Wednesday, November 28, 2012

On basketball, Crisler, and atmosphere

I went to last night's Michigan/NC State matchup on a whim. I was sitting in a class that runs until 7 pm, concerned about leaving early so that I could drive home and watch the whole game, when I realized that I was in Ann Arbor and there might be some tickets available on Craigslist. Then I remembered it was Michigan basketball and there were probably seats available on the official site. There were. Pretty good seats, too. There's not a whole lot I can tell you about the game that you can't gather by watching it: Nik Stauskas is a sharp shooter who can't play defense yet, Tim Hardaway Jr. has--mostly--accepted his role as a slashing 2-guard, Trey Burke is a magician with the basketball, and the big men are underwhelming but they work hard.

The stadium is beautiful and feels like a pro arena. There are escalators and waterfall fixtures and glass facades and poor wayfinding. And when the team was introduced after warmups, the lights dropped and this happened:

At some point in the last 3 months, someone in the athletic department had to arrange a time with Tim Hardaway in order to film him screaming into a camera. This is where Michigan basketball is at.

The Michigan blogging community is pretty disheartened by the Crisler experience. There's pump up videos and t-shirt cannons and free pizza giveaways and the problem is that this is not Michigan basketball. But you want to know what was actually missing from Crisler last night? Flames. Giant fucking flames shooting out of the scoreboard that you can feel hundreds of yards away during player introductions.

Basketball is a game about style. That's how this happens

and this

Since Beilein came to Michigan, I was never his biggest fan. He doesn't didn't recruit the players that I like to watch and the players that I think are true game changers. His results spoke for themselves, but basketball is a beautiful game and Michigan was playing and winning in ugly ways. With this edition of the team, that's all changed. This made me literally jump off my couch:

Michigan doesn't have a basketball culture. I know that because I bought tickets against a ranked opponent a mere hours before tip. I know that because the people that did come to the stadium last night were comatose, except maybe for the high school kid sitting next to me in a Tim Hardaway jersey that was tucked into a pair of basketball shorts. (Question for That Kid: Did you come dressed like that? Where's your coat? It was cold out.) The problem with the Crisler experience is not that they play Lil Jon tracks for literally three seconds after a Let's-Go-Blue chant. It's that they wasted time with the Let's-Go-Blue chant in the first place.

The Big House has long been known as the quietest 110,000 people in the world. That's not a mistake: with a relatively old fanbase, you get a student section (sometimes) filled with screaming co-eds and then the geriatrics who like to sit around fill the rest of the stadium. When you have 15,000-20,000 students yelling in unison, you can at least mask the poor showing from the rest of the crowd. With a capacity of 12,000 fans, Crisler arena is not so forgiving. But it's not quiet because people come and don't care about the team; the difference in volume from the crowd between The Victors and literally any other chant is embarrassing. It's quiet because there's never been a culture of Michigan fans screaming a slur of obscenities at an opposing player as he sits on the bench. To complain about a lack or destruction of an arena/experience/environment, there has to be something to destroy.

Some of this is the fault of the athletic department. The student section is relatively small save for overflow areas that are up in the rafters behind the baskets. With only a half of the student section able to really cheer in unison, you're basically killing any chance for an intimidating environment. But you can't fault Dave Brandon for not sacrificing the best seats in the house to put more drunk, probably late students. This is the equivalent of moving the student section in the Big House to mid-field, which is insanity. But this also makes building any kind of culture basically impossible. The best chant the student section could muster when NC State was at the foul line was "You're gonna miss it". Really? "You're gonna miss it" is the very best we can come up with?

The problem is, in the modern era, any Michigan basketball culture that's worth remembering has been explicitly forgotten. The Fab Five, for better or worse, have defined what Michigan basketball is for the last 20 years or at least should have. That was a team that typified style and culture, but most importantly talented, winning basketball. But they were also as far from a college experience as you could get.

Last night, Michigan basketball ran a ranked opponent out of the building, despite the closer-than-actual final score. Sometime in the second half incensed by the fans' lethargy and invigorated by the play on the court, Tim Hardaway Jr bounced down the court asking the fans to finally get on their feet. They did, but that takes balls. "I want more from you." It also takes balls to throw alley-oops in traffic. This is Michigan basketball now, the only Michigan basketball that matters.

Walking into the stadium, I commented to my friend that I've always wanted an NBA team to sell-out on style and skip the campy "YMCA"s in favor of playing "Hustlin" during every timeout. The Jay-Z owned Brooklyn Nets are my great hope. Now Michigan is inching toward that goal. Keep the band around for The Victors and halftime, but the crowd is clearly not responding to their calls for cheers. Crisler stadium will never be Assembly Hall or the Dean Smith Center. It's a pro arena.

We've been here before. The 2012 recruiting class is not the Fab Five, but they might take Michigan to the same heights without, ya know, all the cheating and improper benefits. Embrace the culture that's budding here. Crisler will also never be Yost or the Big House, places that will always do better what bloggers are calling for and what Crisler is half-heartedly doing. You can build a unique culture that doesn't include unenthused fans muttering out chants and it starts with the play on the court.


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