In the NBA, New York plays the yin to Oklahoma City’s yang -- on and off the court.
ON THE CORNER of 33rd Street and Eighth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, life moves faster than LeBron James driving to the basket. The pace is one of organized chaos as commuters rush to Penn Station to catch a train and yellow cabs jockey for their next uptown fare. Here, the ticket scalpers blend in seamlessly with the hot-dog vendors and the guy selling newspapers. Yes, only in New York.
The scene is repeated every day, holidays included. But on certain dates, the buzz on the streets is caused by what is happening inside Madison Square Garden, self-proclaimed the World’s Most Famous Arena. Only then does the city take a backseat to the game.
About 1,500 miles away, on the corner of West Reno Avenue and South Robinson Avenue in Oklahoma City, the pace is considerably more tranquil. Here, the taxis obey the speed limit and the pedestrians wait for the traffic light to change before crossing the street. There is nothing New York about it except for one thing: the National Basketball Association, which has arrived in the land of oil derricks, tumbleweeds, and college football to stake a claim on the American frontier.
The Oklahoma City Thunder (formerly the Seattle SuperSonics) are playing their inaugural season at the Ford Center. Located in the heart of downtown and just a short walk from the historic Bricktown district, the Ford Center is a state-of-the-art venue with all the amenities today’s pro-sports arenas need in order to compete for the entertainment dollar.
There are 56 luxury suites, 3,300 club seats, three restaurants, and 24 concession stands around the arena. Seating capacity for Thunder games is 19,136, and more upgrades are on the horizon. Although construction on the Ford Center was completed in 2002, Oklahoma City voters have approved a temporary one-cent sales tax, which is expected to fund a new grand entrance, restaurants, and an off-site practice facility.
“I believe they’ve put in all of the elements for success,” says NBA commissioner David Stern, who attended the Thunder’s first home game in October. The Thunder have the look and feel of a promising franchise; the club sold its entire allotment of season tickets, approximately 13,000, in five days. They are one of only four NBA teams with a waiting list for season tickets. And their roster features a rising superstar in second-year forward Kevin Durant.
“We’ve sold out every game,” Durant says. “The support has been great. Everyone’s excited. It’s a good place to play basketball and to live. The fans are just great.”
The atmosphere in New York is different, as the New York Knicks have suffered through seven straight losing seasons; they last won the NBA championship in 1973. Their title drought is 35 years and counting, with no end in sight. The optimistic Knicks fans believe that hope is right around the block, but the superstitious supporters of the orange and blue are convinced that the franchise is cursed for having unceremoniously traded Walt Frazier and Patrick Ewing, a pair of Hall of Fame players from different generations. That theory is gaining momentum; baseball’s Yankees and Mets, all three area NHL teams, and the NFL’s Giants have captured at least one championship in their respective professional leagues since the Knicks last raised a championship banner.
Yet there is still something special about attending a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden, affectionately called the Mecca by everyone from Michael Jordan to Mick Jagger. You feel the history, tradition, and passion as soon as you enter. Spike Lee still taunts opponents, and Woody Allen occasionally nods off when the action slows. Whether the team wins or loses, the most famous address in pro sports is the place to see and be seen.
“No other building has the ambience of the Garden,” says Frazier, the legendary Knicks player who now serves as a television analyst for the club. “I don’t think teams fear coming here like they once did. But it is still a stage where people want to perform. There are bigger venues and newer venues, but there is only one Madison Square Garden. It is still ‘the place.’ “
Oklahoma City and New York City: two cities offering the NBA experience in their own unique ways.
“Every player, every coach, and every member of our organization who comes to the Garden understands what he is walking into,” says Sam Presti, the Thunder’s 31-year-old general manager. “Our situation is special as well, because of the passion of the fans and the support we’ve received in a short amount of time. That’s what makes the league great. All these different environments, different people -- but they all share the same passion, which is the game itself.
MADISON SQUARE GARDEN is the league’s second-oldest arena, and it is starting to show its age. When the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus comes to town for its annual three-week engagement in March, the stench from the elephants seems to linger right until May. The luxury suites are outdated, and the concourse is cramped. The place could use a good paint job.
For years, the venue’s owner, Cablevision Systems Corporation, explored building a new Garden across the street, where the post office currently sits. Plans were rumored to have included demolishing the 40-year-old arena to build an office tower at Penn Station. But rather than tear down the arena’s great history, Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan decided to rebuild from within.
The $500 million renovation project, which will begin this spring, calls for a new lobby entrance on Seventh Avenue, more restaurants and bathrooms, and wider hallways. They are also building luxury suites closer to the floor level and installing bars at the cheapest seat level, the blue seats, which are returning after having been replaced by teal ones in the 1991 renovation.
Dolan is being lauded for preserving one of the city’s great treasures, especially in a year when the new Yankee Stadium will open its doors and the old baseball cathedral will come down. The Garden, which played host to Ali-Frazier, the Rangers Stanley Cup run in 1994, and the Concert for New York City in 2001, lives on.
What won’t change is the experience. Celebrity row still attracts A-list stars like Chris Rock, Paul McCartney, and shock jock Howard Stern. Sometimes, the celebrities become part of the action, like the time fashion designer Calvin Klein walked onto the court to shake hands with one-time Knicks player Latrell Sprewell.
Before games, the bars and restaurants around the Garden are alive with activity. At Cafe 31, you are guaranteed quick service and good food even if you are wearing the jersey of another team. After the game, you’ll be able to spot Knicks players, coaches, and even some of the Knicks City Dancers there. Around the corner, Local West is another watering hole where you might see a famous face or two.
Celebrity sightings at the Ford Center are rare. Opening night in October attracted Oklahoma governor Brad Henry and former Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer. There is a more homespun feel to the Thunder’s fan base. The enthusiasm for the team is genuine. The Thunder are among the league leaders in crowd attendance, and while New Yorkers are praised for their basketball intelligence, Oklahoma City fans are smart enough to know that home-court advantage is a precious thing.
The fans stand united until the Thunder score their first basket, which may take a few seconds or a few minutes. ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy says Thunder fans “are as close to a college basketball crowd as you will get in the NBA. They are incredible.”
“I get a sense in the small-market franchises that it is a unifying element in the community,” adds Stern. “I get a sense -- from everyone I talk with here, from the governor to former governors to the mayor -- that this is a stepping-stone in the development of the community.”
The city and the Ford Center opened the eyes of the league by opening its arms to the New Orleans Hornets when that franchise was displaced by Hurricane Katrina for two seasons. No one knew how the town would respond to a rent-a-team scenario. Expectations were modest, especially when Stern made it clear that the league would not abandon New Orleans.
“The support was unbelievable,” says Desmond Mason, a shooting guard/small forward. “Even now, with this team. It’s another weird feeling, but the support and enthusiasm about us being here is just unbelievable.”
Mason has a long history with Oklahoma City, starting with his days as a college star at nearby Oklahoma State University. He returned while playing for the Hornets during their two seasons here and is back again after being acquired by the Thunder from the Milwaukee Bucks in an off-season trade.
“It was different a few years ago, because I didn’t really expect an NBA team to be in Oklahoma City. Playing here in college and then having an NBA team here was kind of a surreal feeling.
“I didn’t know that I’d be back, playing in Oklahoma City. To be back now with a totally different team and the organization I started with (Mason started his career with the Sonics in the 2000-’01 season) is unbelievable,” Mason says.
THE NBA’S SALARY structure allows small-market teams like the Utah Jazz, the San Antonio Spurs, and the Thunder to compete with the likes of the Los Angeles Lakers, the Chicago Bulls, and New York. Instead of spend, spend, spend, the formula for success is spend wisely. The Jazz reached the NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998 and is again one of the league’s top teams. But the gold standard for more than a decade has been the Spurs, a franchise that has won four titles since 1999. Presti joined the Spurs’ front office as an intern and was with the team when it won its last three championships. He’s now responsible for establishing a new tradition and creating a brand name in Oklahoma City.
“We have to try to build the best team we can,” he says. “It doesn’t mean you follow a model, like there is Portland or Utah or San Antonio. We have to find our own way and develop our team.”
The Thunder arrived in Oklahoma City via Seattle after voters in that Pacific Northwest city rejected a proposal to build the Sonics a new arena. The Sonics’ 41-year history came to an end when chairman Clay Bennett, an Oklahoma City businessman, reached a settlement with the city to move the team in exchange for $45 million.
It was a bittersweet divorce for the league, which is not ruling out the possibility of having another team relocate to Seattle -- but only if a new arena is built. There are also some concerns as to whether Seattle can support three major sports teams.
In Oklahoma City, the Thunder are the state’s first and only major team, and the city looks to be up to the task of hosting them. NBA jerseys are the new fashion accessory in town. Outside the Colcord Hotel and the Skirvin Hilton, you’ll find autograph seekers hoping to bump into the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant or the Phoenix Suns’ Steve Nash.
If you’re looking to kill a few hours before the game, check out the Oklahoma City Museum of Art and the National Cowboy &; Western Heritage Museum. The pregame crowds gather at Bricktown Brewery and Chelino’s Mexican Restaurant, which are just a jump shot from the arena. There is even a Mickey Mantle’s Steakhouse, not to be confused with the Mantel Wine Bar &; Bistro across the street nor with Mickey Mantle’s on Central Park South in Manhattan.
Folks in Oklahoma City seem to have a good sense of where they came from and where they’re going. If there was ever any doubt, Stern settled it once and for all when he addressed the sold-out crowd on opening night: “Welcome to the National Basketball Association.”
FRANK ISOLA is the NBA beat writer and columnist for the New York Daily News.
The Hottest Ticket In TownNew York City and Oklahoma City don’t have a monopoly on NBA fun and excitement. There’s no shortage of entertainment at any of the league’s 29 venues.
ATLANTA HAWKS Philips Arena -- A rival team executive once described it as the Robin Hood arena. On one side, there are four levels of luxury suites (the rich), and on the opposite side, there’s nothing but seats (the poor). You’ve got to try the Hot Roast Beef Po Boys at Headlines Bar &; Grill. And Harry the Hawk is one of the more entertaining mascots around.
BOSTON CELTICS TD Banknorth Garden -- It lacks the ambience of the original Boston Garden, but at least it smells a lot better and the air conditioning works. History is up in the rafters here, where there are 17 championship banners and all those retired numbers. Quiz yourself about which name goes with each number. We’ll start with an easy one: Number 6 is the one and only Bill Russell. Also, restaurant the Four’s on Canal Street is the best spot before and after games.
CHARLOTTE BOBCATS Time Warner Cable Arena -- Plenty of good seats are still available inside this spacious building, which opened in 2005. Try the Charlotte Big Dawg at Rock the Rooftop, a fan zone in the concourse that includes a kid’s interactive area. This arena has the largest video screen in use in any NBA facility.
CHICAGO BULLS United Center -- Visitors pay homage to the statue of Michael Jordan outside the main entrance. Some even toss coins at Jordan’s feet. The Center is a massive building with large hallways and plenty of concessions. A visit here is not complete without a postgame stop at Harry Caray’s [Italian Steakhouse] on West Kinzie Street.
CLEVELAND CAVALIERS Quicken Loans Arena -- Otherwise known as the King’s Castle, LeBron James’s home court is becoming a more popular destination than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It offers great sight lines, and Cleveland’s famous overstuffed sandwich is a must-have. Wash it down with a trip to Cold Stone Creamery.
DALLAS MAVERICKS American Airlines Center -- The field-house-style arena has plenty of character and charm. Munch on the smoked-brisket sandwich (turkey or pork) while you watch Mavs owner Mark Cuban taunt referees from his baseline seat. The people-watching is great at the W Hotel, just steps away from the AAC.
DENVER NUGGETS Pepsi Center -- The seats are colored to look like, well, Pepsi. The arena, site of the 2008 Democratic National Convention, is also home to Rocky, the league’s most creative mascot. The best bet here is the Buffalo Burger.
DETROIT PISTONS The Palace of Auburn Hills -- It’s a suburban arena with a tough city feel to it. Fans are loud and not afraid to express their feelings, especially to opposing players. Get there early to find a good parking spot, and try the chilled shrimp cocktail.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS Oracle Arena -- The NBA’s oldest arena, it was renovated just over a decade ago. The ceiling is similar to Madison Square Garden’s, and there’s not a bad seat in the place. Avoid traffic by taking the Bay Area Rapid Transit train from downtown San Francisco to Oakland. Don’t miss the delicious Provençal Fish Stew.
HOUSTON ROCKETS Toyota Center -- This downtown arena was built in 2003 and is adjacent to the Convention Center and Hilton Hotel. Arrive early to watch Yao Ming’s pregame workout. The applewood smoked turkey is the sandwich of choice. Almost every opposing team stays at the Four Seasons down the street.
INDIANA PACERS Conseco Fieldhouse -- The entire building is a tribute to the history of the game in the basketball-crazy state of Indiana; it’s the best basketball-only arena in the NBA. The lobby is like an Indiana basketball museum. Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is a frequent guest. Players can be found at the Ruth’s Chris Steak House after most games.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS AND LOS ANGELES LAKERS Staples Center -- This is the NBA’s busiest and best-run arena. Both the Lakers and Clippers play here. Outside, there are statues of Magic Johnson and NHL great Wayne Gretzky, and inside, you’ll often find the real Jack Nicholson seated courtside at Lakers games. There are a wide variety of concessions, and the floors are so clean, you can eat off of them. You can spend the whole night watching reigning MVP Kobe Bryant or spotting celebrities. There is no Kobe, nor as many A-list stars, at the Clippers games, though.
MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES FedExForum -- A first-rate venue that is empty on most nights, it’s located one block from famous Beale Street. The popcorn chicken will hold you over until after the game, when you can head to the Blues City Cafe, where the ribs are waiting.
American Airlines Arena -- This is where all the beautiful people go, although they tend to arrive late. It has the famous Miami Heat dance team and Bongos Cuban Café, owned by Gloria and Emilio Estefan. How’s this for NBA paradise: You can see Dwyane Wade for a couple of hours and then head to South Beach?
MILWAUKEE BUCKS Bradley Center -- It’s basic but functional, just like the city itself, and family friendly. It even has a live band for entertainment. Go with the polish sausage. This is Milwaukee, after all.
MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES Target Center -- On cold nights, walk from several downtown hotels to the arena via the city’s famous skyway system. Inside, it’s cramped but also loud. The league-run restaurant NBA City is located here. Spend your postgame time at the Loon Cafe.
NEW JERSEY NETS Izod Center -- Having hosted two Stanley Cup–clinching wins for the state’s other pro team, the NHL’s Devils, and two consecutive NBA Finals appearances for the Nets (2002 and 2003), this arena has seen its share of history. Courtside suites offer a great game-viewing experience for watching Nets stars such as Vince Carter and Devin Harris. Not to mention that an encounter with Nets mascot Sly is one you won’t soon forget.
NEW ORLEANS HORNETS New Orleans Arena -- Recovered nicely from Hurricane Katrina, it put on a good show at last year’s NBA All-Star Game. The checkered seats will make you dizzy, while the overstuffed baked potato will keep you happy. It’s a short walk to Bourbon Street, but taking a cab is a better option.
NEW YORK KNICKS Madison Square Garden -- The one and only! Spike Lee and Woody Allen own season tickets to the Knicks, and celebrity row still attracts its share of movie stars. Save your appetite for Cafe 31, located across the street. With good food and reasonable prices, Cafe 31 attracts players as well as some Knicks City Dancers.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER Ford Center -- Here, you’ll find small-town charm with a first-class NBA arena. The city is already pouring more money into the facility for improvements. Fans have collegelike passion about the team. Hopefully, that will still be the case in five years. The burger with grilled onions should hold you over until you head to Bricktown when the final buzzer sounds.
ORLANDO MAGIC Amway Arena -- Watching a game here is even more exciting now that Orlando is one of the top teams in the NBA. Polite ushers will allow you to get close to the court before the game for autographs. Or you can just hang out at the downtown Westin hotel to spy a superstar or two.
PHILADELPHIA 76ERS Wachovia Center -- A sports lover’s paradise, the home of the Sixers and the NHL’s Flyers is surrounded by sleek new football and baseball stadiums. The crowd can be tough, even on its own players, but there’s good in-game entertainment. And you can’t leave without diving into a famous Philly cheesesteak sandwich.
PHOENIX SUNS US Airways Center -- It’s so good, it is hosting its second NBA All-Star Game in 13 years. Well-behaved fans include golfer Phil Mickelson and plenty of Major League Baseball players (who attend during spring training). Get a taste of the Southwest with Ancho-Chile Grilled Chicken Quesadillas.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS The Rose Garden -- The hottest ticket in town, this arena is easily accessed from downtown if you ride the light-rail. Fans have high basketball IQs, and seating is close to the court. Fresh Grilled Wild Copper River Sockeye salmon is the obvious choice here.
SACRAMENTO KINGS Arco Arena -- This is the NBA’s smallest arena, but it has a huge home-court advantage, as the team’s loud and zany fans are notoriously some of the best and most loyal in the NBA. In other words, this arena is the NBA’s answer to Duke University’s raucous Cameron Indoor Stadium. Not even the roast-turkey sandwich keeps the crowd quiet.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS AT&T Center -- It has very little charm but lots of banners and is a short drive from downtown. The Coyote will have you laughing, and the Charcoal Grilled Barbecued Prawns at the Terrace Restaurant will leave you stuffed. The place to be after the game is Rosario’s, which has the best Mexican food in town.
TORONTO RAPTORS Air Canada Centre -- It’s essentially a hockey arena, yet it is a top basketball venue as well. You’ll see the best-dressed fans in the league here. Pace yourself with the local beer -- it’s potent. Nearby Harbour Sports Grille is the best-kept secret in town.
UTAH JAZZ EnergySolutions Arena -- That doesn’t exactly roll off your tongue, now, does it? Jazz fans are renowned for complaining about the refs. Outside sit statues of Jazz legends Karl Malone and John Stockton. Take a chance on the artichoke-stuffed chicken breast.
WASHINGTON WIZARDS Verizon Center -- This underrated arena is located in the revitalized Chinatown district. There’s a metro stop right at the Verizon Center. You may even see the president or, at least, a senator or two. Fans and players spill into Rosa Mexicano after the game.