I’ve always preferred college basketball to the professional variety. But I never wanted to be one of those fans who insists that they hate the NBA when they haven’t actually been to a game since Bird was playing Magic.
So I generally stay away from the games and keep my opinion to myself. But last weekend a friend gave me a couple of free tickets to last night’s Charlotte Bobcats game against the Milwaukee Bucks at Time Warner Cable Arena, so Jayne and I decided to make it a date night uptown.
It was only the second time I’ve seen the Bobcats in person. The Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger paid me to see the first one in 2005, a game between the first-year Bobcats and the New Jersey Nets at the second Charlotte Coliseum (the one no longer standing) out on Tyvola Road. The Star-Ledger’s beat writer had to come home for some sort of family emergency and I was a last-minute fill-in.
And I honestly don’t remember who won that game, but I do remember that ex-North Carolina Tar Heel star Vince Carter was playing for the Nets at the time and he scored 38 points, including a basket on an acrobatic shot where he literally jumped over somebody.
But I digress. The Bobcats are on the verge of wrapping up their first-ever spot in the playoffs and the Bucks are one of several teams with whom they’re vying for position, so there was some buzz around the game and a big crowd was expected.
And I have to admit, it was a fun evening with good entertainment value. Jayne and I arrived about 90 minutes before game time, found a convenient parking lot near the arena and walked to a nearby soul food restaurant we like a couple of blocks away. For the first time since we spent the fall in London in 2008, we felt like real city dwellers.
Like I said, the experience of an NBA game is just different from going to a college basketball game, starting with what happens before the game. The late Al McGuire, when he was commentating on college basketball games for NBC, used to call the opening shot from a college game the “‘Gone With the Wind’ beginning,” complete with screaming fans, bands and cheerleaders, contrasting it with the opening shot from an NBA telecast, with players desultorily shooting warmups.
And here’s the view from where we were, my first trip into the upper reaches of this arena, but not a bad seat overall.
Once this game got started, the crowd — listed in the box score as 18,118, but with some obvious no-shows, got into it. The game had a playoff feel to it, close from start to finish and maybe even more hotly contested from the sidelines.
The Bobcats engaged in a running battle with the officials, culminating in the second quarter with Coach Larry Brown’s ejection after being hit with two technical fouls and with new owner Michael Jordan, who recently bought controlling interest in the team from Bob Johnson, screaming at the guys in stripes from his courtside seat as the half ended. For Bobcats fans, that’s certainly a refreshing change from Johnson, the classic absentee pro sports owner.
I was impressed with Stephen Jackson, whom the Bobcats obtained in November in a trade with the Golden State Warriors. The 32-year-old Texan has become their top scoring threat, setting a Bobcats’ team record with 43 points against the Houston Rockets on Jan. 12. He scored 32 in this game, including a three-pointer with 52 seconds left in overtime which turned out to be the winning shot in Charlotte’s 87-86 victory.
“He never met a shot he didn’t like,” I heard one fan behind me say at one point in the game.
True enough, but this game ended up being settled by a decidedly less spectacular play. Neither team scored after Jackson’s three-pointer and the Bobcats ran out the clock football-style when reserve center Tyson Chandler swatted a rebound of Raymond Felton’s missed shot back to Felton to run out the final seconds as the crowd roared.
Good win, good atmosphere. Enough to make us want to actually buy a ticket and go back? Well, still not sure. When I watch the Final Four games this evening, I’m sure I’ll remember why the college game is still more compelling to me.