Chilling at the Pepsi Center's Tuaca Chill Zone

Though the NBA is my least-favorite spectator sport, I always accept free tickets, especially when those tickets are in the nineteenth row and accompanied by a free ride. With my initial investment at $0 and my transportation on lockdown, the financial anal rape of an $8 beer (after tip) feels more manageable, even a smidge satisfying. So I settle into the $120 seats I didn't pay for, savor every sip of the overpriced Molson Canadian I did and then...

Boredom. Distraction. Where am I again?

I'm circling the main concourse, the Greatest Food Court Ever, double-fisting delicious Molsons and wondering whether to indulge my nose in some of them Cinnabon-smelling $6 nuts. I'm passing Good Times, Arby's, countless mobile concession kiosks for brands of vodka and tequila I've never even heard of. Two complete laps and both beers later, I stumble upon the Tuaca Chill Zone, the "destination bar" located between sections 136 and 138. Formerly branded with Crown Royal regalia, the two-year-old Chill Zone looks like a bar but doesn't quite act like one. I can walk all the way around it, lean on it, order a Sauza-and-grapefruit from it. But I can't sit at it (no stools); I can't see the game from it (vision-blocking curtains); hell, I can't even watch the TVs hanging around it: They're inexplicably showing the TNT broadcast, which is a solid seven seconds behind the actual action (I can hear) on the other side of the curtains.

I'm initially confused about my drink options: Tuaca bottles are clearly in view, as is Herradura tequila, Crown, a couple other brands. The display shelf, however, belies the full-service bar beneath it, which offers all the usual liquors and mixers, as well as draft beer. As I slug through my first cocktail and puzzle at the fake ice sculptures and fake ice blocks with fake Tuaca bottles fake frozen inside, Slacker or Steve (or both — who knows?) from Alice 105.9's afternoon show saunters up to the bar with a bunch of friends and orders shots of tequila. If I didn't recognize the bald one from his on-court presentation of the game ball before tip-off, I'd peg 'em for a gaggle of mid-life former frat boys, the way they're shit-talking one another's shot-taking skills and nyuck-nyucking with the bartendress during the ID-checking process: "That's not him in the picture!" Heh heh. Around us, a handful of people order beers and mixed drinks, then move on. Mostly the scene is dead, so I return to my seat.

But the scene there isn't any better. A magician or illusionist (or both – who knows?) is shoving cardboard swords into his leotarded female assistant for the halftime show, and everyone within earshot is making impressed noises.

Back to the food court.

The energy level, formerly a subdued six, is suddenly at a ten (I'd say eleven, but I hate the impossibility of that fucking 110 percent sports metaphor). Groups of thugged-out b-ball dudes are catcalling chicks in heels as they scurry by, and couples are arguing; cell-phone squealing and screeching is at full throttle. When I round the corner and come upon where the Tuaca Dead Zone had been minutes before, I find instead a LoDo club at last call, the corner of Market and 20th at Let Out. Half-drunk fans are clustered everywhere; the line for a drink is a solid 360-degree seven or eight deep around the bar. It's pandemonium. One bartendress is pacing around helping no one in particular, melting down and muttering aloud about how she could lose her job because a guy just walked off carrying three drinks. I watched her serve this guy and his buddy two beers apiece, so she didn't do anything wrong, but apparently she could still get the ax.

Around the other side, I finally catch a different bartendress's eye. She's amiable as can be, grin wide like a sailboat, sweat beading on her forehead but making serious bank. I ask her if it's always like this at halftime, and she nods. "It's fun," she says, "one of the best part-time jobs I've ever had. Everyone wants to work here." I order a Tuaca with bar ginger (Pepsi and 7-Up mixed) and lime, and it tastes like college. A young man next to me orders a double something, and the bartendress makes him finish his current drink first, a move I recognize as the rule but perceptibly antithetical since it's a lot like telling him he has to chug, chug, chug before he can have another. As the chaos calms, this bartendress and I keep chatting. She admits working in fear of the green jackets (her superiors) and the red jackets (who patrol for minors and patrons with too many drinks). "Love the people I work with," she tells me. "Hate the management."

This conversation between barkeep and barfly, it's almost like the real thing — like I've been transported far away from the boredom of a blowout basketball game and a bizarro food-court full bar. All of a sudden, the night feels more manageable.

Even a smidge satisfying.