Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Green, White and Parquetry

I know I've been unable to post an actual stadium story in a while, but it's been busy. Hopefully this one can satisfy you for the time being.

Originally written February 15, 2010.

There is an art to making these trips and finding quirks in the schedule. After all, with 122 teams across the four major sports and 113 of them outside my immediate area, making 113 separate trips would seem an exhausting and expensive venture.

Mostly expensive.

Given that, I often have to scan the schedules to find opportunities to maximize my output. That is to say, if there are two teams in one city that play on back-to-back nights, it is a golden opportunity to strike multiple targets off the list in one shot. When such an opportunity presents itself, I’m generally hard-pressed to take advantage.

One such opportunity presented itself in January of 2009. I had been considering coming up to Boston to visit Luisa and my friend Jenn Reiss and with the Devils visiting the Bruins on January 29, 2009 and me having two days off from work the timing seemed right. When I noticed that the Celtics would be home against the Kings the night before, a trip to Beantown seemed all too sensible. I enjoy Boston, but I find the city very strange, mostly because it feels less like a metropolis to me than it does a large town. I know it comes off as condescending, and I don’t mean to seem that way since I really do like walking around the place, but there is one thing about it that always seemed odd to me.

Boston closes at midnight.
Every time I’m there I find this to be completely stunning. Perhaps this is because I’m spoiled as a resident of New York with 24-hour subway access and bars that stay open until four in the morning, but I struggle to see how a major city mostly shuts down before the night gets started. And indeed, Boston doesn’t necessarily shut down at midnight – the T operates until 12:45 and most bars are open until 2 a.m. – but with mass transit stopping so early on a Friday or Saturday there hardly seems any good reason for the drinking masses to stay out much later.

I do enjoy the T because it feels classy and old, while the subway generally feels rundown, but I can’t see staying out to socialize without a ride home.

Of course, I was far more likely to stay out in Boston four months after this visit, when I made my trip to see the Mets visit the Red Sox. That trip featured weather that was pleasant and enjoyable. When I went to see the Celtics the weather that first night provided little incentive to go anywhere but a warm bed.

See, I was lucky enough to plan my trip in the midst of a blizzard that streaked up the eastern seaboard. A week earlier, my friends Bert, Matt and I had made a spur of the moment trip to Washington D.C. to see Barack Obama get sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. That night the drive was smooth and the weather was clear. I suppose it would have been greedy to expect that a second time. This time around the snow had put into question whether or not I would get to Boston in time for the game that night.

As we took an alternate route at the behest of our driver, my bus pulled over to the side of the road on a hill for reasons I still don’t understand. When the driver put his foot on the pedal again, the bus went nowhere, stuck in the snow and rocking back and forth as it failed to gain traction. It was frighteningly similar to the last time I had driven to New England, a trip to see our friend Dan Sonshine at Brown that my friend Justin and I took during our senior year of college. That day a typically three-hour drive took six, and we saw numerous spinouts and accidents along I-95. I’m not sure why I thought it was a good idea to get behind the wheel that day. Aside from the dangerous weather, I was in the midst of a two-week stretch that saw me get four tickets across four different states.

It might have been wise to let someone else drive.

On this trip, as the bus rocked back and forth in the snow, I started worrying that it might tip over. Eventually we heard the driver call into his bosses to tell them someone might have to come tow us out of the drift. They then suggested he put the bus in the lowest gear – why that hadn’t yet occurred to him I have no idea – and sure enough out of the ditch and off to Boston we were.

We eventually pulled into South Station with plenty of time to spare and I hopped on the T to Luisa’s apartment near Hoynes Convention Center. This was my first full-fledged introduction to the weather that day. When I write I don’t generally like to use curse words. In regular conversation it’s entirely different story. I talk like a sailor far more than I should. When I write, however, I only resort to swearing when there simply is no other way to put it.

That day the weather was shitty. Really shitty.

The entire city was covered in slush, it was cold enough to be uncomfortable and warm enough that rain didn’t turn into snow. And boy did it rain. The drops poured down as I made the most uncomfortable three block walk of my life from the T station to Luisa’s apartment in Back Bay. By the time I arrived, I was frozen and soaked to the bone with no desire whatsoever to go back outside. Of course, with three tickets already purchased on Stub Hub for that night’s Celtics game against Sacramento, staying in the apartment would have defeated the purpose of the entire trip.

Throw in the fact that Luisa had to leave the apartment to teach a course on implementing organizational change at MIT and five minutes later we were back outside. Luisa and I walked across the Charles River into Cambridge where I headed to Harvard so I could meet up with Jenn. Jenn and I had known each other since elementary school, and at the time she currently was in her second year at Harvard Law School. While part of me felt bad for dragging her from her studies, she seemed perfectly content to talk English soccer and hound me for gossip on our former classmates from high school. If it meant I had someone to escort me to what was then called TD Banknorth Garden, I was fine with it. A year later the building would shorten its name to simply “TD Garden”, but whether it was either of those two, or the Fleetcenter as it was called when it opened in 1995, most people simply fall back on the habit of calling it “The Garden”.

The building itself looks fairly nondescript from the outside, appearing as though it were just a large concrete box with its only personality coming from its curved arching roof. It sits near the unique Zakim Bridge and atop Boston’s North Station, much like Madison Square Garden in New York rests above Penn Station, meaning before the games crowds of both fans and commuters gather en masse.

Jenn and I grabbed a pint and a burger at a pub not far from the arena before we made our way into the building. As we took the escalator up I was stopped in the ticket line by security because I was carrying my messenger bag.

“No bags allowed,” the man told me.

While the Yankees had been restricting bags from entering Yankee Stadium for years I had never come across it elsewhere and all I could think to tell the security personnel was, “Seriously?”

He gave me a look that said, “You’re a fucking asshole,” and directed me to a much younger, and one might assume, more patient guard, who I was told could give me my options for what to do with my bag. The first one I was given was to go back to my home or hotel and leave my bag there. Considering this was presented to me with the game tipping off in 10 minutes, I could not possibly understand why that was the first option. The guard then told me that I could run to a bar two blocks away from the arena where I would be allowed to check my bag.

This, too, is similar to Yankee Stadium, where bags can be checked across the street at a bowling alley that is frequently full of drunk fans before and after games. I told Jenn to sit tight while I sprinted across the street, and when I checked my bag I expected some cost. That the price was $10 was well beyond my expectations. Clearly the racket was doing well.

“$10?”

“Yeah, I know,” the attendant said. “It’s highway robbery.”

“You know, at Yankee Stadium it’s only $5. Though I guess I’m in the wrong city to bring that up.”

“Don’t look at me,” the attendant said, nonplussed. “I’m a Mets fan.”

It was annoying, but when they’ve got you, they’ve got you. I paid the $10, sprinted back to the arena and in we went. TD Garden is a wonderful facility, but it has a strange aspect to it as you walk through the concourses. The building feels clean and modern, with plenty of Celtics and Bruins memorabilia in cases around the hallways so you know who plays there. But it has the peculiar combination of housing two legendary franchises – the winningest in NBA history and an Original Six NHL team – and yet the building doesn’t have the same legendary feel to it.

Unlike Fenway Park, to say you felt the ghosts of the arena’s past wouldn’t be right. The Celtics have won more titles, 17, than any other franchise in the NBA and when I went to see them, sure enough, they were the defending champions. But their 2008 title was their first in this building and the first since 1986. This building didn’t have the aura that reminded you this was the team Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and John Havlicek won titles for. You couldn’t smell the cigar smoke of Red Auerbach. But despite being a Knicks fan with no fondness for the Celtics, I will say this: That legendary green and white jersey hasn’t changed, and the classic parquet floor is still there. If you can tune out the building you’re sitting in and see only the game you’re watching, and only those jerseys on that floor, it can give you chills.

If the classic sight of green and white on that floor doesn’t inspire you, a look up towards the top of the building might. I’ve heard that at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion they use banners as wallpaper, but the blue and gold has nothing on the 17-time NBA Champions. Their banners hang from the arena rafters in three dizzying, mesmerizing rows with the years reeling off in succession, 1957, ’59, ’60, ’61, ’62, ’63, ’64, ’65, ’66, ’68, ’69, ’74, ’76, ’81, ’84, ’86, ‘08. And unlike other arenas, which hang every division title or sellout, this is not the case for the Celtics. Save for retired numbers, every green and white tapestry says, “World Champions.”
They have no use for those other banners here.

Of course the fact that it’s no longer the Boston Garden isn’t all bad. Fans can talk about the ghosts, the legends, the quirks all they want. The building may well have had the character older Boston fans talk about, but it was also reputed to have some of the worst sightlines in professional sports. At TD Garden there isn’t a bad seat in the house. And speaking of the seats, the best decision they may have made in the construction process, and there were many good ones, was that the seats are still the same iconic black and yellow of the Celtics and Bruins’ former home.

The old Garden was cramped, its rink was nine feet shorter than the NHL’s regulation size, and the infrastructure was riddled with problems. The building lacked air conditioning which led to fog developing over the ice during Bruins’ playoff games, and the B’s experienced electrical failures during not just one, but two Stanley Cup Finals appearances in 1988 and 1990. I’m all for history and antiquated charm when it comes to stadiums and arenas. But the lights need to stay on. When they can’t, it’s time to move.

Luisa eventually showed up in the middle of the first quarter and the three of us settled in for a game I wound up enjoying much more than I expected. Not that I was dreading the event, but despite not particularly liking the Celtics, the energy and excitement of the crowd was hard to ignore. Luisa and Jenn managed to find a way, spending most of the opening quarter talking about how attracted they both were to some of my high school friends they had both met.

It’s hard to blame them, though. The Celtics got off to a slow start, eventually falling behind the Kings by ten points. While, I could have cared less who won, this made me look awful after I told Jenn the Celtics should be ashamed of themselves if they don’t win by 20 points. In the early going, it appeared Boston, which had won eight straight games heading into the night, was making a liar out of me. It was only a matter of time before Sacramento, which itself was on a six-game losing streak, let the lead slip away, however.

The Celtics opened the second quarter on a 25-9 run and never looked back. By the fourth quarter the lead would stretch out to 24 points mostly on the shoulders of point guard Eddie House, who sank eight three-pointers, including a 4-for-5 performance from behind the arc in the final 12 minutes. Whenever he touched the ball the crowd would chant his name and he was treated to a standing ovation when he was taken out with just over four minutes to play. By the time the clock wound down, Boston had polished off a 119-100 victory. Although it was one point less than I said they ought to win by, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and company took care of business .

I would have appreciated getting 20 points on the dot, but you can’t have everything. This I realized as soon as I walked back outside into the still driving rain. In fact, that was really the only problem with the day. I would have appreciated getting back to Luisa’s apartment that night and not being soaked to the bone, but sometimes you can’t help those delightful New England winters. At least we were able to get home. The game had ended early enough.

Boston wasn’t yet shut down for the night.

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