As the Heat rises so the TV’s volume is pumped up
Sport is normally heard in silence in bars in the States, except when something truly big is happening
Miami Heat’s LeBron James reacts as San Antonio Spurs’ Tim Duncan looks on in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of their NBA Finals in Miami. Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters
In America they only turn the volume up for special occasions. Around midnight on Thursday was one.
It is difficult to escape from sport in America. As soon as you pass through security in any airport, you see people staring at televisions in a restaurant, one set showing news and the other always showing a baseball game or highlights of last night’s ice-hockey or one of the adrenaline-pumped talk shows. And that sets the tone.
Almost all bars contain a battery of televisions so that customers can watch five different sports at the same time. Most casual restaurants have TV sets, somewhere, which are always tuned into the sports channel.
I once asked a man who declared he had zero interest in sport how he survived in this country. He pointed up at the array of flat screen televisions displaying frantic athletic endeavour of all kind and said: “I have learned how not to see that.”
There is a myth that America is a sports mad nation. It isn’t quite true. Yes, many millions base their social lives around their college football team or their conversations around their baseball team. But millions of others go through their life blithely indifferent to its existence. And that is where the volume comes in.
It is hard to know when Americans started watching their sport silently but it must go back a couple of decades at least, when televisions became cheaper and sports coverage went cable and bar owners began to cram mini cinema screens into every nook and cranny of their premises so that their most prized customers – solitary and steady male drinkers – could keep an eye on both the ice-hockey game in Saskatchewan on which he had a straight wager and the hoops game in Phoenix on which he was hoping to beat the spread.
But you couldn’t listen to two or five games at once. And so the mute button was switched. And the juke box stayed on. And overnight, the practice of seeing sport without hearing it was born.
It is a peculiar thing. It means that for the most part, sport becomes little more than part of the interior decor, there to be appreciated or not. For decades, the “announcer” held a coveted role in American life, originating in the period when big games and fights were brought into the prairie and mountain towns through radio broadcasts and later producing TV personalities like Howard Cosell, whose bombastic style became loved or loathed by millions when Monday Night Football was first broadcast in 1970.
Later came the folksy John Madden and Brent Musburger. For years, their voices were as much part of the game as the game itself. But the unprecedented rise of ESPN and the globalisation of television rights drowned out many of those voices.
But for television, Americans can live without the commentary. It is a strange phenomenon, particularly for Irish people who grew up listening to John Motson in the winter and Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh in the summer and where many adults give involuntary shivers when they think back to Sunday afternoon family “drives” in their childhood, when the rain pelted the windscreen and the commentary of a Division Two match was being broadcast live from Scotstown as “entertainment”.
So in the States, now people know that something unusual and special is happening when the volume goes up in the bars and in the shops. Sport suddenly sounds urgent. And for all of this week, when the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs duelled and excelled their way through what was one of the best NBA Finals series in decades, people listened.
On Tuesday night, with San Antonio leading by three games to two in Miami, the teams produced one of those wild, transcendent moments in sport where the most polished and gifted players start to make mistakes like the rest of us. For a few seconds, San Antonio had the finals won. They were five points up with just 30 seconds left on the clock.
The crowd in Miami, still an arriviste basketball city, had gone deathly quiet and hundreds had already left the building, assuming the season was done. A huge question mark hung over LeBron James’ temperament and it was further magnified when he clattered a long-range desperation attempt that missed the ring entirely, hammering off the backboard. Then fate took over. If one of the Spurs players grabbed the ball, they would be champions.
James’ shot was so bad, so forceful that the ball could have decapitated someone: instead it hit the floor near the free throw line, was grabbed by Ray Allen who set James up for another three point shot. And this one went down. This was close to midnight on Tuesday night. In New York it was raining heavily and people stood in the street under the awnings of restaurants and bars to watch the closing seconds. You could hear the commentary coming through apartment windows.
It got better: San Antonio failed to score from the foul line, Miami had one last possession and although James missed another three, Miami’s Chris Bosh plucked the rebound – again, all the Spurs had to do was grab the ball to become NBA champions – and spotted Allen. He shot with just five seconds left in the game and hit, as they say, nothing but net. The shot generated screams and groans across most the country: even if people didn’t care for either team, the series had become so engrossing that everyone but Spurs fans wanted a game seven.
They got their wish. Miami won in overtime. Everything came down to Thursday night’s game seven And even if there was an inevitable sense that the Spurs had blown their moment, everyone was glued to the game. For one evening, the announcers had their audience again and in keeping with the series, the seventh game was dramatic and unpredictable.
In the end, LeBron James hit the shot which more or less killed the Spurs to win his second NBA title in as many years. This time, none of the Miami fans left. Afterwards, the big man was grinning from ear to ear as he gave a live interview. But it was impossible to hear what he said. As soon as the final buzzer went, the volume was turned down.