Wednesday, October 06, 2010
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: NBA hoops in Roanoke? Hard to find fault in that

A little more than an hour before Tuesday's game, the NBA's No. 2 overall draft pick surveyed his surroundings in the Roanoke Civic Center dressing room and shrugged his shoulders.

"I guess you could say that," Evan Turner said, when asked if this was smaller than the typical NBA quarters. "But it gets the job done. We've got lockers and a bathroom and a blackboard. We can't really complain."

Nor did the Philadelphia 76ers rookie gripe about his meal on the eve of his NBA preseason debut-dinner at the Roanoke Zaxby's, with a little Buffalo Wild Wings action after that.

"I like the city," the 2010 Associated Press player of the year said. "I think it's a nice city."

If only somebody could explain why they were in it.

It was somewhat bizarre, really. This event seemed incongruent the moment it was announced in May. Philadelphia 76ers vs. New Jersey Nets? Here? In October?

Um ... why?

The technical answer is this: The same firm that runs the Roanoke Civic Center also owns the Sixers, so they were able to swing a deal to bring the Philadelphia team here, and the Nets just happened to be an opponent that wouldn't have to travel too far to get here.

The better answer is this: We'll never know.

Regardless, the event got the job done. It delivered what it promised, which, to be honest, was not much.

NBA teams played a preseason game featuring hustle and occasional pizazz. A rabbit mascot dunked a few balls. The William Fleming drum line banged out a strong halftime performance. The Nets won 103-96. And then each team got on a plane and left the Star City, while we went home to watch a replay of the Sun Belt Conference football game.

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Nobody's going to proclaim this a rousing success --more than a third of the seats were empty -- but it wasn't a disaster, either. About 5,700 people attended the game, which might not sound like much until you consider three facts:

1. This valley isn't exactly an NBA hotbed; 2. These are two of the worst teams in the NBA; and 3. The biggest star on the court was Andre Iguodala.

For their part, the players were good sports. They put in a strong effort, given the lack of gravity involved in a preseason opener. And as jarring as it was for us to see them, the reverse could also be true, but they were gracious visitors.

"You come to expect it in the preseason," Nets guard Eddie Gill said of the detours. "You get to go to some different cities off the beaten path a little bit. It's good for the NBA as well; it's good exposure. It's good for smaller cities and smaller markets that don't get a chance to see this all the time."

"People have been very friendly," said veteran Nets forward Kris Humphries, who grabbed a steak in the city on Monday night. "They haven't had basketball around here in a while, so I think it's cool.

Nets post player Joe Smith -- a Norfolk native and former University of Maryland star -- said he didn't get a chance to leave the Sheraton on Monday night, but he's glad the teams came.

"I've been to all types of smaller places such as Roanoke," said Smith, who's in his 15th NBA campaign. "I think it's something that the NBA needs to do."

So they did.

Hard to say whether the league roped in some new fans on Tuesday. Most likely, the people who came already had a passion for basketball. But when you strip all the strangeness away, here's the bottom line: We got the NBA for a night.

We can't really complain.

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