If you’re a dad and a sports fan, I already know two things about you:
- You remember the first time you attended a live sporting event
- From the moment you became a father, you started planning your kid’s first trip to the stadium
Growing up, I was lucky enough to have a father that brought me along to several different spectacles and games. One of the first I can remember was some iteration of the long-defunct Grand Prix of Miami.
It was raining, and I mostly remember being wet, cold, not seeing much through the plastic poncho he was undoubtedly overcharged for, and being startled by the sound of engines screaming down Biscayne Boulevard in random intervals.
Fortunately, it got better from there. Through a work contact, he was able to share a couple Miami Heat season tickets for a couple years in the late ‘90s. This was the pre-Dwyane Wade era, so my on-court heroes were P.J. Brown, Jamal Mashburn, Tim Hardaway, “Thunder” Dan Marjerle, and the inimitable Alonzo Mourning.
I learned the cheers. The songs. The way Michael Baiamonte announced our players’ names – drawing out some vowels, and shortening others. Looking back, it was possibly the only time he and I had available to be alone together.
Once becoming a father of two boys, I anxiously looked forward to the day I’d guide the two of them through the noise, thrills, and metal detectors of their first live game.
If only I’d been more prepared for it.
How I Knew It Was Time For Their First Game
As the trope goes – many people are fans of the Miami Heat. But many MORE people are not. Chances are, you’re in the latter group, which probably means you don’t remember too much of the team’s 2016 season.
Although it was two years P.L. (Post-LeBron), and without Chris Bosh during the final stretch of the season for the second year in a row, the team secured a decent playoff seed. The first round of the playoffs against the Charlotte Hornets turned into a tough back-and-forth series – neither team able to finish off the other.
Now, it wasn’t as easy to get my two boys as excited about games as during the years of the Big Three, but as they both were a bit older now, they followed along much better. As the games went on, I noticed how much they fed off mine and my wife’s energy as we watched on TV. They began asking where the games were being played, and whether they’d ever get to go to one.
The time was finally right. The morning after a fantastic game 6 win, and with the series coming back to South Florida for the decisive game 7, I started looking for tickets.
There they were – four affordable, bunched together plastic seats way up in the nosebleeds. If I went through with it, their first taste of live athletic competition wouldn’t come during a meaningless pre-season match, or easy win against a cupcake.
I would be throwing them right into the deep end: a winner-take-all, keep-the-season-alive, do-or-die playoff game in front of raucous hometown fans. The stakes didn’t get much higher.
It would either be one of my greatest ideas yet – or a complete and utter failure.
I proceeded to checkout.
Lesson 1: Their Schedule Doesn’t Match the NBA’s
The first thing to remember about bringing your young children to your local stadium or arena is that – well, they’re kids. And that makes you a parent…not just another fan. The throngs of loud strangers pressed in on all sides are suddenly infinitely more uncomfortable when you’re trying to keep track of two excitable boys.
The second thing to remember is that your kids have their own schedule; one that doesn’t change on account of a basketball game – no matter how important.
They’ll need to go to the bathroom. More than once. And always at the exact time the rest of the arena needs to as well. I didn’t account for this – so my 7-year-old and I anxiously stood in line for 10-15 minutes as he tried to hold it in, and I tried to steer him around vomit and other bodily fluids.
My tip: head them off at the pass by taking them down into the restrooms in the middle of the second and fourth quarters. This means there’ll be less of your fellow fans to navigate through – and also help you avoid some of the more inebriated ones.
Another aspect of their lives that doesn’t rest on game days is – ironically – nap time.
With a start time of 1:00 P.M. I really should have seen this one coming.
Somewhere around the beginning of the third quarter I felt my 4-year-old’s head getting heavier and heavier on my arm. I looked down, and to my surprise, saw that he was passed out cold. This was despite the screaming and singing around us – not to mention the action approximately 1,000 feet below us on the court.
It turns out we were smack dab in the middle of prime Sunday sleepy time.
The lesson? Try to keep an extra sweater or blanket on you – in a pinch, one of those free T-shirts shot out of an air cannon might work. Any of these things are serviceable as a makeshift pillow. In the future, I’ll be looking for a game later in the day, and insisting on naps beforehand.
Lesson 2: You Don’t Know As Much As You Think You Do
You probably think you’ve got a pretty good grasp on the rules and regulations of your favorite sport, right? And you probably know why certain songs or chants boom over the loud speakers – and when.
I was you, once. Then I took my two young sons to an NBA playoff game.
I wasn’t prepared for the tidal wave of inquiries that washed over me from the moment we found our seats:
Who’s on our team? Why did they blow that whistle? Did we get a point? Was that a foul? Why did the other team do that? Who’s on our team again? Why is everyone clapping like that? Who’s on our team? Did we win yet?
Sounds simple enough, right? Fine – answer them all every 2 minutes. Still not a problem? Try to identify a questionable offensive foul from the 400 section and explain why it qualified as a foul, all before your son loses interest and asks which players are on your team again.
But there’s another side to this – and it’s a lot more fun. Once the chants, rhythmic clapping, and signature jock jams come on, you’ll get to teach them all to your kids. I know that Seven Nation Army is at this point the most annoying bass line of all time, but seeing your kids gradually taken over by it as it builds, belting out the “OOOO-oo-OO-oo-OO-ooo-OOOOO,” is akin to discovering it all over again for yourself.
And they REALLY mean it when they shout, “DE-FENSE!”
Also, you get to laugh at how out of sync they (and your wife) are on the rapid-fire claps that follow “EVERYBODY CLAP YOUR HANDS!”
Lesson 3: Try To Avoid A Loss
Their first game will always be special. But sometimes, circumstances outside of your control conspire to make it downright historical. As anyone who follows professional sports can attest – you never know when the next iconic moment might happen.
It’s a tired cliché, but before the trip, mentally prepare yourself to savor every single moment.
This was their first basketball game. Their first playoff game. Their first visit to the arena. For one of them, it was the first time we learned he could probably sleep through a category 5 hurricane.
But it was also the first time my boys got to see number 3, Dwyane Wade – arguably the most successful and revered player in team history – play in person. While they didn’t have the attachment to him that I did, they’d watched him night after night on TV, and knew he was special.
We didn’t know it at the time, but it turns out it was also the last time they’d see him play in a Heat jersey. He’s now playing for the Chicago Bulls – a result of drawn-out and hostile contract negotiations; an aspect of professional sports my kids are still too young to understand.
And that’s my last tip: this is an opportunity for a teachable moment. Explain to them the importance of living in the moment, and appreciating exactly what is in front of them – because they may never experience anything like it again in their lives. It’s a heavy concept, but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored.
I wish I’d taken the chance more seriously. Instead, I was busy thinking ahead to how many other different games and events we could attend, slightly annoyed with the mid-game snooze, and wondering whether we could use the HEATWIN coupon code for a quick and easy Papa John’s dinner that night. As a result, I missed an opportunity to revel in it all with them.
On a lighter note – the Heat won, which meant the kids had a blast, and can’t wait to do it all over again.
I’m thinking maybe the first time Wade comes down to visit wearing a Bulls jersey…