Timberwolves play out the string; the entertainment blasts onward

Categories: Sports
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Image by JustinRYap

The Timberwolves lost 108-88 to the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday night, and they never really had a chance. They played with energy and purpose but they couldn't put the ball in the hoop and Dallas scored whenever and however they wanted. There's no doubting that, especially without Al Jefferson, the Wolves are one of the worst teams in the Association.

That's ok though, because this is still the NBA. And although this was a fairly unremarkable, undramatic game, visitors to the Target Center were still treated to some pretty magnificent sights: Dirk Nowitzki's wrong-footed but still somehow elegant and crisp fadeaway jumper; Jason Kidd weaving cross court 40 foot passes through a maze of limbs; Josh Howard smoothly unfolding his long arms to shoot; Sebastian Telfair shaking a defender and firing a no-look pass to Rodney Carney under the hoop. Unfortunately, the game isn't, by far, the only thing Wolves fans are subjected to on a nightly basis. 

A night at the Target Center is billed as a night of "basketball and entertainment." As I've said, the basketball part is great; even in a long, disappointing season, a Wolves fan is still fortunate enough to watch some of the most athletic and graceful people on the planet do their thing. As for the "entertainment," I have to admit that thirty games of constant multisensory overstimulation have started to wear me out.

Bring the Noise

First, and most physically painful: the heavily amplified yelling. The PA announcer is the owner of a sing-songy but full throated tenor, equally capable of gravelly exhortations and queesy sentimentality. Either way, the dude is real loud. Not to be outdone is the "in-arena game host," a Wally Szczerbiak lookalike who is part shrill Flavor-Flav-esque hype man, part cheerleader, part zealous salesman. Wally (I think his real name is Mike) and his relentlessly smiling co-host Natalie are in charge. Wally tells you when to get loud; he initiates the steroidal shirt-tossing; he begs you to renew your season tickets; he shills for the sponsors.

Wally/Mike also presides over the generally mildly offensive contests and games. When some fat white guy from Rush City dances to "Apache" at center court, Wally is there to make fun of him for dancing like a fat white guy from Rush City. When the college kids chug 20 oz. Pepsis, he is there to act grossed out when they burp. When some middle-aged lady is blindfolded, crawling on all fours, searching for Crunch the mascot, guided only by the crowd's cheers and boos (I swear this is a real thing--happens at every game), Wally is there to ridicule her for blindly crawling around on all fours.

Apart from the sheer volume and occasional incidental cruelty (oh, and the embarrassing sight of the heavily painted, hot-pantsed and knee-high booted dancers--which suggests that if ideal male physical expression is balletic athleticism, then gross over-sexualization is its female counterpart) the "entertainment" impresses and exhausts by its relentless, crass emptiness. There's Crunch banging on drums, jumping off trampolines, sledding down the aisles. There's Little Crunch, his shimmying inflatable buddy. There's the "Early Bird," a life-sized chicken, wackily illustrating your desperate need to purchase season tickets, and soon. There are little kids breakdancing and big guys riding trikes. There are clips of people falling off of things. There are t-shirts flying everywhere. Surrounded by this constant activity, the rapidly cycling music and graphics, the ubiquitous product images, the mic'd up chatter and those sexy, sexy dancers, the fan gets the distinct impression of being inside a really disorienting TV show. 

Like most TV, this show subsists on a constant stream of decontextualized cultural references--ironic and punny but totally superficial, purged of all content. So we get a clip from "Tommy Boy" to hype the crowd, Nelson from the Simpsons doing his patented "ha-ha" when an opponent misses a free throw, Metallica's "Whiplash" played over a montage of NBA mascot bloopers, and constant musical interludes surrounding and addending the play on the court ("Flashing Lights," "Green Acres," "Alive," "Big Poppa," "The Addams Family" and on and on).

Its hard to avoid the conclusion that all the noise and imagery is actually an attempt to distract your attention from the game, the only part of the spectacle with any actual substantive content. And maybe, with the home team struggling as they are, the thinking is that Wolves fans must need some distraction from the debacle on the floor. But the sense I get is that if these people are still actually attending Wolves' games, with all the hockey and other multitude of entertainments at their fingertips, they must really, really love themselves some basketball. They'd pay to see pro basketball outside in a snowstorm. They don't need to be distracted.

Channel Zero

These empty references range from the basically innocuous--Kevin Love gets "All You Need is Love," get it?--to the staggeringly ahistorical and oblivious. For instance, before Al Jefferson hurt himself, the theme from "The Jeffersons" would often play before he shot free throws, as the words "The Jefferson" in that familiar '70's script (Al Jefferson also has 'Jefferson' in his name, see) scrolled over that familiar Manhattan high-rise apartment. Remember now that "The Jeffersons" is a show about a black family that moves on up from working class Queens to a "deluxe apartment in the sky." And that Jefferson (Al) is from Prentiss, Mississippi (population: 1,158, per capita income: $18,486) and is now being paid to use (and use up) his body to entertain Minnesotans. And then let me suggest that this little snippet of cleverness is, at best, hilariously ignorant of and, at worst, pretty close to an outright mockery of the history of African-American upward mobility and its tangled, tense relationship to sports.       

Last but not least are the heroes and survivors: the sick children, the flood victims, the wounded veterans. All are paraded to center court, all are given a standing ovation, all walk away with a ball and a jersey; we get to feel good about ourselves and applaud our own humane powers of sympathy. The overt sappiness would be tolerable, just  another dose of manipulative sentimentality in a culture rife with it. But seen in light of the surrounding web of surfaces--the blithe forgetfullness, the frat-boy sarcasm, the pandering sexuality, the Early Bird--we can see these sob stories for what they are: just another part of the entertainment; just as empty and meaningless as the rest of it; a commercial. 

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