When Grant Hill was a junior at Duke, the basketball team from nearby North Carolina Central College challenged his Blue Devils to the mythical championship of Durham. Not wanting either side to enjoy the home-gym advantage, the two teams agreed to meet on an outdoor cement court on the Duke campus.
“I was thinking about it the other day … I don’t remember if it was windy, because we dunked everything,” Hill said, laughing. “We killed them.
“I was still a kid, stuck in the ’80s, so it didn’t seem strange. But I can tell you, this will.”
“This” is the NBA’s first modern-day foray into outdoor basketball, when the Suns meet the Denver Nuggets under the stars near Palm Springs, Calif., at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. It’s an attempt to capture some of the hype and attention garnered by the NHL’s recent open-air ventures.
But while fans in Edmonton and Buffalo (and, this year, Chicago) braved sub-zero cold and snow in the great outdoors, the Suns and Nuggets will tangle in the mild climate of Palm Springs — although temperatures could dip into the low 60s and be accompanied by winds in the 10 to 20 mph range.
“We all grew up playing outside, but it’s been a long time,” center Shaquille O’Neal said. “I think it’s a great idea. It’s going to be on (TNT) across the country, and it’s something that, if it’s popular, they should consider doing more often, as long as the conditions are OK.”
We’re not talking about double-rims and chain-link nets. Instead of cement, the players will play on the same pristine hardwood that will be used in the All-Star game in February at US Airways Center in Phoenix.
The enclosed, two-tier stadium — built for $77 million by the same company that built the Detroit Pistons’ arena, the Palace of Auburn Hills — seats more than 16,000, has indoor suites and looks like a modern basketball arena with the top pulled off.
That’s a far cry from the only other NBA games held outdoors in September 1972, when the NBA was still a cult sport. The Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks went to Puerto Rico to play two outdoor exhibition games in the cities of San Juan and Ponce — one on a dusty baseball field inhabited by insects, the other in what might best be described as a bull ring with a suspended roof. The journey included an open cockpit plane between cities, complete with a pilot sporting a leather helmet and goggles. But the games weren’t much better.
“I remember lots of bugs in San Juan and lots of birds (in Ponce),” said Neal Walk, the Suns’ center in those games who remains with the team as a photo archivist. “They were the most unusual games I ever played, without a doubt. Too bad there aren’t any films or pictures because I’d love to see them.”
Former Phoenix Gazette columnist Joe Gilmartin was the only writer on that trip — he paid his own way when the newspaper refused. He said the true “outdoor” game was played at San Juan’s Hiram Bithorn Stadium, the baseball park twice renovated to host the Montreal Expos in 2003 and 2004.
But back in 1972, it was a rusting dust bowl with only chicken wire fences to separate the field from often-unruly fans. The court was laid out in the middle of the infield, and the players received their halftime instruction in the two dugouts, offering little refuge from the heat, humidity and insects.
“My recollection of that night is: Not much decent basketball, but a tremendous amount of bugs,” Gilmartin said.
Walk remembers the wind, which gusted at times and turned the game into a circus.
“You’re used to a stationary background and all of a sudden everything changes,” he said. “The bucket looked like a palm tree swaying in the background. It was windy, and every shot you let go would drift ever so slightly.”
Broadcaster Al McCoy, beginning his first year with the Suns, was doing phone updates from press row and was expecting to assist a local Spanish broadcast of the game. But when the game started, he was sitting by himself.
“Just before the second quarter started, a fellow comes up with a suitcase and starts unloading his radio equipment. He tells me he’s the broadcaster,” McCoy said. “I said, 'You realize the first quarter is over, right?’ And he just smiled and said, 'No problemo.’”
Things will be different tonight on that score as well. TNT will cover the unique game from every angle, providing up-to-the-minute weather reports with analysts Reggie Miller and Charles Barkley testing the conditions.
“Preseason games are very overrated, so we might as well throw one of them outdoors,” Suns guard Steve Nash said. “I don’t think it’s the wave of the future, however.”