I watched Game 1 of the NBA Finals from extremely expensive seats in Oracle Arena, but I didn’t see J.R. Smith’s towering goof.
I mean, I did. I saw it, through the eyeballs stuck fast in my gaunt, internet-traumatized skull, but I did not acknowledge it with the same level of sheer mediated fury that the rest of the world brought to it. I have since seen what it looked like on TV—LeBron’s disbelief, his empty hands held out seemingly for hours, his pained expression looping in slow-motion again and again. I can say that, in the hilariously expensive seats at Oracle Arena from which I watched the first game of the NBA Finals, somehow everyone around us missed it. The guy behind me, who had been narrating the game like Randy Newman throughout, could only mumble that J.R. Smith “fucked up.” LeBron held out his arms in the universal signal of “what was that?” for all of two seconds as he was walking off the court. And that was that. Everyone—on the court and around me in the Fancy Man section of the arena—was already milling around, just as they did at the end of every quarter.
I’d opted for what were contextually “cheap” courtside club seats, thanks both to a presale code I had available and some honest-to-god curiosity about what it was that all the fancy men in their fancy suits did in the soon-to-be-banned-by-Donald-Trump BMW Club.
The answer, I can report, is “yell.”
While the Sideline Club has the feeling of an upscale Red Robin—this is not an insult, I assure you—the Courtside Club is a claustrophobic monument to everything sports shouldn’t be. The place was wall-to-wall gingham, with tables pushed against the wall and 300 people in effectively identical clothes trying to get to one tiny, expensive bar while grasping plates of weirdly not-sports food—there were cannolis, but also truffle macaroni and cheese. I spent 15 minutes trying to find a plate and was told by a hostess who was weirdly unruffled given that she was almost totally surrounded that A) I needed a table, B) I needed to make a reservation in the future and C) that would be $60 please. I frowned, and she added “and it’ll be a ten minute wait.”
It was at this point that a man bumped into me, mumbling “FUCKIN’ CHRIST” as he spilled his top-shelf margarita all over his All Birds. He stood silently, I think expecting me to apologize, before shambling away mumbling curses under his breath. There in the VC mosh-pit there was nothing to do in there but meander and spend money, and some people were doing it more violently than others. I heard a man say that he was “going to cum” he was so excited about the game, but never got to hear precisely why.
To get to the courtside club section, you will have to walk around the court itself, which you can do on a walkway just above the floor seats. This is the province of a different kind of security guard exists—incredibly stern-faced men and women in suits, people with earpieces who will lock eyes with you and stare deep into your soul if they catch you stopping to look at something in the walkway. Do not stare at the basketball, they will tell you. You are here to walk, you are not here to look.
About a quarter into the game, I began doing what I usually do, which is aimlessly fucking around with apps. A few years ago I’d wondered if it was possible to game the Warriors in-seat upgrade service in order to get good value. I quickly discovered that it wasn’t, with a slight upgrade into a worse section costing $900 to $2000 a ticket. My friend, a fellow Brit, gently chided me for using an app during the game, which is broadly fair. But I have long had a theory that ticket prices would speak to the excitement for this series. I was not just booping around on my phone. I was testing a hypothesis.
Last year, when I first tested this out at Game 5, tickets were astonishingly expensive. This series, it turned out, had a new wrinkle through the Gametime app. Even if you are not at the game, the app makes it possible to vacuum up people’s extra seats, which they’d otherwise get nothing for, for up to an hour after the game started.
Unlike last year, there weren’t tons of seats available. More notably, the ones that were available were fucking amazing. Seat prices naturally start tumbling as the game goes on, and I watched as a pair of Section 15, A1—that is, first row in one of the two middle sections, Courtside Club—tumbled from $1000 apiece (which would still be dramatically cheaper than any Courtside or even Sideline Club would cost), to $800, then to $500, and then to $450 apiece as we entered the second half. I mashed the damn “buy” button so hard I straight up knocked my phone out of my hand, and then spent ten minutes typing things like “I’m at the game??? How do I get ticket??” to a very friendly and patient service rep through the chat function.
I briefly took a second to acknowledge that, had I waited and just bought tickets on the day I’d have gotten better seats for less money. Then I downed my gin and tonic, texted the new ticket to my friend, and walked over with the not-quite-legit-looking barcode loaded on my phone. I sat down, and immediately a giant security guard introduced himself.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hi,” I said.
There was a brief pause as he turned his perfectly rectangular head toward the game, then back to me.
“My friend is sitting there,” I said.
He narrowed his eyes in disagreement. “No he’s not. I’ve been sitting here the entire game” he said, possibly hoping that I’d just accept that the placement of his ass was his payment for the ticket.
I explained that I had just bought the seats off an app and he growled “Really? You bought them?” in a voice I immediately connected with Dril’s “TAKE OFF THOSE JEANS, CITIZEN” tweet.
“Uh...yeah...here’s the barcode” I said, somewhat worried he’d say “well I ain’t moving.”
His tone shifted immediately. “Oh man,” he said. “I’m so sorry. I just walk around and it’s nice to sit down for a bit.” He got up right away and I felt instant regret. I wanted him to sit back down and relax, given that my buddy was not yet back, but he was back on his rounds.
And I, suddenly, was near a bunch of famous people. LeBron, I can report, is eighteen feet tall! Is that Rob Lowe? Ahh, oh no, that’s Tony Robbins! Ahh, I hate it when he smiles!
My obvious and maybe slightly manic delight in the new seats led another security guard to call me over. He was not suited and distinctly not having my excitement. He made me show him not just the tickets, but also the app on which I’d bought them. He asked for an explanation of how I got them and I told him. Apparently I was either too happy or too demented or both to be sitting in an area where genuine excitement seemed to have curdled into a feeling of being owed that seat. The fans in the oligarch section were still loud, they’d still jump up when the Warriors scored, but they also spent a great deal of time fucking around on their phones for people sitting near an important basketball game in what were, at the very cheapest, $4800-a-ticket seats.
At one point, Tim Cook walked past the floor seats. Rob Lowe videoed an entire five-minute stretch of the game instead of watching it. Tony Robbins kept smiling.
It will probably not surprise you that, over the course of watching basketball up close, the human brain boggles at the sheer size of these lads. These absolute units are nigh on seven feet tall and move at insane speeds, which is something you already know. It is striking, even as these superheroes do their thing, how different LeBron is. you really got to see why LeBron was so frustrated.
In how he asserted himself—much more urgently than anyone else on either team—and how uniquely he bent the game to his will, Game 1 felt like LeBron James’ private shootout—a serious game played by a serious man in a serious way, rarely celebrating, always at least a little mad, trying his hardest while his teammates bumbled around, one man doing everything he could to win. The Warriors didn’t deserve to win, but neither did the Cavaliers. LeBron’s face was a study in silent anguish long before J.R. delivered himself of that truly heroic fuck-up.
As stupid as it sounds, I also really want to make it clear that when they hit the court floor, it makes a painful, wet thump. It’s nasty. Knowing just how big they are, and how fast they move, and seeing them hit the ground at speed made even as comparatively inconsequential an injury as the one Klay Thompson sustained in Game 1 seem infinitely worse. That near to the action, a hard-fought NBA game plays out as a series of small car accidents. I think, in retrospect, that that’s why we missed the game’s biggest moment and the birth of its most enduring meme—and why the ending may have felt very different in person than it did for those watching at home. At the end, the yellow confetti streamed from the ceiling just like it always does, and the mood (understandably skewed toward the Warriors) was positive, if not quite electric. The game had taken a lot out of everybody.
“They dominated,” someone behind me said, before rattling off a bunch of statistics in the way someone might run through a catechism. The same man then said that LeBron “kinda sucked,” a hilarious bit of extremely quick revisionist history. Nobody was talking about J.R. Smith, not one person around me. The story was that the “scrappy” Warriors—I heard the word twice!—had won against all the odds. Fans do things like this—tell themselves stories, explain inexplicable things after the fact until they make more sense.
But it only ever works so well. The Warriors were not underdogs and did not dominate; the overdogs who paid to watch them dominate left with at least a seed of anxiety in their minds and got to work talking themselves out of it. The only person who truly seemed to be beaming with his whole heart was Tony Robbins, and his 40-foot wide carnival prison smile terrifies me to this very moment. That part, at least, was worth every penny.