Peeling open The Washington Post while waiting for play to begin, I was reminded how far die league still had to go. A reader had mailed to the paper a Latrell Sprewell dashboard doll—manufactured before Sprewell became infamous—whose package carried the following government warning: CAUTION: CHOKING HAZARD.
I shared this most excellent anecdote with die people seated near me. We all had a good laugh. The crowd of 14,000 was friendly and casual and unlike any other I'd seen in an NBA arena. For one thing, its racial makeup matched that of the league's players: 80% black. For another, there were fans of various economic classes, including those pulling down no-figure incomes. At least one panhandler worked the room, something I'd never witnessed courtside at the Forum in L.A. "Got 85 cents?" he asked me. "For bus fare." The man extended the palm of his free hand; in his other, someone had placed a steaming tray of nachos.
The scrimmage was great fun, and afterward Wizards star Juwan Howard threw his sneakers into the stands. The crowd applauded the players, the players applauded the crowd, and we all agreed to a second date. I felt myself becoming smitten.
The NBA and I next met in Minneapolis, and again the league gallantly picked up the check. But this time some of the magic was missing. The Minnesota Timberwolves were hosting the Milwaukee Bucks in an exhibition game, and before I entered the arena, I saw two men carrying hand-lettered signs that said NBA FANS ON STRIKE!
The picketers identified themselves as Dave Johnson, 36, and Roger Sisson, "mid-30s, put it that way." Both men still owned full or partial Minnesota season tickets and had attended the Timberwolves' first game, in 1989. Now they had seen enough. "This is like a kiss on the butt," Johnson said in his Fargo accent, scoffing at those suckers seduced by the free exhibition. "The fans don't have a voice. We came out to give our point of view. Otherwise, the only voice we have is the couple hundred bucks you've got to pay to bring a family of four to a game."
As we stood in the cold beneath the arena marquee, other dramatis personae dropped by, drawn by die picket signs. First Avenue and 7th Street soon resembled Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park. A passionate fan with a long mudflap of hair hanging over the collar of his leather jacket joined our colloquy. So did a homeless man. He carried an empty 10-gallon bucket and said, "I heard that!" to every opinion on offer. I knew what he meant: Everyone had a valid point.
I asked Johnson what he did for a living.
Johnson: "I'm a union carpenter."
Mudflap: "You're union? Man, how would you like it if someone marched outside your job site and protested your right to earn as much money as you could?"
Bucket: "I heard that!"