Thursday, October 16, 2008

Chilly stars under the stars

Chilly stars under the stars
By Johnny Ludden, Yahoo! Sports

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Always searching for new ways to grow the game, the NBA took the Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets outside on Saturday night, a cute experiment that would have been more warmly received had anyone packed a blanket.

Give David Stern credit. He sold out a preseason basketball game aired in front of a national TV audience, and he didn’t have to cross the Atlantic to do it. More than 16,000 people packed the Indian Wells Tennis Center to see the Suns and Nuggets play under the stars, and most of the fans seemed to enjoy the experience, even if they came away colder for it.

“It felt like Edmonton, Alberta, out there,” said Suns point guard and Canadian transplant Steve Nash.

The NBA hadn’t played a game outdoors since 1972, and there’s probably a good reason why league officials waited 36 years to stage another: When it comes to the weather, even Stern has to answer to a higher power. Even in the desert.

Temperatures, which hit 105 degrees here three days earlier, dropped to the low 60s in the second half. The steady wind made it feel at least 10 degrees cooler. Several players used towels as makeshift hoods to stay warm on the bench. A few admitted to being too cold to sweat.

“Growing up we played outside in weather cold like this all the time,” Nash said, “but I would say that’s been about 16 years ago.”

Allen Iverson, perhaps, had the evening’s best seat, watching from the warmth of his home in Denver. Iverson skipped the trip because of what the team described as a sore knee and Carmelo Anthony sat out his second exhibition game with a sore finger. Suns forward Amare Stoudemire, still trying to work his way back into shape after being sidelined by an ankle injury and a torn iris, also didn’t play.

“I’m not going to spend too much time looking at the film tonight,” Suns coach Terry Porter said, pausing to blow on his hands.

The Nuggets won 77-72, but the low-scoring game had more to do with the 10 mph wind gusting through the stadium than the defensive improvements both teams have pledged to make this season. Grant Hill tossed up a 3-pointer from the top of the arc in the first quarter only to watch the breeze gently catch it. He shouldn’t have felt bad. Of the 27 3-pointers the teams combined to take, only three found the bottom of the net. Former Suns coach Mike D’Antoni couldn’t have taken that much mojo with him to New York, could he?

Said Nash: “When you shoot a ball and it starts slicing right … ”

Denver even bricked 20 of its 38 free throws, though not everyone on the court could use the unusual elements as an excuse. Shaquille O’Neal, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will be happy to know, can miss free throws outside just as well as he does inside; in the game’s opening moments, he clanged a pair hard off the rim. One backboard, perhaps already worrying about its fate, mysteriously splintered on its own Friday afternoon before the Suns had even stepped foot into the stadium for their shootaround. Workers replaced the broken backboard, but NBA officials ordered two more reserves brought in as insurance.

Nuggets coach George Karl was disappointed to see the league had neglected to include one longtime playground staple: chain nets. Karl’s first impression when told Denver would be playing outdoors?

“I have to admit,” he said, “I had some thoughts of, ‘What?’ ”

The NBA shrugged off such skepticism by throwing its marketing muscle behind the event. One of the Suns owners sold the league on using Indian Wells as the ideal location for the game, and the team trucked in a special court emblazoned with “NBA Outdoors!” just in case anyone hadn’t noticed the roof missing overhead. TNT played along, bringing Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller and Marv Albert to broadcast the game, though their largest viewing audience (Phoenix) lost feed of the telecast for much of the first quarter.

As that opening quarter came to a close, Suns public-address announcer Cedric Ceballos shouted, “One quarter of history already intact!” When it comes to watershed moments in NBA history, Saturday night ranked slightly ahead of the introduction of the microfiber ball. None of the players openly complained, but none were clamoring to sign up to do it again, either.

And no one certainly sounded ready to play any game of merit outdoors, even if Barkley was already pitching the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Chase Field as an alternate site for this season’s All-Star Game in Phoenix. Much like the NBA’s annual preseason sojourns to Europe, the outdoor experiment should probably be limited to the exhibition level for the near future. At the least, Karl suggested, the league should consider moving up the start time a couple hours to take advantage of warmer weather.

“I thought the best part was seeing the moon,” Karl said. “You think you should be drinking a beer or drinking a bottle of wine and just relaxing.”

Shaq, too, claimed to welcome the unique experience. But would he be willing to do it again?

He nodded then smiled.

“In June.”

Johnny Ludden is the NBA editor for Yahoo! Sports.

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