60/30: No. 26, Amway Center

Andrew Unterberger is just about done with his trek across the country and back. Here’s his report from Orlando…

The beach in December, a marvelous thing. When it’s the day before Christmas and I can walk on the sand, sipping a Landshark in just my bathing suit and my recently acquired Michael Beasley No. 40 Heat jersey (“I don’t know what it is about that boy, but he just looks like he’s up to no good,” the townspeople whispered as I passed), it’s a pretty remarkable technological and/or cultural achievement. True, the water was absolutely freezing and I couldn’t last more than 90 seconds inside, but a small price to pay for getting to make use of my Phoenix Suns beach towel — actually, technically a bench towel, read the label wrong, but whatever, still dries — so close to the new year. Bless you, southern Florida. (Also got to try alligator while passing through the Everglades. Not bad, tastes halfway between chicken and scallop, if you can picture that.)

Was a little bummed to have to spend Christmas in Orlando, though. Usually a bummer of a holiday for me (Jewish, spent it working for double-time pay the last few years), all I really wanted to do was hole up in my hotel room and ignore the outside world for 48 hours, but I quickly found the outside world was difficult to ignore in such close proximity to Disney World. Still, I cobbled together the traditional Heathen Christmas by ordering Chinese delivery and ordering “Takers” on pay-per-view (for $17, or about $1 for every six mediocre, suspenseless minutes — at least T.I. was kinda badass in it), then passing out in a bloated stupor on my hotel bed. When I awoke, it was just about time to head down to Amway to see the Magic take on the Celtics, one of the marquee games on arguably the second-best day of the year to be an NBA fan.

The Stadium: Hands up if you know between Amway Center and Amway Arena which is the building that the Orlando Magic currently play NBA basketball inside. That many of you, huh? Well, fair enough, but it confused the hell out of me, especially since the two are in such close proximity and both look like plausible professional hoops arenas.

Luckily I left about two hours early to get to the building because I wanted to make sure that I’d be able to catch the end of Knicks/Bulls in the press room (Go Knicks!!!) before the Magic game started, so I was able to waste a half-hour sputtering around Amway Arena wondering why I couldn’t find a designated parking area before I realized my mistake. My stupidity of course, but still, would it have killed you guys to put up a couple signs putting a big X through the Amway Arena listing or something? I can’t have been the first person to make this mistake.

Anyway, I still got to the Amway Center with plenty of time to spare, and it is indeed lovely as advertised. Mostly, it’s just huge, with a greater variety of concession stands, gift shops (the lower level looked like an independent mini-mall) and seating options (best demonstrated in the “Suites” category of the Wiki page comparing the AC to the AA) than just about any of the other stadiums I’d visited — really, it was probably the closest I’ve come on this trip to an NBA equivalent to Jerry’s World in Dallas. And the fans who told me that there wasn’t a bad seat in the house weren’t kidding — like at the Heat game, my press row was located high above all the regular seats, but was still in an open, centralized area with a fine view of the court below. I wasn’t complaining, certainly.

And of course, it being so near the happiest place on earth, Amway was popping with Christmas cheer. Carving stations were offering holiday-appropriate trimmings, the DJ outside the arena was scratching up a copy of Wham!’s “Last Christmas,” and cheerleaders all around the inside were posing for pics with fans dressed in antlers and red Santa-esque outfits. Even the press workroom, traditionally an area entirely devoid of mirth and merriment, was overtaken by an invasion of Mickey Mouse and a number of his elves. (Mickey has elves? Can we get a fact-checker on that? Whatever.) I even got a free Mickey-ears hat (price tag: $12!!) and a decent photo-op out of it – one of the many unadvertised perks of being a credentialed member of the media.

The Game: As I tweeted during the game, the Celtics and Magic are now into their third year of demonstrating that there is, in fact, a difference between a close game and a good game. By most rights, their match-ups should be among the most compelling in the sport — there’s the history of having faced off in the last two post-seasons, the grudge of long-time Magic enemy Shaq now being on the C’s, even the weird and possibly non-existent suspense in the possibility of a spontaneous in-game dunk-off between contest rivals Nate Robinson and Dwight Howard. Yet as you actually watch their games, you find yourself reaching for the fast-forward button (even live) — Tas called it in the TBJ X-mas preview, but the two teams always end up playing this tough, ground-out, stop-start style that tends to teeter on the wrong side of watchability.  (You could see it in the box score, as both team’s shooters all seemed to have a fluky-bad night — Ray Allen: 3-13, Gilbert Arenas: 2-9, Jason Richardson: 2-8, Nate Robinson: 3-15, Jameer Nelson: 3-9. Yuck.)

There wasn’t much to key on watching in this game from an offensive standpoint, though it’s always fun to watch Hedo Turkoglu’s chest heaves from three and Kevin Garnett’s surgical twenty-footers. Rather, the most compelling thing to see live in this game was to witness the brilliance with which the Celtics defended Dwight Howard. When Howard is on his game, you can’t imagine how anyone ever stops him, but the C’s were incredible in how thoroughly they denied Superman any chance of finding a groove. They repeatedly denied entry passes to him, timing their delivery perfectly to swat them back out, and when they couldn’t deny Howard the ball, they pushed him out to eight or ten feet, where he was forced to sink the running hook he’s improved, but still can’t hit consistently. And when all else failed, they fouled, hard enough to deny him an and-one, forcing him to earn his points the tough way. It was an absolute clinic on defending the world’s best center, who ended up with just six points on 1-4 shooting, made doubly impressive by the fact that neither of the guys who shut Dwight down in single-coverage last post-season (Kendrick Perkins and Rasheed Wallace) were suited up for the Green that day.

It’s amazing that the C’s were able to both shut down the Magic’s biggest weapon and limit all their biggest perimeter threats to shitty shooting nights, yet still couldn’t put the game away in the fourth quarter, where the Magic were somehow able to sneak back into the contest. (I seriously have no idea how this happened, though I suppose the combined efforts of Boston’s O’Neal brothers — 2-7 for four points, three rebounds and ten fouls — might have had something to do with it.) Then in the last two minutes, Jameer Nelson from 2008 magically showed up (It’s a Christmas miracle!!) to hit two huge jumpers that put the Magic ahead late, and an awkward J.J. Redick jumper rolled in to ice it for Orlando. Final score: Magic 86, Celtics 78. But don’t let the history books or the SportsCenter recaps tell you otherwise — this game was absolutely deathly to watch.

The Fans: Though it can be a little depressing depending on the franchises involved, I do love a good fanbase road/home split at well-attended sports games — it just makes things a little testier, a little more interesting. The number of fans dressed in blue and white just barely edged out those in green and white at Amway, and often the divide went so far as to split right down between apparently mixed-faith couples in attendance. (“Come on, put something Magic on!” a woman pleaded with me as I walked with her to the game, next to her C’s-adorned boyfriend and a father-and-son tandem visiting from Boston. “I’m outnumbered here!”) It was especially cool given the history between the teams, as a good deal of the Magic fans were not just wearing pro-Orlando merch, but anti-Boston as well, including a handful “Beat Boston” shirts that they were selling in the Amway gift shop, and a blue “Celtics Suck” shirt featuring the C’s leprechaun giving the thumbs-down.

As much flak as Miami gets for having late-arriving fans, Orlando seems to get off the hook. But the early-game malaise appears to be something of a state-wide ethos, as it definitely took well into the first half for the lower level at Amway to start to fill. The crowd’s spirit was good at first, but they were far from impervious to the game’s energy suck, and by the time the game returned from what felt like an absolutely endless halftime break (damn you, national TV audience), it seemed like the fans almost resented having to sit for another half of this muck-mired hoops action. Not until Jameer’s swooping in to save the day in the fourth quarter did the fans become re-invested, although at that point, they certainly got pretty gonzo. After the victory, the buzz carried out into the city, and fans hanging outside the bars on Church Street offered high-fives to their Magic brethren (and appropriate taunts to Celtics supporters) as they passed. All’s well that ends well, I suppose.

The weird thing about the press row I was assigned to at the top of the stadium was that it wasn’t solely designated for press, but rather a mix of reporters and fans given free passes to the game for a variety of reasons. I got to talk to a couple, including CK, a rabid fan and iron worker who said that his union had a part in building the Center’s inner workings. He liked the trades that essentially rebuild the Magic’s roster mid-season. “The players we got rid of, hate to see ‘em go, but we were paying them a lot of money and they weren’t producing,” he said. “The new guys are good with the offense, everything’s clicking. I think it’s only gonna get better.” He bristled somewhat at the suggestion that Howard might need to be placated in order to persuade him to stay in Orlando. “Dwight’s gonna stay in Orlando his whole career,” he insisted. “It’s his home, it’s where he started. This new arena was all for him … everything we’ve put in front of him.”

Though CK liked the team’s chances in the post-season (“We may only be 17-12 right now, but we’re still contenders”), he did view the day’s opponent as their biggest stumbling block to making the finals. “We have the hardest time playing ‘em,” he said. “Dunno if it’s in our team, if they’re in our heads, if they’re in the coach’s head … this is the team we have to play to get through to the Finals.” What about the Heat, who fan Steven sitting next to me suggested were talented enough to really give the Magic trouble? “No, not at all,” said CK adamantly. “Once these players get really comfortable with the offense … we brought these players in for a reason,” he said, pointing at Arenas and Richardson on the court. “Once they get into the offense and everything’s clicking, we have just as many weapons as the Heat have.”

As the game’s final bell sounded, CK, who had spent the entire game whooping from his seat, rejoiced at the outcome. “WE’RE BACK!!” he shouted. “RECORD DON’T MEAN NOTHING!”

Most Popular Jerseys: Dwight Howard easily for the currents, though I was a little surprised to see J.J. Redick as the team’s second-most popular — weird to see the transition he’s made from lottery bust to gritty fan favorite these last few seasons. No consensus old school (and zero Orlando Shaqs, unsurprisingly), but still a couple VC’s in attendance, and most amusingly to me, a Carlos Arroyo sighting. Keep it in the Sunshine State, for reals.

Also Worth Noting: Possibly the best thing about Christmas finally being over (it is actually over, right? They didn’t extend it for some reason?) is that now the Jock-Jamming can go back to normal. I love Christmas music as much as the next guy — well, the rock-era stuff anyway — and it’s one thing to bear with its takeover of terrestrial radio and in-store muzak for the month leading up to December 25, but when I’m watching a pro hoops game live, I really don’t much care to be pumped up by the strains of “Go Tell it On the Mountain” and Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime.” (Good thing that there was already no energy in the building from the soul-sucking game on display, otherwise it surely would have been bottomed out by the latter playing over the entirety of a second-quarter TO.) Very much looking forward to getting back to my regularly-scheduled program of Gary Glitter and Black Box at my next post-holidays game in Charlotte.

Swag Acquired: ORL-BOS was the first and likely only game of my trip to be considered significant enough by the franchise powers that be to have t-shirts commissioned specifically for the game. So, I bought myself a black “Magic vs. Celtics” shirt (featuring Shaq and D-12 on the front) for $10 to prove that I Was There, Somewhat Unfortunately. Also considered picking up a copy of Dwight’s “Shoot for the Stars” CD for $12, but I was worried that I would then feel obligated to actually listen to it, so I passed.

2010 Jam of the Day:

Summer Camp – “Christmas Wrapping.” Decently faithful but not overly-reverential cover of one of the great rock Christmas songs of recent years. Hope a happy holiday season was had by all.

Working my way back up north now, officially in the trip’s home stretch. Good thing I saved the best for near-last –Pistons-Bobcats, a Monday night showdown. I’m comin’ for ya, MJ.