February 23, 2015

Hello Brooklyn!

The NBA All-Star Game is the marquee attraction of the NBA's All-Star weekend, but it's not the only event that generates some buzz during the mid-season break. Before the main attraction on Sunday night, there are two more nights of excitement in the Rising Stars Challenge (Friday night) and the All-Star Saturday Night. I suppose I could have headed to New York last weekend and just taken in Sunday night's game but what's the point of that? All-Star Weekend for me had to include all three nights. Plus I sort of had little option. More on that later.

On a typical All-Star Weekend, the Rising Stars Challenge, All-Star Saturday Night and All-Star Game all take place on successive nights in the same arena. After all, most cities only have the luxury of having one NBA team. But New York not only has two teams (as does Los Angeles) but the two teams play in totally different arenas. So instead of having one team host all three nights, the NBA elected to put the All-Star Game at the New York Knicks' Madison Square Garden and have the Brooklyn Nets' Barclays Center host the Friday and Saturday night affairs. That not only got me three nights of basketball, it also got me a look at the almost brand new Nets arena.

Barclays Center from the west.
The main lobby of Barclays Center.
Of all the arenas opened in the last ten years or so, Brooklyn's Barclays Center has to be the most expensive and most deluxe so I was excited about getting an up close and personal look at the place on both Friday and Saturday nights. There's an iconic image of the place with a giant hole in the roof with video displays within the hole which alone seemed worth experiencing. I really couldn't wait to get to Brooklyn to see it for myself.
After a couple of nights there, it's a nice place. I mean it's clearly newer than Verizon Center and the block (as with most arenas in the NBA) is not as restricting as the city grid at 601 F Street in D.C. so the concourses are nice and wide. The food choices are amazing and completely New York with a strong emphasis on Brooklyn. We ate pizza with a black and white cookie before the All-Star Saturday Night got started which I'd probably eat again, although Saturday I elected to wash all that down with a Budweiser instead of another $9.75 12 oz can of Brooklyn Lager like I had the previous night. I love Brooklyn Lager, but one per weekend at that price point is enough for me.
The hole in the roof disappointed me. I guess I hadn't looked closely enough at the pictures of the arena before visiting but the hole is in what is basically a canopy over the main front entrance. It looks like so much more than that in the pictures I guess. I can argue with the logic of having a canopy with a large hole in it but I guess I won't here. I'm probably being a little harsh about the outside appearance of the place considering I was only there at night and didn't feel inclined in the far-less-than-freezing temperatures to spend some time looking around the outside of the building.
If there's an impressive part of the building, it's the front lobby, which serves as a monumental arrival space and also allows crowds to filter onto the main concourse before the game and back out of the building after the final whistle without causing a horrendous backup at the exits. The space itself is more modern both in the way space is defined and the way it is lit than any other arena I have visited. I was truly happy to see the entry space. I hope the security tent we passed through on the way to the main lobby on Friday and Saturday nights was an All-Star only fixture. Otherwise, it significantly negatively affects the entrance sequence.

Friday night's Rising Stars Challenge.
First up at the Barclays Center: the Rising Stars Challenge. This was not my first time at this event. During the 2001 All-Star Weekend in D.C., which also happened to be my first as a Wizards season ticket holder, I managed to get a seat to this event on Saturday afternoon at Verizon Center. I paid $10 to sit in the last row of Section 119 in the lower bowl to see both this event and the All-Star Team practice. This year those two events were split, with the cost of each event far exceeding the ten spot I paid 14 years ago. I see that as a measure of how much the revenue stream for the NBA has changed in the last decade and a half. My seats this year were $55 each and they were not as good as my seats in '01. Assuming the cost of practice tickets were similar, that's at least a ten-fold increase in price over 14 years.
When I took in this event at Verizon Center, it was a contest between ten rookies and ten second year players, a true rooks vs. sophomores event. Since 2001, the game's format has undergone two changes: first to two teams drafted by two celebrity / former player coaches and then this year to a USA vs. the world format. Call me a traditionalist, but I loved the old old format. For me, the idea of taking a class of guys and pitting them against the draft that followed them is far more appealing. There seems to be a common rallying point for each group to show that their draft class is superior. I don't see it in the new formats. I am also not convinced there's enough talent in the world group to equal the American group. Sure the world won this year's inaugural battle in this format, but I think you will generally end up with something lower in quality by doing it this way than by taking 20 first and second year players regardless of national origin.
If I were buying these events a la carte (I was not), I'd likely skip this event. Maybe it was the players involved or that I've seen way more hoops than I had in '01 but I didn't find this game particularly spirited. I don't remember much from the game I saw in Verizon Center all those years ago, but I do remember the Chicago Bulls' Khalid El-Amin playing defense hard enough to draw blood and get some folks on the sophomore squad upset. Maybe he set my bar too high. On the other hand, maybe the complete lack of Wizards players in the game affected my enjoyment. Whatever the case, I was less enthusiastic about this game than I was the last time I attended.

Trey Burke and Brandon Knight ready to start their first round heat of the Skills Competition.
At the end of the Rising Stars Challenge, I was honestly worried that All-Star Weekend's hype and expectations would exceed the actual action on court. But any chance of that disappointment dissipated as soon as All-Star Saturday Night started. In fact, I'd go so far as to say this was the best event of the weekend. Even better than the All-Star Game. And it probably wasn't even close.
I had a couple of concerns about All-Star Saturday Night. First, the lack of Wizards players' involvement. John Wall was initially announced as a contestant in the Skills Challenge but then withdrew to get a little more (or just a little maybe) rest than he would have without participating that night. Second, I was concerned the event would end quickly and that it wouldn't be particularly exciting. No chance of that as I soon found out.

I think what makes All-Star Saturday Night so entertaining is that it's a real competition. Yes, I know they keep score in the All-Star Game but it's not really competitive. The margin of victory in no way reflects the amount of desire to win that is put out there on the court. But the events held on Saturday night are different. Guys are really looking to show that they are the best in the league at shooting three pointers or dunking or running rings around their counterparts in the dribbling/passing/shooting competition that is the Skills Competition. And believe it or not, the challenge that these guys put up for each other translates into the crowd. Team affiliation aside (although let's face it, I was rooting as hard as possible against Kyrie Irving), it was really easy to get absorbed into what was happening on the court.
This was pure entertainment all the way. And Barclays was probably the right place to host this event. I wrote earlier that I thought Barclays was a nice place. For this event, with its lighting and projection capabilities, it was incredible. The arena looked like it was hosting a rock concert, especially during the Slam Dunk contest, which was the last event of the night. If I were picking just one event in All-Star Weekend to attend, it would definitely be the Saturday night event. This, not the All-Star Game, is absolutely the best part of the three day weekend.
And it wasn't short either. It easily went three hours and while it's difficult to claim anything costing $500 was money well spent, it was worth every penny to do it once. I'm now one arena closer to visiting every building in the NBA. Now I need to get back to Barclays to watch the Wizards play sometime.

The light show before Zach LaVine's final dunk of the Slam Dunk competition.

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