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The Game's Okay, But There's A Little Too Much Sensory Overload On The Sidelines.

By Tom Danehy

AUGUST 3, 1998:  YOU KNOW WHAT it's like when you're driving along, come to a red light, look over into the next car, and the guy behind the wheel is attacking his nose in pursuit of The Great Lost Booger? I mean, he's going after it, twisting and probing and digging.

You want to look away, you should look away, you must look away! But something draws you back. You have to see if he fulfills his quest.

And then you have to see if he eats it. Or, at least, where he wipes it.

I, of course, have never witnessed such a spectacle myself, since I always stare straight ahead, purposefully and diligently, when I am behind the wheel. However, I've heard stories from other drivers and their recollections are so vivid, I feel I'm almost there.

It is with similar grim fascination that I witnessed a Phoenix Mercury WNBA game last week. Actually, the game was great; it was all the other stuff that had me afraid to blink lest I miss something. Plus, I was afraid that Security might nudge me and say, "Hey, keep your eyes on that court! We're entertaining you, dammit!"

Those of you who haven't yet made the trip to a Mercury game, shame on you. The tickets are under 10 bucks, there's plenty of parking, and it takes less than two hours to get there, even if you're driving a school van with a warning light on the dashboard that flashes "Do You Really Think That's Wise?" every time you try to accelerate past 55.

The WNBA is a great league, done right. And where the league is doing things well, the Phoenix franchise is doing them spectacularly well. Everything is done with a polish and professionalism that's amazing to witness. I just wish there were a little less of it.

You walk into America West Arena and find your seats, which will invariably be in the top section, since the Mercury has more than 9,000 season-ticket holders. Once you find your seat, you might as well strap in, because you're not going anywhere. You're in for two straight hours of sensory overload. And some basketball.

They start with the national anthem. They had three girls come out and do it doo-wop, a capella style. I guess nowadays, the Marvin Gaye-at-the-NBA-All-Star-Game version is considered traditional and therefore outdated.

They're followed by a dance/cheerleader/troubled youth group known as The Hip-Hop Squad. I now know what happened to The Fly Girls after In Living Color went off the air. Jennifer Lopez became a big star and the rest are dancing at America West. They're okay dancers, I suppose, in that passé, hip-hop way. They're not bad; they're just completely unnecessary.

Then the music starts. And never stops. It's unbelievable. They play that techno-disco stuff constantly. They even play music while the game is going on. It's absolutely bizarre. It's as though they feel that the product they have out on the court isn't enough to hold our attention and prompt our enthusiasm. We have to be artificially pumped up at all times. I sincerely find that offensive.

Since it was a televised game, they have TV time-outs at the first play stoppage after each four-minute increment of time has passed on the clock. And after cheering on the home team, can a fan sit back and relax, or maybe run to the bathroom or food counter? Oh, no no no. You have to watch while America West-oids run out and put shot-spots on the floor so Sue and Mary of Scottsdale can humiliate themselves missing lay-ups in front of an announced crowd of 13,000-plus.

If they had won, they would have received a $100 gift certificate to Sears. Since they lost, they got a $200 gift certificate to Sears.

They have shoot-outs and contests and raffles and those Hip-Hop Dorks. It's non-stop. It's like they have the need to fill every second with something, like the crowd has this really short attention span.

I've seen NASA launches that weren't this tightly organized. If this is the future of professional sports, I'll watch on TV.

Every high school basketball coach who's been involved with America West knows the situation. When they run the state playoffs there, they do so with a machine-like precision ("Your team will be in the warm-up gym from 8:12 to 8:23 and 30 seconds") that does its best to suck the life out of the experience.

Mussolini made the trains run on time, and Jerry Colangelo makes America West run on time. But you can just see him up there, saying, "You vill have fun, but only ven I say so."

Since it's summertime, there were hundreds, maybe thousands of empty seats in the season-ticket area. At half-time, some of the ballplayers I had taken to the game decided to go down and see the game from the rich folk's perspective. They found an empty row and were there for about 10 seconds when this old woman got up and hurried over to alert Security. It was really impressive watching her move. It's hard to imagine anyone running that fast with a stick so far up their butt.

Anyway, the Mercury played a lifeless first half and were behind, 33-31, at the half. Then they came out and had the highest-scoring half in franchise history. The crowd was into it, cheering every basket, rewarding defensive stops with standing ovations, cheering the home team to a resounding victory. And they didn't need any help from the sound system guy.

I had wanted to interview former UA star Adia Barnes, who was starting for the visiting Sacramento Monarchs. I called the Mercury office and asked for credentials. They said no. I told them I had already bought a ticket so they can keep the lousy eight bucks. They said that I would have to attend at least two Mercury practices and then apply for credentials.

Hey I'm sorry. I wouldn't drive to Phoenix, twice, to watch the Mercury practice even if they were practicing naked. Same for the Suns.


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