[Back in the distant day, teams on the road traveling to the various NBA arenas could be in for a journey as eventful as those that befell Telemachus in Homer’s Odyssey. Instead of cannibalistic Laestrygonians, there were the raucous gamblers inhabiting New York’s old Madison Square Garden. “When the point spread was beginning to change a little, especially the last two minutes of the ballgame, the gamblers would be right behind the basket with their shirts off, waving and trying to make you miss free throws,” recalled the late Bill Tosheff.
Referee Norm Drucker offered this around the horn of the first-generation NBA arenas:
The arenas were old, dirty, and had the smell of a locker room. The crowds were predominantly male, cigar- and cigarette-smoking, and of course beer-drinking. I always thought Rochester’s court was not regulation. In Boston, the Celtics players knew where the dead spots were on the parquet floor. Many an opponent lost the ball traveling over these spots. In Baltimore, the team benches were under the basket instead of on the side the court. The baskets were not standard, and players thought Fort Wayne had very soft rims, which made it easier to score. The backboards had guide wires, to hold them in place, and they were extended to the stands for support. In many places, fans would get to these wires and pull on them so as to shake the basket. Eventually, guards were stationed to protect against this type of action.
You get the idea. Crude it was. In the April 1975 issue of Basketball Digest, the Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan takes up the NBA’s traditional homecourt advantage in an article written during a period when the NBA was actively moving on up and modernizing its arenas. Ryan then comically, not scientifically, lists the five toughest NBA venues still standing. It’s a fun read, Ryan’s clips always are.]
No matter what else you say, one thing is certain: Things in the NBA sure ain’t like they used to be. Time was when you entered an opposing arena and considered it a moral victory not to have lost your socks before you left. If the fans weren’t breathing down your neck and throwing things on the floor, the referees were shaking hands with the owner of the home club (who often sat on the team bench to add a little official flavor) and assuring him that everything would be all right in the end. Winning on the road in certain places wasn’t difficult; it was downright impossible.
Sportswriters hyperbole, eh? Then try a few of these old-time homecourt records on for size. The 1946-47 Washington Capitols, 29-1; the 1949-50 Minneapolis Lakers, 30-1; the 1948-50 Rochester Royals, 33-1.
Why, in 1950-51, the home team won 75 percent of the games! Since the home club had won just 58.9 percent of the games played during the first two months of the present season, the difference is clear.
Teams simply considered it a disgrace to lose at home. That helps to explain such successes as Minneapolis’ back-to-back 26-3 and 30-1; or Syracuse’s successive run of 32-2, 27-5, and 25-7; Boston’s first notable stretch from 1956-1959 of 27-4, 25-4, and 26-4; or St. Louis ‘ impressive 28-3, 25-2, 28-5, 29-5 record.
Another possible explanation is that today’s modern palaces are to the old municipal auditorium-type buildings as the Fontainebleau is to a two-dollar-a-night flophouse. Crummy buildings encouraged raucous crowds who in-turn put pressures on referees who didn’t stand up to them. Teams even had the prerogative of selecting their own officials on occasion or, at least, of refusing ones they didn’t like.
They played in some wonderful old places then, buildings which may have been cramped but which had character. Places such as the Minneapolis Armory, the Onondaga War Memorial Auditorium in Syracuse, Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis (once as rabid a pro basketball town as there was), and wonderful old Convention Hall in Philadelphia put the spectator right in the middle of the game, and many times set the tone of the game itself. A crowd of 10,000 in Convention Hall could sound like the entire Russian Army, especially if their voices were trained in on a poor official. Small wonder they got the calls they needed.
Now, everybody except the Celtics, Bulls, and Bucks play in arenas which look more like the lounge at an exclusive men’s club. The whole thing is more, well, civilized. Even so, great home court advantages occasionally crop up, such as in 1970-71 when Milwaukee went 34-2 at the Milwaukee Arena, a comfortable, but not ostentatious, structure.
The league has really turned the corner on the past during the last couple of years. The number of arenas with idiosyncrasies is disappearing. Gone now is the old Madison Square Garden with its notorious ”sewers” the passed for rims; the Cleveland Arena, where anyone taking a shower in the visitors’ room learned to step out from under the nozzle when he heard the toilet flush; Alexander Memorial Coliseum at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, where the floor was only slightly softer than interstate 95; and the Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, which reeked of 40 years of tradition and which had a county-fair atmosphere. All have been replaced with structures where you think twice about throwing your cigarette on the floor. Maybe the players now think twice about diving on the floor, too.
Despite the inexorable march of progress, some places in the league are still tougher to play in than others. Herewith are the arenas where visitors most earn their postgame beers:
ONE: Madison Square Garden, New York
The team may have slipped, but Knick fans still have what it takes. For some reason, the acoustics produce a completely different cheering sound than anywhere else. It almost sounds like a thunderclap, and the only other place anything like it is Michie Stadium at West Point.
The Garden noise stimulates both Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe, and, when turned on, they are dynamite.
TWO: Memorial Auditorium, Buffalo
Buffalo, of course, is the nouveau riche city of sports, all excited over the young and talented Bills, Sabres, and Braves. They are banner crazy and have a mean streak, which seems to have been shipped up from worn-out Philadelphia fans.
Consider, also, that visiting teams must play the Braves after spending a lot of time in Buffalo, which is not often called the “Miami of the North.” That’s almost an unfair advantage right there.
THREE: Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum, Phoenix
The popular image of Phoenix is that of a retirement city. Forget it. Actually, it’s a place where men wear string ties, cowboy hats and boots, and put their feet up on the coffee table a lot. In their spare time, they come to see the Suns play and harass the official on every single call. If Dick Van Arsdale or somebody pulled a gun on arrival and referee Richie Powers asked him to put it away, they’d even complain about that.
After a while, the pressure gets to the officials, and the Suns are in another game.
FOUR: Hofheinz Pavillion, Houston
This is an easy place to hate, and, a lot of players do. For one thing, nobody is ever there, unless they are giving away autographed footballs. The floor is tartan, and the rims are made of the hardest steel known to man. Rudy Tomjanovich and Calvin Murphy have figured them out, but nobody else has. The whole place, with its low roof, reminds one of Goldfinger’s playroom. May it meet his fate.
FIVE: Seattle Center Coliseum, Seattle
They, too, have rabid, unrealistic fans. The killer here is the location of the visiting team locker room, which is conveniently located in downtown Spokane. Many players have been known to die during the arduous trek, for which the Sonics should provide a tour guide.
In addition, the Boston Garden should receive an honorable mention in any rating of pro basketball arenas. The trick has always been to learn where the dead spots on the floor were. Plus, the old rims were pretty soft. Now, however, they have new baskets (no more guide wires for Bill Russell to pass to), and they have completely resurfaced the floor. Maybe that’s why the Celtics lost seven of their first 13 games there this season.
The fact remains that today’s good teams are more dedicated on the road and can expect a fairer shake from the officials. Last year’s Boston-Milwaukee final series, wherein the last five victories were on the road, were clear indication that the old days are gone forever, which, while sad to contemplate in some ways, was a necessary step forward for the league.