Show on the Road

When the NBA Playoffs continue this week – after completing what many fans and experts agree was the wildest first round in postseason history – you’ll see action in some of the league’s loudest and most traditional venues.

Like our other local beat reporters, I’m lucky enough to have covered the Cavaliers in every arena in the league. And like visiting reporters who travel to Cleveland and Quicken Loans Arena, I’ve observed some interesting things about almost every stop.

If you’ve never been to some of these arenas or cities, here are some random observations (that, of course, do not necessarily reflect the views of the Cleveland Cavaliers LLC).

Unlike other tour guides – because I’m not a “foodie” by any means – I unfortunately won’t be much help with local eateries on the road, unless it’s Famous Ray’s pizza in New York or St. Elmo’s in Indianapolis, where the shrimp in the shrimp cocktail are as big as your head and the cocktail sauce is hot enough to melt it. And if you ever get to Minneapolis, I strongly recommend the pierogies while witnessing “The World’s Most Dangerous Polka Band” at Nye’s Polonaise.

OK, I lied. There is one other restaurant we always visit on the road. It’s a place called “Chin-Chin” in L.A. – where I traditionally grab lunch and/or dinner with Austin Carr. After our latest stop, a patron pulled me aside following lunch to tell me that I just had lunch with Austin Carr.

Staples Center is the home of the Clippers and Lakers, but if you didn’t know better, you’d think it was a different arena for each squad. The Lakers have a dramatic intro with historic highlights projected onto a curtain that hangs off the scoreboard. Lakers games are played under theater lighting. The Clippers have a more traditional pre-game intro and standard arena lighting. The Lakers’ most famous celebrity is Jack Nicholson. The Clippers’ is Billy Crystal. (Regulars like Andy Garcia, Dyan Cannon, Penny Marshall and Denzel Washington regularly attend both – with Laverne and Denzel frequently grabbing a pre-game bite in Staples media dining.)

The Lakers might win the celebrity battle with Jack, but their crosstown rivals have the great “Clipper Darrell” – (pictured above) - who’s not officially affiliated with the team but is one of the highlights of anyone catching a game. He leads cheers in the stands, but what sets him apart is his taunts of visiting free throwers. He does the “U.G.L.Y., you ain’t got no alibi” chant and it sometimes even cracks up the player at the stripe (like Delonte West). This year, he yelled “Hey No. 3 – who ARE you?!” as Dion Waiters was at the line.

Staples Center also has the strictest floor security personnel – the “redcoats.” They’re not rude by any stretch, they just need to make sure non-credentialed folks don’t get too close to Sylvester Stallone or Howie Mandel.

Clipper Darrell is one of a few “super fans” we see on the road. Brooklyn has the baseline septuagenarian, “Mr. Whammy.” Every player knows Nav Bhatia – the guy in the turban who sits next to the basket stanchion in Toronto. And I’m not sure if players recognize this, but there’s a guy in Minnesota who sits courtside opposite the opponent’s bench who looks and dresses like a coach – complete with the slicked-back hair and rolled-up “gameplan” – and he crouches along the court like he’s actually coaching.

The Palace in Auburn Hills has the smallest visiting locker rooms in the league. Wally Szczerbiak once yelled at me for almost stepping on his foot. (But it was just the right size on the night Dion Waiters canned the game-winner on March 26.)

The Cavs often hold practice and shootaround at local colleges and interesting locales. As you can imagine, the gym on the Nike Campus in Portland is incredible. In L.A., the Cavs practice on UCLA’s campus and the practice gym is thoroughly old-school, including the encased John Wooten blackboard. In Chicago, the Cavs practice at the Moody Bible Institute, where the NBA’s pre-Draft camp is annually held. In Atlanta, Jarrett Jack returned to his old stomping ground when Cleveland practiced at Georgia Tech.

The worst seats in the league for Fred and A.C. are and always have been Philadelphia. You’ve probably heard Mr. Cavalier lament that fact during the telecast.

New Orleans and Oklahoma City are the only two NBA arenas that I’ve been to where they say prayers before tip-off.

When we arrive from the airport to the hotel in the next city, everyone on the traveling staff pitches in to help unload luggage and equipment off the truck – minus players and coaches, of course. (Although Jamahl Mosely will almost always help unload. He’s just that kind of guy.)

There are autograph seekers behind a velvet rope at every hotel. There’s usually a group already waiting when the team arrives – sometimes as late as 2 a.m. They’re frequently out there again when the team leaves the hotel for shootaround in the morning and the game later that afternoon. Sometimes, it’s adults with their kids. Sometimes it’s just adults.

Yeah, it’s cliché, but you have to run the “Rocky steps” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s as essential as getting a Philly cheesesteak. (South Philly native Dion Waiters insists that Ishkabibble's on South St. is the best of the best.) On Cleveland’s first trip to Philly this year, Matthew Dellavedova ran the Rocky steps and his sister mixed the experience with music in this video.

The longest distances from the airport to downtown are in Washington, Denver and Detroit. I’m just telling you in case you ever travel there and wonder if you should hit the restroom before leaving the airport. You should.

Miami fans arrive as late as it seems they do on TV. But they arrive really tan and attractive. The Heat’s dance team is also tan and attractive, and they don’t rely much on routines. They just kind of gyrate – semi-strategically – in front of the visitor’s huddle during timeouts.

OK, one more food tip – Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken in Memphis. Sometimes, the team and traveling staff will eat there multiple times on a single stop. Two seasons ago, Jeremy Pargo purchased enough for the entire team on the way home.

There’s a different kind of celebrity watching at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C. – like Wolf Blitzer or David Gregory. It’s definitely the only gym in the league that can feature the Commander-in-Chief on “Kiss-Cam.” In the media room, not only is there halftime ice cream, but the chance to actually see Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser in a (light-hearted) verbal beef – which we did before a playoff game in 2007.

The Cavaliers and Quicken Loans Arena have hands-down the best pregame meal in the NBA. That’s not the homer in me – it’s just the truth. Quality. Variety. The top of the food chain is right here in Cleveland.

No matter how many times we saw it on the road, it’s still strange to see the Cavaliers rookies – Delly, Carrick Felix, Sergey Karasev, Anthony Bennett (and Henry Sims before being dealt to Philly) – eating pregame dinner in the media mess hall. In 11 seasons, I’ve never seen players do that.

(The rookies agreed that The Q has the best pregame meal in the league.)

Finally, let’s talk about the crowds. There’s a difference between a fun crowd and an intimidating one. Oklahoma City’s crowd and Golden State are loud and engaged and fun. Utah’s and Boston’s are intimidating, mostly because they don’t like anyone but their team, and they’re provincial about it. In most arenas, you’ll see pockets of fans in the opponents’ jerseys or gear. Not here. They honestly, organically dislike any opponent in Utah and Boston. It’s great.

Sacramento’s crowd is a little bit of both. But it’s a fantastic crowd, either way. As much as it’s unfortunate that Seattle didn’t get an expansion franchise, I’m glad they didn’t take the Kings out of Sacramento and punish their fans. Clevelanders know that feeling all too well.

The Cavaliers have the most die-hard fans in the NBA. Again, that’s not homerism. I’ve been in every arena in the league and it’s just the truth. Cavs fans have weathered some trying times and still jam the arena night after night. So many franchises that we see on the road would kill for our crowd.

If I had to choose a singular word to describe Cavalier fans, it’d be “irrepressible.” Cavalier fans cannot be repressed. They simply do not give in or give up.

So when you watch the postseason and see other arenas going nuts, remember how crazy that crowd was against Brooklyn on the final night of the year – with the playoffs already out of sight and the Nets resting starters. When Cleveland finally does get back to the postseason – to paraphrase one of Canton Charge coach Steve Hetzel’s favorite movies, Spinal Tap – Quicken Loans Arena will “go to 11.”

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