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Friday, April 07, 2006

A Little Boy's First Pro Basketball Game

Last Sunday I took my six year-old son to the Wachovia Center to see the 76ers play the Knicks. It was his first trip to a pro basketball game (I wrote about his first trip to a Major League Baseball game here). He had talked about wanting to go for a while, and I had virtually taught him and his big sister the lyrics to Kurtis Blow's "Basketball", which, while dated, is still a classic (the kids have taken to memorizing this song, and their renditions are pretty funny). Among the various lines are:

"I used to go to dinner to take my girl
to see Tiny play against Earl the Pearl
and Wilt, Big O and Jerry West
Playin' basketball at its very best.

Basketball has always been my thing
I like Magic, Bird, and Bernard King
And Number Thirty-Three, my man Kareem
is the center on my starting team."

Anyway, I have great memories of going to 76ers games with my father at what's now the Wachovia Spectrum and what used to be just the Spectrum. I recall one of my first games, seeing the 76ers play at Convention Hall, right near the Penn campus (there's now a big hole in the ground where it stood, and I blogged about that too). I remember going into the locker room after the game (my father had some business relationships with the team's owners) and meeting Wilt Chamberlain and coming away amazed by the experience. How big he was! And, to me, he was nice, too.

I recall vividly in the late 1960's when we were supposed to go to an NBA doubleheader at the Spectrum, which was brand new at the time, only to have the games postponed because a storm blew part of the roof off the building (you can look it up; it sounds strange, but it was true). How sad I was that I wasn't going to see two NBA games at once, and, yes, the tickets might have been something like $8 apiece -- these for seats on the first level, halfway up, near mid-court (my how times have changed). We went to a bunch of games, sat on the baseline behind the basket at times, and we followed the team like they were family. We were distraught when after the brilliant '66'-'67 season they were up 3 games to 1 on the Celtics in the Eastern finals only to lose 3 in a row, in one of the last great gasps of the Celtics' amazing dynasty. The trade of Wilt to the Lakers was a blow that jinxed the franchise for a while, and the nadir was the '72-'73 season, when the team went 9-73. Times were just awful.

Enjoyable, always, though, was the deep voice and amusing musings of the public address announcer, Dave Zinkoff, who is perhaps the only P.A. announcer in the history of American sports to have a banner hanging in the rafters alongside the greats of the team. Go to the Wachovia Center today and you'll see the banners of Chamberlain, Erving, Greer, Jones, Barkley and, yes, Dave Zinkoff. I remember in the late 70's, when Tommy Heinsohn was coaching the Celtics, and the 76ers were in a playoff game against them. The Celtics were up big, and then the 76ers rallied furiously to take the lead. Heinsohn called time out, and the place erupted so loudly (this was the Spectrum, which was a relative bandbox compared to the hotel-like Wachovia Center) that The Zink didn't bother to say anything. Then, as the Celtics were breaking their huddle, we all heard this in the Zink's unique voice: "As I was try-ing to saaaaay, the Cel-TICS call tiiiiiiiiiiiiime." The roar was louder than when the Celtics called timeout in the first place. (Now, before you get on The Zink for that, if you're a Celtics can you have to concede that the head of maintenance at the Boston Garden always kept the visiting locker rooms impossibly hot or cold, which was, I would think, a bigger sin than Mr. Zinkoff's rallying the crowd). His calls about cars that left their lights on in the parking lot were also part of the daily humor.

There were also the old Philadelphia basketball guys, the legacies from the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association, reverently referred to as the SPHAs, formed at a time when the poor urban Irish and Jewish immigrants populated the game. Eddie Gottlieb, a promoter and once owner of the Philadelphia Warriors, was one of their founders, and he had great seats at the 76ers games. Frequenly accompanying him was one-time SPHA Jules Trumpler, who reputedly was one of the best free throw shooters of his era. They would reminisce about the old days, and it was like taking a trip back to the hoops version of Jurassic Park. Neither man was very tall, and Mr. Trumpler always kept his hat on. These guys knew their basketball.

We went to the Spectrum a lot, and I recall eating at the restaurant downstairs (I think it was called "The Blue Line", "Ovations" and other things), I recall the narrow hallways, having to take a set of stairs downward to the restrooms, and seeing the smoke rise toward the big scoreboard that hung over the floor. I recall watching Fred Carter, Tom Van Arsdale (the less talented of the two Van Arsdale twins who had played their college hoops at Indiana), Archie Clark, Manny Leaks (he played at Niagara with Calvin Murphy), Clyde Lee and a whole cast of players who somehow came up short. Then, in the mid-1970's, Billy Cunningham returned from his self-imposed exile with the Carolina Cougars of the ABA, and the 76ers signed George McGinnis, taking him away from the ABA's Indianapolis Pacers. Then, after a few seasons with McGinnis as the star, the 76ers acquired one of the biggest names in basketball, the gravity-defying Dr. J., Julius Erving.

The team became a team of stars, but they couldn't forge the chemistry that a team with a great center, a tough power forward and a formidable combo guard did in Portland. While the 76ers might have had more overall talent than the Trail Blazers, the combination of Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas and Lionel Hollins, among others, was very tough, and they kept the title away from a great 76ers team. Those teams -- with Caldwell Jones, Erving, McGinnis, Darryl Dawkins and World B. Free, among others, broke our hearts. In one NBA Finals (I think it was '76-'77), they were up two games to none and then lost the series.

It's a franchise that at its best fielded one of the best teams in the history of the NBA (the '66-'67 team that broke a Celtics' streak, featuring Wilt Chamberlain, Luke Jackson, Chet Walker, Hal Greer and Wali Jones, with Billy Cunningham coming in off the bench), another great team (the '82-'83 team that featured Moses Malone, Marc Iavaroni, Erving, Andrew Toney and Maurice Cheeks as starters and Bobby Jones as the sixth man), some great second-places teams (read: almost every team that played against superior Celtics' squads in the 1960's), some teams haunted by having one great star and never the right combination to support him (read: those featuring Charles Barkley and then, later, Allen Iverson), and some plum awful teams (those in the early 1970's and those later on that featured none of Malone, Erving, Barkley or Iverson but featured guys like Darrell Imhoff, Archie Clark, Shawn Bradley and many others). All in all, being a 76ers' fan isn't an easy lot.

So it was with this background that I took my son, a bright-eyed, enthusiastic kid, to the Wachovia Center. I broke the news to him on Sunday morning, figuring that had I told him even a day earlier he would have had trouble falling asleep the night before.

He jumped up and down, hugged me, and said, "I love you, Daddy, I love you." Not that there was any doubt on that front, but the pure joy on hearing the news is something that I'll remember for a long time. The game was scheduled for 6 p.m. (which wasn't too bad given that it was the first day of Daylight Savings Time, so staying up even until 9 or 9:30 p.m. by the time we would get home wouldn't have been too bad). We shopped in the morning and practiced hitting off a tee in the afternoon, after which the questions came almost every ten minutes: "How much longer? How much longer?"

Finally, the time came, and our friends who were accompanying us picked us up for the ride to the arena. We parked pretty close to the building, and the size of the building and the atmosphere of everyone walking into a game struck both little boys as pretty awesome (my friend's son is 7). After all, these kids go to elementary school, where there are hundreds of kids in the same building, not over ten thousand, and even then all of the kids aren't focusing on the same thing. (By the way, that night the 76ers listed their attendance at about 18,000, but I doubt there were more than say 12,000 in the 20,000+ -seat building).

We made our way to our seats (in a club box, provided graciously by a close friend whose business couldn't find any more significant takers for tickets between the dysfunctional Knicks and the still-fighting-for-the-playoffs Sixers), saw that they were really good ones, and then made our way to the Food Court. Instead of having basically one offering -- a soggy hot dog -- for that's what the Spectrum offered when I was a kid, you get a wide variety, from sushi to barbecued beef, to hot dogs, to pizza, pannini sandwiches, you name it, they seem to have it. We ate there, rather civilized, before going back to our seats.

My son loved the pageantry; he couldn't understand the importance of the 76ers' dancers (and, quite frankly, neither can I except that they help confuse the message that the NBA wants to send as to whether they're more interested in world-class basketball or entertainment), and asked a bunch of questions about the banners hanging from the rafters. After the opening tipoff, he cheered every 76ers' score mightily and lustily booed the Knicks. At that point I explained to him that he had to conserve his energy, that the Knicks were bound to put the ball into the hoop about 45 more times, so he should focus on the positive aspects of the 76ers' play.

The good news was that the home team won, that the troika of Iverson, Chris Webber and Andre Iguodala combined for over 70 points, that no player really exclaimed audible curse words that the microphones that sound as though they're placed on the backboards pick up ("swish" has a whole new dimension now), and that he noticed the difference between the pace at times of the pro game and the average college game. He thought it was cool that a player as short as Iverson challenged the taller guys with little fear, marveled at the size of Samuel Dalembert and Jerome James, and didn't care that Steve Francis was relegated to the bench, that neither Stephon Marbury nor Jalen Rose played, or that Qyntel Woods has questionable hands. To him Kevin Ollie was the starting point guard for his favorite team, not a journeyman destined to play supporting roles for marginal teams at this point in his career.

At half-time we went downstairs, past the gourmet dessert cart, to stop at the Carvel stand for a sundae. Those clever devils at the concessionaires charge about $4.75 for the privilege and give a little kid enough ice cream to feed his T-ball team, which means that dad gleefully shared the treat. He walked off for a moment at the bar area where we sat to eat the ice cream (which seemingly others were doing as well; no beers for the kids!) to try to catch t-shirts that the DJ was giving away. As it turned out, you needed to be able some esoteric 76ers' trivia (it's hard enough to remember trivia about the great teams, let alone knowing it about a low-end playoff team that seems destined to be on the cusp of the lottery until Iverson's skills deteriorate markedly), so, while earnest, he didn't have a chance. Had it been "Star Wars" trivia, he might have come out of there with a wardrobe.

We had some time to spare, so we hit the souvenir stand where we bought a pennant to compliment his Eagles' and Phillies' pennants, and a biddy basketball with a 76ers' logo that we had to prevent him from dribbling inside the house when he got home lest he wake up his sister. Thankfully, it remained in the bag at the game, so there was no chance of losing it. Then it was time to watch the second half, and the 76ers proceeded to blow out the Knicks, and some of the gives and gos, blocked shots and threes were fun to watch.

It's great going to an event with your son, especially when he's a little boy. At this age, it's all about the experience. Going to the game is the thing. It goesn't matter whether your team is a playoff contender or champion; it's the going that matters, and everything about it is cool. It didn't matter that the Malone-Erving 76ers werent' playing, and it didn't matter that this year's version of the Knicks's backcourt of Francis, Marbury and Rose won't make anyone forget Frazier, Monroe and Barnett, it just mattered that we were there, together, father and son, high-fiving great plays and talking about basketball.

It was nice that they won.

It was nice that he got to see a future Hall of Famer in Allen Iverson (he's in an after-school program where eggs just hatched into chicks, and while most kids have named their little chicks things like "Sunshine" and "Tweetie", he and his buddy named theirs "Allen" in tribute to Iverson -- no word yet whether they tried to place a rub-on tatoo spouting a Confucian proverb on the small bird's neck).

It was nice that we had great seats.

And it was the best that we were just there, together, sharing the experience.

Days like those don't come too often, because there's soccer, T-ball, play dates and all sorts of other stuff. But when they do, you have to savor them and cherish the memories.

I look back very fondly on the times I shared with my father, and I hope that through experiences like these and others (outdoors, hopefully, although I've yet to convince my son that fishing is actually fun), he'll have the same warm memories that I have to this day.

The whole event was just great.

The time was priceless.


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