Dispatch From the New Garden
The Celtics' home court is cheesy and generic. Why do they keep winning here?
BOSTON—When historians look back on these last days of American hegemony, they will perhaps point to our blunders in Iraq or the fall of the once-mighty dollar as the first signs of our impending decline. I fear, however, that future scholars may overlook an equally ominous recent development: the invention of the T-shirt cannon. This device—used to project balled-up T-shirts into the farthest reaches of sports arenas—has proliferated among the NBA franchises with alarming speed. Last night, during breaks in the action between the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers, Lucky, the Celtics' mascot, pranced onto the court brandishing this weapon, using its coveted ammunition to work the crowd into a lather. That he succeeded despite the fact that every ticket holder had already been given a free Celtics T-shirt seemed to this fan a clear indication that our society's best days are behind it.
There was a time, not all that long ago, when the Celtics didn't need to assault their fans with 100 percent preshrunk cotton to get them pumped up for a game. Nor was it deemed necessary to titillate the crowd by flashing footage of visiting celebrities on the Jumbotron during TV timeouts (last night's unlikely assortment: Jay-Z, Jonah Hill, and Rob Lowe). In the Bird era, there was no JumboTron—and, perhaps not unrelatedly, no celebrities. Nowadays, pre-game introductions are accompanied by a fireworks display powerful enough to make the menacing Ben Wallace hide in the locker room.
I could go on about how the old Garden ways have been adulterated, cheapened, disrespected. But that'd be a bit silly. Last night, I saw the Celtics defeat the Cavaliers 96-89, improving their home record in the playoffs to 7-0. Clearly the T-shirt cannon is working. Or something else is, and not just for the Celts. The Boston win last night, coupled with the Lakers' victory over the Jazz at the Staples Center, makes the home teams a staggering 19-1 in the second round of the 2008 NBA playoffs. The only team to win on the road is the Pistons, who beat the Magic in Orlando in Game 4 of their series. By one point.
The Celtics had the league's best road record in the regular season, but they've yet to win on the road in the playoffs, not even against the supposedly lowly Atlanta Hawks. I'm not the first to ask, What gives? This isn't baseball, where every ballpark has a unique shape, or football, where road teams are often subjected to drastic shifts in climate. Basketball courts are uniform in size and shape. The contemporary arena is a sleek, climate-controlled environment designed to pamper fan and player alike. In other words, it's nothing like the old Garden, which forced its visitors to endure cramped, rat-infested quarters that were cold in January and Kareem-sucking-on-oxygen hot in June. And let us not forget the parquet floor, which Celtic players supposedly knew better than they knew their wives.
Today, there's a section of the old parquet encased in glass hanging outside a ladies' room on the dining concourse behind the loge-level seating. The glimpses of the visiting locker room that I've caught on TNT suggest more than hospitable environs. So why have the home teams in this year's NBA playoffs been so dominant?
Damned if the Celtics know. After another anemic performance Monday night at Cleveland, none of the players could put his finger on why their play was suffering so badly on the road. Kevin Garnett: "If I knew that, man, I don't think we'd be having these conversations or these problems on the road." Ray Allen: "It's hard to say. I have no answer for it. I have no answer."
Does anyone? The leading theories go like this:
It's the building. Remember that scene from Hoosiers, when Coach Dale takes his players out on the court before the state tournament and has them measure the distance from the floor to the rim? Ten feet—just like back home! Yet even if basketball courts don't vary in shape and size, there are differences in how the courts play. Sight lines and floor markings, both of which are cues for shooters, can differ subtly from arena to arena. And there are other quirks. At Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena, the JumboTron displays both the score (87-78, for example) and "The Diff" (in that case, 9). Maybe the Cavaliers have learned to put the split second they gain from not having to do math to their advantage.