At first glance it’s all borderline absurd: the wait, the expense, the costumes, the music, the special effects and the scale.
The line to get in started three hours in advance. Through the glass doors we could see smartly dressed armies of attendants speaking into walkie talkies and bracing for the masses as if we were a horde of zombies waiting at the gates.
The three of us stood near the front of the growing line pretending not to be total newbies, hoping we’d picked the right entrance and wondering how long we’d be standing outside. We counted down to 5pm, then 5:30, then 6.
Adults and children alike were decked out in blue and gold gear, from their high-top sneaks to their flat-billed, stickered hats.
An hour before the doors opened an announcer started roaring over the outdoor speakers, fueling our anticipation and creating the illusion that any second now our wait would be over. We knew we were truly getting close when the crowd behind us started to buzz and squirm, like bees about to burst from the hive.
Inside everything was gleaming and seemed to be coated in fresh wax. Voices echoed in the bright, circular halls. Stout men and women sold $13 beers, $15 for a collector’s cup. People paid up unflinchingly because this event was just that worthy.
Overwhelmed by the plethora of food and drink options — we went for the first plastic cup of IPA we could find (it was that or a Bud Light for the same price) to tide us over while the more daunting food decisions were made.
Nachos, hotdogs, po’ boys, Vietnamese sandwiches, smoothies, noodles, roast beef. Dad and Zander went for the catfish and fries. I went for the cheaper option of stealing their fries.
Equipped with the necessary sustenance we headed through a small tunnel and out of the bright light. The floor dropped away in front of us as if we’d taken a wrong turn and ended up in a quidditch stadium.
Walls of seats encircled the arena. In the center in all its glory was a small, golden court. We’d arrived early enough to watch the players do their pre-pregame drills. They were dressed in casual workout gear and almost looked human. It was easy to imagine what their lives had been like before the NBA: ball-handling drills, shooting, rebounding, passing, repeat — on the playground, in a high school gym, at college.
In that moment they were just players on a court warming up, and I was pleased to see how normal and familiar it all seemed, even making me reminisce on my basketball days.
But this feeling of normalcy started to fade as the 19,596-person stadium began to fill and a turntable was wheeled out onto the court. A DJ emerged and proceeded to “get this party started,” playing mashups of Drake, Rihanna, Jay-Z and the like.
Announcers settled into mid-court seats to present their networks with a pregame rundown. Different branches of the spirit squad began to show up: presenters, t-shirt throwers, t-shirt throwers on segues, flag carriers and the dance team.
The stadium continued to fill and grow louder. The motivational montages on the jumbotron became more frenzied. The DJ’s bass dropped. The smell of hotdog was suddenly everywhere.
The countdown to tip-off had begun and the miniature teams below finished up their warmups.
The whole affair started off tame with the singing of The Star Spangled Banner. Expensive cups of cheap beer were retired to cupholders as thousands of spectators harnessed their excitement just long enough to stand and listen. The last note had barely died out before the announcer’s deep, familiar voice boomed around us.
In a blink the Heat, the visiting team, had been introduced. In the next blink the arena went dark dramatically as beams of light darted around. What sounded like war drums rumbled over the speakers and clips of the home team’s championship win played on the screen.
To an alien passing through the whole affair could have resembled some drug-infused festival where raucous souls seek sensory overload. I have to admit that whatever they were doing was working. It was impossible not to get pumped up by this well-crafted light and sound show.
The beat picked up and the cheer squad hustled out holding Warriors flags and running around center court while high kicking, because normal running would’ve been too bland for such an event.
Flames shot up from both sides of the arena as each starter was introduced. Somewhere in there sparklers rained down from above (hey, why not?).
It was all a fantastic feast for the senses that made me want to ask an NBA player from the 60s what he thinks about all this.
In an instant it was over. The lights went back on, the DJ was rolled away, the ball was tossed up and the game began. Suddenly all of the crowd’s intensity was focused on two teams running, passing and shooting around on the court. It could’ve been anticlimactic, but it wasn’t — a testament to the sport.
Basketball is a quick game where a 10-point lead is hardly a lead at all and any lull in play is exploited by the offense or the defense. Players get injured quickly and disappear from the floor just as quickly. Everyone on the court is a part of the action at all times.
The bells and whistles had faded away in exchange for passes so perfect they surely required telepathy, plays so seamless that they must’ve been driven by muscle memory. This was a grand display of wordless communication and good ol’ fundamentals. The Warriors, a deep, balanced team, had me convinced of their motto. There really is “strength in numbers.”
Opportunistic spirit squads squeezed shoot offs, dance performances and crowd rallying into every pause in play. Audience cams showed children in Curry jerseys krumping, adults in Curry jerseys proposing to loved ones and fans holding giant cutouts of Curry’s face.
Some spectators were borderline obnoxious, but forgivably so because their glee was visibly uncontrollable and their absence would have left the ambiance lacking.
Needless to say my first NBA experience is one I will most definitely be repeating.
At the end of the day it’s not the hoopla that packs a stadium of 20,000. It’s not sparklers, the nachos or even the free t-shirts. It’s the 48 minutes of basketball they’ve come to see — 10 people playing a simple, beautiful game and leaving it all on the court.