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Scott Howard-Cooper

Indian Wells Tennis Garden has hosted two outdoor NBA games.
P.A. Molumby/NBAE via Getty Images

Golf, money ... and a little NBA action in the desert

Posted Oct 25 2009 3:56PM

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- Close to Eisenhower Mountain, not far from Frank Sinatra Drive, a short ride to Gerald Ford Drive, a few miles from Bob Hope Drive, visiting basketball players were supposed to impress the locals.

Good luck with that. Ex-presidents came to the Palm Springs area to live, entertainment ultra-stars arrived and stayed, and celebrities and business moguls still buy beyond the gates and guard shacks. This place can school the Suns and Warriors on glam, not the other way around.

The NBA? There's OK money in that field.

The impact of the Suns hosting the gimmick game outdoors at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden goes beyond just passing through in consecutive Octobers, though. The visits matter, in important ways and in unexpected ways that set this place apart from the other neutral-site exhibitions.

"Look," mayor Larry Spicer said, motioning to the crowd beyond the windows of his suite as Phoenix played Golden State on Saturday night. "I think the basketball is different. It's a different crowd. It's a younger crowd than we get for golf or tennis. It communicates our city to a different audience." reporters are hitting the road this month to see how the NBA plays in smalltown America. Here's where they'll be, and when they'll be filing their dispatches:
Location (Date) Story
(Oct. 5)
Grizz find hoops history, college football mania
(Oct. 6)
Wolves' Taylor stays humble, gives back
(Oct. 9)
The NBA looks to expand awareness deep in Texas
PALM SPRINGS, Calif. (Oct. 12) Golf, money and a little NBA action in the desert
GREEN BAY, Wisc. (Oct. 13) In Green Bay, it's the Packers, then everyone else
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (Oct. 15) Preseason provides break from economic woes
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Oct. 25) A family affair in South Dakota

Indian Wells has about 5,000 full-time residents and another 4,500 or so who flee for the summer and return around this time every year when someone turns off the heat lamp. It has six private country clubs, some with more than one course, plus two public courses. Include the surrounding communities in the count --- Rancho Mirage, Palm Springs, La Quinta, Indio, Cathedral City, Palm Desert --- and the golf options seem infinite.

Tennis is so big that the annual BNP Paribas Open in the same Garden the Suns and Warriors used draws the fifth-largest combined crowd on the ATP World Tour, Spicer reports. The four he said that do better: the Grand Slam events. And the mayor is quick to follow up that the 16,100-seat stadium that rises from a lower bowl to a pair of suite levels to a top deck is one of the biggest tennis arenas in the world.

This is a country-club environment. The median household income of Indian Wells is $110,637. The median age of its residents is 63. Sixty-three. Six. Three.

There is an obvious image value in bringing the young man's game of the NBA to town, then keeping it here for what may become an annual event for the Suns. They have only so far committed to wanting to come back on a regular basis, but the event is clearly growing. Phoenix-Denver in 2008 had the novelty factor as the first outdoor game since 1972 in Puerto Rico, but Phoenix-Golden State this year grew to include a high school game the night before on the NBA court. There already is talk of adding a competition of high school bands in future visits.

"It's a pretty sophisticated sports market that doesn't have a professional sports team of their own," said Rick Welts, the Suns president who has a home in neighboring Palm Desert. "We've kind of been adopted by the community a little bit, based on the times that we've come here."

The actual, tangible value is just as meaningful. This desert region with its resorts that call to the snowbirds in the East and Midwest relies heavily on tourism, and tourism is what the NBA can deliver.

One game is usually nothing. But if it's one game that is unique enough to draw people from Phoenix, 250 miles to the east, to watch the same Suns they can watch at home because there is something about basketball without a lid -- under a dark sky and stadium lights with short-sleeves everywhere in the stands -- it's an event. People from Arizona don't need to come to California's Coachella Valley to get desert temperatures and the spa lifestyle, yet they came anyway. People came from the Los Angeles area, too, for the unique experience, and stayed over to make it a weekend getaway when they could have easily driven home after the game ended at about 9:15 p.m.

City officials estimate that Suns-Nuggets in 2008 and Suns-Warriors in '09 have each been worth approximately $3 million to the local economy at a time the financial crisis has struck California particularly hard. Plus, there is the value that cannot be tabulated; the free national advertising by way of the TNT broadcast.

It's not your typical game, and Indian Wells is not your typical NBA town. Somehow, though, they've made it work.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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