29 December 2007

Get Off The Bus

Most every Christmas, courtesy of Mrs. Beanball, my fireplace stocking brims with a pair of overpriced Suns' tickets for corner seats in the upper deck - so each winter I find myself perilously high above a game or two. I take our 13 year old son, which is doubly nice because he follows the NBA with pubescent passion, and because, soon enough I imagine, he wont be caught dead at games with his dad.

Last night, we took the Phoenix city bus to the game. Between waiting at the bus stop near our home and picking up strangers along the route, it takes twice as long to get downtown as it does by car, and the overall cost (split between two people) is roughly equivalent. But there are reasons we take the bus. The lad enters high school this fall, and he may ride the bus solo, so I'd like to familiarize him with particulars now; how to hop on the right trolley, how the new fare cards work, how to pull the loopy cord over the window at the right time to request his stop, and how to hold his own with assorted creeps looking for an easy mark.

My suburban son likes that the bus drops us off on shadowy First Avenue, requiring a quieter, retro stroll to the gleaming Purple Palace on Third Street, than if we parked in the sterile Civic Center district just north of the arena. From First Avenue, we file past ground floor offices of archaic travel agents and the harshly lit dens of 24 hr bail bondsmen, until the still lovely portico of the art deco Luhrs Building draws our eyes upward. Across the street, ghostly white panels loom over Patriot's Park, awaiting demolition. Only our sneakers are heard on the dark, uneven sidewalk, until we approach scalper's corner and just to the south, the squalid adobe flophouses along Madison.

Inside US Airways Arena, it is not nearly so quiet. According to the shot clock perched above each backboard, we arrived 17 minutes before tipoff, more than sufficient time to cultivate a headache or damage an eardrum. I've been going to Suns games, on and off, for twenty years, and have never heard sound this loud or constant at a sports event. The teenager, a Led Zeppelin afficionado, even said it bothered him. Ultimately, it made me more sad and deaf than angry.

Novelist Richard Ford wrote a dynamite piece in TNYT Magazine recently about how the essence of games are being drowned out by an unprecedented assault of spectacle, speculation and, for lack of a better word, crap . Ford observed that while he loves NBA basketball in particular (ie the singular athleticism, fluid grace, etc.), he just cant stand going to an NBA game. Poor Richard. All-Manic. I hear you. (Well, I could hear you, after I left the arena.)

It's not like I didnt see this coming. It's true I just got off the bus, but it wasnt the bus from Kazakhstan either. NBA pregame intros have been bombastic for years, but it's no longer just loud music intros and cheesy, sing songy PA men. Today, there's a deafening, multimedia homage to the home team and to each starter, backlit in the darkened arena by four humongous floor torches, the heat from which we actually felt in the second deck. It reminded one of pagan ceremonies from The Temple of Doom when that guy lost his heart. Yesterday, the arena organist might prompt rhythmic chants of "D-FENSE" with a few fourth quarter chords; today, a relentless army of "in-house hosts", cheerleaders, dancers and acrobats, DJs and a gorilla exhort us when to stand, when to cheer, when to cheer louder, when to beg for a free pizza, when to jump up and down for a T-Shirt or for a coupon redeemable for a free pizza or a free T-shirt. It is all choreographed, none of it is spontaneous or has any connection with the game on the court. The truth is that, in terms of arena atmosphere, these busy, motivated employees generate so much noise by themselves as to render the 18K paying fans a trivial afterthought .

What once was a competition between two athletic teams has taken a back seat to the contest in the stands between reasonably intelligent, well adjusted fans and the corporation smothering their individuality with an imposing cacophony of mindless drivel. The NBA, via its ear splitting, high decibel voodoo, has methodically cultivated this dichotomy in the stands - between passive drones waiting to be told what to do, and more discerning fans, now relegated to expressing themselves via opting out from the nonsense - whether that means silence or actual departure from the arenas and the game they love. It is an exhausting visceral assault, reminiscent of military sensory overload tactics aimed at the likes of Manuel Noriega.

Why all the fuss? After all, this is, or will be, primarily a baseball blog. I guess it's because baseball so models itself on the NBA and NFL; rising ticket prices, luxury boxes, in house "hosts", etc. The spectacle and feel of an MLB game today, is so much like an NBA game of fifteen years ago. I am sad to say I see it coming. The torches have been passed and MLB fans will eventually feel the heat, from whatever deck they or their thoughtful wives can afford.

After the assault, we two boys marched up darkened Central, and lingered at Clark Gable's star, fading on the sidewalk, in front of the elegant pocket lobby of the historic San Carlos Hotel, then brushed by a panhandler or two, on our way to the bus depot on Van Buren. This forgotten downtown corridor, shadowing the lively lavender hubbub to the East, is so quiet at 9:30 at night, traffic signals can be heard switching on and off, as father and son silently pass through, conversing loudly with the past.

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