There appears to be nothing too silly for intermission at an NBA basketball game. If you can imagine it, the Washington Wizards will do it.
I’m 60 years old. My first experiences of professional sporting events came when my Dad and Mom took me and my sister to Yankee Stadium to watch the Bronx Bombers, late 50s – early 60s edition, march through the American League on their way to another World Series victory under the leadership of the Ol’ Perfesser, Casey Stengle. Taking me to those games was a significant sacrifice for my Father. Although we lived in suburban New Jersey, he had grown up in Massachusetts a committed Red Sox fan. He once gave in to my pleas and read me an entire book about the history of the Yankees. But, he so hated the New York team that every time he book used the word “Yankees,” Dad substituted “Oompahs.”
Fine, you say. But, what does this drivel about baseball in the 60s have to do with silliness at NBA games? Read on impatient one, and you shall learn.
Baseball at Yankee Stadium in those days was a solemn affair. The sport was the National Pastime. The Yankees were its Gods. The “House that Ruth Built,” its temple. The grass was green, the stands were grey, and in center field, right there on the playing surface, stood tombstone-like monuments to departed deities: Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio. There were no dancing girls, not even any ball-girls. There were the umpires, dressed all in Navy blue as befits any self respecting ump, the grounds crew, the bat boys, and of course the ballplayers. No one else; whom else did we need?
As game time approached, the Yankees would take the field in their ever so dignified uniforms: white with Navy blue pin strips, the reverse of the uniform worn by the Wall Street bankers and lawyers who made up much of their fan base. (The blue collar guys had mostly been fans of the Giants or Dodgers, and were in mourning because those teams had betrayed them for filthy lucher on the West Coast.)
Once the Star Spangled Banner had been sung, the stately tones of Bob Sheppard, the Yankees’ PA announcer, echoed through the half empty stands, “Leading off and playing second base for the Boston Red Sox, Pete Runnels” (or whoever it was). And that was it. No fireworks, fancy introductions, mascot antics, or contests. Just a simple announcement of the name of the first batter. It was, after all, a baseball game we had come to see, not a vaudeville act or a circus.
And what games they were! We saw Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris hit homers in 1961, the year that Maris broke the Babe’s record. Tony Kubeck and Bobby Richardson turned double plays right in front of us. The “little lefthander” Whitey Ford struck men out. One day we sat in the right field stands quite close to where Yogi Berra, on a rest day from catching, was playing the outfield. My sister fell in love with him.
Yesterday, my daughter Valerie took me to a Washington Wizards basketball game. She and I go back to the days when the Wizards were still called the Bullets. When she was a little girl, we sat on a love seat in the kitchen after dinner and watched them play on TV. Those were the days of Juwan Howard, Chris Webber and George Muresan, the ungainly, odd-looking 7 foot 7 inch giant who played center. They had a couple of good seasons, and Val became particularly fond of Big George. We went to occasional games back then; more recently Val has taken me to several Washington Nationals baseball games. These trips have taught me that professional sporting events are no longer the somber, almost holy rituals of my youth. There is a certain amount of “entertainment” in addition to the game itself: the Nationals amuse us with racing Presidential mascots and the like. But nothing prepared me for what I saw and heard at last night’s basketball game.
We got there early. As we took our seats in the almost empty arena (named of course, not for the team, but rather after Verizon, the sponsor that had bought the “naming rights”), the faces of two insufferably perky twenty-somethings, a boy with stylish hair and a grinning blond girl, appeared on the giant TV screen hanging over the court. She was holding a microphone and babbling about the “Parent Makeover.” She had cornered to two reluctant gentlemen and was insisting that they put on various pieces of Wizards apparel (game jerseys, hats, sweats, etc.) and jump around like fools (while being shown on the giant, in-house TV screen) to prove they had as much “Wizard Spirit” as their (probably mortified) children. Neither fellow got into the spirit of it. Whom they had pissed off to deserve this treatment I could not say, but it must have been someone awfully important.
As Val and I were shaking our heads over this spectacle, a flying mini-van appeared! It made a slow circumnavigation of the arena. Then, apparently liking what it saw, continued to take laps. I suppose it was intended to advertize something; geniuses, these admen. But, I mean, what does a flying mini-van have to do with a basketball game? Everything, apparently, because the thing made numerous reappearances during the evening. (If anyone reading this ever meets Ezzy, my mini-van, you must be careful not to mention the flying van. I have enough trouble satisfying her demands to be taken out on the racetrack as a reward for pulling the race car and trailer. I can’t afford to pay for her to learn to fly.) After witnessing this aeronautical marvel, all I could suggest to Val was that we go get something to eat. She agreed, and bought me my dinner.
As we regained our seats, the floor filled with smoke, the lights dimmed, strobes flashed and music thundered. I expected at least the reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse (apologies to Bob Dylan), if not the Second Coming. I was a tad disappointed when an over–excited voice intoned, “Yooouuurrr Waaashiiiingtoooon Wiiiizaaaards” and 11 tall guys dressed in white underwear trotted out. At least they were wearing the home whites and not the gold shirts with black shorts that make them look like a rec league team.
Just as I was settling down to concentrate on the first quarter action, some fool coach called a timeout, which afforded the blond girl the opportunity to inflict “Smile Cam” on the assembly. She instructed that the fan caught on camera with the “best” smile would be rewarded with a prize. It being “H & R Block Tax Preparation Night” at the old gym (sure glad I didn’t miss that one), the prize would be a certificate to have your taxes done for you. (Nothing about them being paid for you, though. Damn!) So, while several thousand eager taxpayers did their best imitation of Ronald McDonald, the camera panned the stands and projected their hideous grins onto the giant screen. Finally, Blondie picked a winner, he was given his much coveted tax certificate, and the basketball game was permitted to resume.
Next up we had “Dance Cam.” Yeah, it’s what you think. The camera pans the crowd looking for the best dancer, who won some prize or other. That really wasn’t so bad. Some of the kids, at least, looked really cute dancing. A fat guy won the prize. He could make his body go one way and his belly, go the other.
After a brief interruption for basketball, Blondie got back to work. The giant TV showed her shoving the microphone in the face of a big fellow slouching on a couch. It seems this piece of home furnishing is called the “Budweiser couch” (no one should be without one). With the unerring instinct of a Washington Post reporter tracking down a political scandal, Blondie asked the guy, “How did you get to sit on the Budweiser Couch?” She seemed at a loss, however, when all he said in answer was, “Drank a lotta Bud Lite.” A sudden resumption of basketball spared us most of her pained silence.
In the fourth quarter, as the game got close and the tedium of watching the players run, pass, dribble and shoot was becoming more than most in attendance could tolerate, Blondie came again to our rescue. She announced “KISSING CAM.” I wish I were making this up. If I were, I wouldn't make up this part. I'd jsut tell you the fianl score and be done wiith it. But Kisssing Cam really happened. She offered another prize, this one for the couple who did the best kissing while the panning camera was on them. We were treated to pecks on the cheek, decorous kisses on the lips, passionate embraces, and full tongue-in-the-mouth action. A young man and woman, who Blondie said were on their first date (how does she know these things?), refused to kiss at all. But they turned a lovely pink as they sat staring forward for what seemed like an hour with the camera on them. Who won the prize? How could you possibly care?
There was more silliness, but I was too numb to remember it. I do know that the Wizards won, holding off a late rally by the Memphis Grizzlies. And Val and I had a terrific time watching the game, laughing at the “entertainment” and chatting about this and that. Afterwards, she drove me home. I love having adult daughters.