Summer NBA makes me miss hoopla
LAS VEGAS -- Tired of hype? Sick of glitz and glamour, flash and slickness?
Me too. Yet after spending an afternoon at the NBA's Summer League, I have troubling news to report.
The only thing worse than Sports Cheese is no Sports Cheese.
Let me explain.
I came to get away. To escape. Pummeled by pregame pyrotechnics failing bracketology 101 adrift in a sea of breaking news bottom lines overwhelmed by mascots, buff dunking mascots and buff dunking mascots jumping off trampolines wondering if I actually watched LeBron James stammer about taking his talents to South Beach, or if Leonardo DiCaprio sneakily inserted the whole bizarre scene into my dreams, I flew across the country, ending up in the one place where the game remains a game. Pure and unadorned.
Was I hoping to see ballyhooed Washington Wizards guard and No. 1 overall NBA draft pick John Wall? Sure. I read the papers and the Web, watch waaaay too many televised highlights.
But that wasn't my primary motivation.
No, I was on hand to remember why I loved sports in the first place: for the sheer giddy joy of competition and athletic excellence, before the bells and whistles and gussying up that renders our games an all-you-can-eat buffet of sensory stimulation left me overstuffed, and then a little sick, and then a lot cynical.
I came to the right place.
In summer league, the coaches wear shorts. The concession stands serve hot dogs and pretzels. The scoreboards show the score -- I'm dead serious -- and not crudely animated doughnut vs. coffee cup races. The midcourt league logo is imprinted on a black rubber mat, the players are mostly anonymous and the next-up teams sit in the bleachers, in uniform, legs folded like lawn umbrellas, surrounded by fans who are more likely to discuss the relative merit of Scottie Reynolds as an NBA-caliber point guard than check their BlackBerries for overseas stock quotes and corporate deal confirmations.
In short, the summer league is a purist's paradise.
Much to my surprise, that's probably why I hated it.
Let me amend that: I didn't actually hate the summer league. I had fun. But something was absent.
Namely, the silly excesses sports fans slag. All the absurd stadium schlock I hoped to avoid. The stuff I generally make fun of. Like music blaring during play. In particular, music composed by the Baha Men.
Turns out I missed it.
OK, OK: I didn't miss the Baha Men. And I really didn't miss the Black-Eyed Peas. But everything else? I was damn near in withdrawal.
My kingdom for indoor fireworks! For a single, soaring, CO2-propelled T-shirt, launched by a unicycling Muppet!
Start with the audio-visual cheese. The flashing advertisements ringing the stadium concourse. The canned sound effects accompanying missed free throws. The invitations to MAKE SOME NOOOOOISE! And the player introductions. Oh my. Dimmed lights. The sweet strains of the Alan Parsons Project, or perhaps Europe's "The Final Countdown." Spotlights and dancing girls. Choreographed player dance routines. Airborne talcum powder. Overhead screen explosions and on-court flame shooters. Fire! Fire! Each intro a mini-apocalypse, a perfect little dress rehearsal for the end of days.
Summer league offers none of that. Just a quick, cursory introduction, from a PA announcer who sometimes called Wall "John Ward." Don't get me wrong: They kinda sorta tried to go Busby Berkeley. There was a pregame anthem singer, introduced as a "three-time 'American Idol' finalist." (Is that even possible?) And he was OK only you could hear him inhale, tortuously, between notes. There was a halftime act. I think it was a local high school dance troupe. There was even between-quarters entertainment -- namely, a race in which two opposing families ran to center court, exchanged NBA practice jerseys and then sprinted back to the baselines.
Still, it just wasn't the same. I felt deflated. I jonesed for someone, anyone, to contort themselves into a clear plastic box the size of an overhead airplane bin, or at least spin a half dozen plates on their forearm. I think I know why. I once went to a Washington Nationals game with Dr. David Kessler, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration. We mostly talked about ballpark food, and how it hijacks your brain. We also discussed in-stadium stimulation, and how sports teams continually up the ante -- think: the elevated platform dancing girls at Dallas Stadium -- of what fans see and hear. The effect leaves you excited, and then acclimated, and then wanting more. Sort of like a junkie.
In other words, I missed and needed context. All the meaning we ladle onto sports to make them feel dramatic, important, and necessary.
I do want Wall to succeed. I can't help myself. Strip away the narratives and the layers of manufactured meaning, the free taco giveaways, and sports become a bunch of guys in numbered pajamas chasing rubberized balls. Pointless to watch. As I left Cox Pavilion, I made a vow: I'll never mock Sports Cheese again.
It's easy to be an athletic purist until you have to live like one.
Patrick Hruby is a freelance writer and ESPN.com contributor. Contact him at PatrickHruby.net.