(After my planned series-opener at Madison Square Garden was unexpectedly called off — damn you, asbestos — I officially kicked off my 60 Days, 30 Arenas trip last night at the Prudential Center in Newark.)
That’s how much the StubHub ticket I bought to see the first game of my trip set me back. OK, OK, with StubHub and delivery charges it actually came out to more than $10. But still, when you see that tickets for a game are available somewhere for as low as $0 and it’s not a typo, you’d have to think it was something of a reflection about the arena and team. At the very least, the low cost helped me pitch the game-going to a couple of my New York friends, so the four of us hopped on NJ Transit and headed down to the Prudential Center in Newark.
Indeed, attendance at the Nets’ Wednesday night game against the Bobcats was sparse, to be generous — I was almost surprised that they didn’t delay the game from its scheduled 7:00 start to at least wait for a couple more people to show up. Me and my friends were almost entirely alone in our 49-cent-section in the upper-deck armpit — though the guy at the gate still insisted on checking our tickets every time we entered, like we were trying to sneak into one of the luxury boxes or something. (“He probably doesn’t have much to do,” my friend Lisa pointed out.)
To be fair, all the people I talked to at the stadium insisted this was an off night — highly plausible, considering it was a mid-week game vs. the Bobcats. I met up for a few minutes with Jake Appleman, a one-time co-worker at my crazy TV-watching job and NBA writer for Slam, and he insisted that the crowds in the first few games he had gone to the first few nights were the best he had heard since the Nets were in the 2007 playoffs. Could’ve fooled me — even during the close late-game situations, the crowds were so dormant that the unceasingly-positive readings on the “MAKE SOME NOISE!!” meters became a bitterly sarcastic joke.
The Stadium: Reviews of the stadium had been incessantly positive from everyone I had talked to, and for the most part, they were pretty right on. Everything about it was looked shiny and new, the food stands were impressively diverse (there was even a Beers of Newark stand, though apparently they had permanently sold out of their signature ale — bummer) and the interior arena definitely felt huge and intimidating (“I feel like we finally have a home-court advantage,” a fan named John told me) — or at least it would if there were more than a couple thousand people inside of it.
The one primary critique to be had was that it was very obviously someone else’s house that the Nets were borrowing. It’s hard enough for the Nets to compete with the Devils for the state’s attention even when they’re not sharing the same building, but stacked up so close against each other, the comparison was staggering. The countless Devils banners hung from the rafters threatened to swallow the Nets section whole, and the Nets paraphernalia barely even took up half a wall at the stadium gift shop, tellingly titled the Devil’s Den. As far as two-year rentals go, though, the team clearly could have done worse.
The Game: Not really a lot of intrigue surrounding a Bobcats-Nets game in November, and both players and fans responded accordingly. (The best storyline I could come up with was calling it the Stephen Jackson Bowl, one of an incredible three different games on my trip that technically fit that description.) The game was as sluggish and graceless as you’d expect between two such offensively challenged teams — a lot of missed jumpers, clumsy post play and missed opportunities on the break, with no one player totally rising above the muck and the mire. (Boris Diaw had a surprisingly nice game, though, as he always seems to when I get stuck watching Bobcats games.)
The best thing about watching this game, unsurprisingly, was rookie forward Derrick Favors. I just could not stop staring at this dude’s arms — I don’t know what his technical wingspan is, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player live with longer arms than Favors. They slumped so low to the ground that they seemed to be dragging his entire body down with him. He was a couple of inches away from being as cartoonish as the “A Fish! A Fish!” guy from The Meaning of Life. And natch, he used them in the game, single-handedly accounting for nearly all of the game’s highlights — primarily a couple of thunderous dunks, which elicited booming and marginally appropriate shouts of “RE-TURN THE FAVOR!!” and “DOOOOOO ME A FAVOR!!” from the PA guy.
The game did get interestingly tight towards the end, as the Captain’s jumper finally started falling and the Bobcats crawled to a two-point lead in the game’s final minute. But an abortive offensive set for the Nets in their final possession led to a lousy shot and a number of failed putback attempts, including an inexplicably desperate turnaround jumper from Travis Outlaw with a full six or seven seconds left on the clock. As everyone grappled on the floor for the rebound, the clock ran out, and the entire arena sighed with the same kind of “That’s it???” exasperation. It seemed like as appropriate a way for a Bobcats-Nets game to end as any, really.
The Fans: Well, they tried, anyway. I don’t want to judge their performance too harshly based on what I’m told was an unrepresentative showing, and in any event, the outlook around the fanbase seems in general much brighter than I would have expected off a 12-70 season and a cruelly underwhelming off-season. I asked a bunch of people what they thought the chances were of the team being able to make good on Mikhail Prokhorov’s promise of a championship within five seasons, expecting them to go comically low with their answers (1 in 22 was the oddly-specific lowest response I got), but a couple of them seemed to really think the team had a shot, including a pair of fans that went as high as 50%.
And everyone seemed high on Favors (“His motor is … insert your favorite car metaphor here,” Jake told me), enough so that they were against the proposed deal for Carmelo Anthony that would’ve included him going to Denver. “I didn’t want the Knicks to get Carmelo,” a fan named Mike said after the game, explaining why he might have wanted to do the deal. “But Favors has so much potential.” Jake seemed confident they could and should wait till the off-season to make their move on Carmelo, at which point Chris Paul would likely follow. “After that, it’s only one more year until Brooklyn.”
Maybe it’s the confidence of not having to wait 20+ games to get your first two wins of the season, but despite the horrible turnout and lackluster team effort, the fans refused to take the bait on my generally negatively-spun questions. “Make sure that I sound positive about the Nets,” Mike even insisted as I was done talking with him. Fair enough.
Most Popular Jerseys: Brook Lopez for current, Jason Kidd and Vince Carter for old. Only saw one Bobcats fan throughout, a brave soul in Emeka Okafor duds.
Celebrities in the Crowd: Salt-n-Pepa, noticeably in effect, and Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia, who was roundly booed for reasons I’m not entirely clear on. (Mostly Mets and Phillies fans in Newark? Not really sure how that shakes out geographically).
Local Pop Culture Tie-Ins: The obligatory t-shirt toss during a time out was accompanied by video of the Jersey Shore cast doing their still-weird “IIIIIT’S T-SHIRT TIIIIIIIME!!!!” routine from season two. It was such a staggeringly fantastic fit that it makes me wonder if it was devised with this specific purpose in mind.
Also Worth Noting: The Nets hype man — whose name I’m told is Marco G. — was fantastic. He was doing it all the whole game, mixing it up with the dancers, prancing around the floor, getting into the stands with the fans, coaxing every little bit of life he could out of that moribund crowd. He sounded like a particularly over-zealous bar mitzvah DJ — which 99% of the time I wouldn’t mean as a compliment, but which was oddly necessary at a game like this. Apparently Marco G. was even the focus of a big downer of a New York Times profile during last year’s nightmare season. How’s this opening quote for hype-man gravitas? “Marco G. is yelling, because he wants to, because he needs to and because if he stops, someone at the Izod Center just might fall asleep. You’re not supposed to sleep at a professional basketball game.” Woof.
One down, 29 to go. Next up: My hometown Sixers, taking on the Cavs at the CoreStates First Union Wachovia Wells Fargo Center. Told tix for these bad boys can cost upwards of $2, so I’ll skimp on the beef jerky for the trip there.