Players change, coaches change, jerseys change. Rules change, mascots change, cheers change. Hell, even the fans change--the good ones because they die and the bad because they lose hope. I can accept this. But the one thing that I cannot handle is when a sports team changes stadiums. A stadium houses the soul of any great franchise; it has a soul that withstands all these other changes and transcends time. It is the core. The heartbeat.
But these days, business dominates sports, more seats trump intimacy and loyal fans and veteran players alike struggle to adapt. How easy is it to uproot tradition and replant it on the other side of the freeway? Meanwhile, a divide forms between the older generation of fans who have undergone the team's many ups and downs and the know-it-all younger generation. When was the last time they ever had to deal with missing the playoffs by one point? Never. Although some of the greatest teams resist materialistic temptations (the Boston Red Sox), others fail to do so (like the New Jersey Devils). But when the Devils face off against their nemeses, the New York Islanders, old and new alike unite in hopes of creating miracles. As they say, where love conquers, anything is possible.
The license plates stuck to the back of the cars read "New Jersey--The Garden State." But the only greenery around Newark is contained in minuscule plots of dead grass hidden behind thick black metal fences. Garages, deteriorating apartment buildings and gas stations line the side of the pot-holed road. Piles of sand mixed with candy wrappers, mildewing fast food containers and other debris clog the drainage systems and overflow across the street and sidewalks. Prison-like bars protect ground level windows, while many buildings simply remain windowless.
And suddenly, with the snap of a finger, the rows of apartments end and bold overhead lights give way to a shining metropolitan jewel. The smooth, light concrete sidewalks share their space with young, healthy trees and clean wooden benches. Elegant skyscrapers replace the stumpy shacks. Signs displaying brand name restaurants and shopping outlets cut through the night sky. Amongst the swarming streets and sidewalks, all individuals and all avenues lead to one place--the Prudential Center. A shining dome of glass walls, smooth surfaces and bright lights, it is the heart of the newly redeveloped Newark. And the new home of the greatest hockey team in the world--the New Jersey Devils.
Finished only months before, the new stadium serves as a convention center to host civic events, concerts and sporting matchups. On one particular January night, the New Jersey Devils take on their most fierce rival from across the highway, the New York Islanders. In the previous two match-ups, the Devils fell short. The scalpers think yes. Only 75 bucks to see big Martie Brodeaur take down the Islanders tonight...Won't want to miss the Devils beat the Islanders back to their worthless island...
Push toward door. Elbows at first simply rubbing soon turn to jabbing. Scan ticket. Present bag to security. You're good. Arrive. Energy.
DON DeLILLO'S DREAM TEAM
The masses enter into an open atrium, which reeks of popcorn oozing with butter and nachos dripping with processed cheese. Overhead, large industrial lights explode into the open space, revealing even the most intimate wrinkle or smallest blackhead. Directly in front of the entrance, two glass escalators face off, climbing all the way into the nosebleed section. Many fans exit on the second floor--the hub of the action. They enter a raffle, buy a t-shirt or dine in the luxury restaurant.
Immediately to the left of where the escalator breaks, a circle has formed around a pack of five well-toned Devil cheerleaders in tight spandex pants and midriff-baring white t-shirts who are handing out free plastic drinking cups with the Devil slogan on the front. Grown men linger, captivated by the cheerleaders, while greedy adolescents push forward and lunge for the gifts. Retreating back to their parents, they cradle the cups like pieces of treasure.
Burger King, Sbarros, Budweiser, Taco Bell, Pretzel Time, Carvel, hot dogs. It's better than Disneyland. Lines to get food, for the bathroom, to get into the stadium, everywhere. The Devil fans proudly display their support: face paint, jerseys (regular, kid and baby sized), hats highlighting previously won Stanley Cup titles, light-up devil horns and plastic pitchforks. They are confident that their love for their team is all it will take tonight. The only individuals brave enough to wear navy Islander jerseys seem to be burly, middle-aged, overweight men. Friendly banter breaks out in some places.
New Jersey: "So when was the last time you won a Stanley Cup?"
Long Island: ...
New Jersey: "Would that be 25 or 26 years ago?"
Long Island: "Look at the ranking buddy. Seems like you've fallen behind."
New Jersey: "By one point. It's gonna change tonight."
Not-so-friendly banter breaks out elsewhere.
"Fuckin' Long Island trash. Go home."
"Fuck you. New Jersey sucks."
"Your wife sucks."
Drinks and nachos in hand, the crowd enters into the center of the stadium. The ice looks beautiful. Deep puddles of Zamboni residue coat the glossy surface, shooting out beams of blinding white light. A sight of perfection longing to be destroyed.
Opened only a year ago, the stadium radiates a glow of unscathed gloss and newness--freshly painted walls, unmarked floors and 17,625 shiny red seats that don't even creak upon being sat in. Except for a few strategically hung banners that circle the rafters, the space lacks the charm and personality of a well-loved stadium. It feels modern, meant to impress. Game talk between strangers and Devil-related memories seem natural. AC/DC's "Welcome to the Jungle" echoes through the stadium, competing with the small talk of thousands.
"Who's in goal for the Islanders?"
"Dipietro's a pussy."
Both fans know this is a lie. Dipietro, although only 22, has proven himself as one of the league's top goalies. It's going to take a well-crafted play and a whole lot of luck to score. Regardless, the lie is consummated with the chink of beer glasses.
Suspended hundreds of feet above the ice, eye level with the cheap seats, an impressive monitor captivates its audience. The square box has four screens to face each dimension of the building's oval interior. Each side of the monitor is divided into two sections: one half broadcasts live images of dancing fans and the other holds a clock counting down to zero. The red clock digits tick down.
A cameraman strapped into the high rafters pans his camera over the audience, eventually focusing on a young boy sitting on his mother's lap directly behind the Devil's goal. The mother and son both wear matching Brylin jerseys; unlike the mother, the boy's face is painted half red and half black. Beneath the sticky paint, his blonde spiked hair shoots upward like a Chia pet in need of a haircut. For five seconds, both mother and son remain oblivious. His eyes glaze over slightly as he stares at tonight's program clenched within his tiny grip. The crowd watches the large screen waiting for a reaction. From the left side of the screen a hand reaches toward the boy shaking him out of his daze. The boy jumps slightly after focusing in on the hairy knuckles grabbing his shoulder.
The hand points upward. The boy's head rises. His eyes grow wide with uncertainty. He sees himself.
A smile erupts upon his face and he launches his scrawny body off his mother's lap and onto the nearby cement staircase. Initially he's too shocked to do anything but jump up and down, shaking his arms fiercely in the air. The crowd appreciates his enthusiasm and responds with encouraging claps and hollers. KC and the Sunshine Band's "Get Down Tonight" bursts onto the loudspeaker, and as if on cue, the boy begins to 'make a little love' and 'get down.' His small hips pump back and forth as he twists himself lower and lower onto the concrete stair. Not once does his energy or enthusiasm waver.
Almost every folding chair holds a body. Shiny silver cameras have been removed from their leather cases. A chant begins--Let's go Devils (clap clap, clapclapclap)... And ends.
:03 :02 :01 :00
Mwwaahhhhh, the horn once again sounds. Sixty timed minutes, and three hours have passed. The largest difference: where the scoreboard once read Devils 0 - Islanders 0, it now flashes Devils 2 - Islanders 3. Many fans--too ashamed to watch the last few seconds of defeat--already left. Now there is the mass exodus. No music plays. Only the sound of stomping feet and mumbled expletives. Where strangers once talked freely, eye contact is avoided--even between friends and married couples. A mother balances her young sleeping infant in one arm while grabbing the hand of a crying toddler with the other. "Dad said they were going to win! He prrooooomised," the child wails. Islander fans celebrate their victory in silence, nervous about provoking the hostile red army.
The lobby, once a place of hope and unfulfilled promises, has locked up. The silver tin cafeteria shades are double-locked, the vending carts have been rolled away and tables promoting Verizon phones and Acura SUVs have been folded up and dragged into narrow lockers.
Abandoned by disgusted fans, the Prudential Center continues to shine like a nightlight against the dark New Jersey backdrop. The structure cannot be dimmed or humbled. A few teenagers linger in the buildings' shadows smoking cigarettes. The smoke spirals into the clouds off their breath until it is devoured by overhead lights. A flashing jumbo screen above the box office announces that tomorrow night the Devils play the Tampa Bay Lightning. The letters are bright, bold, assured. But the concrete structure is little more than an empty shell.
LINDSAY LITTLEJOHN B'09 taps her heels three times.