It seems I underestimated the wrath of the basketball gods. Saturday morning, this reporter rose earlier than is his weekend habit to make good on his promise to travel to Atlanta to watch the Hawks and the Heat replay the final 51.9 seconds of their Dec. 19 contest, the NBA's first do-over in 25 years. I wanted to see what, if any, justice would be served by this exercise. It was also an unprecedented chance to test the theory, popular among professional basketball's detractors, that the only part of an NBA game worth watching is the last minute.
Arriving at LaGuardia, however, I learned that my flight had been delayed three hours. It was snowing in Atlanta. Divine punishment, surely, for the NBA's hubristic attempt to turn back time. That, or it was just a really bad weather day. As the afternoon wore on, a heavy fog fell over the tarmac in New York, closing the airport. My flight was eventually canceled, and the one I was bumped to was delayed enough to render it impossible for me to make the replay. Even the most enthusiastic of the NBA's apologists will tell you that the opening moments of a professional basketball game are no big deal. When the game you're trying to catch is less than a minute long, tardiness is rather more of an issue.
Plan B: After a few phone calls, I found a sports bar on the Upper East Side that had the NBA package. I arrived at Bounce at around 6 p.m., still toting my luggage and looking a bit worse for the wear, having spent six hours shoulder-to-shoulder with some very irritated AirTran customers. I can only imagine what the cocktail waitress thought was going through my head when I tried to impress upon her the importance of having one of the bar's flat screens tuned to the Hawks-Heat game promptly at 7. But she took pity on me and made it so.
So, the replay. The Heat in-bounded the ball with 51.9 seconds to go. Though Miami was down 114-111, there seems to have been some concern among the Hawks players about the Heat's opening gambit. For one thing, Pat Riley was one of the head coaches the last time the NBA forced a do-over. What's more, as the Atlanta Journal Constitution noted, he'd had 80 days to design this play. Asked before the game what he was expecting, Atlanta's Josh Childress said: "They seem to think that, because it's Riley, he'll go for the 3 immediately. But you don't know. They might have a trick play like Boise State, some 4-point play we've never seen."
Now that would have been something. Instead Dwayne Wade brought the ball up, fiddled and diddled a bit before passing to the immortal Mark Blount, who promptly lofted a brick. The Hawks rebounded and got the ball to Joe Johnson, who took a shot and missed. The Heat got it back with 8.5 seconds to go. This time Wade opted for the 3 to tie, but he didn't get a good look, and the ball clanged off the rim. Game over, again. Al Horford, who did not play in the do-over, pumped his fist after time expired, celebrating "a bit disproportionately," as even the hometown Journal-Constituion put it. There is perhaps something déclassé about rejoicing too strenuously after a win in which neither team scores a point.
Then again, the Hawks are still in the hunt for a playoff spot, and the team was understandably happy to recover a win that had been temporarily confiscated by the NBA. And Horford may have merely been playing out a role the team had scripted for him, as pitchman for this replay. Recall that the do-over came about because the Hawks statistics crew had incorrectly ejected Shaquille O'Neal from the original game. Rather than hang their heads in shame, however, the Hawks—in a display of not insignificant chutzpah—used the replay to try to move tickets and concessions. The 52-second-long "first game" between the Hawks and Heat was to be followed by a regulation-length game between the same two teams. The Hawks commissioned a video from young Horford, in which he urged fans to show up early and support the Hawks on this "historic day for the NBA"—a hoops doubleheader. As a further inducement, Horford promised dollar sodas, hot dogs, and popcorn to anyone who showed up before 6:30. The first 3,000 fans through the turnstiles would also get a free 2008 A-Town Dancers swimsuit calendar, thoughts of which were not far from my mind as I waited in vain for the fog over LaGuardia to lift.
I was disappointed at not being able to see the event in person, to witness the weirdness of watching fans filing into a game as time expired, to see if the scalpers were jacking up prices on the pretense that fans were getting two games for the price of one, etc. But there was something to be said for watching it on TV; Miami's Sun Sports network had dug up archival footage of the last NBA replay, in 1983, which provided further evidence of the silliness of do-overs and of just how well Pat Riley has aged. Plus, as a patron at Bounce, I was able to ascertain that both women's college basketball and a Devils-Maple Leafs game were of more interest to a New York bar crowd. This was an important data point as I try to determine the place that this historic replay will hold in the collective memory of America's sports fans.
I stuck around the bar for the nightcap, on the off chance something of note would occur—another glaring error from the scorer's table, a shot of Stephen Hawking on the sidelines. Around the second quarter, I noticed that the crowd had thinned out. A waitress produced a bouquet of helium-filled balloons, one of which floated, annoyingly, right in front of my flat screen. A bouncer, meanwhile, had appeared at the door and was turning people away, informing them the bar was closed for a private party. I kept waiting to be asked to leave, but either out of pity or fear of journalistic reprisal (I was taking notes in a reporter's notebook), I was grandfathered into the private function, a pretty classy birthday party. By the fourth quarter, I was rather inebriated—I felt obliged to repay the bar's kindness at not ejecting me by ordering beer after beer—so when the birthday boy started bragging to friends that I was covering the party for TMZ.com, I played along. Seemed like the least I could do.
Final score: Hawks 97, Heat 94. A doubleheader sweep for Atlanta. Don't really remember the details, but I'm pretty sure no one fouled out.