Blasts from the Past - Seventeen Thousand Seven Hundred and Thirty One People Get It, Why Can’t I?
To make up for missing last week, here's a doozy of a piece. This is an experiential review I wrote about me going to a Brooklyn Nets with my brother where I question everything I see. I liked this one a lot, enjoy!
It’s a Saturday night at around 11 PM and I am seated in a Metro North train bound for West Haven, somnolent from the journey that has just been undertaken, with my head propped up on my shoulder so that it doesn’t rest against the grease swirled plexiglass of the night-darkened window. Next to me, my brother has plopped his head over the seat back of the row in front of us, obliviously snoring, to the certain discomfort of the couple that had thought that they were the ones to occupy that space. While I pretend not to know him, an exercise that I know is futile, as these same people were surely here when we were têteing our mildly inebriated têtes just fifteen minutes ago; I consider the day now past. I am weary from mostly sitting down. Whether in transit, to eat and drink, or in attendance of a National Basketball Association game, our entire day has consisted of sitting and watching a bunch of goings on and even once, when the moment enveloped us, slapping fives, an action almost immediately regretted. I had sat and observed the events of the day with a stab at a dispassionate eye, jotting down bits and scratches into a notebook, ready for the event that would encapsulate the entire experience. The one thing that would tie the entire experience into a neat thematic package that would provide the backbone for the entire piece. I think I have gotten sight of the thing.
But before I tell you of my discovery, I should tell you about the day in question.
This whole business started when my brother and I both started playing a new videogame. NBA2K15 to be specific, a basketball role playing game where you create a likeness of yourself and inject yourself into the league, controlling only your character as you play through the season and interact with your teammates in the locker rooms and through the media. It’s all very immersive I assure you. After a few weeks of playing, my brother proposed that we should go and actually see a NBA game live to see the real life version of all these digital friends we dunked on. Unfortunately, now is the point of the year when the teams go into the playoffs, thus limiting our choices of games both in terms of venue and date to see them. There are only a handful of teams are in a reasonable driving distance and only two of those actually made the playoffs, both of which are the lower seed in their matchup and are likely to be eliminated in the first round. This narrows our choices to ASAP and either of the Boston Celtics or the Brooklyn Nets. Both teams are equally devoid of UConn alums, our only remotely emotional connection to actual basketball, so that’s a push. Both cities are roughly equidistant, so no regional considerations can be definitively introduced. Ticket prices are about five dollars higher for Celtics tickets on Stubhub though. Also the public transit is more easily accessible. That decides it. We are now dyed in the wool Brooklyn Nets fans.
When we buy the tickets the previous week Saturday can’t come around fast enough. However, by Friday, we wish it was much further away. A sudden injury befalls my brother, of the tripping all over yourself in a gravel filled parking lot, spraining and scraping everything that reasonably could be sprained and scraped. I sit with him in the emergency room, a visit he absolutely doesn’t require but that which his employer insisted on. But the I’s and t’s in liability are dotted and crossed and with a doctor’s shrug, the trip is still greenlit. Wrapped up in gauze and braced every which way, my brother is perhaps ill prepared for the rigors of a New York journey, but none the less raring to go. I myself am wearing the only piece of NBA paraphernalia I own, a Detroit Piston Richard Hamilton jersey that I dug out of the bottom of an old hamper, unused and forgotten about for years. I suggest that my brother take the same approach and wear his only piece, a Boston Celtics Ray Allen jersey he got as gift once and never wore. He calls me a cretin for wearing the wrong jersey to a game and throws on a Yankee shirt.
Jokes on him though, at least I got the sport correct.
I park my car at the West Haven train station, which conveniently is right next to the tracks and not half a mile away like I would have to do if I went to the New Haven station. This is more important today with my escorting the toddling mummy around, but still nice when free of such bonds. We board the train promptly and are immediately witness to the first of what would soon be many new and depraved experiences. A whole family of people are sitting on a blanket on the floor of the car, having a full picnic with messy sandwiches and coffees shaking themselves apart intermittently. We move to a different and ultimately more civilized car.
On the two hour journey into the city, we decide to quiz each other on the basketball teams that has ostensibly precipitated our trip. We soon find that we are wholly deficient on any advanced trivia about the teams, being unable to name their championship seasons or any other significant achievements. We settle on a game of who can name the most players that will play at the game that we paid fifty dollars apiece to see. We rattle off a grand total of two Brooklyn Nets. I can name far more Atlanta Hawks, but I have the advantage of being drafted by them and playing on their team in the video game. Of course, I only know them from this context, never having seen a Hawks game even on TV. I am intimately familiar with the simulation and wholly ignorant of the reality. The only bit of trivia I know about Hawks point guard Jeff Teague is that he doesn’t pass me the ball nearly enough. This proved to be true in real life as well.
Just before arriving at Grand Central Station, in the darkened tunnels running under the Bronx where every change of track is felt in heaving shudders, I observe a woman applying eye makeup. I take a note about this occurrence and my handwriting is about as legible as a Spirograph. That this woman exited this train with two fully intact eyeballs is testament either to her unmatched dexterity or to my own lack of such skill. I am humbled early by these evidently veteran trainspeople. I must adapt speedily, as there are many more trains to take until I reach my final destination in Brooklyn.
On one such train, the worst nightmare of every subway sitter enters through the sliding door. A visibly pregnant woman enters the car and instantly eyes dance from those who were just moments ago contentedly reclined. Who will surrender their hard won seat to this needy interloper? A significant beat passes. There are no volunteers. A brother pointedly refuses to break eye contact with his shoelaces. A woman with a baby stroller is finally the one to offer her seat, possibly still smarting from all the seats that she was not offered during her time of sitting need. The pregnant woman politely declines to the psychic sigh of all the anxious menfolk who risked a doubly dubious black mark of shame for their collective inaction. The pregnant woman disembarks at the next stop less than a minute later. We have all aged significantly more than that during this time.
While grabbing lunch, a Rueben on an onion roll and a tall glass of a randomly selected draught beer for archival purposes, I observe a woman wearing her wallet around her neck as she eats. She is wearing pants, there is no reason why this could not go in her pocket, let alone the possibility of carrying a purse. Perhaps this is a fashion statement on the crassness of jewelry, taking it to a literal level that has thus far gone unappreciated by all the other patrons of this diner. I point this out to my brother so that he may share in my found aesthetic discovery. He is too busy reciting spoilers off his phone for the basketball video game’s plotline to pay much mind.
Our lunch satisfactorily concluded, we walk quite slowly to the Barclays Center, the home for the basketball game in question. On the street in front of the venue, a van does not immediately take advantage of a newly turned green light and receives a chorus of honks and shouts. The van is marked Speedy. Perhaps this juxtaposition invited such vociferous uproar from the other drivers on the road. Perhaps they would have done the same to any other pokey vehicle and are oblivious to the irony. I scrawl all this down while on the crosswalk, waiting for a pair of men riding seven foot tall bicycles to pass.
We find our seats in the upper ring of the arena, with my brother thanking every higher power he can call on for the invention of the elevator, and find black Nets t-shirts waiting for us on the seatbacks. These t-shirts were for, presumably, everyone who came out in attendance so that they may feel some sort of comradery with their fellow fan. Or it could be a way to visually stifle the wardrobe of the casual fan who has arrived wearing a verboten color scheme. I must dissent from this apparel homodoxy. My blue and red Pistons jersey has never been worn any prouder than this illusory moment. In another section I see some woman collecting a particularly tardy row’s worth of free t-shirts. I salute her anti-conformist, even if primarily self-serving protest.
Before I tell you anything that happened during the actual game, of which very little I registered mentally, I want to talk about why people pay too much money to sit in cramped seats with a worse view of what they could see anyway on TV. Watching a TV is one of the most passive experiences possible. The ability to effect the outcome of the thing you are investing yourself in is nil. You can stop watching, either by changing the channel or turning the TV off altogether. You can also stop listening with the help of the most useful toggle to have ever been conceived, the mute button. But beyond effecting your own ability to observe the event in question, a person watching a TV has no impact whatsoever on the proceedings. Those hosting a live event must then provide for some other attraction that outweighs convenience and frugality that one enjoys from sitting in their favorite cushy chair in their living rooms of choice. Thus, the reason to crowd oneself in amidst the inadequately deodorized rabble is, at least, partially that. There is a feeling of community shared between those in attendance, all experiencing the same event at the same time, a feeling multiplied thousands fold when accounting for the sheer mass of shared reactions, all of which are as readily viewable as the game itself. People do not just attend a game to observe a game, they attend to observe others observing a game and in turn to be observed themselves. They also are made to feel as participants, able to effect the outcome of the game itself. Crowds scream and shake wildly to and fro when the opposition attempts a free throw and cheer loudly when he misses. They refer to themselves collectively as the ‘sixth man’, an indispensable member of the team, despite them being the only player who actually has to pay to be there.
However, this collective synergy of observational participation and participatory observance is seemingly deemed too insignificant by the Brooklyn Nets upper management as a reason for fans to attend their game and they have decided to supplement the action with a series of eye catching and deafening sideshows distract the crowd from any possible inner thought. These range from the pertinent to the experience sound cues calling the parishioners to chant from the book of jock psalms, Psalm #1 D-FENSE clap clap D-FENSE clap clap D-FENSE, each and every time the opposing team attempts a possession to the completely asinine, the many many dance numbers paraded through the court during any momentary lull in the action. There were child dancers, cheerleaders, elderly dancers, men on stilts dancing, mascots, men holding signs of ascending size indicating the volume of which fans should expel a noxious cloud of noise, t-shirt cannons, kiss cameras, neon bedecked drumlines playing the Imperial March from Star Wars and I’m sure, if the current state of animal rights wouldn’t all but forbid it, a collection of elephants would have been whipped in to perform inhumane tricks in increasingly desperate attempts to engage the crowd in way possible. The people in charge of preparing these events have no confidence in the ability of the event in question to capture the attention of those in attendance. While I would like to take a stand against such mental pollution that they purvey, they may in fact be correct. Professional basketball is dull as fuck.
Throughout the game, I find myself jotting down notes of all that I observe. Most of which consists of that which I’ve already described, very little of which consists of the game itself. I find myself scanning the crowd for the elusive bleacher creature to emerge and provide me with ample material to pontificate on. Meanwhile, Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford jams the ball in between the rim and the backboard and everyone has to stop playing for a bit. This is not interesting.
During a free throw attempt, a prepubescent nearby, wearing one of the free Nets black t-shirts, decides to attempt some participatory observance of his own. He gives an exaggerated cough mid-shot. We are in the upper ring, no one on the floor would ever be able to hear this cough, but in this child’s mind he has made a difference. The player has missed his shot. He is ecstatic. His father is less so. After all it was a Nets player.
The game ardently refuses to end, despite the complete inability for it to entertain anyone. Players dash through wide open lanes only to pass the ball out to players who miss equally wide open shots. A Hawks player dives out of bounds to save an errant ball and tosses it back into the court, but this save too is heading off the court, leading to a second Hawks player to try to dive to save it. He passes it straight to a Nets player who then takes and misses a wide open shot. I am dying on the inside. My brother states that “[the] wifi is a big plus.” He has been playing an NBA video game on his phone. He has sought shelter in the simulation and has preserved the fresh seed of NBA fandom in his heart, while mine has been left to wither with the harsh reality.
During half time I abandon my exaggeratedly crippled and permanently distracted brother and saunter around the concourse, both to stretch my terminally cramped legs and to take in the sights and sounds of a milling New York basketball going crowd. I am awash in a monochrome sea of humanity. While there are occasional sightings of red Hawks shirts on the horizon, as well as one possibly unconfirmed spotting of a Kansas Jayhawks shirt, every single other person is wearing Nets gear, or failing that a navy blue Yankees shirt. There are no differing colored t-shirts, no concert t’s, no business casual polos, and certainly no eccentrically chosen neutral team jerseys being worn by a doofus standing in a corner near the concessions, scribbling into a notebook and looking around shadily. No one has shared this man’s general and distant appreciation of the sport of basketball. They actually like the home team and support them. This writer has come to wish that this gigantic throbbing sore thumb of a person had not attracted such wantonly unwanted attention to themselves. Self-consciousness sets in and the rebellion falls apart. A free black Nets t-shirt is donned and a new adherent is introduced into the fold. He wears unease on his face and aches in his legs. A serious miscalculation has occurred.
I suppose that following this epiphanic moment is as good a time as any to relate to the reader of my eventual conclusion that I reached on the train ride home that was alluded to at the very beginning of the piece. I mentioned before that crowds at these types of events attend such events, not to see the game, but to be a member of a crowd. They surrender themselves into a collective force, all willing and wishing for a common goal. While there is some comfort to be found in becoming part of something larger than yourself, there is no greater discomfort than to oppose the mob alone. That is not to say that one should always root for the home team even if you came to support the opponent. Though dwarfed in size by the majority, a small cheering section is still a group that can band together in adverse moments and feed off of each other’s energy. But to oppose both sides is folly, not out of any sense of danger of physical reprisal, but rather as being completely beside the point. The entire motivation behind spending money, time, and moments of social awkwardness to attend a live event is to suspend one’s mental processes and live in the moment. From basket to basket, the crowd lives and dies on the happenings of the court. Choosing only to observe at an emotional distance and refusing to participate is robbing yourself of the raison d'être of bothering to attend. The second half goes by in one interminable hour-plus blur. I have not yet reached this breakthrough and will never commit to this game. I’m pretty sure the Nets won, but I couldn’t tell you much of what happened to cause this. By this point, I have stopped taking notes, perhaps unconsciously aware of the indecorum of my actions. Perhaps I stopped taking notes because, without the veneer of journalistic investigation, the rest of the game, which did not hold my interest otherwise, simply faded into passing sensory memory. Perhaps, I stopped taking notes because I had already found the thematic core of the piece, even if I only knew it unconsciously.
Or perhaps I was simply tired of writing, “He missed the fucking shot again.”