Living Large at Pistons vs. Bulls
It's all who you know, and fortunately I have a friend who works for the Detroit Pistons. That same friend, Paul, was generous enough to spot me one of his comped tickets for Friday night's game in Chicago. Comfortably seated in a luxury suite at the United Center, I watched as the 'Stons beat the Chicago Bulls 95-87.
The good times began shortly after 7, when as I'm loitering near the Michael Jordan statue outside Gate 4, I can't help but over-hear the first big news of the night from a Bulls' employee: MJ is in the building. He built this stadium and his presence can still electrify the place. 15 minutes later, we ride the elevator up to the penthouse level and see that the walls are adorned with framed photos of Air Jordan's best moments. The pictures remind me of Jumpman 23's new commercial which features young ballers reenacting MJ's famous plays. I'm not a Jordan fan by any stretch of the imagination, but the ad is absolutely stellar. My only complaint is that during the reenactment of Jordan hitting a jumper over Byron Russell, the teenage psuedo MJ doesn't completely chuck the teenage pseudo Russell to the ground.
While dodging several enormous rolling dessert trays, we notice the hundreds of Pistons jerseys walking into the game. The Detroit delegation is strong and loud and always thinks it's clever when one of their rank decided to start the next "Deee-troit Basketball!" chant. From the opening tip, the 'Stons fans were almost as loud as those of the hometown Bulls. They even continue to yell "'Sheeeeed!" throughout the game while Rasheed Wallace struggles from the floor (1-13), proving that Detroit fans have embraced him more than I ever thought possible while he was in Portland. Their rowdiness helps balance out the general lack of noise coming from the penthouse level. Apparently, rich people are too sweet to clap.
During the first quarter, a few things become apparent. First off, the Pistons are twice as good as the Bulls. The 'Stons are getting good looks every time down the floor while the Bulls offense sputters. Despite Ben Gordon scoring 12 points, Detroit ends the quarter up comfortably, 25-18. On the "Flip" side, Detroit's coach and players also whine incessantly. After the game, Chicago coach Scott Skiles would say "they literally complain about every call all night long. They are having a great year doing it. I'm not sure what that says." What it says is that the Pistons cry to the refs nearly as much as Vlade Divac used to.
Secondly, I like this Bulls team. I was even mocked during the game for claiming that the Bulls would keep it close because they're "scrappy." Gordon, Luol Deng, and Kirk Hinrich form the core while Tyson Chandler, Andres Nocioni, and Chris Duhon are quality role players. Skiles is an underrated coach; the Bulls were terrible before he was hired. All this team lacks is a dominant post player, someone like Elton Brand. Trading Brand to get younger was very questionable at the time and is even more so now. If he were still in the Windy City, this team would be a top 3 team in the Eastern Conference. Alas, Chicago's best scoring option down low is currently Othella Harrington. Without a post game, the offense is a lot of dribbling and shooting by Hinrich and Gordon.
Of course, I also notice that watching a game from a suite is certainly a different experience than watching from the cheap seats I'm accustomed to. Obviously, its much more comfortable than squeezing next to your typical oversized Chicago sports fan. It's nice not having to worry about rubbing elbows with someone trying to devour their Polish Sausage. There are also less obvious perks: you have a closet for coats, tables for drinks and food, less crowded bathrooms, and some semblance of quiet and privacy. If you're a baller, you can also be waited on hand and foot for roughly the cost of the mid-level exception.
There is one more distinct advantage to watching a game from a luxury box: the opportunity to play drinking games. During the second half, my friends and I decided to re-live our glory days of playing Flippy Cup in dark basements during college. Luxury Box Flippy Cup can be played against the shot clock, preferably on a possession after a timeout or a free throw. The 16 oz. plastic cups in which the United Center serves its Miller products are nearly regulation size and worked perfectly. The snooty types who frequent the penthouse level might find it a bit immature, but the experience of acing a flip while Ben Gordon swishes a jumper in the same building is highly recommended.
Perhaps the highlight of the night also occurs during the second half: the United Center cameras show an extended close up of Michael Jordan. The entire arena stands and rows of people turn in their seats to face the luxury box of his Airness and give him the loudest ovation of the night. He is wearing a Kangol hat and a cellphone wrapped around his ear, as mentioned in Bill Simmons' recent All Star article. MJ just smiles and holds his pose, but his presence has elevated the game experience for everyone in the house and he knows it. He owns this stadium and this city, after all.
However, MJ's presence doesn't help the Bulls tonight. Their "scrappiness" allows them to get close, but the Pistons lock in down the stretch to close out the game. If Ben Gordon doesn't get hot late, Chicago struggles to win close games. In a couple years, assuming that the Bulls are able to sign or trade for another impact player (Paul Pierce?), this rivalry could be something special once again. The teams and coaches don't like each other and they might find themselves facing off in the first round of this year's playoffs.
Overall, the luxury experience at United Center was a terrific change of pace (although the Zenith TVs in the boxes needed to be upgraded to flat panel plasmas, let's be serious). Being able to mingle amongst a group of friends during the game is fantastic; I can understand why corporations spend hundreds of thousands on these suites to schmooze their clients. The only drawback is the feeling of being slightly removed from the game itself. During my last trip to the UC for this season's opener, I felt more a part of the game and its atmosphere while in the cheap seats. Perhaps comfort and luxury are worth hundreds of thousands to some, but feeling like a true fan in the nosebleed section might be priceless.
Just kidding, I'll take the penthouse. What am I, a communist?