A Fan's Notes
I am pathological about the Golden State Warriors.
For those who don't know, the Warriors are the NBA franchise that plays in Oakland. They wear blue and gold and, as a rule, they disappoint me. Two seasons ago, when they lost to the Seattle SuperSonics in the first round of the playoffs, I watched every minute of every game and I howled with such self-serious ardor that my friend Pat could only shake his head and whisper, "Pathetic."
The Warriors are most famous for losing to the Los Angeles Lakers, who wear purple and gold and play their home games on an MGM back lot. A significant portion of my childhood was spent watching the Warriors bow to the Lakers, defeats that hinged on fourth-quarter collapses so dependable that my father would invariably turn to me at some point toward the end and mutter, "Still a lotta time," by which he meant: "Even though we're up by nineteen points with six minutes left, and the Lakers just put in their special Nearsighted Dwarf Unit, we can still lose." Which we did.
I bring this up because I have spent the past three years trying to wean myself of the Warriors and to root instead for Miami's shiny new teams. Adopting a native franchise seemed such an obvious way to identify with my new hometown and to bond with all the other transplants who inhabit South Florida. We were all getting in on the ground floor, after all, that holy playing field from which one can truthfully exult, "I was there when it all started."
Well, I was here when it all started, and what I saw, sadly, was not a city intoxicated by athletics, but one that is wired to a froth on sports steroids. I went to the games and found crowds so zombified by promotion that the relationship between an individual fan and team had become irrelevant. I reviewed the deals our teams have cut and discovered a community so rabid to escape its own woes that it has made gods of greedy entrepreneurs. I hung out with the sports pundits and quickly concluded that most are too busy enjoying the perks to worry about the fans. It's no different in other cities, I suppose. But it's so damn blatant in South Florida, where our three new franchises have been delivered unto us with all the subtlety of a brush-back pitch.
Most Miamians have no earthly idea who actually plays for the Heat, Marlins, or Panthers. Many cannot afford to attend their games. Yet we are all somehow willing to accept that these new teams communicate something profound and positive about our community. Well, I think we're getting duped. Worse, we're duping ourselves. We've let a bunch of salesmen march into our town like the land swindlers of yore and sell us a bogus covenant. They don't want our hearts; they want our wallets. And soon enough they'll get 'em, or "our" teams will be shipped to greener pastures.
Call me a whiner. A pansy. A sonofabitch. Tell me Miami has finally won the Big League Bowl. But I'll tell you what my father would say. He'd take one look at the clock, size up the opponent, and announce, "Still a lotta time."
It didn't take long for me to gauge the level of fan interest in Miami's two newest sports, both of which are brought to us by Blockbuster boss H. Wayne Huizenga. At my first Florida Panthers hockey game, for instance, I ran smack into The Kid.
The Kid's eyes were huge, big blue lasers locked onto the miniature blimp bobbing 40 feet above his head. The blimp was dropping small white envelopes from a mechanical claw strapped to its underbelly. The Kid wanted an envelope. It was a safe bet he'd have killed for one. Down at ground zero of the Miami Arena, the ice was being primed for the second period of the Panthers' game against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
I was trying to get past The Kid, who'd planted himself in the aisle several rows up from my seat. But every time I tried to edge past him, he threw out his forearm as if to check me into the handrail. Thus protected, he tracked the nervous flutter of a single white envelope, freed from the claw, leaping out of my way only when it became apparent the package was destined to land one section over.
In fact, the blimp had entranced every single person in the building. Ushers. Vendors. Even the guy operating the device via remote control.
"You ever been to a hockey game before?" I asked my companions when I got back to my seat.
"Uh-oh! Look, the blimp's gonna run straight into the scoreboard!" one responded thoughtfully.
"Look, that fat guy knocked over his own kid to get the prize," the other added.
It was useless. I could not float. I had no mechanical claw strapped to my underbelly. I was no competition for the blimp.
Nor, for that matter, are the Panthers themselves. And if it isn't the blimp, it's a fleet of geeks in jumpsuits firing T-shirts into the stands. Or a costume contest. Or the Rolling Stones at 100 decibels. Or one of those giveaways wherein fans humiliate themselves for free luggage.
Huizenga is banking on all this razzle-dazzle -- "game production," in industry parlance -- to sell hockey to South Floridians. If it all seems a bit hysterical, consider his effort as tantamount to a full-scale ad campaign. The object: to create in us a need that never existed; namely, the need to attend hockey contests. No small undertaking, given that fans once laughed uproariously at the notion. (You might recall the first-ever exhibition game at the Miami Arena a couple years back. The ice melted.)
But Huizenga, who owns the Panthers, most of the Marlins, half of Joe Robbie Stadium, and a smidgen of the Dolphins, as well as Blockbuster, Sound Warehouse, and the entire nation of Lichtenstein at last report, has plenty of tools to work with. Cross-marketing (free video rental with your ticket stub), designer clothing (with market-tested logo and colors), and, uh A oh yes, the game itself, which often features two grown men on ice skates punching at each other's faces like wind-up dolls.
Of course, pugilism is not one of Wayne's more ballyhooed marketing ploys. Somehow it's hard to envision a man who subjects his Blockbuster employees to follicular drug tests and refuses to stock anything racier than an R-rated flick urging fans to "bring the family out to the Arena for a few brewskis and a little ass-whomping."
He doesn't have to, anyway, because the Panthers are destined to enjoy a terrific expansion year. And that is no great coincidence. The NHL gave both Huizenga and the Disney folks, who settled the Mighty Ducks in Anaheim, sweet deals in the expansion draft because they knew the sport would be a hard sell in both areas and they knew owners like Disney and Huizenga were going to make the league a fortune by aggressively shilling all manner of NHL merchandise. It is the sort of savvy planning that has rescued pro hockey from the economic doldrums.
There is perhaps no better example of the league's Manifest Destiny than the North Stars, who relocated this year from Minneapolis to Dallas. An owner's greed spurred the move, but the other owners approved it because they know that more teams in more cities means money and maybe, just maybe, the biggest prize of all: a TV contract with a major network. Does it matter that fans in Minnesota -- the very fount of American hockey -- no longer have pros to root for? Nah. The owners will give them a franchise soon enough.
The game against the Lightning turned out to be a helluva contest, the six fights in the second period notwithstanding. Late in the third period, Tampa knotted the score at 1-1, and the Panthers put in the game winner with four seconds left in overtime. Those fans still inside the Arena went nuts at the spectacle, myself included. But five minutes later I could have sworn I'd seen the whole thing in a movie.
I had higher hopes when it came to the Marlins. We were all sold on the idea that baseball was a natural for South Florida, owing to the region's tradition as a spring training ground and our huge base of Latin fans. This was one sport, I was sure, that wouldn't rely on the hard sell, where I could sit back and watch a glitz-free game.
Sure. Joe Robbie Stadium was a thunderdome of distraction, from the giant TV flashing replays to the bubble-headed Marlin mascot to the Pavilion of Grease, a corridor of food stands where peanuts and hot dogs had been overrun by Domino's Pizza and gourmet pancakes. Huizenga had even hired "The Bleacher Brigade" A hyperactive pranksters meant to instill merriment through the continuous production of counterfeit enthusiasm.
I sat along the third-base line in a section that, because of Joe Robbie's gridiron orientation, directly faced the right center field alley. Turning toward the plate cramped my back, so I eventually gave that up and took to watching the heads of those in front of me. They swiveled with remarkable fluency from TV replay to mascot to game, until they all pivoted upward at once -- even those equipped with portable phones -- to marvel at the Goodyear blimp, which hovered against the cobalt sky and flashed sincere admonishments that the time was probably now for new radial tires.
There was other, more insidious artifice. The scoreboard in left field, for instance, which was intended to evoke Fenway Park but which from my vantage point was plainly no more than a plywood faaade, like a stage set for those low-budget Westerns. And the bleacher seats, which I found to my astonishment were mostly covered by tarps A with the notable exception of an elevated concrete platform beyond center field, where fans were eating at picnic tables, in much the same fashion one does at rest stops along the highway. Who in God's name catches the home-run balls, I wondered? Certainly not the picnickers.
Seeing all this, I was reminded of the strained attempts by various sports reporters to portray Wayne Huizenga as a baseball fan. Aside from a vague childhood interest in the Cubs, he has made it clear that the only reason he finds baseball (or any sport) interesting is as a business prospect. He is not a fan.
Consequently, he is not selling his teams to fans. He doesn't covet working-class diehards who spend the entire game tracking each athlete's personal quest for perfection. As the vanguard of New Greed ownership, he'd rather pack the stands with monied dilettantes who scamper up and down the aisles trading cash for merchandise.
I don't fault Huizenga for trying to lure us to his new games. Unlike the hoary old Dolphins and the University of Miami Hurricanes, his franchises have no fan base to work with. What I find disquieting is his eagerness to dilute the fan base. There is no sense of awkwardness, or experimentation, about his teams. They look as if they have been spit, fully formed, from the head of some marketing Zeus, to be sold as trends, as novelty acts.
If you want to get some perspective on just how contrived a Wayne Huizenga production is, just check out a game at your nearest high school. I did not long ago and was enthralled to find some 3000 fans riveted by the game alone. No flashing lights. No concessions. No million-dollar contracts. Just the bleacher-rattling buzz of watching young players do battle.
According to my mother, I have rooted for the Warriors since birth. I feel she is exaggerating. But I can say that my first distinct recollections center on the legendary 1975 campaign, in which they swept the NBA championship from K.C. Jones and the burly Washington Bullets in an upset so epic as to seem ethereal. No one could quite believe it had happened.
Least of all me. I remember watching the Warriors dash off the court after game four, amid the startled silence of Washington's Capital Centre. Rick Barry. Keith Wilkes. Butch Beard. They looked like they were leaving the scene of a crime. All except Al Attles, the coach. Attles was a badass. You didn't make him run. He made you run. I was eight years old.
The Warriors have not won a championship since. The closest they came was three years ago, when they hobbled into the Western Division semifinal and were trounced by, yes, the Los Angeles Lakers. For this reason I have always held dear that '75 championship team, especially Clifford Ray, the big galoot center. Ray was the definition of workmanlike, a giant defensive rampart with clay hands who galumphed around the lane and missed several thousand lay-ups in the waning seconds. Once I read an article about how he stuck his entire arm down a dolphin's throat. I never figured out why he did this, but I remember studying the accompanying photo of Ray, shoulder-deep in dolphin mucus. His face was crinkled into a mask of giggling fatalism, as if he had just come to understand the great cosmic joke being played on all of us. The face, I decided, of a Warriors fan.
I know it would be expedient, and far less masochistic, to root for another team. But it is the Warriors with whom I have made my covenant, and if a fan is to exhibit any real rootedness to his rooting, he must abide by his covenant. "Covenant" might seem a bit weighty, but I tend to favor the Old Testament metaphor, because my long-suffering affiliation to the Warriors smacks of a certain Judaic martyrdom, which in turn allows me to regard the Los Angeles Lakers as my own personal Philistines, an image I rather like.
My friends get upset watching me watch the Warriors lose over and over. They don't understand the perverse pride a fan takes in the ritual. (Yes, it is a loss. But it is our loss.) They are, if I may risk the observation, too in love with the palliative effects of sport. Too ready to reduce it to white noise. Like the owners, they chase around winners.
They forget that before jet travel and cable TV and transplanted professionals, fans rooted for one team, the same team, all their lives. More often than not, that team lost. (The Yankees excepted.) Sport, therefore, was about learning to cope with failure. About storing faith. To pull for a losing team, or the many teams that failed to win it all, was to strengthen one's unspoken kinship with the players.
After all, most fans, had they succeeded as players, would be on the field breathing in the roar, not in the stands helping to create it.
My devotion to the Warriors has never felt quite so antiquated as it did on the night of this year's Miami Heat opener, which I attended in the hopes of cornering general manager Lewis Schaffel. For those who missed the event, a brief summary: A man on a motorcycle traversed the arena on a tightrope. A cherry bomb exploded. Burnie, the Heat mascot, conducted a laser orchestra. An Elvis imitator sang "America the Beautiful." The Heat dancers fucked the air. Bottle rockets shot across the rafters. A man won $5000 from Coca-Cola. Corporate sponsors swilled champagne. Schaffel blew me off.
Somewhere in between, the Orlando Magic thumped the Heat, 116-96.
Watching all the hoopla, it was hard to believe that just fifteen years ago, at the commencement of my fandom, the NBA was actually on the brink of bankruptcy. But by the late Seventies, half the league's teams were losing money. The problem was simple: a predominantly white fan base considered the sport too black. Too showy. Too ghetto. The one factor that keyed the resurgence of pro basketball was the decision not to obscure this "blackness" but to market it. Not only does the game emulate street ball, but the NBA ambiance has become a sanitized simulation of black urban culture (or at least the white conception of this culture). Rap music. Fly girl dancers. Slam dunks. Fast food. Call it Ghetto Lite.
When the Miami Heat moved into the Arena six years ago, the team was greeted as the resurrection of downtown. No city had suffered more racial strife than ours during the previous decade. Few were as segregated. The Heat were supposed to unite our fractious kingdom. The Arena, their beautiful pink palace, was supposed to restore the center to our centerless city and lure bucks to local businesses. Today it seems quite obvious what the franchise has done: supplied thousands of white fans A who wouldn't dream of driving through Miami's ghettos and who probably feel vaguely guilty about this fact -- with a dose of Ghetto Lite.
The team has also made oodles and oodles of money.
But not, as it turns out, enough oodles. Now Heat ownership wants a new building with more seats and, especially, skyboxes. Ah yes, skyboxes. Ever wonder why owners are so hot on these deluxe seating areas? Here's how it works in the Arena: a corporation rents a skybox for anywhere from $75,000 to $120,000 per season, in exchange for which they get not just the skybox, but additional tickets, and often the rights to some of the arena's coveted advertising. (A swell place to bring Japanese investors, in other words, plus high-profile signage.) Unlike normal ticket profits, which are split with the league, skybox rental fees are dropped straight into the owners' fat little fists. Does the purchasing company particularly care about the Heat? Who cares; it's a business deal.
Schaffel, who reportedly snubbed an offer of $130 million for his team a fortnight ago, says the Arena makes it impossible to compete financially with other NBA teams. Bullshit. The terms of his lease agreement with the City of Miami, which spent $46 million in public money to build the Arena, are, simply put, a steal. Some blame the politicians for not building a bigger venue. But back when Schaffel was trying to land a franchise, he thought the place was just dandy. He wanted an intimate space. Now he wants more profit. And he, like all piggy owners, knows he can get his way by moving elsewhere, or threatening to.
Officials from Miami, a city teetering on the brink of insolvency, recently proposed a $90-million makeover of the Arena. "We will do everything within reason to accommodate the Miami Heat," says Bill Perry III, executive director of the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority, which oversees the Arena. Perry says city honchos are also vying to keep the Panthers in the Arena, despite Huizenga's stated intention to move the team ASAP. Their long-shot pitch: Allow Wayne to rename the building Blockbuster Arena. "We'd give him the name rights and the keys to the place, for a flat fee of $1.5 to $2 million per year," says a source familiar with the as-yet-unannounced offer.
One thing's for sure: The Panthers and Heat will never agree to share the same venue. Both teams want the same prime game dates, and the lion's share of concessions, parking, and the revenue generated by advertising within the building. The real question is whether the city can lure either team to stay.
But what, in the end, would that accomplish? After six years of wrangling with the Heat, Perry doesn't sound so sure himself. "There has been some impact on Bayside, but clearly the numbers thrown around when the Heat came in, about a multimillion-dollar impact and thousands of jobs, are just ludicrous. It's the song and dance you have to go through to get a franchise. But once that happens, everybody knows what the real story is."
Certainly, Edward Branch knows. A young black man built like a fire hydrant, he roamed the streets outside the Arena during the Heat opener, trying to make a few bucks scalping tickets. "Motherfuckin' trickle-down, that's what this shit is," he mumbled. "I'll be lucky if I make twenty dollars. Those brothers inside [the Heat players] are making millions. And they don't even give it back to the community. Why doesn't one of them build a youth center with all that money? How d'you think the brothers out here feel, just watching a few thousand scared white folks walk they asses 'round here, then get out three hours later?"
Behind the scalper, the pink palace of Overtown gleamed. A junior high school band played. The swells were arriving, and TV cameras captured the eerie image of Muhammad Ali, who stood handing out religious pamphlets, his body stiff as a puppet's. "I been to college. I'm no fool," Branch told me. "I don't need to pay no $40 to see Shaquille O'Neal, 'cause I can watch 100 Shaqs where I come from."
A hundred aspiring Shaqs, anyhow; the top players inevitably get sucked up by the NBA. Schaffel and his owner buddies sow millions hiring the best and reap millions more, as every scalper knows too well, by selling them to Rich White Guys. All of which has the net effect of transforming basketball, an alleged instrument of racial harmony, into a potent reminder that most black men never make it past the playground. "Fuck this," Branch said when he'd grown too resentful to say anything else. "I ain't getting shit outta this."
All in all, not a bad assessment of what downtown has gotten from the Heat.
Last season the Warriors suffered so many injuries that their starting five played together for a grand total of two minutes. I saved a newspaper clipping that commemorates the nadir of the bleak campaign, in which they fielded a team of just six players (three of them rookies) in a game against the Denver Nuggets. The injury list grew so long at one point that an assistant coach was called upon to play. This is true.
This year four of the Warriors' five starters were sidelined on opening night. Tim Hardaway and Sarunas Marciulionis crumpled their knees and will be out for the entire season. Chris Mullin busted a pinky. Rookie first-round draft pick Chris Webber twisted his ankle. Not long ago, coach Don Nelson told a reporter that he sometimes wondered what horrible thing he might have done as a child to deserve such bad luck. It was a statement that made sense coming from Nelson, whose potato-sack face radiates a sadness that approaches contrition. He looks like a man who is continually being awakened from a deep and abiding sleep to find himself terribly hung-over.
A few weeks later I called George Shirk, the Warriors' beat writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. I told him I needed to find out about the Warriors' desire to move to a new arena, as that might relate to the Heat's effort. But that was just an excuse. Actually, I wanted to quiz him about the club's prospects. "The Warriors are a dead team," he declared icily. "Dead. They can't compete this year. How are they going to beat the Phoenix Suns? With a bunch of reserves? They'll be lucky to get a good draft choice next year."
I called a little time-out after he hung up, during which I stifled my initial reaction -- sending Shirk a letter bomb -- and came to realize I should be thankful. Don Nelson had the rest of the league exactly where he wanted them: overconfident.
"Wayne. Wayne. WAAAAAYNE!"
One of the more amusing subplots during the Heat's opening night histrionics was the sight of H. Wayne Huizenga attempting to extract himself from The Commoners. Friar Tuck hairdo moussed flat, a nervous smile pasted on, The Mogul was besieged as he sped toward an exit at halftime.
"Wayne. Wayne. WAAAAAYNE!"
He was hailed like a conquering hero, like a rock star. Kids lined the aisles. Mothers shoved their babies toward him. Chubby ex-jocks ran to touch the hem of his coat. In a gesture of almost heartbreaking Americanism, they begged him to sign their currency. Startled by the assembly, Mont Blanc pen drawn in self-defense, Huizenga latched onto his wife's arm and fled. He is not one for displays of public groveling. Unless, of course, they come from politicians prepared to subsidize his business undertakings.
No shortage of those. Ever since Huizenga proposed building the so-called Wayne's World sports/amusement megacomplex, local chieftains have been taking turns bussing his buns. This is, after all, the Deal to End All Deals.
As set out this past May, the plan called for Huizenga to snap up 400 to 500 acres, presumably in North Dade. Virtually overnight (and with nary a peep from anyone), that figure ballooned to more than 2300 acres. The Mogul has tentatively settled on a site straddling the Dade-Broward line, mostly in Broward. The area is wetlands -- or "muck" as it is routinely referred to in the media -- that once helped sustain the River of Grass. Wayne wants to pave it over and construct a baseball stadium, hockey arena, golf course, movie studio, marine stadium, amusement park, and pedestrian mall.
Last week the Metro Commission, desperate for a piece of the action, agreed to buy Wayne a 438-acre parcel of state-owned land for four million dollars. For the past month Dade officials had trumpeted the sale as a panacea. The park, commissioners bleated, will create jobs, reduce crime, even dampen ethnic tensions. "Your action today is going to go a long way to help this community unite itself," said Rep. Luis Rojas, in thanking the governor's cabinet for okaying the sale. State Treasurer and Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher was so smitten with the whole idea that he cited a state law that awards up to $60 million in sales-tax rebates to pro sports franchises. (A quick $120 million, billable to the Florida taxpayers!)
Then Wayne very quietly slipped us the rest of the tab. One of his many lawyers suggested Dade County taxpayers pay at least $100 million for the proposed hockey arena, and Broward kick in $250 million for the baseball stadium. That's not counting the millions we'll have to shell out for new roads, sewers, and water lines. Almost as an afterthought, Huizenga and his fleet of high-priced lobbyists began maneuvering to designate Wayne's World as an autonomous "development district," which would render the project virtually immune to governmental regulation. Dade, Broward, and state officials are already nodding their agreement.
The situation is absurd and ironic. Most cities, after all, offer big money up-front for sports teams. Jacksonville committed to spending $121 million to coax a pro football team. St. Petersburg spent $139 million building a domed baseball stadium, only to be snubbed in favor of the Marlins. Here in Miami, it's been just the opposite. Our two new franchises landed in our laps, seemingly free of cost. Now Huizenga, having shrewdly given the natives a taste of big league validation, is running up the tab, knowing that no politician in his right mind will dare oppose any project that keeps the home team happy. Or, more to the point, home.
The next step is for Huizenga to whip up a batch of feasibility studies, which will substantiate that Wayne's World is God's Gift to South Florida.
And how many of these figures will be solid? Well, uh, none of them, actually. "There have been no serious studies -- not one -- that indicate sports franchise developments help an area economically," notes Jim Miller, a historian who studies the relationship between sports and cities. "What you get is businessmen who come in with happy propaganda. The politicians love it, because it makes them look like they're dealing with hard numbers, when what they're really doing is responding to a psychic need."
When aggressive promoters exploit the feel-good appeal of sport, Miller says, civic leaders always go a little loopy. (Remember the Heat?) This might also explain why Metro commissioners recently pledged a mind-boggling $31 million in tax money to help build a racetrack in Homestead for Ralph Sanchez's Miami Grand Prix, which the county will neither own nor derive a profit from. Or why they have agreed to expend nearly $60 million for renovations to the Orange Bowl.
"The mortgaging of cities for sports franchises really goes back to the commercial development of America in the Nineteenth Century," observes Richard Crepeau, a sports historian at Orlando's University of Central Florida. "There has never been a sharply defined difference between the business and political leaders of a community, and so their interests tend to get blurred. Growth, which profits the businessman, is seen as the ideal." Inevitably the rhetoric blossoms, Crepeau says: "There is all this talk of uniting the community, and none of it is real. But we live in a time when our institutions are failing. Cities are a mess. People are scattered and alienated. So we grasp at anything that grants us the illusion of community."
Steve Reese, a historian at Northeastern Illinois University, puts it more bluntly: "Sport gives the people in Miami something to think about other than the terrible state of Miami." A reason to cheer, however briefly, for our troubled and violent home.
When it comes to Wayne's World, though, we should be clear-headed enough to recognize that our money is not going toward rebuilding a community. We're investing in the creation of an attraction. One that will have nothing to do with South Florida's landscape or cultures. And we should be wary enough to ask a few pertinent questions.
Such as: Is it a good thing that local leaders will spend much of the next few years focused on Wayne's World? Or that we commoners will be paying construction costs for the next who-knows-how-many years? And how, precisely, is a theme park supposed to soothe ethnic tensions? Or reduce crime? How will it make an appreciable impact on
the wastelands of Overtown and Liberty City? How much money will it eventually suck from Dade's educational system, or its crumbling sewer system, or its public housing projects? How many acres of wetlands will be paved over, how much of our aquifer defiled? In the end, where will we be returning home to, after a thrilling day at Wayne's World? Could it be the project is just another example of our delusional effort to write off social ills as image problems, and to cure the whole mess by building yet another tourist trap?
And to return to the subject at hand, I pose one last question to the purest of sports fans: Do you really want to buy into a facility where the ballpark is nothing more than a sideshow?
This was a few seasons ago. I was standing on the floor of the Oakland Coliseum Arena, next to Don Nelson, coach of my beloved Golden State Warriors. Nelson was talking to a short, insistent man who turned out to be from the California Prune Advisory Board. I had come all the way from El Paso, Texas, where I was working for a newspaper, to talk with Nelson about his rookie phenom Tim Hardaway, who was stretching on the court, behind the prune man.
As a star at the University of Texas at El Paso, Hardaway had invented the "UTEP two-step," a crossover dribble so quick it was thought he transformed a portion of the ball from mass into energy. Everybody in El Paso knew Hardaway was destined for greatness. But his selection as the fourteenth overall pick in the 1989 college draft rocked the NBA establishment. He was unknown. He was six feet tall. His jump shot looked like a bumblebee in flight. My job was to document how Nelson had figured out what we in El Paso knew all along.
After practice the coach led me to his office. "Timmy impressed the hell out of us at the rookie camps," Nelson explained, chewing on a California prune. "We brought him in for a tryout and had a guy over in the East Bay run some tests. Range of motion. Coordination. That kind of thing. The one that amazed us was the court vision test. They flash a five-digit number on a screen for maybe one thousandth of a second, then ask you what it was. Timmy got all of them."
"He got all the numbers?" I asked.
"He got all the numbers, every time," Nelson giggled.
He was obviously in love with Hardaway, so in love that he forgot all about the time and allowed me to grill him far longer than he should have, while his players loped in and out to ask the coach a question or bullshit in the way only paid athletes can. It was the kind of audience a pathological fan kills for. And what separated me from the rabble who wouldn't even be allowed in the arena until game time?
I had a press pass.
Amazing, really, what a press pass will get you these days. A free meal before the game. The best seat in the house. Stats updated on the minute. Shaquille O'Neal in his undies. A free postgame beer to wash it all down. What a deal!
The only payback required is coverage. And if that coverage often seems to reflect a distinct sentiment that we owe our sports teams a great debt...well, you figure the equation. Pro sports do well to spoil the press, and vice versa. Just check out the Herald's sports section, which has grown fat, spawned a never-ending stream of "special reports," and now routinely outclasses the rest of the paper.
The gentlemen's agreement between sports reporters and the teams they cover essentially consists of trading access for the assurance that reporters will stifle certain perfectly obvious questions. For instance: "Mr. MVP, now that you're making a gajillion dollars, do you plan to fund any community centers in the poorer parts of town?" Or: "Mr. Owner, does the economic survival of this franchise really depend on another ticket price hike?"
Fact is, reporters are kept so insulated from the frustrations of the average fan -- or the average neighborhood, for that matter -- that such questions seem utterly irrelevant. Nobody wantsta read about that shit is the standard refrain. A "tough" story, by sports standards, consists of nabbing some player or owner engaged in typically American behavior. Michael Jordan gambling. Marge Schott bigoting. Wow.
The net result is that the megabillion-dollar pro sports industry is being covered as if it were a high school softball game.
Take a guy like Dave LaMont. A few years ago he was working public address at Dania Jai Alai and delivering sports updates on WIOD. Now he's hosting the First Team talk show on all-sports WQAM, calling Heat games on cable, and vying for a network TV gig like the one his radio partner Joe Rose landed. "A guy like me would be crazy to leave this market now," LaMont says. Miami's sports boom has made him.
It's not that LaMont is unaware of the larger issues. He gets it. He is appropriately disdainful of the "frou-frou fans" who occupy the best seats at games, who arrive late and leave early to beat traffic. On the other hand, a lot of those same frou-frous pay for the advertising on his show. They call in on their portable phones. They sponsor the golf tournaments he enters.
They also pay to have dinner with guys like Hank Goldberg, who is about as close as Miami comes to a sports philosopher. A couple of weeks back I went to visit Goldberg in Miami Lakes, where he hosts his afternoon radio show on WQAM. Never having visited Miami Lakes before, I was immediately struck by the volume of Don Shula-related business there. Don Shula Golf Club. Shula's Steakhouse. Don Shula Hotel. Wayne's World may be a few years off. But it already has its perfect suburb in this carefully shorn community, nestled in the crook of the Palmetto Expressway: Shulaville.
I found Goldberg amid the yuppies at Shu's All-Star Cafe and we retired to the restaurant next door, where he drank decaf and mused subversively about Miami's collective sports fetish, all the while stealing looks at the Heat game being broadcast on a TV screen the size of a barn door.
"The idea of paying tax dollars to help build a stadium A it's madness," rumbled Goldberg, whose father worked for 35 years as a sportswriter in New Jersey. "Our cities are broke, and the owners are making a mint off luxury boxes and TV contracts. I blame the politicians who keep rolling over. Everybody gets a little crazy when it comes to sports. My own show's sold out on ads, even without high ratings, because people are so crazy to be involved with sports. I see these CEOs walk into a locker room as part of these promos, and they turn into marshmallows. Because we're basically a nation of starfuckers. The people who go to the games, those aren't fans. No real fan can afford tickets any more. Those are twice-a-week events for a bunch of yuppies. I know. Those are the circles I run in."
Goldberg stabbed at his chicken quesadilla. "The money's changed everything, even the athletes," he lamented. "You got guys like Deion Sanders and Emmitt Smith, who save the ball every time they score a touchdown, then sign it and sell it. There's that story about Chris Webber." My ears pricked up at the mention of the Warriors' new marquee name. "He was walking down the street one day when he was still in college and he sees his jersey being sold for $450 in one of these memorabilia stores. And he's thinking, 'Wait a second. Why should they be making all that money off me?' What's he getting as a pro now, $70 million?"
Throughout our chat, Goldberg spoke ruefully about the talk show he used to host on WIOD, which featured guests such as Janet Reno and Jorge Mas Canosa. It was the sort of show, he implied, that the Miami market wasn't ready for. And its termination, which coincided with the frantic influx of franchises, sucked him right back into the sports vortex, which consists of four days on WQAM and long weekends at ESPN, where he hosts a football show and watches Heat and Panthers games in the green room between tapings.
To signify he'd had enough, Goldberg offered one last observation, which managed to bring home what he'd been talking about all along A how greed and starfucking have bled sports of escapism A and which helped me understand why sports pundits, himself included, so stubbornly resist sounding off about issues of substance. "You know, 30 years ago we wouldn't even be talking about this stuff," he sighed. "We'd just be asking who was going to start the next game." Then he dashed home to catch the second half of the Heat game on his own TV set.
A week later the Warriors, my Warriors, visited Miami. They played an embarrassing first half, as bad as they had looked in Orlando the night before, and went into the second half down by thirteen. A mediocre Heat team was making palookas out of them.
Midway through the third quarter, though, the Warriors seemed to awaken from hibernation. They began double-teaming. Setting solid picks and executing radar-defying rolls. Latrell Sprewell buried his long jumpers. Billy Owens crashed the offensive boards. Chris Webber, that overpriced rookie, broke Rony Seikaly into egotistical, long-haired bits. I screamed my lungs out, and the Heat fans looked at me like I was some kind of idiot. Not for rooting for the Warriors. But for rooting at all. How provincial.
While I filled the dismal Arena with the unfamiliar sound of an untamed fan, my team clawed its way back from seventeen. Ailing, overmanned, underdogged, they finally pulled one out. After the game I floated back to the New Times building. I took an elevator to the roof and snuck outside to look at the sky. I ran around in a circle. I did twenty pushups. I forgave the world a few of its sins and edged a little closer to redemption. Then, voice lifted to the edge of the clean-breaking clouds, I thanked the Golden State Warriors.
Three days later, in the darkness of suburban Detroit, the curse of the Warriors struck again. Chris Webber twisted his ankle. For the third time this year. He was listed as out of action indefinitely. You may laugh, but I can assure you that this, too, is part of Don Nelson's plan.
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