much covers the Great Lakes states, is less comprehensive but more complete Wizards-wise. I love the midwest from my four years at the University of Michigan in the late 1980s so any opportunity to get back to this area of the country is a welcome one, especially if it's to watch some live hoops.

In each case where I have seen a Central Division team at home, it's been against the Wizards because I have taken trips to these cities specifically to get closer to the finish line of this quest. I hit Indianapolis in 2009, Chicago a year later and then Milwaukee this past winter. I managed to get about a minute of air time from Steve Buckhantz and Phil Chenier in Indy (where they mentioned this quest); argued with a cab driver in Chicago about the best dunk in the Bulls-Knicks rivalry of the 1990s (Starks over Jordan is still the best); and picked up a whole host of free Bucks swag courtesy of the Bucks PR department so I could fill up this blog. Good times in all three cities.

I am dying to go to a game in Cleveland, although I may postpone that trip until the post LeBron era and I'm thinking Detroit is one of the last places I'm hitting just because the Palace is so far in the middle of nowhere in Auburn Hills, Michigan (a full 33 miles outside of Detroit). I'm definitely partial to seeing basketball in the middle of a city where it belongs. Maybe if I wait long enough, I'll see hoops back downtown in the motor city.

Southeast Division
It should come as no surprise that of all the divisions in the NBA, I am most complete with the Southeast Division. I live close to most all these cities, I can get to each one with relatively inexpensive non-stop flights and some of these teams have been pretty terrible recently, meaning tickets have been pretty inexpensive. Plus I get a freebie with the Wizards in this group.

One trip to Charlotte could kill this group off pretty quickly, so I'll likely make a visit to the Queen City sometime in the next couple of years. After all, it's a pretty easy flight down to North Carolina on US Airways. I have seen an NBA game in Charlotte many years ago, when the Hornets were the original Hornets before they moved to New Orleans then Oklahoma City after hurricane Katrina then back to New Orleans before re-naming themselves the Pelicans allowing the Bobcats to take back the original Hornets name. The playoff game I saw down in the old cavernous Charlotte Coliseum outside of town was the first postseason NBA game I had ever seen and I'll never forget the defeated atmosphere that the crowd had down there, having lost all faith in the team's ownership and waiting for them to just split town one day. The fans got their way a couple of months later.

I'd love to finish this division off soon. When I'm taking on a job like this one, I love getting components of the task entirely completed and then I can move on to another part of the same job. Soon. I promise myself.

Southwest Division
While I am feeling pretty good about the Eastern Conference portion of my mission to see the Wizards take on all other 29 teams in their home arenas, I feel a lot less than confident about my progress in the Western Conference. There's a good reason for this: it is generally more complicated and expensive to visit cities further from where I live and some of these places are very far from where I will most likely ever live. When we are talking about cities outside of the Eastern time zone, flights are longer and most often not direct, which just sort of sucks.

My progress on the Southwest Division, therefore, really looks pretty pitiful. And this is the closest of all the Western Conference divisions. In early 2013, I took a basketball trip down to Texas for almost a full week, driving from Dallas through San Antonio all the way down to the Mexican border before heading back to Dallas through Austin. I saw four hoops games that week but the focus was the D-League, not the NBA. The only NBA game I saw on that trip was a Mavericks - Golden State Warriors game in Dallas. I stopped in at the Spurs' arena in San Antonio but it was to see the rodeo, not basketball.

There's for sure a lot of work to do here but Texas is relatively easy to get to from Washington and I'd love to go back and listen to some jazz and blues in New Orleans and Memphis. I'm missing a golden opportunity to see a Saturday game in Memphis on April 4 (opted to go to Italy instead; go figure) this season. I'm hoping the basketball gods will not punish this transgression and instead serve up a Saturday night game in either Memphis or the Crescent City next year.

Northwest Division
The first road trip I ever took to see the Wizards was to Minneapolis in 2007. It was the only road game that year that was not televised locally so in an act of self indulgence, I decided to fly into and out of Minnesota on the same day so I could see my Wizards knock off the Timberwolves. So many things went wrong here with travel. The Wizards flight got diverted the previous day due to weather which got them into town late and I ended up staying in Minneapolis overnight because of weather back home postponing all flights back to DC. But this is the trip that got me hooked and the night downtown convinced me that spending some time in a city instead of just focusing on the game itself was a great way to cover the U.S.

That '07 trip to the Target Center is all I got here. Denver is likely the next city in this division to see me in town. It's a long way to go to Portland and Utah and there are no direct flights from D.C. to Oklahoma City. Maybe I can hit OKC when the Wizards sign Kevin Durant away from the Thunder in a couple of years.

Pacific Division
If it was no surprise that the Southeast Division is the most complete for me, then it should come as an equal non-surprise that the Pacific Division is the least complete. Four of the five teams in this division play in California, a place I have visited a ton in the last 20 years but only once since 2006. I've never seen a hoops game in person in California. The only credit I can take here is a couple of games I saw in the desert in Phoenix on a vacation in 2001. I've got as much work to do here as I do in the Southwest division, only the Southwest cities are a heck of a lot closer.

A couple of years ago, my friend Mike told me I'm going to have to visit more than one road arena per year if I want to hit them all anytime soon and he's absolutely right. I have a ton of work to do here. I think my trip to Miami just before Christmas represents the last Wizards road trip I'm taking this season, although as I mentioned I do plan to make it to Brooklyn's Barclay's Center about the middle of February. I might be lucky to complete this quest by 2025 but I'll remain committed to it until I do. Can't wait for the 2015-2016 schedule release in August so I can project where I'm going next season.

Milwaukee, March 2014. Me and the statue of the Fonz before a Wizards win over the Bucks that same day. 

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