Playing the Field: NBA fights create that buzz we miss

Don't ever expect to see coaches hanging from player's legs like we saw with Jeff Van Gundy in the '90s.
Don’t ever expect to see coaches hanging from player’s legs like we saw with Jeff Van Gundy in the ’90s.

 

Many hoops fans complain about how there aren’t any “great buildings” anymore when it comes to making noise, nostalgia and the “big stage” atmosphere. I tend to agree, for the most part. The original Boston Garden is long gone, Chicago Stadium is history, same for the Spectrum in Philly and the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, Calif. rarely houses sports events these days (you’re more likely to see an American Idol taping there).

College basketball still has some great old barns where it gets loud and you can always feel the history: Cameron Indoor at Duke, “Phog” Allen Fieldhouse at Kansas, Pauley Pavilion at UCLA. Madison Square Garden might be the one arena left in pro basketball where you would pay money just for the atmosphere of the building.

But part of the issue with the lack of “big stage” atmosphere today is the fact that there isn’t nearly the same amount of danger involved in professional sports anymore. You will never in a million years again see an NBA fight as “dangerous” as when Houston Rockets center Ralph Sampson decked Celtics guard Jerry Sichting in the 1986 NBA Finals. The fight spilled into the stands and nearly every member of the Celtics and Rockets got involved. Maybe it’s the grainy, dark, ’80s-style video that helps – but you get the sense that you’re watching a horror movie, not a basketball game, when watching that tape.

Today, the NBA likely has a team of 76 people or so in their New York offices that scour the internet daily for traces of “Basket-brawl” videos … all documented footage is immediately ripped down – those guys are good.

The Ron Artest brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills (click here for video while you still can) of course changed the game. Now, if two players even look at each other crosseyed there is a chance both will be ejected. It has taken away a lot of the physicality in the game, particularly under the boards, but we all understand now that it had to be done. When fans are getting decked in the face (like in the Artest melee), there has to be new order.

Obviously, things can still escalate in the league. Last night we saw Roy Hibbert of the Pacers and David Lee of the Warriors “go at it.” Not one true punch was thrown but it was still a bit frightening to see players so close to the fans with tempers reaching that level.

Last November I was in the house for the Kris Humphries-Rajon Rondo tussle that ended up in the first three rows behind the basket. While the TD Garden has absolutely nothing on the original Garden in terms of atmosphere, the place had that “big stage” buzz you read about. I was 100 percent certain that some fool would throw a beer on Humphries as he walked towards the tunnel back to the lockerroom. But it didn’t happen.

I’ll admit, there was a small, evil part of me that was disappointed that it didn’t go down. I wanted to relish just a few more seconds of that atmosphere, that buzz that you can only get when things get a little dangerous. Then, just about a minute after Humphries left the floor, everyone’s right mind took over and we all agreed that we were happy the days of 24-man brawls were over.

Matt Burke is sports editor and a columnist at Metro Boston. Follow him on Twitter @BurkeMetroBOS


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