Air Ball

Open air hockey.  It’s a good thing.

Pond hockey, obviously, has been a tradition for generations.  Long before there were legitimate organized hockey leagues (we’re talking deep into the 1800’s), all hockey was outdoors.  The game was slowly moved indoors, and it became the norm.  Although there were occasional exhibition and college games played outside over the years, the first outdoor NHL game that actually counted was played in 2003 in Edmonton, wherein the Canadiens bested the Oilers.  The NHL instituted its “Winter Classic” series five years later, and since then, occasional outdoor games have been a popular fixture.  The same is true across central and northern Europe.  Outdoor pro hockey was good in “Mystery, Alaska” and, as it turns out, it is good in real life too.  Tonight’s Blackhawks versus Penguins game at Soldier Field has had its crowds thinned by frigid temperatures and inclement weather, but it maintains the trademark charm of outdoor hockey.

There is one other major American sport that has a robust outdoor history but is also played indoors.  So why haven’t we seen the NBA show any love for open air basketball?

ruckerpark

Many, if not most, NBA players cut their teeth (at least in part) on outdoor courts.  These range from adjustable driveway hoops to schoolyard nets to hallowed inner city courts.  The mountaintop of outdoor basketball is probably Rucker Park, a legendary court in Harlem where flashy streetballers have competed in summer tournaments (and in year round games) for the better part of seven decades.  The storied talents to have passed through the Rucker leagues and tournaments include NBA demigods like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, “Tiny” Archibald, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, and Julius Erving.  More recently, singular talents like Chris Mullin, Kenny Anderson, Jamaal Mashburn, and Ron Artest have participated.  Streetball legend Joe “The Destroyer” Hammond once scored 71 points in a Rucker game against Erving’s team.1  ABA high flyer Connie Hawkins was once late for a Rucker game against Chamberlain — when he came into the game at halftime, the first thing he did was pin one of Wilt’s shots against the glass.2  There are dozens of other indelible moments in Rucker lore.  There is even a Rucker Hall of Fame.

ruckerparksign

The appeal of outdoor basketball is obvious.  It brings the game away from the jumbotron and pounding horn sound effects of the day to day NBA game and brings it back to its street roots.  It reconnects the game with part of its cultural DNA.  The major Rucker games have been mobbed by spectators who, especially back in the tournament’s heydey, scaled fences and trees or filled the windows of the adjacent buildings in order to watch the players’ exploits.  One might argue that scenario has a bit more character than a box seat at the FedEx Forum in Memphis.  Maybe not.  One thing is certain:  the absurd early 90’s duds worn by Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson in “White Men Can’t Jump” wouldn’t have had the same visual pop if their games were played in a dusty L.A. gym.

NBA franchises have at least flirted with the idea of outdoor games on a few occasions.  Incidentally, the Phoenix Suns have been involved in every flare up.  In 1972, the Suns played the Milwaukee Bucks in an outdoor preseason game in Puerto Rico.  36 years passed before it happened again, this time a preseason game in 2008 between the Suns and the Denver Nuggets, which was played in a tennis arena outside Palm Springs, California.  The temperature was cool (64 degrees Fahrenheit), and wind was a factor, but the game was popular (and the cold temperature was largely due to the game being played clumsily scheduled for 7pm instead of during the much warmer daytime).  The Suns played the Golden State Warriors in another preseason game at the tennis facility the next year, in October, 2009, and weather was again a major factor.  In 2010, the Suns played the Dallas Mavericks in the preseason at the same location with better weather luck.  No other attempts have been made to schedule outdoor games, and no regular season games have been played outdoors.

I, for one, would welcome such an endeavor.  The 2008 and 2009 preseason games illustrate the most obvious problem introduced by outdoor basketball, which is wind.  In a windy environment, teams that rely more heavily on perimeter scorers and jump shooting would be at a major disadvantage to frontcourt-heavy teams, but it still seems to me that locations could be easily found where wind is less likely to be a factor.  Even if city courts set up among buildings and/or courts constructed within larger outdoor sports stadia could not eliminate the effect of the wind, the fact is that it would affect both teams equally.  Even if the game is slightly different than the indoor variety, that does not mean that it is not a worthwhile product.  Teams could alter their play strategy to combat it, if necessary.  The potential upside of a hugely popular and culturally meaningful event would far outpace any reduction in play quality, in my opinion.

Even if the games weren’t regular season games, the sport would still benefit by embracing this possibility.  Mark Cuban has been pushing for outdoor preseason charity tours for a decade.  Charles Barkley once suggested that the All-Star game should be played in a court constructed in a 50,000 seat baseball stadium.  The money-making possibilities alone make it a head-scratcher as to why this has not happened yet.  The cynic in me always assumes that if the option is viable and potentially profitable then it would have happened by now, and thus there must be some reason why it hasn’t, but I simply have not heard much chatter on the subject.

So far, having no open-air ball has been an air ball for the league.  Harnessing the mystique of Rucker Park (and other prominent non-arena summer ball fixtures like the indoor Drew League in L.A.) seems like a slam dunk for the league, unless the league is simply too concerned with actively avoiding the streetball image.  Perhaps this is the crux of the matter.  After all, David Stern’s reign as Commissioner dealt with the advent of baggy shorts, sleeve tattoos, players brawling with fans, and several unsavory characters.  His dress code, implemented in 2005, will remain one of his most visible legacies.  But now that Adam Silver has taken the reigns, perhaps he will see that streetball is a cultural touchstone that should be celebrated, and that it in no way equates with thuggishness.  Until further developments happen, though, we will have to live on Rucker Park, the And1 Mixtape Tour, and delightful pro hockey games played in an inch of snow.

Footnotes:

  1. Dr. J’s medical degree apparently did him no good in scenarios such as this.
  2. The Hawk was still no match for 5’3″ Paul Simon:  1975 one-on-one clash
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