Is That a Zamboni Way Down There?

One night last week, the Denver Nuggets and the New York Knicks played a professional basketball game in the Pepsi Center.

At least that's what the morning papers said.

Beheld from our vantage point, in lofty section 369, the event might actually have been one of many things: a concert by one of those German rock groups that smashes junkyard objects, amplifying the results through speakers the size of condominiums; maybe a re-enactment of the Battle of Verdun; or a major psychedelic hallucination. Because when you're sitting in section 369, nothing is quite certain. Half-crazed from oxygen deprivation and disoriented by a relentless, ear-splitting bombardment of rap tunes, bugle calls, drum explosions and organ ditties, you can't tell if that blurry semi-square thing sitting 4,000 yards down below is a visiting power forward or the Zamboni suddenly coming to reglaze the ice between periods. That distant nose wearing a blue suit? We're guessing Dan Issel. As for the effect of binoculars, you might as well be Stevie Wonder in reading glasses. Or Columbus scanning the horizon for India.

Up in section 369, basketball is an unsubstantiated rumor.

These are, of course, the Pepsi Family Night seats. The nosebleeds. Four tickets, four pizzas, four Pepsis, two micro-mini balls and one game program, all for just $70. Actually, $78. You pay a $2 "arena fee" -- whatever that is -- on each ducat. Throw in another $15 for parking, $6 for a big beer and payment for whatever emergency medical services your party requires after re-entering the earth's atmosphere, and the evening's really not much of a bargain.

Of course, you do get some priceless stories to tell your grandchildren. About how you were once in the same solar system with Antonio McDyess. And the uncommon bravery of the Himalayan Sherpas selling peanuts in the row behind you.

The good thing -- the really good thing -- about allegedly witnessing a professional basketball game from such a distant perch is that you don't have to put up with all the faults people are finding these days with the National Basketball Association. In section 369, you get a pretty good overview of gem merchant Tom Shane's little diamond-shaped blimp as it sails by below you, but you don't have to see former Oakland Strangler Latrell Sprewell's cornrows that critics believe are a symbol of the NBA's bad-boy image. For your $78, you get a helluva good look at a huge fan banner in the rafters extolling "Nick Van Exel's Golden Nuggets," but you're too far from the action to hear any player talking smack about his opponent's parentage or most intimate family relationships. From section 369 you can't see the vast acreage of tattoos now covering the combatants, and you can't hear them abusing the referees. In the Pepsi Family Night seats you might not know that Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal have taken up a feud that's turned the world champion Los Angeles Lakers into a dysfunctional family, or that the financially troubled Vancouver Grizzlies (who may or may not be somewhere in the building tonight) have gotten permission from the league to shop for another city.

But some truths are unavoidable. Even in the cheap seats (not so cheap these days), you understand that Bob Pettit's set shot has gone the way of the Whig Party, Elgin Baylor is no longer tearing up the league, and Michael Jordan has reduced himself from world's most-beloved athlete to the besieged chief executive of the second-worst team in the game. Up in section 369, you know that the Continental Basketball Association, the minor league that gives NBA hopefuls a chance to get noticed, is on the skids, and that TV viewership for NBA games is off an alarming seventeen percent this year. You realize that more and more of the players are now nineteen-year-old high school kids equipped with flashy slam dunks and multi-million-dollar bank accounts -- but woefully short on the social graces.

Even from five flights up, you can see that the NBA is in big trouble -- despite the claims by commissioner David Stern that everything is just fine. "We've had to deal with acts of violence, with HIV, with players not saluting the flag," Stern said at February 11's NBA All-Star Game in Washington, D.C., "so nothing surprises me. But actually, we couldn't be more optimistic."

Well, Napoleon was optimistic when he set out for Moscow. In its post-Michael, post-player-lockout era, the league is obviously going through a bad patch. Magic Johnson is gone and, many say, so is the magic. Many fans are caught between stubborn reverence for aging NBA stars -- good morning, Karl Malone; how's that hospital in Kinshasa coming along, Dikembe Mutombo? -- and outright contempt (or fear) of its in-your-face, hip-hop newcomers. Philadelphia's Allen Iverson -- ironically nicknamed "The Answer" -- is a quicksilver genius on the court, but his raw rap lyrics and heated arguments with paying customers don't play with NBA execs or the white CEOs paying top dollar in the luxury boxes. The Knicks' Marcus Camby may have all the moves, but when he mistakenly punched out his coach a few weeks ago while trying to get at opponent Danny Ferry, he may also have knocked NBA season-ticket sales down a notch or two.

This brings us to the plight of the Nuggets -- the team that reportedly faced New York recently in the Pepsi Center, before 16,813 witnesses. Awful on the road (7-19) but strong at home (21-7), the Nuggets have their first real shot at the NBA playoffs since 1994 -- the year they upset the league-best Seattle Supersonics in round one and staged a comeback against the Utah Jazz that left them one win short. In six subsequent seasons, the Nugs won just 157 games and lost 303, while tearing through six head coaches. Their 11-71 record in 1997-98 was low tide, but even now they occupy fourth (maybe fifth) place, prestige-wise, among the city's pro-sports teams.

This is not good news no matter where you're sitting, but it's especially discouraging as the NBA faces an image-rebuilding program. The Nuggets may share a glamorous new home with one of the NHL's best hockey clubs, and they've shown steady improvement since the 1998 debacle, but if the troops cannot snag one of the last NBA playoff spots this spring, who knows what fate may have in store for them -- or for head coach Issel, who weathered a new-era player mutiny earlier this year. At last Tuesday's game, there were many, many raucous Knicks fans in the house, and if you were hunting for bad signals, you noticed that the team mascot -- a little blue-and-gold mountain lion with a bolt of lightning shooting out of his butt -- failed to sink any of his three halftime attempts at an over-the-back half-court shot. The Family Night pizzas were cold. The Pepsis were warm. At least two pajama-clad infants whom we spotted in our aerie atop Mount Evans slept through the entire fourth quarter. And when something called the "Denver Post Kiss-Cam" nosed its way into the crowds and trained on certain unsuspecting couples, with the presumption that they'd immediately launch into the Kama Sutra for the arena's huge TV screens, some people refused. Maybe true love is another rumor -- at least where the Nuggets are concerned.

In the end, we got an even more remote view of the proceedings. There were -- no kidding -- eight French guys sitting behind us way up there in 369, all conversing (over the JumboTron's unholy din) in the very language of heaven, all straining to make out the long-legged ants on the hardwood postage stamp far below. And when the sleek, spandexed Nuggets dancers sprang onto the floor, tossing their hairdos and thrusting their pelvi, the Frenchmen politely asked to borrow the binoculars. The French view of NBA hoops? A computer engineer named Nicolas, who emigrated to Denver two years ago and has seen a dozen games, called NBA basketball "dynamic and exciting, a beautiful sport, far better than what we had at home." Brimming with appreciation and the unspoiled enthusiasm of a new fan, Nicolas said he admires NBA players as a group, has enjoyed all the teams he's seen and vowed that he and his friends would be back.

Better listen up, David Stern and Company. Better ensure your product remains worthy of such a man's attention. No matter how far away he's sitting.


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