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04-13-2005, 02:28 PM

Breaking down the categories:

Best of the best

By Greg Boeck, USA TODAY

Seat: New Orleans offers the best for the money
New Orleans was hands-down the closest and best seat for the money ($51) in the league. The seat was six rows off the court, in the corner of the end zone. One aisle away was club seating, which cost $135. You got into the game in this seat as you could almost touch the players as they came through the tunnel to the court.

An affordable fan view from New Orleans Arena.

By David Rae Morris, for USA TODAY

"It's a wonderful value," said Ed McIntyre, 41, of Metaire. "You can't get a much better location. It's a hell of a buy."

The seat, cushioned like most around the league, did have one drawback no cup holder.

Fans all around the arena, regardless of where their seats are, stand at the start of the game until the Hornets score their first point. The scene is much like students at college games.

Only 11,000 showed for this game Jan. 31 against Memphis, but the fans were into the game and knowledgeable. There was good support for a losing team, especially in a town that reveres football and plays in the French Quarter.

Denver, with a $55 ticket for a seat that also was six rows off the court in the corner of the end zone, was a distant second, with one bonus: It included a food server. My seat in New Orleans did not.

"This seat is a great value for $55," said Alan Yim, 20, of Denver. "The prices haven't gone up since the Nuggets have gotten better. Two years ago I sat behind the Lakers bench for $80, which was awesome. Anywhere else and you'd pay three times that much."

Fan involvement: Sacramento faithful still the Kings

The Sacramento Kings have a banner hanging from the rafters, touting their own fans as "The NBA's No. 1 Home-court Advantage." It's a justified pat on the back.

Kings fans are the most rabid in the league. Sellouts are routine for the only show in town. Even the 12th player is accorded rock star-like attention.

Rich Everts, 49, in a Bobby Jackson jersey and Kings cap, says: "People get crazy. We've gone through losing spells and now a winning spell, but we're always 100% behind the team. You can go to the Bay Area for sports, but in Sacramento this is it. People here pretty much live and die Kings basketball."

In this college-like atmosphere, these knowledgeable fans are into every possession. During a mid-January game against the Portland Trail Blazers, poor Kings shooting took the crowd out of the game in the first half. But the volume turned up before the fourth quarter began at the urging of the PA announcer. "Time for Arco Thunder," he said. Fans responded by standing and making noise. Even the ushers got into the game. So did owner Gavin Maloof, who went to one knee at his courtside seat to cheer. The Kings responded with six points in a row and a win in overtime. The crowd proved to be the best sixth man in the league.

Parking sets Suns apart

The Phoenix Suns have the best deal in the NBA for fans who choose not to use public transportation to get to and from arenas. Parking is cheap ($7) and close (the walk is less than three minutes) to the arena. Traffic coming and going moves quickly, giving the feel of a small town in a major market. Add warm weather to the winter mix, and it's a home run. Parking, often a hassle going to games, sets a positive tone for the night in this town.

Entertainment: Hip Heat, Warriors' 'Time Out'

The Laker Girls live up to their billing, but the Miami Heat team is cutting edge and the best-kept secret in the league.

The Heat dancers are well-drilled and hip, just not as hyped as the famed Laker Girls.

The most unique take in the league in entertainment, however, belongs to the Golden State Warriors. Hence, their slogan: "Warriors Basketball It's A Great Time Out." In the last three years, they've cranked the volume down on timeout gigs, allowing the game to rule the night.

One regular feature: a live band that plays during selected timeouts and entertains with a mini-concert at halftime. The Temptations once appeared. The music is mostly Motown, 1980s and pop hits that club President Robert Rowell says are "easier on the ears."

The stage is at the top of the lower bowl, in the end zone. Also different: the Internet Cafe, next to the stage, where fans can pop up, get on the Internet for e-mails and not miss a dunk. "We can't control what happens for 48 minutes on the court, but we can control what does happen for 2 hours outside the court," Rowell says.

Concessions: Good buys

Atlanta has some of the best prices from $3.50 32-ounce sodas to $125 team jerseys to free-but-informative programs and a warm concourse with a walkway named Hawk Way. "It's very colorful and inviting," said Brandi Wilson, 14.

Even the trash cans basketball-painted openings atop net-like cans add to atmosphere. Stock market quotes are flashed in one area and up-to-date scores in another.

The concourse, second only in atmosphere to San Antonio, features TVs at every concession stand and numerous ones hanging from pillars in the middle of the walkway.

Food offerings run the gamut, from barbecue to pizza, sandwiches to hot dogs.

A closer look at Eastern Conference arenas

1. Indiana

Overall ranking: 2.

Game: Pacers 93, Miami 91 (OT).

Attendance: 18,345 of 18,345.

Fan view: How basketball-crazed are Indiana fans? Even their fans can shoot. A teen thrilled the crowd by hitting five three-pointers in 45 seconds during a promotion. Conseco Fieldhouse is the NBA's most unique building. Step into a huge lobby with old-fashioned ticket windows, then walk up the steps and back in time.

2. Philadelphia

Overall ranking: 3.

Game: Sixers 96, Orlando 86.

Attendance: 17,457 of 20,294.

Fan view: The $50 ticket was only 11 rows from the court behind the basket in the middle of the toughest fans in the NBA. Philly fans who once booed Santa Claus booed one of their own on this day a fan who couldn't make a layup during a shooting contest.

3. Detroit

Overall ranking: 5.

Game: Pistons 97, New York 88.

Attendance: 22,076 of 22,076.

Fan view: Fan enthusiasm is among the best in the league. On a snowy Tuesday in February, the place was sold out. A local deejay known only as Mason cranks the fans up with his distinctive style. He introduces Chauncey Billups as "Bip Bip Billups" and Ben Wallace as "Ba-Ba-Ba Ben Wallace." Celebrity regulars include Kid Rock, Bob Seger and Tommy Hearns, making Detroit third in star power only to the Lakers and Knicks.

4. Atlanta

Overall ranking: 7.

Game: Denver 100, Hawks 96.

Attendance: 19,043 of 19,445.

Fan view: Two nice touches distinguish this on-hard-times franchise: The old scoreboard from the Omni that hangs in the concourse, fully functional, and Spirit The Hawk, who makes a flying entrance from the rafters before player introductions.

5. Miami

Overall ranking: 9.

Game: Heat 105, Golden State 96.

Attendance: 19,078 of 19,600.

Fan view: Miami's lights-out player introductions are old hat in the league these days, but the Heat bring a new-age twist with Shaq & Co. shown on the video screen emerging out of a limo with Latin music blaring. Stroll the concourse and there is something for every culture; Thai, Mexican, Colombian and Japanese food are featured.

6. Cleveland

Overall ranking: 10.

Game: Cavaliers 98, Indiana 86.

Attendance: 20,562 of 20,562.

Fan view: The Cavs sell only one NBA authentic jersey in their team store. LeBron James is king here; his No. 23 is everywhere in the arena from little girls to adult men.

7. Charlotte

Overall ranking: 13.

Game: Bobcats 94, Denver 88.

Attendance: 11,754 of 23,319.

Fan view: The half-empty arena was mixed with cheers for visiting Carmelo Anthony. A number of fans attended wearing his Nuggets or Syracuse jersey. The expansion team will open a much-needed new downtown arena next season.

8. Chicago

Overall ranking: 22.

Game: Bulls 90, Milwaukee 85.

Attendance: 20,042 of 21,711.

Fan view: Bands entertained on every level before the game. The $5, information-packed program is worth the cost. Even better: The Bulls' pregame player introductions, much-copied in the '90s, still bring chills with the famous, "And now, "youuuur" Chicago Bulls!" intro.

9. Orlando

Overall ranking: 23.

Game: Golden State 113, Magic 109.

Attendance: 12,121 of 17,283.

Fan view: The scoreboard provided bare essentials, and the video screen flashed out-of-town scores only once during the game. On the plus side: The Magic Dance Team is also the Greet Team, meeting fans on the concourse as they arrive. "Performing for the fans you have met makes it more personal," Dana Weber says. James Frederick, 70, says, "It makes them real people."

10. New York

Overall ranking: 24.

Game: Knicks 110, L.A. Clippers 98.

Attendance: 19,763 of 19,763.

Fan view: Madison Square Garden, one of the NBA's marquee venues, had the feel of a corporate crowd. The influx of tourists with ticket availability in recent down years has added to the watered-down feeling. However, Knicks dancers rate among the best, and flashing closing market prices on the scoreboard make this place different.

11. Toronto

Overall ranking: 25.

Game: Atlanta 116, Raptors 112 (OT).

Attendance: 17,890 of 19,800.

Fan view: Stanley Cup banners dominate the arena. This is hockey country, but fan enthusiasm is perceptible. They know their hoops. And why not? Basketball's birthplace is Springfield, Mass., but it was invented by a Canadian, James Naismith.

12. Milwaukee

Overall ranking: 26.

Game: Bucks 105, Atlanta 101.

Attendance: 13,117 of 18,717.

Fan view: The skinny seat with cramped leg room is perhaps the least comfortable in the league. Plane seats are more comfortable. Like their team, the fans were playing out the season. The crowd had no more life than the Bucks.

13. Boston

Overall ranking: 27.

Game: Celtics 90, Portland 88.

Attendance: 13,346 of 18,624.

Fan view: There were almost 5,000 empty seats, but there was a pulse in the arena, where basketball rules over entertainment. By design, the Celtics are the only team in the league without a dance team.

14. Washington

Overall ranking: 29.

Game: Wizards 110, Boston 105 (OT).

Attendance: 14,613 of 20,173.

Fan view: Even during a turnaround season, a small contingent of fans rooted for the visiting Celtics on this night. Also unsettling: Washington hangs WNBA attendance championship banners. Since when do they give out rings for attendance titles?

15. New Jersey

Overall ranking: 30.

Game: Dallas 94, Nets 78.

Attendance: 12,925 of 19,680.

Fan view: The $45 ticket was in the last row of the nosebleed section at center court. Up here, the NBA isn't larger than life; it's a small man's game. Pulling double duty is Gary Sussman, who serves as the Nets vice president of public relations and public address announcer.

A closer look at Western Conference arenas

1. Denver

Overall ranking: 1.

Game: Houston 116, Nuggets 98.

Attendance: 18,227 of 19,077.

Fan view: My seat, six rows off the court in the corner of the end zone, included a food server. Mascot Rocky is on the "A" list of entertainers, but he's topped in his building by 10-year-old Austin Pawelka, who introduces the Nuggets in a voice that rocks the arena.

2. Phoenix

Overall ranking: 4.

Game: Suns 118, Golden State 104.

Attendance: 14,272 of 18,422.

Fan view: Top-flight entertainment included The Gorilla, the NBA's top mascot, the dance team and the Dancing Dads, a time-out show featuring a dozen older, out-of-shape men. Ex-player Cedric Ceballos adds to the atmosphere as the hip host with a microphone.

3. New Orleans

Overall ranking: 6.

Game: Memphis 98, Hornets 91.

Attendance: 11,610 of 17,200.

Fan view: This is the only arena where a prayer is read before every game. Owner George Shinn, who moved the Hornets and his pregame prayer ritual from Charlotte, says: "I grew up in the Bible Belt. My mom always taught me to give thanks and be grateful and have faith." New Orleans is primarily Catholic, not Bible Belt, so some don't take to the prayer reading. Louis Shepard says: "This is not the place for that. We have church on Sundays for that."

4. Sacramento

Overall ranking: 8.

Game: Kings 113, Portland 107.

Attendance: 17,317 of 17,317.

Fan view: Kings fans love their team and raise the roof cheering, which is good because the arena, built in the mid-1980s, provides little else to cheer about. The lack of ample concession stands makes for lines four to five deep. Upper deck seats are hard rubber.

5. Golden State

Overall ranking: 11.

Game: Warriors 107, Denver 97.

Attendance: 15,591 of 19,596.

Fan view: The Warriors provide cutting-edge entertainment with a live band and Internet Cafe among the highlights. Big time-out hit: Bubble Vision, in which fans' warped faces are flashed on the video screen.

6. Houston

Overall ranking: 12.

Game: Rockets 92, Atlanta 69.

Attendance: 9,960 of 17,974.

Fan view: Concession stands offered the usual, plus a Crunch Time Salad Bar, where a salad is mixed while you wait. The Rockets take a step back in time, however, with a card handout with rosters on the back in place of a program.

7. Seattle

Overall ranking: 14.

Game: Sonics 122, Utah 105.

Attendance: 16,823 of 17,072.

Fan view: Incredibly, no out-of-town scores are provided, a major disservice to fans. Unwisely, TV screens are positioned behind waiting lines at concession stands. Naturally, there is an espresso bar in the concourse featuring Starbucks the company's chairman, Howard Schultz, owns the team.

8. San Antonio

Overall ranking: 15.

Game: Spurs 116, Cleveland 97.

Attendance: 18,797 of 18,797.

Fan view: The SBC Center scoreboard is among the best in the league, offering what most others don't a listing of all players, not just the five on the court, with running totals for points, fouls, assists and rebounds.

9. Portland

Overall ranking: 16.

Game: Trail Blazers 107, San Antonio 99.

Attendance: 15,575 of 19,980.

Fan view: The Blazers treat their fans to a smorgasbord of stats, a rarity in the NBA. At each end of the arena, full rosters of players' statistics were available, featuring points, rebounds, assists and fouls. A hustle board tracks team blocks, rebounds and steals. Another bonus: the sizzle/fizzle board tracking assists, fast-break points, points in the paint, second-chance points, three-pointers, charges taken, dunks, turnovers, points lost on turnovers, missed free throws, technicals, fouls, air balls and goaltending.

10. L.A. Lakers

Overall ranking: 17.

Game: Lakers 99, Nuggets 91.

Attendance: 18,997 of 18,997.

Fan view: The $75 ticket was the lowest-priced ticket in the lower bowl; tickets in the upper bowl range from $10 to $35. There was a buzz in the building, but not like the Kobe-Shaq years. Most entertainment revolves around the Laker Girls, who are promoted on the video screen almost as much as the players themselves.

11. L.A. Clippers

Overall ranking: 18.

Game: Clippers 87, Philadelphia 83.

Attendance: 16,113 of 18,964.

Fan view: Cheers for visiting Allen Iverson were a slap in the face to the Clippers. The team ran out of $5 programs before tip-off, a slap in the face to fans.

12. Minnesota

Overall ranking: 19.

Game: Golden State 99, Timberwolves 93.

Attendance: 15,074 of 19,356.

Fan view: There was no buzz in the building. One of the biggest responses from the smallest crowd of the season came in the fourth quarter when fans booed their own underachieving team for blowing an 11-point lead to lowly Golden State.

13. Utah

Overall ranking: 20.

Game: Jazz 97, San Antonio 96.

Attendance: 18,325 of 19,911.

Fan view: The Delta Center, like America West in Phoenix and Conseco Fieldhouse in Indiana, is a basketball-only arena that provides an intimate feel. With a balcony that nearly overhangs the court in the upper deck, you feel on top of the action. Not surprisingly, fan enthusiasm is high.

14. Memphis

Overall ranking: 21.

Game: Grizzlies 108, Phoenix 97.

Attendance: 16,637 of 18,119.

Fan view: Public parking is limited and a five-minute hike away. It's worth the walk, however. You feel like you're entering a foyer, not an arena, when you step inside. The concourse is decked with pictures of music greats. Elvis, of course, leads the parade.

15. Dallas

Overall ranking: 26.

Game: Golden State 111, Mavericks 107.

Attendance: 19,561 of 19,561.

Fan view: Security was among tightest in the league. Every fan went through an airport-like security scanner. A minus: TVs were on opposite wall of concession stands, making it difficult to follow the game.

04-13-2005, 02:30 PM

NBA arenas: Fantastic or not?

By Greg Boeck, USA TODAY

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Boeck sat and ate in all 29 NBA venues to find the best place to see a pro game. His pick? Denver. But be sure to check out our interactive graphic to get his thoughts, observations and cash layouts from all 30 games he attended.)

Denver's Pepsi Center tops USA TODAY's list as the NBA's fan-friendliest arena.

By Evan Semon, for USA TODAY

DENVER The arena lights dimmed, signaling the start of player introductions for another NBA game this one between the Houston Rockets and hometown Denver Nuggets. I braced for another theatrically produced video-screen display, complete with a slick, ear-piercing soundtrack, maybe even some indoor pyrotechnics.

That's the usual stuff I experienced on visits to all 29 of the NBA's arenas as a fan, not a reporter, in search of the most fan-friendly franchise in a league that bills itself as FAN-tastic.

Only on this night in Denver, the unusual unfolded. A gravelly, growling voice on the public-address system grabbed the crowd's full attention. I looked to the court, and even the players long immune to such pregame hyperbole were all ears as Austin Pawelka began to introduce the home team.

Pawelka, who said he wants to be the next Michael Buffer boxing's booming baritone announcer dramatically set the table for the most singular night I experienced as a fan in the NBA. All this from a skinny, blondish 10-year-old.

From Pawelka, the kid wonder Nuggets players playfully call "Little Man," to in-your-seat food service even in a non-premium location, Denver is clearly the most fan-friendly place in the NBA, according to a USA TODAY ranking of all 30 teams.

I felt comfortable even before stepping inside Denver's Pepsi Center: Parking was close, a three-minute walk, and reasonably priced at $10. Inside, although the Nuggets weren't very entertaining in a loss to the Rockets, Rocky The Mountain Lion, the mascot who sinks shots from midcourt with his back to the basket, was.

Indiana, with a throwback atmosphere in Conseco Fieldhouse, and Philadelphia, with a roomy, cushioned seat just 11 rows behind one basket, tied for second in the USA TODAY ranking. New Jersey, even with Mrs. Fields Cookies available in an otherwise stale atmosphere, finished dead last.

During a 43,020-mile odyssey by plane and car from November to March Around the League in 124 Days my goal was to purchase $50 tickets to each arena, then explore what fans get for their money. While the average ticket I bought cost $51, they ranged from $38.50 to $75.

I rated the fan-friendliness of each arena in five categories. Seating was weighted 40%; parking, fan involvement, entertainment and concessions were 15% each.

"I love this game," the NBA proudly boasts in print and broadcast advertising campaigns. It's a claim largely supported, I found, by the paying customers. I thought fans would feel ripped off by today's ticket prices. Instead, fans who forked over $50 for seats that ranged from New Orleans' prime location to New Jersey's last-row-in-the-nosebleed-section felt they got good value for their money.

The NBA's chest-pounding also is supported in part by record attendance. The league is on pace to top the records for total and average attendance. During the 1995-96 regular season, when Michael Jordan returned to the NBA, 20,513,218 fans attended games, 17,252 per contest. This season, NBA arenas are playing to 90% capacity. Through Monday's games, the average attendance was 17,248.

On the unsettling side, however, fans I sat with appeared far more enamored of the NBA experience "great theater," Boston Celtics fan Alan Beauchamp called the collision of high-speed sport and high-energy entertainment than the NBA players. A vocal group of fans felt today's players need an attitude adjustment.

"Spoiled brats," New Jersey Nets fan Bob Martin called them. Too much showboating, some said. Too little professionalism, others piped in. David Thompson, a Charlotte Bobcats fan, said the players "are taking it for granted."

The criticism didn't surprise NBA Commissioner David Stern. "Our players are far better than their reputations," he said. "We have to work together with our players to improve that."

Nuggets once 'very unpopular'

In Denver, club officials aren't taking their fans for granted. It wasn't always like this. When Kiki Vandeweghe became general manager four years ago, he found the team "disenfranchised" from the community.

By Evan Semon, for USA TODAY

Ten-year-old Austin Pawelka, who announces the starting lineups in Denver with a signature gravelly voice, is one of the Pepsi Center's big attractions.

"Our team was very unpopular," he said. "Honestly, I didn't even like the experience at the game."

The Nuggets have turned their mission statement "to make the fans proud of our team and the games fun" into reality. Across the board, Denver scored well in every category second in seating, fifth in concessions, sixth in parking and fan involvement and 12th in entertainment.

My $55 ticket provided a seat six rows off the court in the corner of the end zone that I ranked second only in value and location to the seat I had in New Orleans that cost $51 and was an aisle away from club seats priced at $135.

The Denver location even included a food server, a major bonus for a seat not in the premium sections. I felt like the calendar had been turned back to the 1980s in terms of what I got for my money.

That wasn't the case everywhere I went. The most extreme example came during a visit to the Staples Center, home of the legendary Los Angeles Lakers and often-laughable Los Angeles Clippers.

They share the same arena but little else. On a January Sunday when the Clippers played in the afternoon and the Lakers followed that night, I chose to sit in virtually the same area in the lower concourse to get a comparison of costs, atmosphere and celebrity star power. For the Clippers game, I was in Section 219, Row 3, Seat 3; for the Lakers I was in Section 215, Row 12, Seat 12.

The scorecard:

Clippers ticket: $51.75. Lakers ticket: $75. On a larger budget, flamboyant NBA fan Jim Goldstein owns the same courtside season ticket for both teams. Clippers cost: $750. Lakers: $2,000.

Kenny Loggins sang the national anthem for the Lakers. I'd never heard of the woman who sang for the Clippers.

Fan enthusiasm? Without Shaquille O'Neal, the buzz is missing for the Lakers in Staples, but at least the fans rooted for the home team. Cheers for visiting Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia 76ers were heard at the Clippers game, a slap in the face to the home team.

"When you live in L.A., you're a Lakers fan," Lakers fan Steve Galluzzoi told me. "The Clippers are OK, but they are more or less the JV team here."


Not many comfortable seats

That was the same feeling I experienced watching a game in Milwaukee. The Bradley Center is out of the 1980s, but the seats feel like they were built in the 1880s. I had an excellent view of the court from my corner end-zone seat, but the skinny seat and cramped legroom made it perhaps the most uncomfortable seat in the league.

Granted, at 6-2 I didn't find many comfortable seats. The biggest exception: Indiana, where the seats are wider than average.

Most of my seats 21 of 30 were in the lower bowl or mezzanine level. Nine were in the nosebleed section, ranging in price from $38.50 in Sacramento to $55 in Boston, the only arena where a fan called the price "highway robbery."

"This seat should cost $25," Beauchamp said.

My most distant view came in New Jersey, where a $45 ticket put me at center court in the last row of the arena. Up there, the NBA isn't larger than life; it's a small man's game at that altitude. I needed binoculars. Thank goodness for video screens.

My seatmate didn't flinch, however.

"I love my seat," Martin said. "It's center court, straight ahead."

Vaudeville alive and well

Denver is typical of NBA teams a break in the action rarely means a break in the activity during games. Vaudeville is alive and well in the NBA, which even brings its fans and, sometimes, its referees into various acts.

Every team except Boston has a dance team by design, the old-school Celtics promote basketball first and every team except the New York Knicks has a mascot. Sorry, Laker Girls, but the Miami Heat dancers are cutting edge, the best-kept secrets in the NBA.

Miami fan Graziella Doino was watching the Heat dancers perform when I asked her what she'd like to change about the NBA. She didn't hesitate: "I'm a woman. Where are the men dancers?"

Why, they're in Phoenix. You have to see the Dancing Dads to believe them overweight, middle-aged men performing a choreographed (well, almost) routine. They don't appear regularly, but they're quite a contrast to the skimpily clad Suns Dancers.

Mascot Rocky is a huge hit with the younger fans in Denver, especially when he swishes a shot from midcourt with his back to the basket.

Youth, I found, prevails in the league and not just on the court, where teens are bolting from their proms to the pros. Teenage boys and girls dug the NBA perhaps even more than adults, though the music varied from 1960s classics to hip-hop hits.

Beth Hollowed, 16, is typical of the young fans I encountered. "There are not words to explain how much I love NBA games," she said. She makes the trip from her Meeker, Colo., home several times a year to watch the Nuggets.


Rank, team Fan-friendly score (scale of 1 to 6, score of 6 being the best)

1. Denver 4.16
2T. Indiana 4.14
2T. Philadelphia 4.14
4. Phoenix 4.11
5. Detroit 4.05
6. New Orleans 3.98
7. Atlanta 3.90
8. Sacramento 3.79
9. Miami 3.77
10T. Cleveland 3.72
10T. Golden State 3.72
12. Houston 3.67
13T. Charlotte 3.65
13T. Seattle 3.65
15T. San Antonio 3.62
15T. Portland 3.62
17. L.A. Lakers 3.57
18. L.A. Clippers 3.54
19. Minnesota 3.51
20. Utah 3.46
21. Memphis 3.42
22. Chicago 3.37
23. Orlando 3.33
24T. Milwaukee 3.28
24T. New York 3.28
24T. Toronto 3.28
27. Dallas 3.24
28. Boston 3.11
29. Washington 2.94
30. New Jersey 2.82


The cost of attending an NBA game is steep for a family of four. Based on a $50 ticket and the USA TODAY-calculated average cost of:
4 tickets $200
2 caps $41.32
4 sodas $20.36
4 hot dogs $14.54
Parking $13.19
2 programs $4.74
TOTAL $294.15

The best mascot in the league? The Phoenix Suns' Gorilla slam dunks off a trampoline and scoots around on a Harley-Davidson on the court.

The Suns also feature one of the best masters of ceremonies. Cedric Ceballos, a former NBA player, conducts contests, oversees promotions and introduces celebs at courtside with a flair unmatched around the league.

During a break at the game I attended, Ceballos coaxed team owner Robert Sarver out of his courtside seat to center court, where he was unceremoniously hurled feet-first, via a giant slingshot, into a set of rubber garbage cans.

That was the most outrageous act I saw on my tour, but the most eye-popping came in Salt Lake City at a Utah Jazz game. Between quarters, a fan was selected to throw footballs at a target high in the lower bowl. The reward: a trip to the Super Bowl. The fan wasn't close on two attempts. Neither was the mascot, the Bear. So he turned to NBA referee Ron Olesiak for help.

Olesiak promptly threw a bull's-eye with a Peyton Manning-like touchdown heave that brought the house down. Turns out the act was staged, and very well, at that; Olesiak, a former semipro football player and minor league baseball player, often is enlisted by the Bear to participate in skits when he comes to town.

"Got lucky," Olesiak said with a laugh when I talked to him later.

Despite Olesiak's efforts, no Super Bowl tickets for the fan.

Love that KissCam

There is a staple of cookie-cutter entertainment promos used widely in the league, but I found one universal truth: Fans love to see themselves on the video screen. Regardless of the promo the KissCam is the most popular they smile, wave and mug for all to see.

"It's our 15 seconds of fame," New Orleans Hornets fan Louis Shepard said.

"You've made the big time," Bonnie Wade, a Detroit Pistons fan, told me.

The Nuggets also use their video screen for a bonus I didn't see in any other arenas: When a player leaves the game with an injury, the type of injury is posted information that is normally shared only with radio and television audiences.

Maybe that's one reason Nuggets fans are into the game; there was a continual buzz in the building during the game I saw and they lost on this January night 116-98.

However, in terms of intensity, no fans match the frenzy of the Sacramento Kings die-hards.

I felt like I was back at my alma mater, Kentucky, with the roof-raising excitement generated in the older arena. Little wonder. The Kings are the only game in town.

Salad and french fries

I sampled concessions from clam chowder in Boston (average, at best) to Starbucks coffee in Seattle (where else?) to warm beer in New York's Madison Square Garden (politely exchanged by the concessionaire, no questions asked).

The best treat I had, however, came in Houston, where the Crunch Time Salad Bar served up a $6.75 salad mixed while I waited. It was in Charlotte, however, where I enjoyed the best-tasting calories in the league Bojangle's french fries.

After the brawl in Detroit last November between Pistons fans and Pacers players, I noticed a closer monitoring of alcohol consumption everywhere.

But Boston stood out. The same vendor asked for my ID (I'm 56) both times I appeared for a beer. I even saw a fan busted by security for trying to purchase a third beer after buying the two-beer limit. A guard caught him after he asked a stranger to watch his two beers while he headed back to the beer stand for a third.

That was noteworthy, but outside of Denver's total experience, nothing left a more lasting impression on me than the colorful concourse at the SBC Center in San Antonio. It was a socializing and dining delight, with stops to get a massage, a margarita or even a spit shine. I felt like I was at a sports bar with live action.

So what's it all mean? The NBA isn't hoops heaven, not when you get stuck in the postgame traffic jam I encountered in New Jersey. Or fork over $22 to park in Boston. Or find they've run out of programs at a Clippers game.

But it's close, especially at Conseco Fieldhouse, home of the Pacers in Indianapolis. Architects nailed a three-pointer combining a cozy, old-school look that takes you back in time with ahead-of-the-curve amenities that include glass tabletops in a bar perched on a rim with a net underneath.

Bottom line: Warts and all, the NBA largely lives up to its fan-friendly boast. NBA fans actually have something to cheer about besides the home team. Sometimes even in the nosebleed section.

Winners of individual categories

Although Denver was the overall winner, the Nuggets did not finish on top of any category in the USA TODAY search for the most fan-friendly arena. The individual winners, category by category:

Category Team Comment

Seat New Orleans In a $51 seat, you could almost touch the players.
Fan involvement Sacramento Clearly the most rabid fans; the Kings have had 266 consecutive sellouts.

Entertainment Miami Dance team is league's best-kept secret with its glamorous costumes and well-choreographed routines.

Concessions Atlanta Great prices $3.50 32-ounce soda, $125 team jerseys, free but informative programs.

Parking Phoenix Cheap ($7) and, unlike at other venues, you can park less than a three-minute walk from the arena.

How we did it

USA TODAY ranked each franchise in five categories, with 40% weight given to the seat and 15% each to parking, entertainment, fan involvement and concessions. Criteria in each category were rated on a scale of 6 to 1. The scale: 6 wow, 5 superior, 4 above average, 3 average, 2 below average, 1 inferior. The criteria, within each category:

Seat: Cost, location and value; comfort (legroom, cushions, cup holders).

Fan involvement: Basketball enthusiasm and IQ.

Entertainment: Originality and entertainment value of timeout skits, dance
team, mascot, scoreboard.

Concessions: Concession stands' availability, service and TV screens;
concourse atmosphere; hot dog and soda costs; restroom availability, cleanliness and wait time; program cost and information; cost of authentic NBA jersey and cap; ticket line and speed; demeanor of security personnel.
Parking: Cost, safety, time in and out, distance.

04-13-2005, 02:31 PM

NBA fans speak their minds
USA TODAY's Greg Boeck collected some fan observations during his odyssey around the NBA:
"There's no show time here. This is like in-the-gym basketball. There are no cheerleaders, no splashy stuff, no heavy-duty rock 'n' roll. It's pure basketball." Alan Beauchamp, 54, Boston Celtics fan

"The price would be a lot better if the Knicks had a better team. I've sat here for $60 and watched them score 29 points in a half."

Scott Cortnoy, 29, New York Knicks fan

"I spend about $120 a game. It's a lot, but it's worth it. The entertainment is all cool, hip-hop."

Roy Mitchell, 42, Philadelphia 76ers fan with two season tickets

"I'd rather watch college basketball. College players aren't paid, and so they want to play. NBA players don't have that hunger."

Stan Shkolnik, 21, Washington Wizards fan

"I like the athleticism of the players. I don't like the lack of intensity on defense in the regular season. The NBA isn't so fantastic then."

Ty Millen, 40, Phoenix Suns fan

"I used to like the NBA better when the scoring was higher. I'm not a big fan of defense, grabbing, clutching, wrestling, low scoring. I come to watch the game. Cheerleaders, mascots, halftime entertainment, they're completely a waste. I see no value in it. I don't like it."

Bruce Anton, 50, Dallas Mavericks fan

"I love basketball, but the players are getting out of control, reckless."

Gerald Delcastillo, 26,Los Angeles Clippers fan

"A lot of these guys have lost touch with reality. They've lost touch with the fans. They don't care as much about the entertainment for the fans as about getting paid. That incident in Detroit was despicable."

Steve Galluzzoi, 32, Los Angeles Lakers fan

"I don't like the showboating of the players. They should just play."

Alibia Yfhijima, 31, Golden State Warriors fan

"I get my money's worth. This seat is good because you can see both sides of the court."

Rich Everts, 49,Sacramento Kings fan in an upper-level seat

"I'm from Europe, and this is the only American sport I enjoy. It moves, keeps on moving and moving."

Graziella Doino, Miami Heat fan

"The game appeals to young people because it inspires young people to do things. I know a lot of people who play basketball, and watching the NBA players play motivates them 'Oh, I want to be like him.' "

Brandi Wilson, 14, Atlanta Hawks fan

"I love the talent, the fast pace; it's thrilling. The dunks and the stunts. And winning the ring that was a big bonus."

Bonnie Wade, 41, fan of the defending NBA champion Detroit Pistons

"The players are not thankful for what they have. They're not playing because they love the game. It's just their job now. NBA players don't realize how good they have it. If you're a little banged up, be out there, make it happen, because it's a job. I come to work sick."

Benjamin Kleiman, 25, Chicago Bulls fan

04-13-2005, 02:34 PM

04-13-2005, 02:42 PM
I used to like the NBA better when the scoring was higher. I'm not a big fan of defense......

I'm utterly shocked this came out of the mouth of a Mavs fan....

04-13-2005, 02:46 PM
I'm utterly shocked this came out of the mouth of a Mavs fan....

I always love to read some fans say, "they never play any defense in the NBA" and then other fans say, "There is too much defense".

04-13-2005, 02:47 PM
Are you kidding me?

I've been to games in the Pepsi Center, and if it doesn't look like the Pacers will be playing here in Chicago for the first round, then I might go to another game there next week.

But that place is 'okay' at best. I would rank that place tied with Gund Arena, at the very highest.

04-13-2005, 02:53 PM
Are you kidding me?

I've been to games in the Pepsi Center, and if it doesn't look like the Pacers will be playing here in Chicago for the first round, then I might go to another game there next week.

But that place is 'okay' at best. I would rank that place tied with Gund Arena, at the very highest.

If you look at criteria, there are a lot of other things that go into the ranking than just how appealing the arena looks. The Palace came in 4th and that arena was built 20 years ago.

Conseco doesn't come in very high as far as decible level, and bells and whistles are concerned. I've been there twice, and neither time was it very noisy at all. I also could have sworn that noise was being ABSORBED by the walls, rather than being amplified.

If you look at the Fleet Center, a major factor in them finishing 28th was their lack of a dance team.

04-13-2005, 02:54 PM
Conseco is nice, no doubt, but it's a little too quiet.

Los Angeles
04-13-2005, 02:55 PM
I can't wait to hear someone claim that we were not given the overall #1 rank because of "anti-pacers bias."


04-13-2005, 03:06 PM
If you look at criteria, there are a lot of other things that go into the ranking than just how appealing the arena looks. The Palace came in 4th and that arena was built 20 years ago.

Conseco doesn't come in very high as far as decible level, and bells and whistles are concerned. I've been there twice, and neither time was it very noisy at all. I also could have sworn that noise was being ABSORBED by the walls, rather than being amplified.

If you look at the Fleet Center, a major factor in them finishing 28th was their lack of a dance team.

From my experiences, I'd probably rate CFH just a tick ahead of the Palace and America West - those are three great places to watch a game.

To me, those three arenas, which were configured around a basketball court's dimensions and play hockey in an "offcenter" configuration, are far superior to any of the arenas configured around a hockey rink.

We watched Mitch Richmond and McDyess get into a second-half shootout at the Pepsi Center, but Dan Issel wasn't leading that team anywhere and you could've heard a pin drop in spite of a fascinating on-court performance.

04-13-2005, 03:25 PM
How can we not be #1?

Bunch of anti-hoosier idiots that don't know what they're doing. ;)

04-13-2005, 04:01 PM
Conseco isn't nearly as loud as MSA was - that old concrete heap echoed. The crowd may be a little different too but that's hard to say. Still a nice arena though Sunday they had so many promos going on that you couldn't have looked at the mexhibits if you'd wanted to.

When I saw the bit on Suns parking I thought, "Last Sunday I parked for $3.00 and I doubt I was more than 5 minutes from the entrance."

04-13-2005, 04:05 PM
Yeah, but five minutes during an Indianapolis winter vs. lounging around in the warmpth of Phoenix.

Eh, AWA is an all-around great place to watch a game, too.

04-13-2005, 04:33 PM
I'm utterly shocked this came out of the mouth of a Mavs fan....

I always love to read some fans say, "they never play any defense in the NBA" and then other fans say, "There is too much defense".
Remember when hand checking was an issue? Now players deliver a forearm to their defender on the way to the basket. Maybe that's some of the issue for the Mavs fan. I like defense. What I don't care for is all the touching that has come to mean defense.

04-13-2005, 04:41 PM
Conseco is nice, no doubt, but it's a little too quiet.

The crowds have been getting ready for the playoffs. The last few games have been pretty loud.........

04-13-2005, 04:51 PM
wow man, great read and great to hear that Indiana rules! I wish i lived there :(

04-13-2005, 04:58 PM
The crowds have been getting ready for the playoffs. The last few games have been pretty loud.........

The game Sunday wasn't bad but it still doesn't compare to MSA.

Los Angeles
04-13-2005, 05:09 PM
It's not that hard or expensive to get a few sound-reflective surfaces up into the rafters at CFH. Think of it like a band shell for the ceiling. They could even be raised and lowered to accomodate different events when the P's aren't playing.

04-13-2005, 05:13 PM
The two guys who went on the ultimate sports road trip ranked Conseco as number one.......It's by far the most beautiful facility in the league.

04-13-2005, 05:47 PM
One wonders why the fees for Boston parking lots are so high. Do they have trouble building those too?

04-13-2005, 06:54 PM
The game Sunday wasn't bad but it still doesn't compare to MSA.

Yeah, I remember going to a game against the Kansas City Kings where the curtains were lowered and there were about 2,000 people in there. The silence was deafening........:-p

04-13-2005, 06:59 PM
Yeah, I remember going to a game against the Kansas City Kings where the curtains were lowered and there were about 2,000 people in there. The silence was deafening........:-p

Yeah, but Oscar Meyer night, vs. Cleveland back in 1983 was raucus. Remember, you got in free if you had mustard on your tie. Jay's_Dad@Section204 was still teaching P.E., so his tie selection was out-of-date, even for 1983 standards, so the guy at the ticket window didn't believe there was mustard on the tie until he actually took a sniff.

Sure, the curtians were down, and the those two teams combined for fewer wins than either team will have this season, but all 4,000 fans probably got into that game for free - there were no corporate stiffs that night.