A few Sundays ago, the Bobcats played the Nets at the Prudential Center in an afternoon matinee that happened to be on at the same time as the Giants/49ers NFC championship game. Two of the worst teams in the NBA, playing in a lame duck arena, during the hometown football team's biggest game in four years? It was a perfect storm for an empty building. The announced attendance was 10,035, but that certainly involved some creative accounting. Nets blogger Devin Kharpertian, the only person who I can confirm attended the game, tweeted this picture and later mentioned that employees were bringing upper level patrons down to the lower level. We'll never know how many people were really there that afternoon (though a few years earlier, the Nets announced that 1,016 people attended a game vs the Bucks during a snowstorm). It does bring up an interesting question: what was the lowest single game attendance in NBA history?
Thanks to the amazing work of a retired Department of Defense employee named Dick Pfander, Basketball-Reference.com now has scans of every single box score in NBA history. Starting somewhere in 1962, the newspapers of record that Pfander collected began reporting attendance numbers on the bottom of their box scores. Just how poorly attended were some of these early NBA games? Could I possibly find the lowest single attendance in an NBA game? Though I did not go through each of the many thousands of box scores to get a definitive answer, the conclusion I arrived at was more than satisfying. And along the way I found a few other quirks that were worth noting.
I started with Wilt Chamberlain's 100 point game as a baseline, a game that was famously attended by only 4,124 people in Hershey, PA. With only my 20 years of watching the NBA as a reference, I assumed a low number like this was an anomaly. But as I digged through box scores going back to the 1960s, I found numbers like this closer to the norm, particularly if a team didn't play in New York, Boston, or L.A.
The first box score I found notable was from a game on April 5th, 1978 between the Atlanta Hawks and the Buffalo Braves. The attendance of 4,522 in Buffalo was not terribly low, but the paragraph above the box caught my eye. The last sentence in particular had some curious terminology: "Hapless Buffalo was limited to 12 markers in both the second and third periods". Markers? Contextual clues lead me to believe the writer either meant points or something to write on a dry erase board with, though 1 marker per quarter is more than enough for that.
Not to be detracted from my main goal of finding the most sparsely attended game, I decided to go back to the early '60s, when the Boston Celtics dominated the league and left little to be excited about in other markets. Unfortunately, this box score from December 10th, 1961 between the Philadelphia Warriors and the Chicago Packers did not include attendance, but made up for it with a pun that didn't register with me until I asked around ND HQ what it meant. Yes, Chamber(lain) Made 23 Shots Indeed. Even the New York Post is groaning.
After trading Wilt to the 76ers later that season, Warriors owner Franklin Mieuli explained that the fans in San Francisco never learned to love Wilt and often came to see him lose. Ironically, the franchise would never have a player as good as Wilt again but would grow into one of the most loyal fanbases once the team moved to Oakland.
The only team from the early '60s that was supported less than the Warriors was the Detroit Pistons, who on December 27th, 1963 played a game against the 76ers in front of exactly 1,000 people (assuming they didn't just round up to the nearest 1,000).
I thought I found the lower bound when I stumbled upon this box score, but a little more digging showed how very wrong I was. It was a game the following season that ended up being the holy grail of poor attendance box scores. The Pistons were wrapping up a 31-49 campaign in March when they met with a post-Chamberlain trade Warriors team in their old stomping grounds of Fort Wayne, Indiana. 741 people were in attendance that night.
Unfortunately, these articles don't go much further into depth on why the attendance that day was particularly poor. The Pistons were still fighting for a playoff spot, but the Wilt-less Warriors were not much of a road draw. We can also speculate that a lot of Fort Wayne residents were still bitter that their franchise was moved away 8 years earlier and were not interested in supporting their homecoming, though a previous Pistons games in Fort Wayne that season drew significantly better. There may have also been a snowstorm or a big event to compete with in the area. Alas, the Johnny Appleseed Festival is always on the third week of September.
There probably was just a very special episode of Dr. Kildare on that night.
Visit http://basketball-reference.com for, you know, every box score of every game ever played or something.
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