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.
It's the crowd. You're thinking thunder sticks, but not so fast. If it were possible for fans to distract visiting shooters, you'd expect a pronounced drop-off in free-throw percentage, right? Yet Roland Beech of 82games.com has found that free-throw percentage is one of the only statistics that doesn't suffer on the road. Of course, this doesn't mean the home crowd can't have a deleterious effect on the visitors. Basketball is the most intimate of major professional sports, with fans (some quite partial) literally sitting on the playing floor. I was up in the balcony last night, so I doubt Delonte West heard the gentleman behind me, who inquired of the former Celtic guard, "Hey Delonte, how's your herpes?" But I'm confident even the more tactful types down in the padded seats were giving West, and his teammates, an earful.
It's the refs. What if the crowd doesn't just affect the players but the officials as well? The generous version of the ref theory posits that the game's arbiters are subconsciously loath to make calls that will cause abuse to be rained down upon them from the stands. The more sinister version is that the fix is in for hometown teams in the playoffs, part of a conspiracy to extend series, since more games equal more television, more tickets, more Gino paraphernalia sold. This is a small sample, obviously, but so far this postseason the home teams have won 76 percent of the time (49-15) compared with 60 percent in the regular season (739-491).
It's the travel. One study of home-field advantage determined that the highest winning percentages for home teams in football, basketball, baseball, and hockey all occurred in the leagues' early years. One obvious reason for this would be the rigors of travel, which were more arduous before the private-plane era. When it comes to today's NBA playoffs, it's a bit harder to see how travel fits into the equation. Both teams are negotiating the same distances, and at least in the opening rounds, regional divisions mean you're not crossing many time zones. Road teams have to stay in hotels, but it's not like they're being put up in some flea trap. Then again, lobby life, even in luxury hotels, can have its drawbacks. During their Round 1 visit to Boston, the Hawks stayed in the swank new Liberty Hotel (formerly the Charles Street Jail). The story making the rounds last week was that the owner of Alibi, the hotel bar, instructed his employees to double the shots for any Atlanta Hawks who bellied up.
LeBron James, who finished with a game-high 35 points last night, certainly didn't play like a man who'd been slipped a Mickey. And despite some hearty New England vituperation from the Garden crowd, the refs hardly seemed in the bag for the Celtics (on the contrary). It's possible the Cavaliers missed The Diff, but Cleveland came out of the gate much faster than the Celtics, amassing a diff of as many as 14 points. The loudest noise the fans around me made in the first half came when several voices cried out, "Don't shoot!" when the trigger-happy Sam Cassell touched the ball.
It wasn't until the Celtics put together a run in the third quarter that the Garden crowd really got into the game. But when they did, it made the Celts' 10-point lead feel insurmountable in a way their earlier deficits never did. I'm at a loss for how a sports economist could ever measure this effect, but it felt very real. It was perhaps most clearly manifested in the person of Kevin Garnett. The Celtics are officially ruled by a triumvirate, but K.G. has become the undisputed team leader. Before the game, he conducts his own opening ceremonies, spending some quality time with the padding underneath the home basket (against which he bangs his heads ritualistically and not softly) and anointing himself with a cloud of talcum powder so thick one official scorer has taken to wearing a surgical mask.
Garnett is always a live wire, whether he's on the road or at home. He's constantly chattering—to his teammates, to his opponents, to the fans, and, perhaps most animatedly, to himself—a look of intensity bordering on insanity in his eyes. And more than any other player on the Celtics, he seems to feed off the adulation of the crowd. Last night, as the Celtics started to pull away in the third, and the fans really started to get into it for the first time, Garnett began a series of points, waves, and wags at the crowd, creating a feedback loop of frenzy. When K.G. is locked in, and when the new Garden's crowd is behind him, you start to feel an aura of invincibility that feels very old Garden. In those moments, free T-shirts could rain from the rafters and no one would notice.