So, as the 50-game regular season opened, the NBA had me right where it wanted me: in a $72 seat in a building named for a bank, money being Hoovered out of my pockets with each passing minute. Beers were $4.50.
But at least the league brought gifts. When I entered the FleetCenter in Boston—where die Celtics would host the atrocious Toronto Raptors, whom the Celts had floor-waxed in back-to-back exhibition games—I was given a Celtics T-shirt and a compact disc. The CD was called, suggestively, I Still Love This Game! But did I? Before I could answer, the Celtics produced their 81-year-old patriarch, Red Auerbach, to say something that had never needed saying in the previous 50 or so pro basketball openers the Hall of Famer had attended. "We need you," Red told us fans from a floor microphone. "We need you!"
So the NBA had now apologized to me, told me that it needed me and told me that I loved it. But what I wanted to know was this: Did the league love me"? I was about to find out. Referee Joe Crawford threw the ball in the air to begin the game and the season and the rest of my rooting life. As the centers leaped, my heart did the same.
The deadening, inexplicable events that followed took two excruciating hours to unfold. I'm still not sure what happened. The evening would later be described as "very disappointing" (Boston coach Rick Pitino), "an old-fashioned horsewhipping" (Celtics rookie Paul Pierce) and "a gawddamn fauce" (Boston fan three rows behind me). A farce it was. The Celtics showed little interest in the proceedings. The Raptors, winners of 16 games last season, inflicted a 103-92 horsewhipping on the home team. It was comprehensively unentertaining, animated only by the heartfelt vitriol of Celtics fans. The game had more dead spots than the floor of the old Boston Garden. During one of them, a tomato-faced man broke die silence by imploring the uninterested Celtics, "For the love of gawd, go back on strike!"
In die fourth quarter, as I examined my $72 ticket stub, it occurred to me: I had been the victim of a nonviolent mugging.
As you may have guessed, the NBA and I have agreed to see other people. I wish I could say it ended amicably, but, alas, no. With five minutes to go, about 5,000 masochists remained from what had been a near sellout. For the final 45 seconds, we stood and booed and whistled and waved our white giveaway T-shirts in mock surrender. According to the next morning's Boston Globe, one fan got near enough to the richly remunerated, famously rabbit-eared Celtics coach to say: "Pitino! No excuse!" To which I can only reply, "I heard that!"
Yet in this otherwise forgettable game came an unforgettable moment. Years from now it may prove to be historic, sports' own trivial version of Tiananmen Square. With 8:14 left in the third quarter and Toronto's Kevin Willis at the free throw line, a fan who was maybe 18 had endured all that could be reasonably expected of him. He strode purposefully onto the floor and, with a Frisbee-style flick of the wrist, flung a pile of money at the players. The bills fluttered to the floor. The crowd took a beat to digest what had transpired, then applauded. A blazered bouncer was dispatched to frog-march the fan out, but even the goon couldn't keep from smiling, like a straight man unable to stay in character.
Players reacted in various ways. Those still capable of embarrassment looked the other way. Willis smiled in silent appreciation, then handed a pile of the money to fans seated courtside. Raptors guard Doug Christie? He stuffed a bill in his sock.
Speaking of bills, what became of Ivano Newbill, the sincere journeyman I had met in Washington, where he apologized to me for die sins of his colleagues? The Wizards cut him. He wasn't good enough for this league. Maybe he was too good.