I had circled this date on my calendar as soon as the schedule was released.
In this unfortunate era of pandemic and postponement, the National Basketball Association waited until its All-Star Break to release the second half of its 2020-21 schedule. The league needed to know whether Canada would reopen its borders allowing its Toronto Raptors to return home. They hadn’t played a game there in well over a year.
This season, the Raptors began playing the first half of their games in Tampa’s Amalie Arena, home to the Tampa Bay Lightning and only a short trolley ride away from yours truly. Half the season had passed and I had yet to see a game. Although I’m an NBA geek, the Raptors are not my team. They’re just on loan until they head north for the summer.
On April 21, the playoff-bound Brooklyn Nets featuring Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden strolled into town. The Nets are the league’s latest brand of must-see TV. Despite playing in the Eastern Conference alongside both Orlando and Toronto, who as I mentioned play their games in Tampa, Brooklyn had been to neither city.
Las Vegas’ favorite to win it all, the Nets were the team I wanted to see most. Three of the game’s most unstoppable scorers wearing the same uniform? Yes, please! It’s hard to imagine a scenario where these three don’t march into the NBA Finals. The only problem is they’ve only played seven games together healthy.
I like to make it a point to see some of the best teams the league has to offer. Don’t get me wrong. I’d go to more games if my budget allowed but seeing the best, for me at least, is well worth the investment. Five years ago, I saw the Steph Curry drop 53 against Orlando on his way to the first ever unanimous MVP season. Three years ago, I saw Jimmy Butler’s first game with the 76ers as he, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid lost to the Magic. Later that season, I saw the Toronto Raptors led by Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry beat Orlando on their way to an NBA crown.
Before the pandemic hit, in 2019, I saw LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the eventual bubble-champion Los Angeles Lakers absolutely dismantle the Magic on their way to a title. Earlier this season, we saw Chris Paul, Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton as the Phoenix Suns, with best record in the league, the day before the NBA trading deadline. It would be the last game Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier would play in Magic pinstripes.
Needless to say, I know how to pick games. So, when the Nets Big Three headed to my home town, there was no way I was going to miss this game. With injury after injury, however, the question remained, how many of the Nets Big Three would be uniform and how much would I be paying for tickets to see the game’s biggest stars ride the bench?
The increasingly fragile Kevin Durant had been sidelined for far too long, missing all of last season with a ruptured Achilles. He’s missed half this season as well. Two weeks before the game in question, James Harden pulled up lame with a hamstring injury. He has yet to return. The ever-introspective Kyrie Irving has routinely taken off games for “personal reasons.” In other words, dumping a bunch of money for good seats to see the NBA’s hottest ticket is a risky endeavor. Buyer beware.
Add that to the fact that prior to said game, the league announced it might postpone or suspend games based on the outcome of the Chauvin trial and this led me sitting at the box office wondering whether I should make the investment at all.
Just when I thought that Wednesday’s game would be one of the first all three played together – wishful thinking on my part – Kevin Durant suffered a thigh contusion in a game against the Heat. Similiarly, Harden suffered another setback on his road to return.
With Harden out, Durant day-to-day, and the ever-unpredictable Kyrie Irving having scored 32 points in 38 minutes the night before in New Orleans, my date and I wondered with bated breath if we would see any of the big three play at all. I scoured the internet prior to the game to see who would suit up, figuring we might not know anything until we walked into the building.
We got one out of three.
So, what does this say for the NBA and its fan base? The league did its best (in retrospect, perhaps not) to compact the schedule, ensuring as complete a season as possible (72 games), but there are a scant few players that have made it through the season unscathed. The league’s biggest stars have all missed time with one sort of injury or another, meaning fans who pay good money to see the star power they want, with already limited seating in the arena, quite often don’t get that chance.
MVP candidate Steph Curry has played in 56 of 64 games this season. He missed time earlier this season with a bruised tailbone. It was an honest injury that no one questioned. Except for the fact that a good friend of mine spent a fair amount of cash to take his dad to see the Warriors… and got no Steph Curry. No one expects every player to play in every game. Injuries happen. That still doesn’t mean fans won’t leave the arenas with a bad taste in their mouths, waiting all season to see the stars they want only to find out they won’t, wondering when the next opportunity rolls around whether they should just catch the game at their local pub.
When the latest box office thriller comes out, you’re going to pay money to see it, despite it being one of the biggest blunders in cinematic history. Take Kong vs Godzilla for example. I can’t recall a more hyped yet disappointing film with two of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Yet I watched. At least they showed up.
NBA fans are still going to watch their product knowing every outing isn’t going to be a winner. But considering the league gouges its fans by charging more for the high-profile teams and less for teams with no star power, one would think there’d be an answer other than leaving fans with nothing but a ticket stub and a sub-par experience. Fortunately, my company for the evening was worth it.
The league continues to struggle with how to ensure its players play and how to handle the need for days off. I don’t mean to sound like an old fart by saying “the players back in my day used to play every game” but I will say, if players continue to sit out, fans will reserve the right to not spend their money on a product they’re not ultimately getting.
Don’t get me wrong. B to the Cole and I still had a blast but there’s no denying seeing Harden and Durant in uniform would have made it all that much better.
So, Commissioner Silver, this is the task that lay in front of you this off-season. On behalf of your hard-working fan base, please rectify the situation so that we’re getting what we pay for.