If there's a team in the NBA in desperate need of a break for a week or so this season right at this moment, it's the Washington Wizards. The Wizards opened the 2014-2015 NBA season pretty hot, going 10-5 in October / November and besting that with a 12-4 December. But 2015 has not been kind to our local five. The team has posted an 11-12 record this year and has lost six of the last eight, including five in a row to start that stretch. Not encouraging for a squad that looked like it might contend for the Conference this season.
Looking at the team's 2015 woes in more detail only makes things worse. The six recent losses include two to division rivals the Charlotte Hornets and three to the Atlanta Hawks and Toronto Raptors combined, who sit one-two in the Eastern Conference. A couple of weeks ago, the Wizards were in second place in the East, somehow managing to withstand the Raptors hotter-than-the-Wizards start and a challenge from the Chicago Bulls in the last couple of months. Now the Wizards are barely clinging to fourth. To make matters even more dire, the team is waiting to find out how bad a stress fracture in Bradley Beal's leg is, the third such injury in just three years in the league for Bradley.
Fortunately for the Wizards, they haven't had to play in the last seven days (including today) and won't tomorrow either as the League stopped play for the last week or so for the 2015 All-Star break. Our players aren't the only ones who needed a few days off; so did I. I'm usually not one to get caught up in the hype of a winning team so early in the season but I guess I've been kept down as a Wiz fan for so long that I needed a glimmer of hope and let our second place start get the best of me. Fortunately, this year's All-Star break for the Wizards was also an All-Star break for me. I managed to get a hold of some seats to the All-Star Game on Sunday night (well, tickets for the whole weekend really) and headed up to New York with John Wall to experience the mid-season break in person.
Now I admit, I'm not really much of an All-Star guy, probably because there are usually no Wizards involved. But I wanted to go at least once in my life and the opportunity to get to New York at a reasonable price presented itself. So last Thursday, I hopped on Amtrak and made the trip three and a half or so hours north for a long weekend in America's greatest city with the anticipation of having a weekend I would likely never forget.
The NBA's 2015 All-Star weekend was a shared affair between two teams in two of New York's boroughs: the Brooklyn Nets hosted Friday night's Rising Stars Challenge and All-Star Saturday Night at Barclays Center over on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn and the New York Knicks hosted the All-Star Game on Sunday night at the Mecca of basketball, Madison Square Garden. There were way more events than just those three in New York this past weekend but the Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights are the signature events of All-Star Weekend. I'm sure I'll talk about some of the other events in future posts.
My first pro basketball experience took place in Madison Square Garden a little less than 20 years ago. My dad and I headed down to New York from my parents' house in Connecticut and watched our then favorite team Knicks take on the Toronto Raptors just a couple of days before Christmas in 1995. Over the next two and a half years, my dad and I would travel down to the Garden four more times to watch the Knicks, seeing Patrick Ewing, John Starks, Charles Oakley and the rest of that great late '90s team lose only once (in double overtime to the Utah Jazz no less) in our five games. Since my last trip to the Garden way back in 1998, I've traveled all over this country to watch pro basketball so I was excited to return a little more seasoned and see how the experience compared.
Madison Square Garden can be found between Seventh and Eighth Avenues and 31st and 33rd Streets in downtown Manhattan. It is located right above Penn Station, which is a hub for Amtrak, the Long Island Railroad, New Jersey Transit rail system and the Subway, on one of the busiest blocks in the city. It is truly one of the most urban sitings for sport in the United States today. The main marquee of the arena is on Seventh Street but you would have a difficult time seeing the building from that side because there's an office building between Seventh and MSG. Thus begins the paradox of everyone's Madison Square Garden experience.
The approach and entrance to the Garden has to be one of the worst in professional sports. The initial pedestrian sequence takes you from Seventh Avenue, up a series of steps, through one of a couple of multi story openings in the office building and into the lobby of the arena. Throughout this whole promenade, you never really see the cylindrical form of the building itself because the views are constrained and restricted by the rest of the stuff in your way.
The lobby of the building is no better. In fact, it might be worse. Upon entering the building, you are faced with a series of ticket windows and a wide corridor proceeding left and right of the windows to what appears to be a dead end. Welcome to the lobby of the World's Most Famous Arena! When the gates are opened, which are at the end of the dead end corridors, all fans are admitted to an escalator lobby not much larger than would be required to make the space fully functional and you ride the escalators up to your designated level and step out into the concourse. Sounds very thrilling and ceremonial, right? Just wait until the end of the game when you have to walk down a fire stair to get out. Not kidding.
When you go to see a game in the Garden, be patient with all of the above because it's totally worth it when you get inside the arena. The first thing you see when you walk into the arena is that gorgeous steel cable suspension roof with the wood panels inlaid between the bicycle spokes of the exposed structure. It's the only basketball arena I've been in where there is anything to look at above the scoreboard. The ceiling alone makes the Garden different than any other pro basketball hall; the images of the court below that roof structure, like the one above towards the end of Sunday's All-Star Game, are timeless. The place is instantly recognizable.
Once you get to your seat and start looking around, you see the championship banners and retired numbers hanging in the rafters. The Knicks only have one more NBA Championship banner than the Bullets and Wizards but they have an historic collection of Division Championships hanging from the roof. And the retired numbers hail back to the two great Knicks teams that won it all in 1970 and 1973: Walt Frazier, Dick Barnett, Earl Monroe, Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley. It's impossible not to be impressed in the Garden even though the Knicks have been just awful for about the last 15 years.
Finally when the game starts, the Garden focuses all the attention on the court. When you sit in Verizon Center's upper deck during a game, they turn out the lights but they keep them on in the lower level. Not so at MSG. It's all dark everywhere except the most important place in the building: the hardwood. This allows the attention of the audience to be focused exactly where it should be. The reason we are there is to see basketball being played at it's highest level.
I feel like a little kid describing this place. I guess I understood all this from my trips to the Garden in the 1990s with my dad but I never really appreciated the importance of the building until I experienced some other arenas around the U.S. And admittedly, the view from the lower level corner is way different than the upper level end zone. I'm not knocking the tickets my dad and I bought way back in the last century; they were the best we could find, after all, in the pre-internet, pre-legal-secondary market days. It's just way better taking it all in from Section 114.
Ariana Grande and Nicky Minaj are somewhere towards the center of this pic during the halftime show.
So the All-Star Game isn't exactly basketball at it's highest level. Sure some of the greatest players in the world are there and the game ends up being close in score but it's a far cry from a playoff game or a critical regular season contest. Nobody plays any defense, there are no plays being run, you can generally count the total number of fouls committed by each team on two hands and the referees call traveling less than they do in the regular season. But it is a great show and it's way better in person than it is on TV. And it's way better in New York than any other city in the world.
How great a show was it? How about Queen Latifah singing the national anthem? How about former president Bill Clinton sitting courtside? Yes, there were other stars there like Rihanna, Beyonce, Jay-Z, Spike Lee and countless NBA legends but nobody ever tops Bill. Ever! How about a halftime show with Ariana Grande and Nicky Minaj? How about Christina Aguilera and the Rockettes kicking off the evening with a tribute to New York? How about timeouts with performances by the casts of Chicago, Mamma Mia and Jersey Boys? Yep, the All-Star Game on Sunday night had all of that. I don't think we are getting all that in any other city and lucky for us our seats were about 30 feet from the stage.
But back to the game. As a contest between two teams it was fairly non-interesting. I found myself remembering why I don't watch the All-Star Game all the way through on a regular basis during the times in the game when the Garden was absolutely silent because nothing interesting was going on. Yes, the whole crowd sometimes made pretty much no noise. At all. Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook came off the bench for the Western Conference and lit it up during the first half, scoring 27 of the West's 93 (!!!!) halftime points en route to a 41 point total output (one shy of the All-Star Game record held by Wilt Chamberlain) and the game's Most Valuable Player award.
I thought John Wall represented the Wizards fairly well, scoring 19 points, good for third on the East squad, on 9 of 16 shooting, although he did all that with a -10 plus/minus rating which was last on the Eastern Conference team. Before the game he declared he was going to chase Magic Johnson's All-Star Game record of 22 assists and seemed to have the East coaching staff in his corner. He failed. And pretty miserably, handing out only seven dimes in almost 30 minutes of play. I'm always amazed at how guys set these targets publicly before games. Just go out and play. Yes, LeBron missed some shots (including a wide open dunk) and passed the ball to others to kill a number of John's assist chances, but even I can't blame the difference between seven and 22 on LeBron and I don't like LeBron at all.
This game was truly different than any other NBA game I have ever attended, and not just because I actually applauded for LeBron James and Chris Bosh. There's an old adage that in pro basketball the first one to 100 wins. I think with the All-Star Game, it's the first one to 150 that wins. The score ended up being historically high, with 321 points total in the West's 163-158 victory and the West did, in fact, reach 150 first. But just like a regular season NBA game, there were folks who didn't stick around to see the outcome. I'm always amazed when people leave Verizon Center towards the end of a tight game just to beat the traffic. I was honestly astonished when I saw people leave the All-Star Game early. The list price on my ticket was $750. No way am I leaving before I get the maximum entertainment value with that sort of price tag.
I don't imagine I'll be showing up for an All-Star Game again any time soon. I don't think anything could top my experience in New York. I'd put Washington as a definite if it ever comes back here and I'm still a Wizards season ticket holder and I'd be tempted by Los Angeles but it won't ever be the same as the event this past weekend in the Garden. I picked a good game for my first All-Star experience.
About 2:30 to go in the fourth quarter: empty seats all around me.