Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Bleachers' Brew #108 The Perils of Home & Away

(This appears in my Monday, May 19 column in the sports section of the Business Mirror)

by rick olivares

When those 1970’s Boston Celtics ran onto the court of their opponent’s arena, Paul Silas would routinely ask the sports writers how many people they thought were in attendance.

When informed of the number of paying patrons, Silas would harrumph and exclaim loudly enough for all to hear, “Good. We’re going to shut everyone up.” And for the most part, Silas’ Celtics teams (Jojo White, Dave Cowens, John Havlicek, Charlie Scott, Glenn McDonald, and Don Nelson) resurrected the ghost of then then-retired Red Auerbach (who moved up to the team’s front office) into the league.

The Celtics, alongside the New York Yankees, were the first real professional sports team to actually affix their photo next to the word “dynasty” (11 titles in 13 years is an incredible feat) where the word was previously associated only with centuries-old Chinese empires. They carved out a mystique for themselves by winning plenty some at the old Boston Garden and in a number of Game 7’s. With their titles and Hall of Fame line-ups, there were no illusions of home court invincibility by their foes when the Celtics marched into town. They were in for a royal butt kicking.

It would be decades later when another team would display that kind of mentality or arrogance as some would have it. “Walking onto the court for warm-ups, you could already tell that they (the opponents) were already beaten,” succinctly pointed out the observant Steve Kerr, a mainstay on the Chicago Bulls’ second wave of trifecta champions. The Bulls would turn the game into a personal jam session, hush the crowd, and have the home team singing their praises.

When Chicago lost Game 5 of the 1998 NBA Finals at home thereby spoiling the planned parade and celebration that would close out the Last Dance, Michael Jordan conferred with Coach Phil Jackson. The two opined that the post-game hullabaloo distracted them from the task of sending the Utah Jazz home a loser for the second straight summer. “Maybe it’s better that way,” His Airness said of the daunting task of closing out a series in Salt Lake City. And the Bulls showed why they are one of the league’s all-time best heartbreakers and lifetakers as they won 12 games apiece at home and on the road in their six year reign at the top. In fact, they celebrated three of their six titles on the road (Los Angeles in ’91, Phoenix in ’93, and Utah in ’98).

People have criticized this year’s playoffs as predictable as the sun rising from the east. Thus far, the home team – heading into Saturday’s game – has won 43 out of 67 possible games. But isn’t that the whole point – to defend your turf? If a team is swept away can we postulate that they were definitely not worthy of playing in the league’s second season.

The original incarnation of Detroit’s Bad Boys used to enforce no-fly zones. Charles Barkley when he was with the Philadelphia 76ers, was so angry when Kevin Johnson would routinely drive to the rack at the Spectrum that he nearly took the head off the Suns’ point guard with a nasty clothesline. Message sent. No Suns player dared venture into the paint at that point and the Sixers won. As the Jazzman, the Energy Solutions Center (formerly the Delta Center) fixture, once vociferously proclaimed, “Not in our house.”

Conversely, the 1993 Finals between Chicago and Phoenix saw the Suns lose all three of their games at home – a first for a finals team. And to think they had home court advantage throughout the playoffs. But they nearly repaid the favor by handing the Bulls two losses at the United Center.

I honestly don’t see what the fuss is all about not being able to win on the road. Of course the defense is ratcheted up. It’s all about taking care of business at home. No one is giving anything away unless you’re talking about the spineless Dallas Mavericks.

However, inquiring minds are asking, “Where have players of Silas’ and Jordan’s stature gone with their veni, vidi, vici attitude?” Where have all the Reggie Millers gone – he who lived for slaying the New York Knicks in front of their home crowd?

Much is being said this year about NBA home teams taking their lumps on the road before heading back home for that good ole home cooking. There’s that distinct advantage of a rabid home crowd cheering the team aside from the familiarity of the court and all its nuances.

Some like to believe that the home team is the beneficiary of referees’ calls. To wit, Scottie Pippen’s phantom foul on Hubert Davis (as called by Hue Hollins who had the gall to say on television at the height of the Tim Donaghy scandal that the referees were underpaid) in Game 5 of the 1994 Eastern Semifinals between the Chicago Bulls and the New York Knicks that changed the outcome of that series. There’s Game 6 in the Western Conference Finals between the Sacramento Kings and the Los Angeles Lakers where Dick Bavetta, Ted Bernhardt, and Bob Delaney did a number on the Kings bigs (Vlade Divac, Scott Pollard, and Chris Webber) that forced a Game 7 at the Arco Arena. And let’s not even talk about last year’s Phoenix Suns-San Antonio Spurs series.

More games mean more money where an additional match easily fetches several cool millions. Yet as poorly officiated as those games were, the NBA dislikes conspiracy theories about playoff basketball such as the current dream match-up of a Boston-LA title series that has network executives salivating. There are already enough to go around and have made roundball lore.

When the Celtics played at the old Boston Garden, they parlayed that advantage into unlike anything seen in the game of basketball. There were stories of leprechauns, the lack of heating or air-conditioning in the opposing team’s locker room, dead spots on the fabled parquet, delayed timers, and Game 7 end-game magic to pull out another heart-stopping win. And there was Auerbach’s victory cigar. Many wanted to prevent Red from lighting it but that was easier said than done.

Unfortunately, the new TD Banknorth Garden holds no such reputation after years of mediocrity. This year’s Celtics will have to wring out a win against LeBron James and the James Gang (oh, they’re actually called the Cleveland Cavaliers) and beat battle-tested Detroit if they want that dream match up with the Lakers (who have to survive either the New Orleans or the Sterns who got another lift from an unsuspecting hit by Cheap Shot Rob on the Hornets’ David West).

Maybe then, the talk won’t be about winning games on the road but rather how this was a match made in 5th Avenue.

(Incidentally, the author would love to see Boston play Los Angeles in the NBA Finals.)

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