The Least Attended NBA Game Ever?

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, 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.

This came on the heels of Wilt scoring 50 in a loss to the Detroit Pistons, which a whopping 1,429 people can say they saw (or could say they saw at one point, a lot of them are definitely dead now).

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.

Even in the days of average attendances in the low 4 figures, this crowd was so paltry it made the headline of the Park City Daily News article about the game and was mocked in the pages of the Beaver County Times.

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 for, you know, every box score of every game ever played or something.

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On Windows Closing

The put upon cheeriness, elementary school-level decorations, and skeleton crew of orderlies and nurses wearing antlers and Santa hats just made it worse. I appreciated the effort, of course, but if there is a day where nursing homes are less appealing than usual, it’s Christmas Eve. When I was little, my mom worked in places a lot like this. It isn’t that they’re inherently sad, or bad places to be. It's just that the circumstances for being there on that day were.

"Dad, we'll come by tomorrow to watch the Celtics game,” I said. “I just saw that Pierce isn't going to play, though. He has some sort of heel injury."

“Oh yeah,” he replied, from his bed. “I think I heard that.”

He hasn't heard that. My dad has been bouncing between emergency rooms, critical care facilities, and a nursing home since December 5, when my uncle found him passed out in the garage. He moved from the ER to critical care, spending most of his time there physically restrained and/or heavily sedated to deal with a prolonged bout with the DT's. It was later discovered that his hemoglobin count had fallen to three — not only had he had lost a lot of blood, but the blood that he had wasn't carrying oxygen to his brain. Between the sedation and the withdrawal, nobody in the hospital could notice that his brain was being asphyxiated, like a stroke in slow-motion. By the time he was moved to a nursing home, he'd lost the ability to operate a remote, let alone catch up on the Pierce injury update on SportsCenter. Christmas Eve was the first time I saw or spoke to him since Thanksgiving.

It is a strange time to be a Celtics fan. Rajon Rondo is one of the most uniquely talented and uniquely limited players in the NBA. Ray Allen's jump shot remains staggeringly beautiful, and the work he does running off screens remains astounding. Paul Pierce still has an array of stepbacks, upfakes and pull-up shots from the elbow. And Garnett remains the quarterback of the team’s strong defense, calling out switches, stepping out on pick and rolls and grabbing seven or eight rebounds a game. In short, the Celtics still look like the Celtics. But in this young season, it's abundantly clear that they are not the same Celtics that they were before. By the time my brothers and I wheeled my dad into the “family visiting room” and opened his Christmas presents for him, the Celtics were down 30-18 in the season opener.

When I was a little kid, I was pretty sure that my favorite teams would always be the best. While I remember, just barely, the Patriots losing to the Bears and the Red Sox losing to the Mets, those losses didn't seem catastrophic. I was disappointed, sure, but I also thought good teams stayed good – they'd just get 'em again next year, for sure. Besides, the Celtics would still have Larry Bird, the greatest basketball player alive. I remember going to see the Celtics play the Hawks at the Garden in 1986, and feeling like there was nothing better in the world than seeing that one team play basketball. A few years later, after we had moved from Boston to Pittsburgh, my dad and I watched Larry Bird smack his head off the parquet floor, and then come back to vanquish Chuck Person and the Pacers. Slowed by chronic back injuries, the guy could hardly walk, but nobody could beat him. He just stayed good until he was gone.

It was difficult to stay focused on the Christmas Day game. For one thing, the nursing home's television, a rear-projection behemoth that someone had certainly donated to the home years ago, was barely functional. For another matter, the Celtics' offense was barely functional, making the Knicks actually look like a competent basketball team. And since Dad doesn't see so well, and didn't really understand what was going on anyway, he spent most of the time yelling at my mother, tearfully pleading with us to take him home, or insisting he needed to go to the bathroom and yes, he can do it himself (no he didn't, no he can't). The Celtics lost on a last second shot, I think. Dad didn't know and I didn't care.

It's not as if this were some unexpected tragedy. A year ago, Dad was admitted to the hospital with blood pressure at 240/108. A few years before that he had his license revoked because of his vision loss. And there were promises of doctors and medications and stories of canceled appointments and new exercise regimens. Very few of them were true. I don't blame him for where he is today, not exactly. But I can't say this is a path he didn't have a part in choosing, either. I desperately want him to get better. But I know he probably will not.

For the Celtics, they too knew that this was coming. Ainge and Celtics ownership went all-in on Allen, Pierce and Garnett knowing that their contracts would take them toward the tail end of their careers. They received a championship banner for their efforts. The shot at a mini-dynasty was eradicated with KG's knee injury in 2009, and a series of bad free agent signings (Jermaine O'Neal), lousy draft picks (Gabe Pruitt), and curious trades failed to reinvigorate the team. The Celtics were never going to be title contenders in 2012, even before Jeff Green's heart surgery. Even Mike Gorman and Tommy Heinsohn, the team’s well-known local television commentators, seem different this season. During a stretch in early January where the C's lost six of seven, Tommy rarely mustered up the outrage to protest a HARRible call. “Tommy Points” were awarded sparingly. During an embarrassing loss to the Pacers, Heinsohn maligned ref Bennie Adams with a bizarre Weekend at Bernie's reference, but you could tell his heart wasn't in it. Shortly after, the Boston newspapers and sports radio shows were concocting “blow it up” strategies, even going so far as to list possible deals to trade the Captain, Paul Pierce. On Martin Luther King Day, Charles Barkley announced what we were all thinking: “The Celtics are cooked. I'm sorry, but they cooked.”

Aside from that 1986 team, this group of Celtics has been my favorite. I taped a quote from Kevin Garnett, “It's not hard to work hard,” on the wall of my library carrel while I wrote my dissertation. When I got rejections from job applications, I thought of Ray Allen, who responded to an interviewers question about a shooting slump by saying “I wasn't missing — the shots just didn't go in.” And I feel like I grew up with Paul Pierce — his transformation from moody, immature kid into a grown-ass man roughly mapped onto my own. Knowing that they wouldn't be together much longer, I went into this season thinking that I would just try to enjoy watching this group take one last go at it. But it has been hard to watch them struggle as much as they have. After an awful first half in Orlando that saw the Celtics go down by 30 points, forever the homer, Tommy announced that this was the most inept he'd seen the Celtics in a long time. He was right.

It has occurred to me, more than once, that Dad is already gone. The effects of cerebral hypoxia are generally irreversible. If he is able to walk again, or even operate a wheelchair, it will be because he re-trains his brain to function in a new way, not because he recovers his previous abilities. He can't talk to me on the phone. He has to be shifted in his bed so as not to develop bed sores. He is under-hydrated because he doesn't know to ask a nurse for water. According to the state of Pennsylvania, he no longer has the capacity to make his own decisions. Taking all this into account, it's hard not to feel as if it's all over but the shouting. But, I remind myself, he's definitively still here. He is in a bed in a nursing home in southwestern Pennsylvania. He still loves Oreos. He misses his dog. He cried when he saw me on Christmas. He's fighting clostridium difficile infections in his colon. He's trying to learn to walk again. Maybe he's changed, become angrier and more scared and more difficult to deal with... but he's not gone. My pretending he is might help me avoid dealing with how he is now, but it doesn't help him any.

Early in the second half against Orlando, Garnett sprinted across the baseline to swat a Dwight Howard fall away into the stands. Paul caught fire, Chris Wilcox got a dunk and rookie E'Twaun Moore drained a couple threes. Suddenly, the Celtics had it tied, Dwight Howard had begun crying to the refs, Pierce was Pierce, and the Celtics' defense was suffocating. After they won the game, there was Kevin Garnett talking to Craig Sager, all energy and intensity, it was a bar fight, a bar fight, a bar fight, and it was like anything was possible all over again. In the last 10 days, the Celtics lost Ray Allen to an ankle injury, Rajon Rondo to a sprained wrist, and Keyon Dooling and Jermaine O'Neal to... whatever. Improbably, though, the Celts won four in a row... then promptly choked in the fourth quarter to lose against the Cavs, at home. They're not going to be the same as they were. They're probably not going anywhere in the playoffs. But they're not gone. Not yet.

Photo by Keith Allison, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

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