I didn’t get to too many National Basketball Association games even before the pandemic.
Although the Portland Trail Blazers were only a 2 1/2-hour drive from my home in central Oregon, going to games was heavily weather dependent. Driving over the Cascade Mountains during basketball season was often iffy.
And going to games became a bigger challenge with COVID-19. Although some teams allowed limited fans during the 2020-21 season, the closest were the Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies, which were pretty lengthy drives.
So I was excited when my wife bought me tickets to see my favorite team, the Dallas Mavericks, play at the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks Friday, Oct. 15. It was kind of weird going to Wisconsin for the second time in a few weeks, especially since I’d only been there once in my life before we visited in September, but it did give us another chance to eat cheese curds.
We hoped to see some museums in Milwaukee before the game, but of course the drive took longer than planned. So we went straight to the Fiserv Forum, home of the Bucks, once we got to town.
It was our first NBA game since we saw Mavs star Luka Doncic play at Portland during his rookie year in December 2018. We were looking forward to seeing Doncic play again, but unfortunately, being the team’s final preseason game, the Mavs kept Doncic and fellow star Kristaps Porzingis on the bench.
We arrived a bit before the doors opened and waited outside under a giant sign celebrating the Bucks’ 2020-21 championship, the team’s first in 50 years. Even though I was pulling for the visitors, it’s hard not to be happy for a team in a small market that was able to overcome the NBA’s “superteams,” where several free agents join up in a major city like New York or Los Angeles.
They let everyone enter a little more than an hour before the game started at 7 p.m.
We made our way to our seats and got a pleasant surprise. Doncic was shooting on the end of the court where we were sitting.
Even though Doncic didn’t play in the game, we at least got to watch one of the best shooters in the game practice his craft.
Just before tipoff, I went to buy sodas and was surprised to see that you are supposed to buy concessions from your seat using the Bucks’ smartphone app. This was a pain at first because I had to download the app. It turned out to be a fun feature because it saves quite a bit of time. It’s no fun paying to attend to a game and missing an inning or half a quarter standing in line waiting for food.
You select the food you want from the app. (We also got some fried cheese curds to go with our drinks. Even at a game, something about cheese curds is better in Wisconsin.) Then you get a text when the food is ready, and you go to the concession stand, where the food is waiting for you in little cubby holes. Then you come right back to your seat. Since it cuts down on waiting around in line with other people, this system could have started as a COVID-19 precaution. If so, I think it’s one of those things that started during COVID that should stick around. I’d like to see teams in all sports go to having fans order concessions from their seats.
The only disappointment was the soda came in plastic bottles instead of souvenir plastic cups. I’ve got hundreds of them I’ve collected over the years, so a new “NBA champions” cup would have been cool.
It was one of many fun features of the Fiserv Forum, which is the NBA’s second-newest arena, opening in 2018. I certainly haven’t been to as many NBA arenas as I have Major League Baseball stadiums (of which I’ve been to 43 in my life), but I can say I like the recent trend of the seating areas being a little more compact compared with arenas like Chicago’s United Center or the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where the upper deck is really high. (I have yet to see a game at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis, but its upper deck looks pretty high there as well.)
The smaller arena makes it louder. Being a preseason game, not every seat was filled, but it still got loud in there.
Overall, I’d still say the Sacramento Kings Golden 1 Center, which opened in 2016, is my favorite new arena, mainly because it lets in more natural light (plus they have a bunch of old neon signs on display), but Milwaukee’s was a good one, too.
I also forgot how entertaining some of the little shows they put on during the often-lengthy NBA timeouts are. Most interesting was the giant “Bratzooka,” which shoots bratwursts rapid fire to fans in the stands.
But the highlight of the night was seeing Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, the two-time NBA most valuable player, play for the first time. He’s one of those guys you can hear about for years, but you don’t appreciate how good he is until you see him in person.
Giannis is like one of those large 1960s G.I. Joe action figures playing against puny 1980s G.I. Joe figures. Despite not playing much of the second half, he still scored 26 points.
The Mavericks still won 114-103 even though they didn’t play their stars. They finished the preseason undefeated, which doesn’t mean anything in the long run.
But for a team that hasn’t made it past the first round of the playoffs since 2011, we’ll take any sign of hope we can get.