Brooklyn Is Not Ready for College Hoops

Barclays Center has more corporate sponsors than basketball fans watching the games that take place there. Somehow Madison Square Garden is still the better venue… how is that possible?

Hanging out in the Honda Club sipping a beverage bought from the Ticketmaster Concourse after taking (and emailing) a picture in the Metro PCS Photobooth, I couldn’t help but thank my sponsors. Sports venues went pro long ago, even ones that host amateur basketball.

The Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn falls in line, sprouting corporate logos for companies that seem to have no presence in the stadium beyond their trademark. They extend to the floor, a pair of Reese's ovals supporting the tournament’s marquee brands: Indiana, Georgetown, Georgia, and UCLA. The preset final four for last week's Legends Classic, bringing three of the more storied programs in college basketball within walking distance of Michael Jordan’s birthplace—a dilapidated former hospital now run as a hapless homeless shelter. It obviously needs a better sponsor.

Early-season college basketball is like the early rounds of a fight, teams trading jabs and searching for weaknesses to exploit when it matters. Indiana took Georgia’s best punch in the Legends semis before racing to what was expected to be a matchup against the Bruins and Shabazz Muhammad. Georgetown had other plans, spoiling the debut of Muhammad, who took a half to realize he had been reinstated, eventually flashing an array of skills on his way to an occasionally-entertaining 15 points. 

The next night, Georgetown boosters brought their A-game to the final, boisterous to a fault as a fan was caught tossing the double bird at the national cameras and ended up on Deadspin. But they were vastly outnumbered by a raucous pro-Indiana crowd as they watched their Hoyas go down. Taking the top-ranked Hoosiers into overtime, the DC club displayed good length, good balance and a surprising calm for a young group at such an early juncture—especially playing at Assembly Hall East.

Who knew Indiana basketball traveled so well? Though it was hard to say whether many of their supporters hailed from Middle America or Long Island. While the action on the court held a tinge of March, Barclay’s corridors had the feel of college game day—jerseys popping with young faces, suit pins for the alumni. The beer flowed strong as the crowd roared late and into overtime, and the BC in BK slowly began to lay a foundation for memories.

That’s what makes great sports venues, the shadows of souls who have sat there and cheered, the sweat patina of weathered hardwood. But there have to be people there to make those memories, and the Legends Classic—even with half the upper bowl curtained out—had way too many empty seats for such matchups. But with no budget tickets (the cheapest seats were $30) to lure Brooklyn basketball fans who might have shelled out ten bucks to watch some solid college ball, it was hard to fault the borough’s lack of passion to fill the rafters.

A couple days later, Manhattan finished off its own college basketball tourney. Madison Square Garden held forth the NIT final on the Friday after Thanksgiving, a welcomed alternative to the shopping madness. Making sure to avoid the Pitt-Delaware consolation game, I grabbed a first-row seat for about the same it would have cost to sit in the Barclays balcony. But the lackluster Kansas-State-Michigan matchup fell flat quickly, and the crowd—another light gathering that didn’t even fill the lower bowl—seemed to have wished this one was played at MetLife Stadium. To be fair, there were likely plenty of attendees who were surprised by the “No Beer” edict at the concession stands. That aspect of the event wasn't advertised.

The basketball Wolverines are an impressive lot, a legitimate top-10 team, with Tim Hardaway Jr. acclimating himself to the role of budding star. The six-foot-six junior wing played a pro’s game, even paying homage to his dad with a crowd-pleasing crossover to set up a pullup jumper. The crowd may have gasped, but the Garden yawned, having seen thousands of similar shakes and bakes.

Barclays’ jaw would have dropped. There’s an innocence to the Brooklyn arena that belies its moneyed masters. It’s learning what sports is, what excitement for the unknown feels like, the unexpected, the improbable. And if it’s the latest in new and naïve, the Garden is an old record player, the cheers crackling off dusty crevices, the old arena feeling for the perfect way to play a tune it knows well.

There’s no shortage of criticisms one can levy at James Dolan, but selling out his historic ward isn’t one of them. Granted, there isn’t any other arena that has a company named after it, but Madison Square Garden has maintained much of its dignity (maybe too much; that scoreboard could use an update) against the wave of sponsorship deals and naming rights—an imperfect thumbing of a nose to Black Friday. Of course, it’s easier to deny wall space to a health insurance company when you can hang memorabilia from events that transcend the venue, but it will be interesting to see if time—and the memories that are sure to follow—will help Barclays Center find a connection that runs deeper than dollars.