On Sunday -- because, at this point, what else is there to do at Madison Square Garden -- the Knicks tried a bit of a gimmick. During a nationally televised game against the Golden State Warriors, the crew at MSG, hand in hand with an ABC broadcast that was eager to jazz up the increasingly-depressing Knicks, decided to shut off all the arena noise for the first half of the game.
No wonder it's so quiet in here. Thank you NBA & Knicks. No bells & whistles, just basketball. pic.twitter.com/oLJZXRG04r- Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) March 5, 2017
This was greeted, initially, the same way Frank Isola greeted it in that tweet: Ahhhhhh. Finally some peace and quiet. Everybody likes to feel like they are the real fans, that only they and a select few can appreciate the sport as sport, and not as spectacle. This self-regard is right there in the MSG Jumbotron wording: "So you can enjoy the game in its purest form." That is what it looks like when a Jumbotron pats itself on the back.
And boy do we love to complain about those bells and whistles. I don't think I've ever met an NBA fan who doesn't grouse at some point about all the in-game entertainment, the music, the videos during breaks, the t-shirt guns, the "Everybody clap your hands!" sample, all of it. This is, still, somehow, a constant criticism of the NBA, that it spends too much time jangling keys to keep you entertained and/or attentive, that it focuses too much on storylines, that it doesn't trust the sport itself to captivate the viewer. Just let the game be, they say.
So, on Sunday, they did. No music, no nothing. "Enjoy the sounds of the game." ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, who might just be the best analyst in any sport right now, was doing backflips as the telecast began, talking about how this is what basketball was supposed to be, free of all the outside junk surrounding it. And if an analyst was excited about it, imagine what the players would think? No one is more focused on The Game than a player: After all, they are the ones playing it. How freeing it would be to have all the exterior junk stripped away, so it's just basketball, the way you played it in middle school, in high school, on the playground. Van Gundy was practically vibrating out of his seat.
And then the game started. It was … weird. You heard all the squeaks of the sneakers. You heard players hollering at each other. You heard individual fan taunts. But you mostly heard … echoing, the inevitable result of a game being played in a building with 21,000 seats providing no extraneous noise. You heard a big hollow. It was downright bizarre.
Perhaps there was no better sign of how disorienting it was than how lousy both teams were playing. Sure, the Knicks are always lousy, but the Warriors were discombobulated and wobbly themselves. No one could shoot straight, no one could get in any real rhythm, no one could get comfortable the way they are used to being comfortable in a long season. The problem with playing an NBA game the way you played games in high school is that, well, you might start playing the game the way you did in high school: Not nearly as well. The players were clearly affected and upset: They hated it. It turned out they didn't want to focus solely on the game after all. Following the game, Warriors raconteur Draymond Green went on one of his signature rants.
"That was pathetic. It was ridiculous. It changed the flow of the game. It changed everything. You get used to playing a certain way. It completely changed it. To me, I think it was completely disrespectful to everyone from [NBA senior VP of entertainment and player marketing] Michael Levine to [Warriors president and COO] Rick Welts and all these people who've done these things to change the game from an entertainment perspective. [It] gives the game a great vibe. That's complete disrespect. You advance things in the world to make it better. You don't go back to what was bad. It's like, computers can do anything for us. It's like going back to paper. Why would you do that? So it was ridiculous. Did you see that first half? It was just bad, sloppy, all over the place. There was no rhythm to the game. All this stuff makes a difference in a game, believe it or not. You get in a rhythm. ... You turn on music, it just helps you get into a certain area, takes you to a certain place. I don't think they were doing it to, like, throw us off, but it definitely threw the entire game off. They need to trash it. That's exactly what they need to do."
Steve Kerr said it was like "church," and Stephen Curry said it was so quiet that players were making "beat sounds" in the layup line. Reporters combed each locker room after the game. They couldn't find a single player who liked it.
Perhaps the most amusing reaction to the silence was Van Gundy's. After spending the whole pregame raving about the conceit, Van Gundy began to wilt under the unusual circumstances. He, Mark Jackson and Mike Breen couldn't stop talking about how odd it felt, occasionally even ignoring the game going on in front of them -- the game we're apparently all supposed to be concentrating on -- to comment on how uncomfortable they all were to even be there. And by the second television timeout, Van Gundy was crawling out of his skin. Jackson gently ribbed him, saying that pregame he was all for this idea and now he couldn't take it. Van Gundy could only simply reply, "It's different. It's maybe a little too different."
In the second half, they brought back the music, and it became a normal NBA game again, which is to say the Warriors won and the Knicks lost.
A few years ago, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, in a blog post about the dangers of trying too hard to capture the "second screen experience" in games, made a strong defense of all the external noise at games.
"We are going to try everything and anything we can think of to make it fun and memorable. Just as a DJ responds to the energy and attitude at a wedding in real time and tries to choose the right song or activity to keep the fun and energy up, we try to do the same thing at a Mavs game. We recognize that what makes our games unique is that like a wedding, Grandma Ethel can be sitting next to a goth looking 16 year old she has never met before, and if both are watching when the Mavs hit a shot right as the 24 second buzzer sounds, they can high 5 each other like they are best friends. That if Grandma Ethel is chanting defense and being a key 6th man for her Mavs, the 16 year old will feel better about cupping his black nailed hands together to do the same. That if we put a fun video up on the big screen, they both might just sing along."
This idea that a "quiet" basketball game is some sort of throwback is something that even Grandma Ethel couldn't get behind. They will never, ever try this stunt again, and no one will miss it. Acting as if you are the "true" fan, the one who appreciates the game at some sort of deeper level, has been a hipster "purist" pose since there was surely someone in that gym who said, "The game was purer when they kept the bottom in the peach basket. It's all frivolous sensation now." The NBA is about more than just basketball, and it always has been. After that failed experiment, that's more impossible to deny than ever.
So let's make sure to always have music for Jeff Van Gundy to dance to, from now on. Do not deny him his Jock Jams.