NBA glamour is all about courtside
From Rihanna to Jay Z, Beyoncé to Drake, sitting on the wood is its own red carpet
“Rihanna just walked in front of me,” Jeff Van Gundy yelled during the first quarter of Game 1 of the 2017 NBA Finals. He completely skipped over the vicious dunk LeBron James had just unleashed on JaVale McGee. “Are you kidding me?!”
Fellow commentators Mike Breen and Mark Jackson chided their longtime colleague, but Van Gundy’s brief moment of distraction was warranted — she’s one of the biggest pop stars and most beautiful people in the world. But it wasn’t just Rihanna sitting courtside at Oracle Arena in East Oakland, California. Maybe it’s the trilogy effect, but this may just be the most star-laden NBA Finals ever. Aside from Rihanna, Jay Z, Kevin Hart, Marshawn Lynch, Power’s Omari Hardwick and Bay Area legends Too $hort, Raphael Saadiq and E-40 were all in attendance — either courtside or a few rows back.
Yet, it was Rihanna, from her plush digs — on the announcers’ side just a few seats away from Jay Z — who made worldwide headlines by matching wits with Kevin Durant. The Grammy winner and 2014 NBA MVP locked eyes on more than one occasion as Rihanna used her multimillion-dollar voice to chastise Durant. Rihanna came up short, though as KD dropped 38 points in a Game 1 blowout victory.
As Muhammad Ali’s fights were makeshift Met Galas for actors, actresses, musicians and hustlers, at 2015’s Floyd Mayweather/Manny Pacquiao bout, Jay Z, Beyoncé, Don Cheadle, Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert De Niro, Denzel Washington, Antoine Fuqua and more piled in to Las Vegas’ MGM Grand. But what makes the professional basketball courtside experience different is that the attendee is sitting right on top of the game. Courtside is more intimate than ringside: One’s feet are literally on the field of play. Jay Z refers to himself in 2009’s “Empire State of Mind”: Sitting courtside / Knicks and Nets give me high fives / N—-, I be Spiked out, I can trip a referee.
This is far from Shawn Carter’s first courtside homage. On Cam’ron’s 2002 anthem, “Welcome To New York City,” Jay boasts: I ain’t hard to find/ You can catch me front and center / At the Knick game, big chain in all my splendor/ Next to Spike if you pan left to right/ I own Madison Square / Catch me at the fight. It makes sense that both these lyrical moments nod at the world’s most famous Knicks fan — and courtside royalty — director Spike Lee. It’s Lee — Rihanna’s courtside prophyte in a sense — who stars in basketball’s most well-known courtside beef. He and Reggie Miller’s infamous back-and-forth during the 1994 Game 5 of the Knicks vs. Pacers Eastern Conference finals was defined by Miller’s 25-point fourth quarter and capped off with Miller’s choking gesture to Lee. The tense moment is immortal, iconic NBA playoff lore.
For the Los Angeles Lakers, courtside culture can be dated to the legendary actress Doris Day, better known as “the Neil Armstrong of Lakers’ celebrities.” Day, the biggest female box office star of the late ’50s and early ’60s, opened the courtside door at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Fellow A-listers such as Dean Martin, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau followed her in to watch future Hall of Famers Jerry West and Elgin Baylor lead the Lakers to multiple Finals appearances. The move from Minneapolis to Los Angeles made the Lakers the NBA’s first West Coast squad in 1960 — a move directly influenced by Lakers owner Bob Short noticing the financial gold mine the Dodgers found in L.A. after their move from Brooklyn, New York, two years earlier.
The appearance of celebrities courtside exploded in the era of the Magic Johnson-led “Showtime” Lakers. Johnson embodied 1980s Hollywood — the flashy play, the good looks and, of course, that 2,000-watt smile. Comedian Arsenio Hall was a regular at the Forum, as was singer Dionne Warwick, Michael J. Fox, Ted Danson, Jimmy Goldstein and, most famous of them all, Jack Nicholson. These were kings and queens of that era’s show business realm.
“If you’re an A-level person, and we know the fans are going to go bananas when your picture goes up on the scoreboard, then there’s a value having you there,” Barry Watkins has said. He’s the Madison Square Garden Co.’s executive vice president and chief communications officer. He’s the plug when it comes to courtside seats at the Garden. “It’s a big part of the brand. Win or lose, it’s one of the reasons people come to the games.” Entertainers want to be entertained, too. Plus, basketball and Hollywood were meant to be significant others off the rip: talent, egos, competition, drama, controversy and animosities, all playing out under the bright, bright lights.
According to Shawn “Pecas” Costner, vice president of player relations at Roc Nation Sports, the continued charm of courtside seats has largely to do with the popularity and influence of hip-hop culture. “The flyest thing you can do at a basketball game — besides play in the game — is sit courtside,” he said from his New York City office.
And this is not solely due to the glamour and bravado associated with rap. Pecas believes that these days, the courtside thing is just as much about the hard-knock journeys associated with the music’s biggest stars. Pecas came to Roc Nation Sports in 2014, after 18 years in the music business, most notably as executive vice president at Def Jam Recordings. The Bronx, New York, native, who grew up with Big Pun, Lord Tariq and Jennifer Lopez, earned his stripes in several capacities at V2, Elektra and Arista Records before joining Def Jam in 2005. “When we were kids,” he said, “and used to go see the Knicks play the Bulls on Christmas Day, we were in the 300 section. You had to bring your binoculars to watch. You always wanted to see who was the one or two black guys sitting courtside because at that time, it was only one or two.”
While not quite a regular courtside fixture, Pecas has his share of memories. He and his longtime colleague Mike Kyser, president of black music at Atlantic Records, sat courtside for the rookie game and dunk and 3-point contests at the 2012 All-Star Weekend in Orlando, Florida. Pecas would normally give his tickets away to artists in town for the big game on Sunday, but as destiny would have it, not as many came that year, and Pecas and Kyser received floor seat assignments for the actual All-Star contest. “You’re like, ‘Oh s—!’” he said, his voice getting higher as he takes a trip down memory lane. “ ‘Am I courtside for the NBA All-Star Game?’ You gotta make sure the outfit is right just in case. Make sure you wear the right sneakers.”
The game itself was one of the more entertaining All-Star Games in recent memory, the highlight being a LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant scoring barrage. Pecas and friends documented the memories on social media with hashtags such as #OnTheWood, and #Woody Harrelson. In Pecas’ office hangs a framed photo of himself in the New York Daily News. He looks on as Kevin Durant, now a Roc Nation client, flushes home a dunk with James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love looking on.
As for this year’s NBA Finals, Pecas said he can’t even begin to predict the number of celebrities who’ll be sitting courtside for however long the Warriors and Cavaliers do business. The possibilities are limitless because the NBA is more committed to its fans both domestically and abroad than any other American sports entity. While cries of superteams killing the product cause constant debates at social media and on sports talk shows, the NBA celebrated its third consecutive record-breaking year of fan attendance. And the NBA certainly loves the social status of having some of the world’s biggest celebrities taking in the game mere feet away from some of the world’s most popular athletes. The photos below showcase some of those personalities, from yesteryear to the present.
Pecas said it’s difficult to describe the feeling of sitting courtside, but he gives it a try: “Sitting courtside is like flying private for the first time,” he said. “You never wanna go back.”