Last night I was invited to go to the TD Banknorth Garden to watch the Philadelphia 76ers play the Boston Celtics. Years ago, this was a rivalry game that was full of All Stars and was always a display of quality basketball. I was lucky enough as a kid to see Julius Erving, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Charles Barkley, Mo Cheeks and a host of other greats play in the old Garden. Last night the only real names of worth were Paul Pierce and Allen Iverson. Of those two players, only Iverson looked to be playing at 100% speed throughout the whole game. Pierce did put on a decent show at times as he was auditioning for other teams, but appeared listless at times. Cliche alert: The NBA has diluted its talent pool by expanding too much and it showed last night. Iverson was probably 90% of the talent at the game, and was a joy to watch.
Iverson has been written about for his basketball skills, his relationships with coaches, his relationship with his wife, and his love of the game & Philly. I can't top what has been written but I can report on his game from last night. It is obvious on the court that he gives it his 100% all of the time. What is not obvious on TV but striking in person is his speed. His cuts, anticipation, and slashing ability are amazing. He can truly take anyone off the ball unless they are grabbing his jersey to slow him down. Iverson's dribbling skills allow him to have a step on any defender, as his dribbling looks like such a natural movement. One thing that he does which is hidden from TV cameras is make contact when he crashes through the lane, and then extends his arm to push a bit off of the defender to create space so he can finish his drives and/or get the foul. Boston was helpless and could only slow him down when they put 2 or 3 men on him. Even at that point, he was finding the open man. The problem was that his teammates could not finish anything. He had 7 assists yet could have ended with 12+ if his teammates could shoot. I am not counting Chris Webber because he is a jump-shooting stiff with one good leg collecting $19 million this year. If you live outside the lane and take 20 shots a game, you will score 20 points. That is Webber now. Iverson's draw of the double team creates a ton of opportunities for his teammates and it is up to them to hit their shots to allow him some breathing room.
Besides Iverson's artistry and intensity, I witnessed the reality of the new NBA experience. I had last seen a game live in 1995. So much has changed with how they put on a 'show'. You used to go to a game to watch the game, and seats were set up in a steeper angle so you were closer to the floor. Games sold out or were near capacity because seats were priced from outrageous to affordable. Nowadays, all seats have a high price attached to them, and the layouts are generic wide bottomed pits, which put you far away from the action. The paper said that 14,000 people attended the game; they were lucky if 10,000 showed up. At almost every stoppage of play there was a stupid shirt tossing, parachute drop, contest, quiz, etc. to keep people 'entertained'. I found it annoying and irritating. The crowd needed instruction from the Jumbotron to get pumped up and loud. Repeat, the Garden crowd needed instruction on how to cheer. The crowd was dead. A half full place, and the half that went were made up mostly fo the people who don't get loud at games: a golf crowd. The people who would go to a lot of games, regardless of being Celtics fans or not, would buy tickets if decent seats were $10-20 a piece. Nosebleeds that are along the sides of the court (not behind the backboards) are $25-50 depending on how close to the balcony edge you want to sit. It is a shame what has happened to the game as far as making it affordable for fans to enjoy, and to build a real home court advantage.
A lot of my friends love the college game because of the style, the crowds and March Madness. I enjoy it more than the NBA, but still have a soft spot in my heart for my Sixers and the hopes that players cna do the unbelievable and amazing on a nightly basis. I'll still watch the NBA and follow the games passionately in the playoffs. Sadly, I am one of the few left who the NBA can count on for loyalty, and my loyalty to the NBA is much lower than it is to the NFL and MLB. Please, David Stern, please stop expanding and shore up the quality of play.