Bonnell: NBA players need their space, too

January 5, 2013 

I have a friend – yes, he has more discretionary income than me – who says to get the real NBA experience you have to be sitting close enough to the court to hear the players’ sneakers squeak.

I get what he means; basketball is, and must be, the most intimate of the four major-league sports. I’m told you can be too close to a hockey game and lose perspective on the entire rink. Baseball and football might be better from closer range, but the experience isn’t greatly diminished 50 rows from the action.

Basketball grows vivid up-close – the way picks are set, the speed and grace of drives to the basket, and even the trash talk all add to the experience. That unfortunately has led to a turf war over the real estate directly surrounding the court. Thursday night ex-Charlotte Bobcat Stephen Jackson became the victim.

Jackson, now playing for the San Antonio Spurs, took a 3-pointer from the corner at Madison Square Garden. He backed up slightly after the shot and ended up tumbling over a waitress, kneeling at courtside. She was reportedly taking an order – popcorn and bottled water – from billionaire New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Jackson ended up leaving the game with a sprained ankle. This is what insurance adjusters might call a “predictable risk.’’ The NBA figured out a while back that its richest customers will pay an incredible premium – particularly in markets like New York and Los Angeles – to be pampered while sitting in the front row.

You end up with a crowd of fans, high-end wait staff and photographers crammed into the space surrounding the court.

It’s overdue for the NBA to enforce a better buffer zone between the playing surface and the fans, no matter how much money certain fans are paying for the best seats.

I’ve watched this for years at places like MSG and the Staples Center. The beautiful people show up (fashionably late, roughly five minutes past tip-off). They want their $17 margarita’s and their $38 sushi, and these are not the sort used to waiting at concession stands.

So wait staff scurries around the small space between the front row and the actual court, taking orders and delivering food.

Some arenas have created efficiencies. I understand in Orlando the big spenders can order food off their smart phones, which at least eliminates half of the process. But to say service staff is a dangerous obstacle along the sideline is obvious.

Why hasn’t the NBA been stricter about all this? Money is the only reasonable assumption. Owners keep asking the league for new ways to extract revenue from the audience and courtside seating has been the richest opportunity of late.

So radio crews get shipped so far upstairs they sometimes describe games off television monitors. Advance scouts are placed in spots where they can’t hear the plays coaches call.

Nobody much cared about those changes, and that’s fine, but now players are getting hurt tumbling over wait staff to the glitterati. It’s overdue for the NBA to ask if the fat-cat customer isn’t always right.

Five passing thoughts on the NBA and the Bobcats:

• I hear the Virginia Beach area’s pursuit of the Sacramento Kings is all but dead. City government there thinks big – they tried to get the Hornets when that franchise left Charlotte – but they don’t have quite the income or public funding to make an attractive enough deal to a major-league team willing to relocate. I guess Seattle or Kansas City would be the Kings’ best alternatives.

• Speaking of the Kings, there’s a lot of speculation – some of it related to the Bobcats – about whether center DeMarcus Cousins would be available in trade. I know this for certain: The Kings won’t part with Cousins without a big bucket of compensation. Do you want to gut your team for a guy who’s shown again and again he lacks maturity and disrupts team chemistry?

• I found Stephen Jackson a fascinating, complicated guy when he was with the Bobcats, but I didn’t know he could predict the future. He’s recorded some rap songs, and among the lyrics, “Haters on the sideline, hopin’ I sprain an ankle.’’

• I’m thinking the worst thing that could happen to interim Nets coach P.J. Carlesimo would be winning January’s coach of the month award. His predecessor, Avery Johnson, won it in November, then was canned before the New Year.

• So Metta World Peace wants to be a coach someday. Yeah, that’s gonna happen.

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