We were invited to attend Monday’s Indiana Pacers – Chicago Bulls game by friends. They got tickets from a business associate that had messed up an important transaction at an especially inopportune time. Thus, we enjoyed a fine NBA game from the comfort of row six behind the Pacers bench. Row one is the seats that are on the court, equally close to the action as the bench. Rows two and three are actually the aisle behind the bench. Which makes row six just three rows off the floor. These were great seats.

As I said, it was a fine game recalling the good-old days of the NBA when teams routinely scored over 100 points. The Pacers were up 60-54 at halftime. They won 111-101. The Pacers rarely score that much, and the Bulls being one of the best defensive teams in the NBA made it even more unlikely. It was a good night to go.

We were directly behind the Pacers bench, so I spent a lot of the game geeking out. I stared down the coaches trying to hear their comments. I watched the players on the bench and how they interacted. During timeouts I paid attention to who was wandering around, staring into space (Gerald Green), who was encouraging the guys on the court and sitting next to the coaches (Jeff Pendergraph) and who was grinding his teeth, veins popping out, face turning red after his shitty turn on the court (Tyler Hansbrough).

When the action was in front of us, I tried to not just watch the ball, but pick out a part of the court, or a specific player, and keep my eyes there for the entire play. The amount of motion, the physical contact, the speed on even a routine play is ridiculous. There was 7’2″ Roy Hibbert wrestling with the bull-like Carlos Boozer in the post. There was 5’9″ Nate Robinson ducking into traffic, getting lost, and spinning out to space to get a shot off. There was Marco Belinelli using his Euro game to get free and drill jumpers. There was the ferocity of Lance Stevenson, a freakish player who is just now learning how to harness his physical abilities within a team concept. There was the grizzled veteran David West working his ass off on every play, always doing the fundamentally correct thing. And there was the budding superstar Paul George flicking between-his-legs, across-the-lane passes in traffic, throwing down a reverse alley-oop, and hitting a huge three late to snuff the final Bulls rally.

Man, it was fun to watch. It’s cliche to say that games of any kind are incredibly different on TV than up close and in person. But it’s also absolutely true. The speed and size of these plays isn’t something your brain can properly process on a TV screen. I’m not a huge fan of the NBA. But seeing these guys up close is a reminder than in a sports world filled with fantastic athletes, NBA players are probably the apex of that select group.

Some stray observations from court side.

  • The Bulls were missing a couple key players, and they were players I would have loved to have seen. Former KU great Kirk Hinrich is out with an elbow injury. I didn’t see him behind the Bulls bench. The always-entertaining Joakim Noah was also out, and wearing some funky clothes. During timeouts he would wander out and work the refs. It seems the NBA did not approve of his outfit.
  • It was interesting to watch the third, off-mic, man for the Pacers radio team. He spent most of the game monitoring Twitter and reading NBA news sites on his iPad. I think I could handle his job.
  • We could almost hear conversations on the court. It was tantalizing to hear a player or coach yelling at a referee but not hear the reply. Or watch a player explaining a previous play to coach Frank Vogel as he checked out. We could hear players calling out defensive switches, though, which probably only interested me.
  • There were no local celebrities in our section. There was a woman we thought might be a player’s significant other. But she was just a normal nice looking woman with a baby, not a super model or anything. On our way out Clark Kellogg was sitting a few rows behind us chatting up some folks. I don’t know if the club VP and CBS announcer was sitting that close to us the entire game, or if he just came down after it went final.
  • We debated what the grossest thing players did with their mouthpieces was. The Pacers had a plastic box at the scorer’s table with individual cases for each mouthpiece. I assume they were labeled, but there’s always the chance you pick up the wrong one. We noticed a couple Bulls just tucking them into their compression shorts when they came out of the game. I think that second one is the winner for grossest.

So it was a really fun night. The Pacers are surprisingly good this year. The win put them back into a tie for first with the Bulls and came on the heels of their beatdown of the Miami Heat last Friday. And this has all been done without Danny Granger, who is expected back from an injury around the All-Star break. It will be interesting to see how he fits in now that Paul George has clearly become the team’s alpha dog.

I don’t know that the city is completely in love with the team again, but most nights they have nice crowds and the team hasn’t lost a home game since mid-December. They’re not good enough to win a playoff series against Miami, but they’ve finally emerged from the post-brawl funk where they were always in the 7-8-9-10 range in the Eastern Conference.