I have a vivid recollection of the first time I attended a Major League Baseball game, but for some reason my memories of the first NBA game I ever watched in person are not as thorough. Maybe it’s because I watched and listened to a lot more baseball in those days.
I do recall a few specific details, though. It was during the 1982-83 NBA season, and my paternal grandfather was given a pair of tickets to a New Jersey Nets game. He wanted somebody to go with him, and my siblings and I all wanted to go. I volunteered, I think. Or maybe we flipped a coin. Or picked a number and the closest person to the number he decided upon got the ticket. (I believe I heard my grandpa tell my mother that one of his business clients couldn’t use the tickets because he was going on an annual fishing trip, but he didn’t want them to go to waste.)
Regardless of how it happened, I was excited to have the chance to visit an NBA arena!
I don’t remember who the Nets played that day. Or what month it was. I think it was January or February. I think it was still cold weeks after Christmas.
If my memory serves me properly, it was a Saturday night game. Or maybe a Sunday early evening contest. Yeah, I think it was a Sunday. After all, I seem to recall my older sister being jealous because I got to “stay out late” on the night before a school day. And going to bed early on a Sunday night was almost always the family rule during our elementary school days.
Anyway, I was 8 years old, or had just turned 9 in the days leading up to the first round of the playoffs. Grandpa joked that going to the Nets game could be considered an extra birthday present.
Who was I do disagree?
After lunch, he drove us to Brendan Byrne Arena (aka Meadowlands Arena) in East Rutherford, New Jersey, to watch the Nets against The Team That I Can’t Remember.
Years later, though, I still remember that the 1982-83 Nets had a talented, versatile team that I saw on TV; mostly, though, I paid attention to New York Knicks game highlights. Among the top players: Buck Williams, Darryl Dawkins, Micheal Ray Richardson and Otis Birdsong plus Darwin Cook and Albert King.
My impressions of that first in-the-arena NBA experience are probably similar to yours.
The players looked like giants. They moved swiftly and zig-zagged every which way to start, continue or finish plays. It was impressive.
Williams seemed to grab every rebound in sight. It looked like he timed his jumps perfectly to snatch every rebound. Or outmuscle his opponent to end his chances of securing the ball.
And Dawkins didn’t just dunk. His slams had exclamation points — or was it sledgehammers? — attached to them.
Stars of the backcourt
What did flashy point guard “Sugar Ray” Richardson do in that game? He didn’t have 37 assists and 19 steals, but his pinpoint passes and on-court thievery left a lasting impression in my mind.
To me, a novice fan at the time, shooting guard Otis Birdsong looked like he was the smoothest player on the court. Dribbling at full speed looked as natural as walking and chewing gum. Man, he was talented, I thought to myself. Shooting, too, wasn’t effortless for Otis, but it didn’t look like “work,” either. It appeared as though he knew every aspect of his job, how to outwit his defender and look cool doing it — without any appearance of nervousness. Supreme confidence, others would suggest, and rightfully so.
In June 1981, Birdsong discussed his approach to the game.
”There only is the pressure I put on myself,” he was quoted as saying by The New York Times. ”If I play lousy, I expect people to say I played lousy, but if I play good, I know the fans will respond to me.
”The strongest part of my game was moving without the ball. Sure, I can go one-on-one, but who can’t in this league. I don’t want people to look at Otis Birdsong as a guard who scores a lot of points, but as someone who plays a good all-around game of basketball. I think I’m a pretty good defensive player.”
The Nets went 49-33 that season before getting swept by the rival Knicks in the best-of-three opening round of the playoffs. By the time the playoffs rolled around, Bill Blair had a whopping total of six games as bench boss. In that span, the Nets won two and lost four.
Blair inherited the head coaching job in early April after Larry Brown resigned to take over as the University of Kansas head coach. The Nets were 47-29 at that time.
I remember that a couple classmates were fired up that the Philadelphia 76ers, led by Julius Eving and Moses Malone captured the 1983 NBA title, and I started to pay attention more closely as they bragged about how awesome Dr. J, Malone and Co. were during their playoff run. There were weekly updates, a few minutes here, a few minuses there — at lunch, during recess and between classes — on how fantastic their games were.
Yes, it piqued my interest in the NBA.
Believe me, I’m not complaining.