Chauffeur, Shootaround and Boneless Chicken Wings: Living Large With the Nets
My friend and I were at a Nets game the other night, being ushered between exclusive locations by our personal concierge, when suddenly we strayed into an area full of normal fans waiting in line to buy their own food.
It was weird, the way it would be weird if you were flying first class and for some inexplicable reason found yourself in coach. You would not be proud of your ungracious attitude toward the passengers crammed into standard-issue seats in an un-luxurious cabin with no free Champagne, but neither would you want to change seats with anyone.
Nothing at Barclays Center shouts “us” and “them” as emphatically as the Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment Experience, the super-deluxe fan package my friend and I were experiencing that conjures a parallel universe of individually tailored privilege.
Few people experience the Experience. For one thing, it is so intricate — requiring so much planning, such precise choreography, so many people to attend to your every need - that the arena can’t reasonably be expected to pull together more than a couple of Experiences at a time.
Also, it costs $6,189.
“People always want access to things that you normally can’t buy,” said Kate Girotti, vice president of global marketing for Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment, which owns Barclays Center, the Nassau Coliseum and the Nets. “Whether it’s parking in the building with the players, a tour of the locker room or being on the court with your favorite players.” (Packages are also offered for Islanders games and for concerts; not-as-premium experiences are also available, for as low as $700.)
We live at a time when consumers with gold cards get worse treatment than those with Super Platinum Premium Plus Cards, in which people who have all the possessions they want crave intangible luxury — novelty, exclusivity, enhanced reality and freedom from petty logistical annoyances. The Brooklyn Experience is for those sorts of people. For one night, it was also for my sort of person.
(I didn’t pay for it. Seeking publicity for the program and also possibly for the Nets, who are having a bad season and suffering from low attendance, Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment offered The New York Times a look at it.)
Here is what happened:
Who needs public transportation when there is Gregg Casile, the Nets driver, and his spacious S.U.V., stocked with water and candy in case anyone gets hungry in the 20-minute journey from my house?
We clamber into the car — me, my friend Craig and a Times photographer, Hilary Swift — and glide down Atlantic Avenue. It turns out that there are three Barclays Center entrances: the democratic one, for fans with normal tickets; the Calvin Klein V.I.P. one, for fans with better-than-normal tickets; and the supersecret one around the back, for players, executives, talent, higher-class V.I.P.s and us.
Gregg drives us directly into the building and onto an elevator, which by some magical means descends to a lower floor without seeming to move at all. The Nets point guard Yogi Ferrell is also riding the elevator, though he is not in his car. We are too classy to ask for his autograph.
After Gregg drops us off in the players’ parking lot, we are met by a small but enthusiastic welcoming committee that includes two Brooklynettes dancers. This is not as exciting to me as it might be to some people, but we get our photographs taken with their arms around us. Girotti, who is serving as our concierge for the evening, leads us deep into the Barclays Center underbelly.
We Repair to Our Dressing Room
The hallway is decorated with photographs of past arena performances — Leonard Cohen, Arcade Fire, Rush, you name it. It smells different down there, an aroma something like men’s cologne, and we learn that a special scent is pumped into the V.I.P. sections of the arena via the air ducts.
We pass the Nets locker room but do not see any players, in part because of the guard/bouncer positioned at the door. There are several dressing rooms reserved for visiting important people. One is for the referee; another is for the lady singing the national anthem; a third is for Craig and me. It has our names printed outside, its own bathroom, its own television, and a sofa in case we need to lie down at some point.
The Pregame News Conference
Filing into the room where the coaches traditionally meet the news media, we watch Kenny Atkinson, the Nets’ careworn head coach, explain to the assembled reporters how his team expects to defeat the visiting Boston Celtics, who are having a far superior season. It is a fair bet to say that this is not his favorite part of the day.
“Obviously, we focused on our defense and tried to make some improvements,” Atkinson says of the Nets’ pregame preparations, “without forgetting our offense and trying to make some improvements there, too.”
I’ve been to lots of news conferences — and often you learn even less than we learn at this one — but it’s fun to watch from the perspective of a privileged outsider getting special access to behind-the-scenes events. Also, how great is it to attend a news conference but not have to cover it?
We Eat Dinner
We watched top-level athletes mixing it up inches from our seats in their pregame warm-up. Then, it’s time to eat at our reserved table in a special restaurant not open to members of the public. It is called, and we see a theme developing here, the Calvin Klein Courtside Club. One of its features is glass walls that allow you to watch the players walk onto the court for the game.
Because it’s a buffet, we eat too much, from choices that include steak, turkey, chicken, various kinds of pasta, various kinds of sushi, mini-cheeseburgers, Nathan’s hot dogs, a sundae station and a genius V.I.P.-worthy Buffalo chicken wing dish wherein the chicken is white meat, the sauce does not make you feel sick and there are no bones.
Aaron La Greca, the executive sous chef, wanders to our table — random interesting people popping up to talk to you is part of the Experience — and informs us that every game, his kitchen prepares between 200 and 250 pounds of shrimp for the hungry Barclays Center crowds. Judging by the way people are inhaling the shrimp at the buffet, that sounds entirely plausible.
We Play Basketball, Sort Of
Somewhere in the vast network of not-open-to-the-public back areas lies the Barclays Center practice court, where we and some other privileged people get to shoot baskets before the game begins.
I am not filled with enthusiasm about this part of the evening — it’s been some time since I’ve been on a court in an athletic capacity — but Craig grabs a ball, gets going and immediately transforms into someone else entirely.
After a few minutes, so do I. There’s something seductive and then addictive about trying to get the ball in the basket. It’s so simple and so hard, so thrilling when it works out. My enjoyment is somewhat marred by how bad I am at it, and by the arrival of some hypercompetitive preteens who, and I use this term advisedly, blow me off the court. But that is O.K. I have worked up a sweat and had a participatory sports experience and burned off all that dinner.
We Go to the Court
By now, the regular fans are taking their seats, the players are coming in, and we’re standing on the court, inches from the Nets. It is exciting. The lady – it turns out to be Kissy Simmons, who played Nala in “The Lion King” — performs the national anthem. At one point the Nets shooting guard Sean Kilpatrick indicates that he has to perform his regular pregame stretching ritual under the basket, and that it would be really helpful if we would get out of the way. This is also strangely exciting, watching him do his lunges.
The Game Begins
We are seated right on the floor, next to the table reserved for the visiting Boston broadcast media and within sweating distance of the players. Our spot appears to be even better than the Calvin Klein V.I.P. section. The Celtics, whose shorts are winsomely decorated with a shamrock near the waistband, help themselves often to the gum, breath mints, sore-throat lozenges and chalk at the broadcasters’ table.
This sounds dumb. But from this intimate spot, I am struck by how gorgeously the athletes play, how smoothly they glide across the court, how effortless they make it all seem. It’s particularly fun to get up close to Isaiah Thomas, the freakishly talented Celtics point guard, at 5-foot-9 more than a foot shorter than some of the other guys. He is everywhere at once and is always smiling as if in some private amusement.
The Nets are down by 15 points, then they miraculously rally and by halftime are only two points behind.
At the Half
We head to another fancy location, the Billboard Lounge, open to Nets or Islanders season ticket holders (annual fee: $500). It is dark and loud and has a Russian-billionaires-trawling-for-dates vibe, even though we don’t see any billionaires or women of obviously ill repute. But we are cheered when someone offers us free drinks, a perk apparently denied to people not having Experiences.
The Broadcast Booth
We are led high-ish up in the stands, where we find Chris Carrino, now in his 16th season as the Nets’ radio play-by-play announcer. His speaking voice is like his radio voice, smooth as honey, and he is lyrical on the subject of how much he loves his job, how thrilling it is to find the precise description for what he sees in front of him. Through headphones, we get to hear snatches of his nimble broadcast.
Back at Courtside
The Nets scrape and claw their way to within a point of the Celtics but are soon riding the downbound train to nowhere. Meanwhile, Brad Stevens, the Celtics coach, patrols the sidelines in front of us, shouting at his players. “Stay up! Stay up!” he says, and “Out, out, out!” and “In the middle!” and “Be smart with your hands!” and, my personal favorite, “Save your time and space!”
None of it makes much sense, but neither does it sound like some secret code he’s using to impart information to his team while confounding the opponents. It sounds like stuff you might say in the heat of a game, although your teammates would not be as good as these players.
In any case, it works. The Celtics win, 111-92.
Other, Random Experiences
- Our faces were broadcast live on the scoreboard, with a caption identifying us by name and welcoming us to the arena as “BSE Experience V.I.P. Guests.” That was embarrassing. However, some friends sitting high up in the stands sent a text to say how impressed they were.
- We participated in the T-shirt Toss, meaning that someone handed us T-shirts and told us to throw them into the crowd. Mine just cleared the second row. That, too, was embarrassing.
- We exited through some kind of V.I.P. passageway, and someone went to our dressing room to retrieve our stuff so we did not have to carry anything ourselves.
- Gregg drove us home.
- The evening could not have been more eye-opening, to say the least. But as I showed myself through my front door, I had a sudden flashback to the time when Elizabeth Hurley, the famous-for-being-famous British actress, airily observed that there were two types of people in the world: celebrities and civilians. I know which type I am.