March 31, 2014

Sunday Matinee

I don't like New England very much. I am sure it's because I grew up there as a fresh off the boat immigrant to this country from the United Kingdom and had a series of overly aggressive history teachers who loved to tell all us students about how glorious the Revolutionary War was and how ignorant and disillusioned the British were and maybe in some cases still are. What can I say? It left a bad taste in my mouth. So when I think of quaint New England towns and villages; lobsters and clams; picture postcard perfect lighthouses like the one above just outside of Portland, Maine; and Boston sports teams, I am less than pleased with how that all makes me feel. This is not the first time I have written words like this in this blog. It might not be the last.

Despite my rant in the first paragraph of this post, a week and a half ago I decided to take a trip up to New England on my second trip to explore the NBDL, the NBA's minor league farm system of sorts. Self flagellation, maybe? My first night of the trip in Springfield, Massachusetts was fantastic, with courtside seats, a great local bar and old friends. The morning after, I packed my backpack (traveling light) and my friend Mike into my rented Dodge Avenger and headed north into what was perhaps the most New England-y of all places: Maine. I knew I'd get plenty of everything I railed against a paragraph ago, including lots of Boston sports teams. But in heading there, I finally found what I was hoping to find all along on my two D-League trips so far. And ironically the Boston sports team thing may have helped.

My vision of life in the D-League before I set out last February to find out what it might be like for the players below the NBA level was one of desperation. I imagined paper thin rosters playing in cramped outdated facilities in small towns with inventive / cheesy promotions to get fans in the door. I knew salaries in the D-League varied between the sub-teens to the mid twenties of thousands per season so I knew nobody was getting rich playing at this level. I knew a ten day contract on a call up to an NBA team could easily eclipse a player's pay for entire season in the NBDL and was therefore extremely valuable. And so what I thought I'd find would make me understand why someone would be so desperate to make it to the big leagues. I think I found most of this in Maine. But I also found something wonderful at the same time.

Best logo in the D-League hands down.
Maine's D-League franchise, the Maine Red Claws, is located in Portland, the largest city in Maine and home to about 65,000 in the city itself with a metropolitan area of a little more than 200,000. The Portland area was permanently settled in the year 1633 as a village named Casco with fishing and trading as its primary industries. Throughout its almost 400 year history, the center of settlement in the area shifted from Casco to Falmouth to, starting in 1793, what is Portland today. The area was raided and burned by native American tribes, the French and the British before the United States gained independence and things calmed down and stabilized a little. But the industry in the area remained consistent and fishing and trading (shipping) continues today in a major way in Portland.

In the 1970s, Portland experienced a population migration to the suburbs just like many other cities in America did at that time. And like many of those same formerly abandoned cities, eventually Portland's residents started to appreciate what the city had to offer and gradually people moved back downtown. Today, Portland enjoys a thriving tourist industry in addition to fishing and shipping. Apparently the city has more restaurants per capita than any other city in the United States, just recently surpassing San Francisco. This statistic speaks as much to Portland's tourist industry as it does to its small size and its growing foodie scene.

Professional basketball took a while to get to Portland. The Red Claws were awarded to the city as an expansion franchise in 2009 and started playing ball in the fall of that year for the 2009-2010 NBDL season. The team has without a doubt the best name and logo in the D-League if not in all of professional basketball in this country. In 2012, the team entered into a hybrid affiliation with the Boston Celtics, meaning the team is locally operated but has turned over control of basketball operations to the parent franchise. I don't know if this affected the fan base at all, but I have to imagine that any association with the Celtics is good for business north of Boston.

The Portland Expo. Note the large inflatable lobster (Crusher) out front.
The Red Claws play in the Portland Expo Center, which is the second oldest operational sports complex in the United States. The building was opened on June 7, 1915 and hosted an agricultural show as its first event. The building looks like an old municipal gymnasium, a far cry from the three arenas I found last year in Texas or even the re-skinned MassMutual Center in Springfield a couple of nights before. This is a building with a ton of character and history. I suspected as our cab driver dropped us off in front that this might be a bit different experience.

Sure enough, I was right. The place is small, seating only 3,100 or so spectators, and the stands feature bleachers, not chairs, probably because they need to be collapsed to make the place truly a multi-purpose arena. It had been a while since I've sat in bleacher seating and I don't miss it at all. I'll never complain about Verizon Center's seats again.

The locker rooms for the players are in the basement. The teams emerge from the same portal at the beginning of the game behind the stands at the north end of the arena. Oh and in addition to hosting the Red Claws, the Expo serves as the home court for the Portland High School basketball team. Now this is cool. The only thing that could really make this place any cooler on first blush would be if it were located somewhere in central Indiana.

The atmosphere gets even better once you settle into the place and see the "Crustacean Nation" sign and the two end zone sections named "The Trap." The concession stands serve lobster rolls and lobster tails on sticks and the team even has its own beer called Red Claw Ale, served under the ever vigilant eye of orange shirted alcohol compliance officers. You can consume your Red Claw Ale (or Bud Light if you prefer but why would you?) as long as your wristband is in plain sight when those same officers make their rounds on the sidelines. The colors were presented by the local Kora Shriners, complete with bling encrusted fezzes, and immediately after the national anthem was complete, the sound system played the Maine Red Claws song (When I say "Red", you say "Claws") to get the fans pumped up.

And the fans are pretty passionate. Not truly surprising knowing how into their sports teams Boston fans are. If there's nothing else you can say nice about New England sports fans (and there may not be), they are nothing if not crazy about their teams. The game must have been pretty close to a sellout if not a full house and it showed and sounded like it. We even saw one dude with a Red Claws tattoo on his arm, right below his Patriots, Celtics, Bruins, Red Sox and Portland Sea Dogs tattoos. I'm not kidding. It was awesome. This was the atmosphere I was looking for: big time passion but definitely small time stage; endearing and throwback but at the same time something you would not look back at for a shot in the NBA.

The Red Claws fielded a team of eight that Sunday afternoon. That was their entire roster since they just had a couple of guys called up to the NBA either on a ten day contract or a full ride for the rest of the year. Six of the eight were rookies who couldn't make it in the NBA and didn't or wouldn't head to Europe for more stability but less access to the best league on the planet.

They played the same Springfield Armor that we had seen defeat the Canton Charge two nights before on our first night of the trip and they came out like gangbusters. Despite their small numbers, they jumped all over the Armor, leading 30-12 after the first quarter. From there they hung on, losing the second, third and fourth quarters but only by a total of 13 points and ended up winning the game 100-95. It was the fifth home victory I'd seen in five D-League games but this may have been the best because of how the game and the atmosphere felt. If I lived in Portland (I won't ever), I'd make sure I got some courtside seats and show up for every game.

The Kora Shriners marching the colors off the court after the playing of the national anthem.
I'm not sure how long I'm going to continue to make D-League trips. I have a whole list of other things in this world that I want to see, both basketball and non-basketball related, and there may not be time for a bunch more NBDL trips, especially if the league expands to a true minor league system where each NBA franchise has its own D-League team. But if I never take in another game again at this level, I'm happy my last one was in Portland. The place, the building and the fans made it the best of the five to date.

One final note: on the north end wall of the arena, right next to the very small and non-HD jumbotron (if you can call it that), the team has a couple of NBA Call-Ups banners, a tribute to all the Red Claws who made it out, at least for a short time. The banners are a little haphazardly placed (I'd move the Celtics banner and place the two Call-Ups banners together) but I think its a great gesture to those players who have been part of the Crustacean Nation. There are two former Wizards on the banner: Shelvin Mack, our 2011 second round draft pick who we released at the beginning of last season before bringing him back and then sending him away again, and Morris Almond, who made it to the NBA with the Wizards for the final six games of the 2011-2012 season. I watched Shelvin play in two games in the D-League for the Red Claws last February in Texas. And I'll never forget Mo Almond because the Wizards never lost with him on the team. Perfect 6-0. Maybe there was something there...

March 29, 2014

American Woman

Last night the Washington Wizards won their 37th game of the 2013-2014 season, a wire to wire victory over the Indiana Pacers, the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference. It was just the latest confusing victory in a season that has seen the Wizards beat some of the best teams in the league and lose to some of the worst. And the victory will be considered somewhat wasted if the team loses to the Atlanta Hawks at home tonight, which is a distinct possibility considering how the team has played the last ten games or so.

The win put the Wizards with their highest victory total since the 2007-2008 season, the last season we made the playoffs. There are another ten games to go in the season so it's possible that we will equal or exceed the 43 wins in that season, although not a sure thing by any means. The team is probably days away from securing its first playoff berth since 2008, needing only two more wins or two New York Knicks losses to do so. I'll be happy when we get there, which may be as soon as tomorrow.

Last night's game was Military Appreciation Night, a time for the Wizards to deservedly shine the spotlight on American servicemen and servicewomen in our armed forces who keep this country safe for the rest of us who benefit so much from living here. During one break in the game action, the Wizards Girls, who were dressed in service uniform reminiscent outfits for the game, performed a dance routine to American Woman by Lenny Kravitz. Now I love this song, especially as played by the original artist The Guess Who, but this is decidedly not a song that belongs in the entertainment package for Military Appreciation Night.

Randy Bachman, Burton Cummings, Gary Peterson and Michael Kale of The Guess Who wrote the song in the late 1960s during a time when the United States was mired in what many saw as a senseless war in Vietnam while inner city decay was occurring seemingly unchecked in the country's major urban centers. The Guess Who, who were Canadian and didn't see the same kinds of things going on in their own country, poured a good amount of social commentary into this song. The lyrics, which have been interpreted, mis-interpreted and explained over and over again through the years read in part as follows:
American woman, stay away from me
American woman, mama let me be
Don't come a hanging around my door
I don't want to see your face no more 
I got more important things to do
Than spend my time growing old with you
Now woman, I said stay away
American woman, listen what I say 
American woman, get away from me
American woman, mama let me be
Don't come a knocking around my door
Don't want to see your shadow no more 
Colored lights can hypnotize
Sparkle someone else's eyes
Now woman, I said get away
American woman, listen what I say 
American woman, said get away
American woman, listen what I say
Don't come a hanging around my door
Don't want to see your face no more
I don't need your war machines
I don't need your ghetto scenes
I don't know about you, but a group of Canadian musicians telling an "American Woman" that they don't need her war machines and ghetto scenes rings pretty loudly that this is not a pro-American song. Jack Richardson, the producer for The Guess Who, had this to say in the liner notes of the band's 1988 anthology Track Record.
When the artwork for the album's promotional campaign was first designed in New York, it depicted "American Woman" as being a young gorgeous blonde, Coca-Cola poster type of girl, which was in fact the total antithesis of what the song lyric was actually about. Don Hunter (the manager) and I had some hot and heavy sessions before we were able to change the concept to the one eventually utilized, that of the Old Lady as the Statue of Liberty in a deserted, windblown Wall Street.
This is not the first time I've bristled at the choice of music during Wizards games. I remember one Celtics game where both Boston and Aerosmith (both bands are from Boston) were played over the PA system. I'm all for Military Appreciation Night but my opinion is this is not the song you choose to play that night. The next time we have one of these nights, I hope we get different music.

And if anyone at Wizards Game Entertainment reads this, please don't switch to Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. That song is a criticism of how the United States treated its war veterans after the Vietnam War. So please don't pick that song as the replacement.

Hawks up tonight. Let's go Wizards!

March 25, 2014

Courtside Again

It's the last full week of March, meaning we are less than one month from the end of the 2013-2014 NBA season. This past weekend found the Wizards on their last west coast swing of the year, one that netted them a disappointing 1-3 record. It also saw me back on the road to watch hoops for the third time this month and last time (I think) in this NBA season. I knocked out Philadelphia and Milwaukee earlier this month; this past weekend I spent some time in the NBA's minor league system on my second (potentially annual) NBDL trip. Last year I took a swing through Texas. This year, I picked New England and the first stop was the birthplace of basketball itself: Springfield, Massachusetts.

The last time I was in Springfield was in the late 1990s when I visited the Basketball Hall of Fame with my dad. I grew up about 35 miles away in Glastonbury, Connecticut and I never in my wildest dreams or nightmares imagined I would end up on vacation there 30 years or so after graduating high school nearby. It is what it is. It's funny how life works sometimes. But in visiting last weekend, I found a side of Springfield I never would have imagined or discovered had I not gone back. There's some genuine history worth discovering in that town and of course, there's a D-League franchise playing downtown. I'll strategically omit my time at the Hall of Fame while I was in town from this discussion so I can dedicate an entire post later on to my couple hours in that building.

On my first NBDL tour last February, I set out to get a flavor of what life in the minor leagues was like for the players, and, by extension, the fans. I intended to continue that theme this year and hoped to discover something new. One of the real treats of last year's trip was sitting courtside for the first time at a professional basketball game when I visited Hidalgo, Texas to watch the visiting Maine Red Claws take on the home Rio Grande Valley Vipers. When it came time to purchase game tickets for this trip and courtside seats were available in Springfield, I thought why not do it again. So I did.

Springfield and Hidalgo share a common thread in that both have minor league NBA franchises. But the similarities between the two cities pretty much end there. Hidalgo was established by Spanish settlers in 1749 but boasted few residents until well after it's founding and absorption into the United States. Today, the place has all of about 11,000 inhabitants. Springfield was established in 1636 as the northernmost outpost of the English Connecticut Colony and today has a population of a little more than 150,000 with a metropolitan area population of about 700,000.

Springfield's self appointed nickname is the "City of Firsts" and there are indeed a lot of firsts here, some important and some silly: first dictionary, first dog show in the United States, first American made automobile, first witch trial (enlightened! woo hoo!), first UHF television station, first "Springfield" and so on and so on. It's also the birthplace of Dr. Seuss, which I will refrain from discussing further than this one sentence because of my personal aversion to all things Dr. Seuss (too chaotic - makes my brain want to explode!). Despite having passed through the city many many times by car on my way from home to upstate New York and back over a slightly less than 10 year period, I didn't have any idea of Springfield's history. I guess we sometimes take the least interest in the stuff around us. Or at least maybe I do.

The Arsenal at the Springfield Armory.
But Springfield's greatest contribution to American history is arguably through George Washington and Henry Knox founding the Springfield Arsenal in the city in 1777. After Washington established the site for the Armory, the location was used as an arsenal (a place for weapons storage as I learned last weekend) during the Revolutionary War. After independence was achieved, manufacturing began in 1794 and the Armory maintained continuous operation until 1968, when the United States decided to privatize all weapons contracting.

The Amory produced the first American made musket in the year it opened and later produced the famous Springfield Rifle and M-1 Garand, which helped the allies win World Wars I and II respectively. As much as I loathe guns and the misinterpretation of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, I cannot deny that the Springfield Armory occupies an important place in the history of our nation and it's difficult to criticize anything which helped us win the two World Wars. The arsenal component of the Armory is now part of the National Park System and was worth the hour and a half inside the place to understand more about what happened there.

But the real attraction for me was basketball. Springfield acquired an NBDL team in 2009 and re-named the franchise the Armor in tribute to the city's importance in U.S. history. The franchise was moved from Anaheim where they were established as an expansion team to the league in 2006. In 2011, the team entered into a single affiliation with the Brooklyn Nets using a hybrid model, meaning the team is locally owned and operated with the exception of basketball operations, which is run by the Nets. This means the Armor run the same offensive and defensive schemes in Springfield as the Nets do at the NBA level, allowing them to assign players to the D-League without losing continuity in player development.

The first year in Springfield was not a good one for the Armor, posting a D-League worst-in-history 9-43 record. But failure one year does not necessarily breed failure the next in the NBDL due to the almost complete lack of roster stability year after year. Two years after their nine win season, the Armor finished the regular season first place in the Eastern Division. This year, the team is mired in the middle of the East Division with a losing record and likely on the outside looking in when it comes to playoff time.

Downtown Springfield's MassMutual Center.
The team plays in the 41 year old MassMutual Center right downtown. Of the four NBDL arenas I have visited to date, this is the only one in an urban environment, which I appreciate even though the area around the arena was less salubrious than I would have liked. I had actually been in the building before. The last time I was there was in 1989 to see the Moody Blues in what was at that time known as the Springfield Civic Center. Both the Moodies and the building have aged quite a bit since then although the building did manage to get a facelift, with a fairly attractive new skin added over the original concrete structure since the last time I was in town. The building seats about 7,300 for basketball, so it's about a third of the size of Verizon Center in Washington.

Like last year's trip, the price of D-League tickets this year was way lower than my Wizards season tickets; I quite honestly splurged for these tickets, opening up my wallet and spending $80 for my courtside seat. That seat in Washington will cost Wizards season ticket holders $1,650 per game next year. I love courtside seats and I'd love to spend one game sitting there in Washington someday even though I know it might cost a ton of money. The only drawback to courtside seats is the constant walking back and forth and standing in front of you that the coaches and players engage in. It makes watching the game challenging sometime, as shown at the top of this post and just below.

Even though the seat cost was lower, one thing comparably priced in the arena to the NBA level was beer, although the MassMutual Center's 20 fl. oz. domestic beers were a little more reasonable at $7.00 per cup than at Verizon Center (where they are $8.50). The best part of the beer sales action was the fact that Molson Canadian was considered domestic along with Bud Light and similar light-ish beers. Ironically, Samuel Adams, brewed in the same state as Springfield, is considered an import and costs fifty cents more. I stuck with the Molson!

Um, coach, can you move a little so I can watch the game?
I found that hoops in Springfield is much like Frisco, Hidalgo and Austin was last year, although it was nice to find the venue in a downtown area rather than in a suburban setting. The arena was about the same size as those three places but, unlike Frisco and Hidalgo, was equipped with a  center scoreboard and replay monitor. The place was packed, mostly with kids since it was apparently some kind of Read To Achieve event that included a several minutes long parade of what seemed like 500 or so kids around the perimeter of the court. It was also Fan Appreciation Night, which may have had an effect on the attendance. I was disappointed that we missed Superheroes and Fairy Tales Day by a couple of weeks. That would have been fun to see. They don't have that sort of event in D.C.

Watching D-League basketball in a filled, lively arena that looks like the MassMutual Center does on the outside makes it easy to forget what kind of desperation some of the guys on both teams are playing with. It looks so polished and professional despite the size of the arena. I just had to keep reminding myself that these guys are playing for something akin to minimum wage, just hoping to get to the NBA and some sort of reasonable payday. 

Some of the players are honestly just living out a dream, chasing something that likely won't ever happen for another year or two before moving on with their lives and hoping to land a career or at least a job. Others are former NBA players trying to get back into the league and the rest (which is a very small minority) are working hard and hoping someone at the NBA level notices something about their game which fills a spot on their squad either for game action or just to provide a body in practice. There's a lot of risk and very little hope at this level of ball but that very little hope is keeping some of these guys going day after day for probably less than $20,000 for a season plus some sort of per diem.

The game itself was competitive, probably the most exciting D-League game of the four I saw to this date, with the home team winning behind a strong third quarter where they pulled away and held on despite being down two at the half. Unlike some of the games I saw last year, which featured players I knew such as former Wizard Shelvin Mack and then-Rocket Royce White, there was nobody I was particularly focused on watching in this game on either team. Devin Ebanks, who was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round of the 2010 draft and was a top D-League prospect, was inactive for the Armor (I think honestly he quit the team). The only other recognizable name on either team was the visiting Canton Charge's Kyrylo Fesenko, who played four years with the Utah Jazz from 2007 to 2011. Although he played, he had little impact on the game despite his 10 rebounds.  I can't see him making it back to the NBA. He just doesn't look like he's in good enough shape to do so.

It ended up being a fun night and I'm glad I stopped in Springfield to find a place I never really knew and see some more D-League ball. Often when I travel, I have chance meetings with total strangers that enrich my trip. On this trip I actually had a chance meeting with a friend, which is astonishing to me that I would know someone in a 7,000 seat arena hosting a minor league basketball game. Through the magic of Facebook, with me lamenting a pre-game meal in a local bar festooned with New England Patriots and Boston Red Sox memorabilia, I found out my friend and fellow former Marillion obsessed fan Jeremy, who I knew from architecture school would be at the game with his son. It was good spending a half hour or so courtside catching up on some old times and current goings on. Worth every penny.

Catching up with an old friend courtside in the second quarter.

March 15, 2014

Giveaway Heaven

Last Saturday night's Bucks-Wizards game in Milwaukee was Bucks Mini Basketball Night for fans aged 14 and under. If you were young enough, you got handed a deflated basketball on the way into the Bradley Center. I assume they were deflated so fans wouldn't throw them on the court. I didn't get one as I went through the turnstile because I'm just a little over the age limit on that one. If they'd let me, the odds that I would have picked it up and brought it back to D.C. with me are probably about 50/50 even though I'm still struggling with what to do with the Allen Iverson replica retired jersey banner and bobblehead that I picked up the prior weekend when I went to see the Wizards play the 76ers in Philadelphia.

Before I travel to road basketball games I always check out the promotional schedule to see if there's any loot worth showing up early for. I was honestly hoping to pick up a (former Wizard) Caron Butler bobblehead in Milwaukee but I missed that one by about a month and a half and Butler was waived a couple of weeks ago anyway. But I mention Saturday's giveaway because the number of promotional nights where this team is handing out free stuff is astonishing. The Wizards have five games with giveaways in the 2013-2014 season. The Bucks have 31!!!! That means fans can go home with something they didn't show up to the game with over 75% of the time they hit the Bradley Center for a Bucks game.

31 is a bit of a misleading number because the Bucks have placed age restrictions on a number of their giveaways just like they did on Saturday. Seven of the 31 giveaways are restricted to fans 14 years of age and under and an additional five are restricted to fans 18 and over. Some of these restricted items make little sense. I get the Bucks Lunch Box being restricted to age 14 and under (although honestly what kind of kid is still taking a lunch box to school at 14?) but the Bucks Can Holder being for 18 and over? If the logic here is these things are usually used on beer cans, then I'm not sure I get it. Last I checked the drinking age in Wisconsin was still 21. I guess they are just trying to spread the wealth a bit. The restrictions really hurt all the 15 to 17 year olds who love free stuff. Those guys are probably a little miffed.

Despite the restrictions on some items, the 31 promotional nights are impressive by any standard and I think the Wizards should be a little embarrassed here. Five nights just doesn't cut it. The Bucks have gone to great lengths to invent some awesome giveaways. There is more excellent stuff being handed out before games in Milwaukee than there is total stuff from lame to excellent being handed out at Verizon Center. I can imagine the Bucks' PR staff had a field day filling 31 nights with giveaways. So in an effort to point out how the Wizards fall short in this department as much as anything else, here are a few of my favorite items from the Bucks' excellent promotional schedule.

Schedule Pen
When I first read the giveaway for the November 16 game against the Thunder, I thought "What the heck is a schedule pen? How do they fit all 82 games on the barrel of a single pen?" I knew I had to investigate a little further and found the above picture on an ebay listing. I know...folks will sell absolutely anything, right?

And so how cool is the schedule pen? "It's awesome!" is the answer. It's a rollaway schedule tucked inside the barrel of a ballpoint pen! I can imagine working away in my office some afternoon and wondering when the next Wizards game is. Fortunately, I'm writing with my schedule pen so I can just check the answer out right away by unrolling the schedule from my writing implement. Quick and easy! Unfortunately, the Wizards didn't make a schedule pen. They should think seriously about checking out the schedule pen manufacturer's capabilities.

Oh, believe it or not, the schedule pen is an age restricted item. That's right, only fans 18 and older got handed this beauty. I'm assuming it's because the pen is sponsored by the Potawatomi Casino, although you have to be 21 to gamble so I'm not sure I'm on point with this one.

Bucks Cape (Part of the Bucks' Super Hero Night)
When I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan and a super obsessed New York Jets fan, I used to wear a Jets beach towel as a cape and watch football games on my 6" black and white TV (I was the only kid with a TV, believe it or not). Whenever the Jets scored, I would be prone to whooping and hollering fits of running around in celebration with my "cape" flowing behind me. It's stupid I know. I was a lot younger then. Also, believe it or not, I didn't drink then. I have no explanation for my behavior really.

But imagine if I had an actual Jets cape! Fortunately for Milwaukee Bucks fans attending the November 30 game this year against the Celtics (14 and under only please), they don't have to fashion their own cape out of a beach towel because they can get an official one handed to them when they get their ticket scanned. I love this thing. It velcros right around your neck and is lightweight and flows behind you beautifully when you run around in celebration at top speed every time Giannis Antetokounmpo hits a bucket.

The only downside here is the Bucks secondary logo on the cape sort of looks like something creepy out of True Detective. I guess HBO sort of ruined that for them. Or for me at least.

Much like the schedule pen, I also found this item for sale on ebay. Some dude tried unsuccessfully three times to sell his Bucks cape for a penny (plus $2.99 shipping). Like I said, folks will sell absolutely anything.

Bucks Stem Glass Charms
I've never been to a party with enough people drinking the same wine in identical glasses to need to use glass charms but I totally get them. The glass charms are supposed to be unique tags placed around the bottom of the glass stems so partygoers who can't remember which glass is theirs can identify their misplaced booze by remembering the design of the charm on their glass. The stem charms industry makes all kinds. Before the December 4 game against the Pistons this season, the Bucks gave away their version of this modern society invention.

The giveaway features four different charms, each featuring a differently colored Bucks logo and matching beads. These things are terrific. If I were a Bucks fan and I had a set, I would definitely have some folks over for a party just so I could show off my loot. They are actually well made and would be a real conversation piece for hoops fans. I'm being serious here. Don't laugh. I'd love for the Wizards to make some of these.

Not surprisingly, this is an age restricted item, even though the Bucks took great care not to use the word "wine" in the giveaway description. Come on, I mean what else do you drink in stemmed glasses? The age restriction though is 18 and over, which doesn't compute any more than the schedule pen restriction. You still need to be 21 to drink, right?

More puzzling though, is the gender restriction for this promotional goodie. That's right, the stem glass charms were handed out only to women. Do men in Wisconsin not drink wine? Never mind. Don't answer that question. Let's move on.

Bucks Family Car Decal Set
I'd have to say I strongly dislike the stick figure decals that families place on the back windows of their SUVs to show how many family members they have at the current moment (including pets!) but I absolutely love the Bucks' set. I've seen all varieties of these stickers, from plain / barely gender and age recognizable stick figures to Star Wars characters but the Bucks family car decal set may just be the best ever.

All the trappings of basketball fandom are on here, right? Jerseys? Check! Hats? Check! T Shirts? Check! Giant foam fingers? CHECK!!!! Simply awesome. There's not much else to say.

I'd love to see a Wizards set. Although honestly, I'm not sure I would put them on my 350Z. I mean am I really going to stick a dorky stick figure dude in a Martell Webster jersey on the back window of a sports car? I don't think so. I still love these though! Two very enthusiastic thumbs way up!

So the other stuff I've written about so far is all well and good but let's face it, the primo giveaway in any promotional schedule is the bobblehead. This is an absolute, can't miss worth standing in line for, getting to the game early for, taking whatever means necessary to get your hands on one giveaway. The Wizards this year gave away one bobblehead; the Bucks have four on their slate. FOUR! Take note of this awesomeness, Monumental Sports and Entertainment!

In addition to the sheer quantity of bobbleheads on the schedule, the lineup is also extremely impressive. One Bucks legend (Junior Bridgeman), one historic broadcaster (Eddie Doucette), one current star (Larry Sanders) and one local hero who came home again (admittedly via trade) before negotiating a buyout and taking his chances chasing another ring with the Oklahoma City Thunder (that would be Caron Butler).

I managed to get my hands on a Junior Bridgeman bobblehead and I have to say, I'm impressed with the quality on these things. They put some of my Wizards bobbles to shame and they blow away the fat 50 year old looking Allen Iverson bobblehead I picked up in Philly the week prior. I would encourage as many bobbleheads as possible be given away at Wizards games next year. Please make this happen, Ted Leonsis.

So that's really all I have to say. I feel bad skipping the rest of the schedule but there's only so much I can write here in one post. The Bucks holiday ornament, bike light, Bango mask and four different Bucks posters (including the ever so excellent Nate Wolters "Naters Gonna Nate" poster) at least deserve a mention as can't miss free stuff. But I have to stop somewhere.

I also have to state for the record that it would have been a lot harder to write about all this without the help of the Bucks' PR staff, who graciously hooked me up with a swag bag of goodies from the season to date. They totally didn't have to hand a Wizards fan anything to help me out with this silly blog but they did anyway and I really appreciate it. The Bucks will occupy a special place in my heart because of that gesture. And I'm keeping my stem glass charms, bike light and Junior Bridgeman bobblehead. No way can I part with these things. As for my Bucks cape…well, it's a little small but there's no way I'm selling that thing on ebay. I just don't think that would work out for me very well.

March 11, 2014

Algonquin For "The Good Land"

The first Saturday of this month saw me in Philadelphia watching the Wizards beat a hapless 76ers team (second worst record in the NBA) in a relatively new arena in front of a sellout crowd. OK, so the Allen Iverson jersey retirement ceremony might have had a little something to do with the uptick in attendance that night. The Sixers were a successful proud franchise in the late 1970s and early 1980s, winning an NBA title and falling short in a couple of more finals. For the last few years they have been toying with being a good team, grabbing a low playoff seed the past couple of years before tearing it all down and rebuilding behind new coach Brett Brown this season.

This past Saturday, just one week after being in Philly, I was in Milwaukee watching the Wizards squeak by a hapless Bucks team (worst record in the NBA but arguably way better than the Sixers at this point) in a not so attractive 25 year old arena in front of not many folks at all. The Bucks were a successful proud franchise in the 1970s and 1980s, winning an NBA title and dominating their division year after year in that span. For the last few years they too have toyed with being a good team, grabbing low playoff seed after low playoff seed before going all out and rebuilding behind new coach Larry Drew this season.

On the surface, these two Wizards rivals (using that term very loosely) would seem to be in pretty similar situations. But Milwaukee's got it way worse. Despite both teams being terrible this year and hoping for a miracle rebuild, the Bucks have the burden of an NBA mandate to get a new building. Like pronto. Like in three years. They also have an owner looking to sell the team to an investment group who will preferably keep the team in Milwaukee (that group doesn't seem to exist right now) while out of town investors are circling the city like sharks just waiting for the NBA's OK to have at it and take the team. Such is the state of professional basketball in Milwaukee these days. Sounded to me like I should head up to Wisconsin quickly in case the team disappears entirely in the next few years. So I did.

The first half, before things got ugly.
Saturday night's contest was the Wizards' third of the season against the Bucks. Despite the Bucks' sub-.200 record, the Wizards came away with only a split in those previous two games, preferring to play at, or I guess slightly below, Milwaukee's level at home in December and needing a last minute comeback to send it to overtime on the road before finally prevailing in the extra session a few weeks before that in Milwaukee. So Saturday's contest appeared to be an ideal trap game for the Wizards, especially with the Bucks' best player, Larry Sanders, sidelined for the season and their starting shooting guard, O.J. Mayo, serving a one game suspension for a punch to the Pelicans' Greg Stiemsma's throat the previous night in New Orleans.

Early on, it didn't appear there was any danger of a loss here at all. The Wizards came out in the first half like they seemed to be uninterested in making this a competitive game, building a 28 point lead and hitting the 70 point mark about four minutes before the end of the second quarter. Finally it seemed like we had avoided playing down to the level of inferior competition for one night at least. 

Not so fast. Our team's attitude towards playing the right way seemed to waiver with about two minutes to go in the first half. The atmosphere on the bench, at least from my seat about 10 feet away, seemed light, with players hamming it up, laughing and celebrating the Bucks' misfortunes. The play on the court, meanwhile, slowed down and degenerated into a one on one, time wasting exercise which for the Wizards this year has yielded not much success at all. I said at that time I'd feel lucky if we were up by 20 at the break. We survived and took a 22 point cushion to the locker room.

After a halftime show featuring a 50 something year old man standing atop a 15 foot or so high stack of chairs, the Wizards sauntered out of the locker room and proceeded to score zero points in the first seven minutes plus of the third quarter. It was the kind of letdown we can't afford against a halfway decent team with Nenê out with an injury and the Bucks quickly cut the lead to single digits. John Wall played quite honestly one of the worst games in recent weeks; he was absolutley dominated by Brandon Knight. And Bradley Beal continued the inconsistent play he's shown in the past few weeks.

Fortunately the Bucks are not a halfway decent team and the combination of 28 points from Trevor Ariza, a super valuable 13 from Drew Gooden off the bench and a strong fourth by Beal was enough to put the home team away by seven points. I've said it again and I'll say it again: the Wizards are just not good enough to take any minutes off right now. Scoring 10 points in the third quarter and yielding 33 in the fourth quarter of a game isn't going to cut it most days. 48 minutes, guys. I'm thankful for the 75 we poured in during the first 24 minutes. This brings my road record to 3-4. I definitely picked the right away games this year.

I'd feel remiss if I didn't spend a few sentences on the BMO Harris Bradley Center since I'd heard numerous sources describe the place as a dump. I didn't feel the interior of the arena was that bad, although it's clearly older and lacks amenities that the NBA loves, like tons and tons of luxury boxes. But the outside of the arena is a different story. This building has a complete lack of character. It's a scaleless, windowless box that doesn't engage the city or the street at all. The entries at either end of the building contain no sense of arrival at all. It honestly looks like the building was designed in the 1970s then shelved for a while and then finally built in the late 1980s on the cheap. It made me proud of the Verizon Center for it's ability to activate the streetscape. I guess the nine years between the construction of the two buildings make a lot of difference.

Liquid cheese eating contest. Go! Go! Go!
So given the state of the building and the record of the team, it's understandable that the Bucks are on the edge of begging fans to attend in person. We talked to a number of people in the city asking us why we were in town and the typical response when we said we were going to the Wizards-Bucks game was along the lines of "I'm sorry." But if there's one thing I can say that the Bucks did right it's the in game entertainment. They ran it like a meeting, presenting a quarter by quarter agenda for the fans so we knew exactly what to expect. They even covered the halftime show I guess so you could decide to stick around or bail. And this was the only game I've attended where there was a liquid cheese eating contest: two dudes sucking down canned artificial cheese for 45 seconds. Classic and somehow totally Wisconsin. I'm sure they didn't have doctors on hand doing a before and after cholesterol check, but it might have been prudent.

I got a lot out of my weekend in Milwaukee. Of course I'm glad the Wizards won. That was, after all, the reason I made the trip. Milwaukee is a classic midwestern city and I've loved the midwest ever since I spent four years at the University of Michigan. In between taking in downtown's eclectic mix of early 20th century and 1970s/80s buildings; checking out the statue of the Fonz (seriously); eating a late night snack of delicious fried cheese curds (translation: fat deep fried in fat oil with a side of fat ranch dressing); and gazing at the largest and scariest collection of Miller Lite and Coors Light at the Miller Brewery (totally worth the trip by the way), I had a very enjoyable weekend. Milwaukee is crossed off the NBA pilgrimage list. Next up: NBDL action in New England.

March 5, 2014

One Wit Whiz

So it's Sunday morning and I'm in Philadelphia about 10 or 11 hours after a great Wizards win over the home 76ers; I've watched Allen Iverson's jersey get hung in the rafters of the Wells Fargo Center at halftime of that same game; and I spent the previous day visiting iconic sights in the first capital city of the United States. Sounds like a full and complete weekend, right? Nothing more to take in before my early train back to D.C., right? Wrong! I couldn't leave Philly without a cheesesteak. It just wouldn't be right. So immediately after checking out of my hotel, I made my way over to the south side to get me one of Philadelphia's original and best contributions to the culinary world. And if it's Philly and cheesesteaks, it has to be Pat's King of Steaks.

According to a combination of fact and folklore, the cheesesteak sandwich as it is known today was invented by Pat Olivieri in Philadelphia sometime in early 1930. There seems to be some debate about exactly how the sandwich was first conceived but there seems to be no debate that Olivieri was the creator. Most stories have Pat owning a hot dog stand with his brother Harry when one day Pat decided to make himself a steak and onion sandwich on an Italian roll (no cheese yet; that comes later). A cab driver apparently smelled the sandwich, asked Pat to make him one and the next day the steak and onion sandwich went viral among cab drivers in Philly and the rest is history. I'm sure they used a term other than "went viral" in the '30s but whatever.

From those humble beginnings, Pat opened his legendary restaurant, Pat's King of Steaks, which now stands at 1237 East Passyunk Avenue and has been owned and operated by the Olivieri family for over 80 years. Who first added cheese to the steak and onion sandwich and just when that happened seems to be less clear, although the Olivieris claiming that one of their chefs added provolone cheese to their sandwiches in the 1940s seems to be the most plausible.

Today, Pat's is big business, managing to stay open 24 hours per day, seven days a week chopping steak and pushing out cheesesteaks with or without onions and slathered in provolone, American cheese or Cheez Whiz. Its only real competition sits right across the street at 1219 South 9th Street: Geno's Steaks. Geno's was opened by Joe Vento in 1966 and, like Pat's, has been family owned and operated since its first day of business and is also open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Each place claims its cheesesteaks are the best in Philadelphia. The decision to make for the novice cheesesteak eater when visiting Philly is: Pat's or Geno's. Since Pat's is the original, I opted for their cheesesteak this time around. I'm a sucker for the genuine article.

Before I got to lunch, the walk from the hotel to Pat's alone was an experience: down Broad Street past vacant lots, left on Washington past Vietnam-town (is that the correct term?) and finally right onto the 9th Street barrio featuring plenty of colorful stores, including a live poultry market where you can get your bird of choice custom killed and I imagine plucked on the spot for you. I'm making it sound way sketchier than it really was. It was fine, although the smell coming out of the live poultry market was almost enough to put me off my cheesesteak. Almost.

After a mile and a half on foot, I was good and ready for some food and Pat's did not disappoint. I opted for a simple cheesesteak (no peppers or mushrooms for me) wit (south Philadelphia for "with") onions and Cheez Whiz. The time from ordering to receiving a hot sandwich was literally about 15 seconds. I'm not kidding. The meat wit onions was spatula-ed into a fresh warm roll and then the Cheez Whiz stick was pulled out of the Whiz tub and scraped across the top to complete my order. Fries and a water at the next window and a couple (OK, three) of hot cherry peppers on the side from the condiments bar opposite the ordering windows.

The only seating options are outside so I took what I could get despite the less than 40 degree temperature Sunday morning and ate. Pat's knows what they are doing. The meat was tender, the roll was fresh and the Cheez Whiz made it all come together. There's something so stereotypically and classically cheesy about the taste of fake cheese even though it really doesn't taste anything like any sort of real cheese at all. It's delicious. The only thing that made the experience even better was the two guys talking to the pickup driver next to us about how to avoid getting stopped by the cops on the highway in a broad Philadelphia dialect of English, if you can call it that.

Pat's was worth the trip for me. Everything about the whole morning had an authenticity to it that cannot be obtained by getting a cheesesteak from a sandwich shop in D.C., which I have done on many occasions. Maybe on my next trip to Philly, I'll check out Geno's. Although I honestly can't imagine it being any better.

March 3, 2014

Brotherly Love

Stop number one of my March 2014 NBA and NBDL barnstorming tour is complete. This past weekend I spent my Friday and Saturday nights a couple of hours north of D.C. in the heart of Philadelphia knocking another Wizards' opponent's arena off my seen-'em-in person-on-the-road list. Now I'm down to just three more basketball cities (one NBA / two NBDL) to visit this month before what I hope will be the start of spring. It's about time, I think.

This was not my first trip to Philadelphia. I'd been there at least a half a dozen times before for various reasons. Astonishingly (to me), I'd never actually been to see the Liberty Bell on one of my past trips to the city so I made that my first priority Saturday morning. It was pretty much what I thought it would be: a series of interpretive exhibits about the history of the cracked bell followed by a chance to take a few snapshots of the item itself before exiting the building. I did learn that the bell was not known by the Liberty Bell until it was given that name by the abolitionist movement, who coined that name to point out the injustice of slavery in our nation. Who knew?

I followed the Liberty Bell up with a trek to the Philadelphia Art Museum, prominently sited at the end of Benjamin Franklin Boulevard, to check out the statue of Rocky while listening to Bill Conti's "Gonna Fly Now" on my iTouch before a couple of afternoon pints and a quick nap. Quite a contrast in tourist attractions, I know. One important touchstone of American history and a statue of someone who never existed for real. Go figure.

The main event for me in Philadelphia was the Wizards-76ers game that night and it turned out to be a good one. Despite an uneven performance that could be blamed on a triple overtime win in Toronto two days beforehand or the team missing Nenê and Kevin Seraphin with injury or just the Wizards' tendency to play at the level of their opponent every game, our team won this one going away and it was never really in doubt. The Wizards scored 41 in the first period including a monster 24 from Trevor Ariza on 6 for 6 from long distance and never looked back, even when Philly cut the deficit to six mid-way through the second quarter. Ariza ended up with 40 and John Wall ended up with 16 assists, all of which was enough to win by 19. This brings my Wizards road games record to 2-4, which is a damn sight better than 1-4 even though it's just one more win.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver at the mic during the halftime ceremony.
The win was great and I like Philadelphia enough to spend a weekend there every now and then. But the real highlight of the evening was the Allen Iverson jersey retirement ceremony that took place during the halftime break. Rarely will I acknowledge that anything will trump a Wizards game for me, let alone something that happened at halftime of a Wizards game, but clearly this ceremony was more important for more than 99% of the people in the building than what took place on the court and that made it just as special than the Wizards taking home the victory.
Just to be clear I made the trip to Philly strictly for a Wizards Saturday night game, not for the Iverson jersey retirement ceremony. I circled this game when the NBA season schedule came out in August as a potential road game and bought some tickets on StubHub about a month later for a little more than $140 per as soon as I found some that I thought I couldn't pass up. I figured $143 a seat for third row center court was pretty good, even against a team that pretty much everyone had tanking for as many lottery combinations as possible.
Then in November the Sixers announced that they would be retiring Iverson's number 3 jersey at halftime of the game I just bought. Bonus! It's a good thing I bought early. It doesn't always pay off for me but it definitely did here. As of the Sunday before the game, the cheapest tickets on StubHub in the building were $100 for upper deck end seats. Seats comparable to the ones I snagged were $442. I would have stayed at home for those prices.
Saturday's game was not the first jersey retirement ceremony I have attended. The Wizards retired Earl Monroe's number 10 jersey a few years back at halftime of a game I watched from the upper deck of Verizon Center. But Earl Monroe in D.C. in 2007 is not Allen Iverson in Philadelphia in 2014. I doubt most people in Verizon Center that night had ever seen the Pearl play and they certainly didn't see him play in Washington because he was traded from the Bullets to the Knicks before the team moved out of Baltimore. Allen Iverson was playing in the NBA just four years ago and most everyone in the Wells Fargo Center can probably remember seeing him play either in person or on national TV for the Sixers. I know I could.
Iverson represented Philadelphia 76er basketball for ten plus seasons and showed a grit, fight and determination that belied his size and endeared him to home fans. He also helped usher in the hip hop era in the NBA, being one of the first superstars with neck tattoos and cornrows. He took the Sixers to their only NBA Finals since 1983 after the 2000-2001 season, the same year he also won the league's Most Valuable Player trophy. It was clear standing in the arena Saturday night that AI represented something very special to the city of Philadelphia even though he didn't manage to deliver a title to the city.

I rarely place a lot of stock in speeches the likes of which Iverson was supposed to and did deliver. There's always a lot of love and thanks given out and past differences with those to be thanked are usually forgotten or glossed over and indeed AI proved he was not Michael Jordan making his Hall of Fame induction speech and followed the script he was supposed to follow. But I believed in Iverson's proclaimed love of the city, Philadelphia fans and especially Larry Brown, the coach who helped the franchise get back to the Finals on 2001. I was touched by the humility he displayed (not necessarily an attribute he possessed while playing) and I thought the line "Y'all have to show me the fool that says dreams don't come true, 'cause they do." was the perfect ending to what could have been a fairly ordinary speech.
There's no doubt the whole building Saturday night belonged to Iverson for those fans who stuck around for the whole game (not a lot in the place by the middle of the third quarter by any means). There were auctions of Iverson memorabila on the concourse, giveaways for all fans in attendance and even a dude rendering a likeness of Iverson into some kid's hair while a crowd watched, which is about the strangest sports entertainment I've ever seen at an NBA game and that's saying something. I somehow left the game with a replica retired jersey banner and an AI 2001 MVP bobblehead. Not sure what I'm going to do with those. I mean I can't put a Sixers bobblehead on the same shelf as my Wiz bobbles, right?

Anyone want an Allen Iverson portrait in their hair? Ooh! Ooh! Me! Me!
Throughout the game Saturday night, the scoreboard screen played video messages from current and former NBA players who had played with or against Iverson. All the Sixers legends got deserved ovations and the love shown by the crowd for former 76ers still playing in the league like Lou Williams and Kyle Korver was impressive. Only two players delivering video tributes got booed: Carmelo Anthony (just a little) and LeBron James (a LOT!). I kinda like Sixers fans now.
At one point during a Sixers run during the second quarter, a Philly fan in front of me turned around and declared "we're going to win this game, you know." I've been to enough basketball games in my life to know that this game is a game of runs and you don't react to small comebacks during the game too optimistically. I was right. By the time the third quarter was a few minutes old, about all the fight was gone from the home team in addition to the guy sitting in front of me. I guess he didn't much believe what he said either. I did tell him the Wizards had to win the game, that I couldn't go back to D.C. without a win. Fortunately the Wizards made sure that I didn't have to. Up next tonight: Memphis during a snowfall that is snarling traffic everywhere. Should be an interesting house tonight.