My wife had won tickets to watch the San Antonio Spurs playing the LA Lakers at the AT&T centre, our local sports and related entertainments arena in which one could fit the city of London several times over. The tickets were for seats costing over $300 a head and she had won them at her office, so this wasn't some old tat - the boss handing over a can of fizzy pop on Christmas Eve and telling you to keep up the good work. A few of her friends had offered to take the extra ticket. Resenting the implication that I myself might not wish to attend on the grounds of a lifelong hatred of organised sports in all of its forms, I accepted the invitation, reasoning that it would be something new and therefore interesting.
I considered the Spurs - the home team. I was already out of my depth. 'They're er— basketball, right?'
My wife nodded.
I had seen basketball on television a few times because my wife watches the occasional game if the Spurs are playing. It's the one I recall as having been called netball when I was at school in England. The girls played it, and we would sit and pretend not to watch from the English literature classroom. LeBron James plays basketball, and I know his name from when he featured on a massive poster which came free with an issue of Hip Hop Connection magazine a few years ago. I didn't hang it on my wall because I didn't know who the hell he was at the time, or why the poster should have been given away with an English music magazine. Charles Barkley also plays basketball, and I know him from the Godzilla vs. Barkley comic and because he hates San Antonio for reasons which aren't very interesting. Shaquille O'Neal used to play basketball and was apparently quite good at it, although I've heard of the guy mainly because my wife knew him from having attended the same classes at school. Finally, there's Kobe Bryant who plays basketball for the Lakers, although I'm not sure why I've heard of him; and that is the sum total of my basketball knowledge.
It transpires that our tickets also cover a parking spot, which is nice. We park and file into the arena with everyone else, finding our seats five or six rows from the front of the sloped terrace. I've been here before to watch the rodeo. From my point of view it's like Wembley Stadium were Wembley Stadium built around a small bowling green rather than a football pitch. There are screens everywhere, the largest being four of them set on each side of a huge central mount hanging down from the roof. We are sat amongst fans of both teams. I reflect that this would seem odd in England, comparing the arrangement to my admittedly limited experience of football.
'So you never get any trouble, fights breaking out between rival fans or anything?
My wife shakes her head, and I think about all of my friends who support Millwall back in London, and then the one guy who follows West Ham.
The noise is already deafening and we have thirty minutes to go. Players jump around on the court or the pitch or the trapezoid or whatever it's called, and voices blast from speakers all around as statistics appear on the screen, a featurette for each grinning player detailing height, performance, match statistics, superpowers, and which issue of The Avengers he first appeared in. Music blasts, familar songs but just ten second snatches of introduction, just long enough for one to recognise Thriller or Highway to Hell or The Final Countdown and cry out oh hell yeah or that shit's my jam right there, motherfucker! or something of the sort. It's all about the excitement of the thing without the substance of the thing itself.
The section in which we are seated apparently comes with its own team of waiters who will take our orders for burgers, fries, nachos, soda or whatever, but it's still too early for them so we make our way back up the stairs to the concession stands. My wife takes a tray of nachos and I have a burger. It is about as good as I expected it to be, better than McDonald's but nothing which would inspire a special trip. After I've eaten I am no longer hungry, so that's good.
A match or game or tournament of basketball divides into four quarters each of fifteen minutes duration. The rules are pretty much as they are with football, with nets representing goals, everything stopping for the equivalent of a penalty, and so on - football here meaning football as played with a spherical ball, not the game they call football in this country which looks to me like rugby played by Transformers.
The game begins before we've even realised, and it occurs to me that in its natural state this may be one of those games you're better off to be playing than watching. The action occurs within a very small area with players crowded together. It happens quickly and can be difficult to follow from a distance, unlike football in which events can be observed and appreciated as unfolding at a more reasonable pace from the other side of the stadium. Football has more of a narrative; and football has the additional dimension of all those wonderful songs - You're Going Home in a Fucking Ambulance, or Who Ate All the Pies?, or You Live in a Caravan - which city-dwelling Millwall fans sing to Gillingham's semi-rural supporters to the tune of Go West by the Village People, and You've Never Seen a Tree, which is the response sung to the tune of You'll Never Walk Alone. I guess that this sort of thing doesn't happen with basketball, at least not here or this evening. Audience creativity is firmly schooled by instructions and announcements from speaker and screen, efforts to hype us up into a screaming mass. High up in the rear of the stadium, someone called DJ Quake plays us the first ten seconds of every hair metal record to ever feature on the soundtrack of a Tom Cruise film, switching according to the demands of the game. The Spurs are on the attack, so he plays a looping bar of a drum break followed by three hard beats as everyone chants GO! SPURS! GO!; then the Lakers take the ball and everyone crowds around the Spurs net and we get a different beat - thump thump DE! FENCE! thump thump DE! FENCE! over and over. It's not like anyone really needs this sort of jollying along, or a Spurs fan would be unable to tell what his or her team were up to without musical cues, so I suppose it's simply that everyone likes a sing-song, that everyone likes to feel included.
Someone scores a goal - or whatever it's called in this game - and the screens flash further instructions make noise, get loud, or some other unnecessary exhortation to celebration.
ON, the screen flashes. YOUR it continues, then FEET! followed by a photograph of a heeled cowboy boot just in case anyone was left struggling with the general concept of feet. No supporter left behind.
The game appears to have stopped and some guy in a coyote costume runs about waving arms and encouraging us to make more noise. He holds up a sign which reads this is our house, which is probably the most stupid message of the evening. The coyote suit is peculiar, googly green eyes staring in different directions. I like coyotes as they are in the real world, and I like Wile E. Coyote the animated nemesis of the national bird of Texas, but this one resembles a cautionary lesson on the perils of substance abuse, or he would do were it not for the running around and the somersaults. I notice that he wears a Spurs shirt with coyote spelled out on the back, which I suppose at least reduces any possible ambiguity.
Play resumes without warning. It may have resumed a few minutes ago but we were busy making noise, getting loud, rocking out to DJ Quake up there on his wheels of steel, this time playing an entire song all the way through, which is unfortunately by the Electric Light Orchestra, the worst band of all time.
Make some noise.
Yes, we know.
This must be what it's like inside the head of a hyperactive child on a Sunny Delight and candy binge. It reminds me of Crackerjack, an English children's show from my childhood which seemed to involve a lot of screaming. Even at the age of seven I considered it headachey. Saddest of all, I would suggest that all this spectacle does the game and its players a disservice. It suggests a lack of confidence in our being sufficiently entertained by ten men bouncing a ball around for an hour. Ignore the flashing lights and distractions, and although basketball happens quickly and in a small area, watch for long enough and you begin to see the skill involved and to appreciate the game. I suppose DJ Quake and the flashing lights are here to keep it interesting to those for whom basketball is not enough in and of itself, for whom it needs to be an enveloping experience. I recall certain footballing authorities aspiring to turn the beautiful game into something for all the family, which never struck me as a necessarily worthy intention so much as an exercise in raking in more money. All football ever needed to do was appeal to those who enjoy football. It never really needed to cater to anyone who doesn't enjoy football, just as there's no need for such a thing as a vegetarian beef steak; and the same surely applies to basketball, although I'm not sure where this leaves me given that I'm sat here watching the Lakers take the lead over the Spurs. It isn't that I'm not enjoying it, but it's odd, and I might enjoy it more were I not being asked to get loud every fifteen seconds. The game seems like the least important detail of the whole.
At the end of an hour padded out to three with generic entertainment-style spectacle, the Spurs lose by 110 goals to the Lakers' 112 - or points or scores or tries or whatever it is with this game. We all leave, either happy, or happy to at least have been here, which I suppose ticks all the boxes that needed ticking. It really wouldn't have taken much to convert me, to switch my generally tepid allegiance from football as my default sport of choice, but the Spurs just couldn't manage it. To be fair, it probably wasn't their fault.