In Houston, I watched an elderly dance troupe called the Space City Seniors entertain the crowd during a timeout. In Charlotte, a small boy with cool sneakers stood alone in the middle of the court and played violin along with top 40 pop songs. An Argentinian circus performer in Portland hefted his brother up using just his legs. I have seen Kiss Cams in Los Angeles, Boston, Memphis, and Oklahoma City, and watched awkward teenage boys across this great nation, and in Toronto, perform the “dab” dance when they see themselves on the Jumbotron.
All of this, without leaving my couch in New York City.
In a world of nationally televised sports, the local flavor of the home team often gets lost. But thanks to some dodgy livestreams (I’ll get to that) and the NBA playoffs, it’s possible to acquaint yourself with some of the incredible hidden corners of American athletic spectacle.
It’s not legal, advisable, convenient or in any way ideal; the collateral benefits, though, are fascinating.
The playoff math alone ensures a wide geographic spread: Half the league’s teams (16) will play at least one round, in a series of between 4 and 7 games. The whole process lasts two months. Because there are so many games, in so many markets, it is not really possible to watch every single game. The NBA broadcast rights are a complete and absurdly lucrative mess, divided up between ESPN, ABC, TNT, and TNT’s sister station, NBA TV, as well as dozens of smaller regional channels that own the exclusive rights to broadcast their team within their area. (This is called a “blackout.” If you’re in, say, New York, and the Knicks are playing a game the rest of the country can watch on ESPN, with ESPN’s nice streaming options, you won’t be able to join them; you’ll have to watch on the local channel.) To watch games, you have to have basic cable, broadcast TV, and a package called NBA League Pass, which gives you access to the stuff not on basic cable.
As a result of the confusion and expense, there are many, many illegal options to watch NBA games. They’re not hard to find; just Google “watch NBA online” and you’ll be directed to dozens of sites based in countries with more lax copyright laws (or simply fewer resources to shut down illegal stuff), like Estonia. They are horrible: peppered with weird racist chat windows, covered in the most sophisticated, infuriating ads on the internet, boasting unreliable and low-quality video.
But some users are figuring out more and more elegant ways to stream. Many streaming platforms offer live-streaming options; YouTube does, though anyone who tries to broadcast a live NBA game on YouTube tends to get shut down quickly. StreamUp and AceStream are more reliable, as are some private communities. (It should be noted here that Atlas Obscura does not advocate illegal streaming. Pay for your content, people.)
Indefensible, yes, but the reason that I’ve stuck with these streams is because they actually offer me something I can’t get otherwise. Namely, they offer the experience of watching the game the way the fans in that market do, just for the length of that game. Many of these illegal sites broadcast streams from the International NBA League Pass, a separate deal available overseas that, starting in the 2014-2015 season, offers the option of watching the home or away feed, and replaces all the commercials with a live feed of the stadium.
The guy who runs the best of the sites confirmed that he uses the International NBA League Pass stream (direct quote: “ye ;)”), but did not elaborate on how he has or broadcasts this stream. He did ask me to promote the many good features of his service, which I found sort of surprising given how flagrantly illegal it is. (You can probably find it yourself if you Google around for awhile.)
International League Pass isn’t the only way to get some sense of local color; the regular old domestic NBA League Pass offers the option to watch the home or away feeds for many games. These give you the exact same experience that someone watching a local feed would see: for just a moment, a Bostonian suffering through a frigid winter can pretend to be in sunny Los Angeles, watching a Clippers or Lakers game with Los Angeles commercials and Los Angeles announcers.
These local channels, the ones that have exclusive rights to broadcast, say, Minnesota Timberwolves games to Minnesota, or Dallas Mavericks games to Dallas, or Miami Heat games to Miami—those vary wildly in their commentators.
“Absolutely, some of the local announcers are great, they’re national quality, there are guys who do national broadcasts sometimes,” says Seth Rosenthal, who runs a New York Knicks sub-site for SB Nation. He specifically names the Brooklyn Nets announcers as some of the best in the game, surprising given that the team was this year the second-worst in the league and with even fewer future prospects than the very worst team, the Philadelphia 76ers. “And then there are some guys who are total homers, and they openly root for the home team and complain about every call and it’s totally unlistenable and you’d rather just put the game on mute.”
A “homer,” in sports parlance, is a person who is wildly biased towards their own team. It’s not a great thing for an announcer to be, but some fans will openly define themselves as homers. Discussion of the quality and homer-iness of local announcers is common on forums like Reddit, but one’s local announcer, regardless of how much of a homer, can be comforting. Rosenthal says Walt Frazier, one of the Knicks announcers and a legendary player in his day, is not objectively a good announcer; he’s “exactly like a videogame announcer, where he has like a canned set of things he’ll say.” But that doesn’t stop him from being beloved by longtime Knicks fans.
“I’ve been listening to him call games for my whole life, and it’s really warm and fuzzy and familiar to me, and I love him, while acknowledging that he doesn’t really have much good analysis to offer, he’s often wrong about things, he doesn’t watch much basketball outside of the Knicks,” says Rosenthal.
The local channels have their own graphics teams, which, with the exception of some major-market teams like the Knicks, the Los Angeles teams, and the Chicago Bulls, are uniformly cheap and delightful. “The New York broadcast is pretty classy, but some of them still broadcast in standard definition, some of them the production is still so low quality and the commercials are unbelievably corny, the graphics are bad, and that’s often in smaller markets or where the team isn’t as popular,” says Rosenthal.
None of this was available before three years ago. In the early 2000s and earlier, an NBA fan would be able to watch his or her home team, and then maybe once a week a game featuring two other teams. NBA League Pass, starting in the 2013/2014 season, began allowing subscribers to choose either the home feed or the away feed for all games, basically opening up the entire continent of local broadcasters to all NBA fans. And things haven’t become homogenized as a result, at least not yet: the Celtics announcers are still aggressively Boston, the Lakers announcers are as proudly Los Angeles as ever. It’s just that now, fans can see what other fans see, can put themselves in each others’ shoes.
The streams I see, the illegal streams from the International NBA League Pass, go even further. They have no commercials. In their place, they, basically, just leave the cameras on, showing what’s going on inside the arena.
There is no announcer guiding you through what’s happening on-screen, but you get to feel, basically, like you’re right there in the stadium. You see the halftime show, which is almost always a traveling-circus-type-act of people performing gymnastics under harsh lighting or riding a dangerously high unicycle while flipping ceramic bowls onto their heads. (Correction: That last one, a performer named Red Panda, retired for a few years, but appears to be back as of this season.)
You see cheerleaders promoting free Bojangles Fried Chicken by dancing in the stands while holding boxes of chicken wings.
You see Dwight Howard, perhaps the hammiest player in the NBA, demand that people at his team’s Houston stadium pucker up and kiss for the Kiss Cam. You see a guy lead an entire stadium in a “game” of Simon Says, which is exactly as entertaining as it sounds. You see coaches doing interviews in a corner of the screen, bright lights blinding them, or sweat-suited players shooting around during halftime. You see middle-aged men attempt to shoot three-pointers in exchange for a comped weekend at a nearby casino.
You can legitimately get a sense of a team and of a city from these streams. They play regional music, talk with non-broadcaster accents, and advertise tiny local car dealerships or discount stores.
You can see the strengths of different teams and different markets: the 76ers doing a Star Wars theme night complete with giveaways, the legendary Lakers dancers, the fabulous organ work of Atlanta Hawks organist Sir Foster.
It makes you want to root for the home team, no matter where your actual home is.