I’m usually not into hyperbole, but last Sunday was one of the greatest days of my life. Yes, that’s right — I sat courtside for the Indiana Pacers/Houston Rockets game at Taipei Arena on Oct. 13.
Allow me to put that in perspective. It’s not easy being a Pacers fan (because there are so few of us, or so I thought), especially one growing up in Australia. The Indiana Pacers remain the only NBA team I’ve ever followed, and this upcoming season marks the 20th year I’ve supported the blue and gold. I’ve checked the box scores of — and in technologically improved times, followed live or watched — every single Pacers game since the 1994 season. I was such a hardcore fan that I used to call some stupid hotline that cost like 5 bucks a minute to listen to the scores.
I was on a high when the Pacers made their one and only NBA Finals appearance in 2000 (even though I knew they didn’t stand much of a chance against Shaq and the Lakers), and I was at an all-time low after the Pacers-Pistons brawl in 2004 (which I happened to catch live on TV). I scheduled my whole honeymoon trip to the States around the Pacers’ visit to Washington DC in 2008, just so I could watch them in a meaningless game up close from the third row, even though Reggie Miller had retired, the team had missed the playoffs, AND it had David Harrison on the roster (he is still trying to get back into the league but couldn’t get a Summer League invite this year).
And so I practically gave myself a heart attack when I read a few months ago that, as part of the NBA Global Games, the Pacers were coming to Taiwan in October to play an exhibition against Jeremy Lin and the Houston Rockets. It’s actually not the first time the Pacers have been to Taipei, as they played an exhibition against the Denver Nuggets in 2008, when I was studying in the UK (I remember lamenting the missed opportunity back then). My guess is that the Pacers are being picked for Taiwan because they’re a small market team that holds some cache in Taiwan because of Reggie Miller, while the marquee teams, like the Lakers, are sent to the big markets like China (like they were this year). I’m not complaining.
Though generally speaking Taiwanese people are not great at basketball, they love their NBA and I knew the tickets would be gone as fast as they would be for a Jay Chou concert. So on the day the tickets became available for sale (only through machines at 7Eleven), I made sure I got there early and reserved myself a machine. I was all hot under the collar when the sale began, and I started getting nervous when I kept being booted out of the system due to traffic overload. It happened about three times before I gave up on the cheaper tickets and just went straight to the most expensive — which I was lucky to get through to — and bought 2 tickets. The crazy part is that you then have to print out this little receipt and take it to the cashier so you can pay them IN CASH, which is outrageous considering how much the tickets cost (I refuse to divulge this information, but it was more than I could afford). Freaking out, I had to go to the ATM three times just to get enough cash out to pay for them, and I had to do it within 10 minutes or else the seat reservation would get automatically cancelled. I nearly had an out-of-body experience that afternoon.
I started to regret spending the money as soon as the tickets (the actual tickets) were printed out and placed in my hands. But after some self deliberation I decided it was worth it. After all, I don’t foresee a trip back to the States in my near future and this was still cheaper than getting a plane ticket to fly over there. Most importantly, the Pacers are title contenders this season and I love all the guys on that team, and I would be able to see all of them — courtside! So I decided it was worth it, and this was even before Dwight Howard joined the Rockets and made them a contender too.
The game was on at 1:30pm local time at Taipei Arena, which had been modified into a bona fide NBA arena with the same backboards, rings, floors, and so forth. I had heard some people complain about the 2008 experience (Pacers-Nuggets) being somewhat underwhelming, but I think this year they really put in a lot of effort to make it as genuine as possible. After all, they had flown over not just the entire roster of players and coaching staff, but also the team owner (Herb Simon), team president Larry Bird (just my favourite non-Pacers player of all time), team mascot Boomer and the Pacemates, the team’s official cheerleading squad.
Having had to take my eldest son to the doctors in the morning and get everything settled, my wife and I were in a bit of a rush to get to the arena. We left early but went for a nice lunch at the nearby Ruth Chris Steak House (I’ll review it soon), which the Rockets apparently visited just a couple of days earlier. Strange choice to have US steak when Taiwan has some of the best food you can ever imagine, but maybe the players were feeling homesick or something.
We arrived at the arena just after 1pm. The outside was packed with people, most of them wearing Jeremy Lin jerseys and Dwight Howard T-shirts, though I was surprised to see how many there were in Pacers blue and gold. Perhaps I was wrong about all Taiwanese ballers being bandwagon fans. Then again, the Pacers are pretty good now, and they have a legitimate two-way rising star in Paul George, currently tied with George Hill and David West as my favourite Pacers players.
The stupid thing about the arena is that it is strictly no food or drinks allowed. They had some stall inside selling beverages, but you couldn’t even bring your own bottle of water in. “They have bubblers inside,” is all the security guys told us. If they wanted to halve their revenue then I guess that’s their choice.
Even stupider was the lax security screening and bag checks. I say that because I just wandered in without them checking my bag, which made me feel unsafe, but also because it meant I didn’t have to scull that 600ml bottle of water I just had with me.
Having bought the most expensive tickets available (with the exception of a NT$200,000 special package — that’s about AU$7000), we were ushered to the bottom level and walked straight onto the area surrounding the game floor. By the time we walked in there the Pacers stunt team were already doing acrobatic dunks off trampolines. The atmosphere was incredible and I could feel the excitement rushing through my veins, so much so that my hands were beginning to tremble (sad, I know).
I thought our seats were slightly to the side, but as it turned out they were right on the halfway line, directly behind the scorers and announcers. In this sense the seats weren’t as good as the ones across on the other side of the court, situated right next to the sideline, but I suppose those were the NT$200,000 tickets I could only dream about.
I used the spare time to allow the moment to sink in, and that was when I spotted ex-Pacer Jalen Rose sitting at the end of the empty Rockets bench. Security wouldn’t let me get too close, but I got close enough to say hi and get a nice response from him. I’m not exactly sure why he came, but he did, along with Clyde Drexler, Robert Horry and Yao Ming, and all of them were trotted out during a break for some reason. All I recall is that Yao is a BIG dude, the biggest human I’ve ever seen, and he made the 6’8″ Jalen Rose look like a kid.
The most unfortunate thing about the whole day was that my camera, which I thought had been fully charged, was completely out of battery, meaning I had to rely on my iPad to snap photos. In retrospect, it was probably a blessing in disguise because it allowed me to focus more on the game and savour the experience rather than worry about photos.
The moment the Pacers took to the floor was a stop-breathing moment. Paul George, Roy Hibbert, George Hill, David West, Danny Granger, each of them looking remarkably…normal. I don’t know what I was expecting, but they looked just as I had imagined them. Granger was the only guy I had seen in person before (2008 in DC), and this time his role on the team has changed significantly, from franchise high-volume scorer to doubted former All-Star recovering from knee surgery.
I tried calling out to the players from the sideline to get their attention, but the arena was so noisy that most of them didn’t hear, or heard and didn’t respond. The only guy who looked over and nodded was Lance Stephenson. He was Born Ready to acknowledge his fans.
Oh, and before I forget, there was another team that day — the Houston Rockets, led by local favourite Jeremy Lin. Like Aussies, Taiwanese people grab on to anything and anyone with a remote link to success, and Lin is no different. The Harvard grad’s parents are from Taiwan, and so even though he’s an American born in America, to Taiwanese people it’s as good as a local product making it to the NBA. I was fascinated by the whole Linsanity thing last year like everyone else, so it was good to see him in person, but for me it was more exciting to see James Harden, Dwight Howard, and of course, coach Kevin McHale, arguably the craftiest post player of all time and former teammate of Larry Bird.
Lin of course got the biggest cheer when the players were introduced, and he and Paul George even showed off a bit of their Mandarin before the game (Lin obviously more so than George, who said “hello” and “thank you”).
Before I knew it, the game started, and I remember the first basket vividly — a two-handed put-back slam by Paul George off a missed layup by George Hill. The first Rockets basket was by — who else — Jeremy Lin, who sank a wide open three. Lin actually played really well on the day, almost like it had been scripted. He had 17 points in 35 minutes on 6 of 8 shooting before foul trouble forced him to sit and the bench warmers played out the rest of the game with the Rockets firmly ahead. He would have been player of the game no matter where the game was played.
To avoid the risk of this post going on forever, here are some general observations I had about the game and the players and the teams in general:
- Watching the game on TV is great in terms of getting to see everything and getting replays if you miss stuff (in slow motion as well), but I do understand why people shell out lots of money to be at the games despite the hassles of travel and getting sandwiched by the crowds. The atmosphere is just different, especially when you are that close.
- I always got the feeling that the courts felt bigger on TV and that the players, as big as they are, have more room to navigate the floor space. In person, you realize that the people are huge and the court is just as big as the ones normal people play on, and the ring is still 10 feet tall. It looks real crowded inside that three-point line and shows how just impressive these players are in being able to drive straight to the rim.
- The only guy who got a bigger ovation than Jeremy Lin on the day was none other than Larry Legend himself when he was introduced at some point during the game. I got pretty close to him as they headed out to the locker room after the first half and was tempted to tell him how much I love him.
- Everything about the game was pretty authentic except for the arena announcer who had a horrible accent when trying to speak English. George Hill became “Joe Heer” and Roy Hibbert became “Roy Heeber”. Seriously.
- I reckon I could be a pretty good NBA coach because most of the things I was shouting from the sideline was similar to what Pacers coach Frank Vogel was saying (eg, “That was a flop!”, “Bad call!”, “Get back on transition!”).
- The Pacers are going to be very good this year, even though they are not quite there yet. Paul George looks confident and ready to be a two-way superstar, and David West is just as reliable as he has always been. I don’t know if Roy Hibbert’s offense has improved much or if the improvement will manifest on the stat sheet, but his defensive game is still solid and I hope to see him in the running for Defensive Player of the Year. Danny Granger, whom I saw stretching behind the bench before checking in, is the X-factor. Jalen Rose apparently said Granger looks DONE as an elite player and he’s probably right, but it doesn’t mean he can’t still be productive in a contract year.
- In a year when Miami is looking to three-peat, Derrick Rose is back in Chicago and Brooklyn has added Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, my guess is the Pacers could finish as low as fourth in the East in the regular season, meaning they could face the top seed in the second round. As long as that top seed is the Bulls and not the Heat I think they might actually be better off. The Pacers will struggle at times during the regular season because they don’t have a bailout superstar like Lebron or Rose (unless Paul George develops into that guy), but this is a team built for the grinding style of the playoffs. Larry Bird said they’re “all in” this season, and I think the Pacers’ window for a championship will be pretty narrow, as in the next two or three years. And to win it I think they will need some luck, like a key injury to one or two of their main rivals.
- Jeremy Lin is a god in Taiwan, which he would frown upon since he only believes in the one true God.
- Houston is going to be dangerous this year. I’m not sure if they are contenders in the West with the likes of San Antonio, OKC, Memphis and LA Clippers, but they are definitely up there with the Golden State Warriors in terms of contention potential. If Dwight Howard meshes well and Omer Asik stays on the team and complements Howard well, then the Rockets could be really dangerous.
- Don’t get me wrong — James Harden is awesome, practically unstoppable one-on-one, but he is also one of the biggest floppers I’ve ever seen. On literally every drive to the basket he would stick his arms out in front, flail and do this exaggerated head jerk like he had been hit by a bowling ball in the face — and more often than not he would get a foul call and two shots from the line. No wonder he led the league in free throw attempts last season.
- Dwight Howard looked really good out there in terms of his speed and athleticism. Last season he felt a step slow, but in the 24 minutes I saw him play he was definitely a difference maker at both ends of the floor. He had a pretty poor game by his standards (10 points on 5 of 13 shooting) but he was so much quicker and more agile than the 7’2″ Hibbert (who has been working on improving his athleticism) it shocked me a little bit. If only Kevin McHale could impart some of his post moves to him…
- I got my wife to buy me a Pacers cap and David West jersey between the third and fourth quarters because the line was too long during halftime, part of it because most idiots didn’t start contemplating what they wanted to buy until they got to the front of the bloody line! Taiwan!!!
The final score was 107-98 in favour of the Rockets, which was not a big deal to me because it was a preseason game that didn’t count for anything. The only disappointment I had was that I didn’t get to see new addition Luis Scola play. Frank Vogel was resting him.
Overall, it was an amazing experience, one I will always remember. My still hope to one day head over to Indiana and watch a live playoff game (preferably a game 7, but a game 4 as they go for a sweep is good enough), but for now this will have to do.
By the way, when the game ended and the players finished exchanging hugs I decided to stick around and see if anything else was going to happen before they walked off the court. Good thing I did, because otherwise this wouldn’t be displayed in my glass cabinet at home right now.