A Joyful Noise

For ear-shattering decibel levels, nothing matched Chicago Stadium

With Madison Square Garden undergoing its second major renovation since The Palace opened in 1988 and the Nets now having abandoned the dank barn at Exit 16W off the New Jersey Turnpike, biding their time in Newark until their gleaming new home in Brooklyn is ready, the Pistons are playing in the NBA’s oldest arena, remarkably enough.

But The Palace is very much a modern NBA arena. In fact, it is the progenitor of the modern NBA arena, the one that made the others instantly obsolete. Even the original homes of the two expansion teams that came into the NBA the year The Palace opened, Miami Arena and Charlotte Coliseum, have long size been razed to accommodate new, splashier, Palace-type meccas.

What the new palaces yield in amenities, some lack in sheer character. And none of them can match the great old barns for sheer noise.

The two loudest places I’ve ever experienced – that’s places, not just basketball arenas or sporting venues – were Boston Garden and Chicago Stadium. If I had to narrow it down from there, I’d say Boston Garden was the most intimidating and Chicago Stadium the purely loudest.

How loud was Chicago Stadium? In the days when the Pistons and Bulls were playing in those classic playoff series – four straight years, the Pistons winning the first three, with the last three deciding the Eastern Conference’s winner – it was positively ear shattering.

In May 1989, after the Pistons had swept Milwaukee in the second round to coast into the East finals with a 7-0 postseason record, they had to wait for their opponent. Chicago and New York were evenly matched on the other side of the bracket, the Knicks awakening in Rick Pitino’s second year (and final year, as it turned out, Pitino bolting to take over at Kentucky). They’d gone from 38 wins to 52 and actually had home court over the Bulls.

So I went to Chicago to cover Game 6, the Bulls up 3-2 after stealing Game 1 at MSG with the home team holding serve ever since. The Bulls knew they would need to win on a Friday night at Chicago Stadium or take their chances back in New York for Game 7 on Sunday. Either the Bulls would win and I’d have great set-up stories for the start of the Eastern finals, set to open at The Palace on Sunday pending a Chicago win, or the Knicks would win and I’d get something from New York in the event the Knicks would go on to win the series.

My flight out of Detroit on a Friday afternoon was delayed with no promise of it getting in the air in time, so I hopped back in my car and decided to drive to Chicago. The storm that delayed my flight caused accidents and massive traffic snarls on Interstate 90 through Indiana, so by the time I got into Chicago, fought rush-hour traffic and got to Chicago Stadium, tipoff was minutes away.

While a last-minute crush of fans pressed to enter the arena, vendors outside were hawking T-shirts sporting vile messages: “Bleep New York,” they read. “Bleep Ewing,” read others. And the vendors were advertising those slogans, bellowing them as fathers and mothers ushered kids past them to the turnstiles.

Welcome to Chicago Stadium. That part of Chicago has been gentrified in the past 20 years, but it was a very gritty neighborhood along Madison Avenue at the time. A building near there had one of my all-time favorite signs: “Deluxe Transient Rooms Available,” it read.

I missed Ray Clay’s introductions that night – more on that later. When the game tipped off, I was still trying to find my seat. I was in the auxiliary hockey press box, which was between the upper and lower levels of the stadium, behind one of the baskets. When I got there, it was shaking – not the basket, the building.

Sports reporters didn’t work on laptops then. Technology had come a long way and we were thrilled to have the latest thing, a Radio Shack product that displayed about four lines of type in a small window above the keyboard and magically transmitted stories back to the home office by plugging a phone line into a portal at its side.

But my Radio Shack stopped working almost as soon as I turned it on that night. I couldn’t figure out why. I’d hit any key and the small display window would start to fill with exclamation points and ampersands and asterisks – it was as if I were transcribing tape of Rick Mahorn leaning over Bill Laimbeer’s shoulder as he was snarling at TV reporters and filling their microphones with George Carlin’s seven forbidden words.

So as the game went on and I was writing to meet an 11:30 p.m. Eastern deadline, I was forced to do it in long hand and making preparations to have someone at the other end ready to take dictation. After the game, after coming back upstairs of a now-silent arena from the Chicago locker room – the Bulls won 113-111, a crazy, crazy game – my Radio Shack worked just fine. It was the noise – volcanic, earth-shaking noise – and the vibrations that had caused its spasms.

My Radio Shack didn’t do that to me the following week, when I was back in Chicago Stadium as the Pistons played there, probably because I was seated courtside, under the basket nearest the Pistons’ bench. But it sure wasn’t any less loud in the building.

Clay’s pregame introductions – prefaced by the opening strains to Alan Parsons “Sirius” – were high theater. But you couldn’t hear much of anything after he began to introduce Bill Cartwright. Cartwright came third, and Clay’s introduction for him would begin, “the man in the middle …”

After that, the anticipation for Michael Jordan’s introduction, two players later, would ratchet the noise level up somewhere past jet engine. The TV microphones would pick up Clay’s voice for home viewers, but in the arena, I swear, nobody ever heard Michael Jordan’s name announced.

Home court in the NBA isn’t what it used to be. Playing a great team in that environment was about as intimidating as it gets. About. Next time, we’ll recall the place that was even more intimidating: Boston Garden.