The NBA and NHL are both experimenting with outdoor regular season games. As Bill Littlefield comments, they may not exactly be returning to the roots of their sports, but the open air contests can still be fun to watch.
It's not strictly a gimmick. As Denver Nuggets Coach George Karl said this week, "I grew up playing outdoors and loved it." Lots of us did. Lots of could say the same thing about the outdoor game the National Hockey League held earlier this winter. As a pee wee hockey player, I played outdoors every Friday night and indoors every Saturday morning all winter long. Which is, perhaps, the most significant consequence of these outdoor pro hockey and pro basketball games. They suggest a connection between the experience of the professional athlete and what some of us remember from childhood. Organized basketball indoors, complete with coaches, clocks, whistles, scoreboards, assuming one of the dads was clever enough to work the scoreboard. Disorganized basketball outdoors where you called your own fouls and the guy who'd run over you would sail toward the basket and tell you what you could do with your charge call. Organized hockey indoors with cool uniforms, line changes, and scoreboards...games played in the same arena where the Kingston Trio once sang. Disorganized hockey on the pond with no helmets, limited visibility, and the challenge of skating over cracks and through snow. Of course the connection suggested here is an illusion. The pros have nothing in common with almost all of us who grew up playing both pee wees and pond hockey...pick-up and park league basketball. As athletes, they are extraordinary. We were ordinary, or at best not nearly good enough. So is the outdoor game a calculated novelty designed to fleece the fan by appealing to his sentimental side? Is the idea that he'll get all teary about an NBA game played outdoors because he'll remember the sound those chain nets made when he tossed the mud-stained basketball of his youth through same? Can we be expected to ignore that the Suns and the Nuggets are likely to sell a lot more tickets to an exhibition game played in a tennis stadium in Indian Wells, California than they would to the same game played indoors in Phoenix or Denver? We probably can't. It's a pro sport. It's about money. It's about souvenir tee-shirts and caps and the jingle and jazz the event will generate. So the trick will be to take a deep breath and recognize that despite all that, it'll be fun.