The First Outdoor NBA Game in the Modern Era Was a Frigid, Unwatchable Mess: ‘It Was Colder Than a Motherf***** out There’

Outdoor NBA basketball may be coming to a court near you. Inspired by MLB’s “Field of Dreams” game and the NHL’s various outdoor games, NBA Executive Vice President of Basketball Strategy & Analytics Evan Wasch confirmed the league is exploring the idea of outdoor NBA games.

“We’ve explored it, and we’ll continue to talk about it,” Wasch said on The Crossover Podcast. “Obviously, the ‘Field of Dreams’ game was incredibly successful. So, no surprise it has sparked some discussions, and it’s worth exploring. But the logistical challenges of a basketball game outside are just significantly more than a baseball game, which, of course, is already outside.”

While there is no timetable for when, or if, we’d see outdoor basketball, this wouldn’t be the first time the NBA left the arena for a night. However, they would definitely want any new event to surpass what happened when the league went outside for the first time in the modern era.

The Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets played an outdoor exhibition game in 2008

In February 2008, just a month after the NHL’s first “Winter Classic”, the NBA announced the Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets would play an outdoor exhibition game. The game would be played on October 11 at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indians Wells, California.

“What will happen here will be historic,” Suns president and chief operating officer Rick Welts said at the time of the announcement. “More importantly, I think this will be a lot of fun. Most of us learned how to play basketball outdoors. This had the perfect circumstances to do it in the NBA.”

Welts gave two key reasons why the event would work; the venue and weather. The 16,000-seat stadium, built for tennis, offered a more intimate view of the court. Meanwhile, the warm Indian Wells weather in October was a reason why the league agreed to this game.

It wasn’t the first outdoor game in NBA history. The Suns played the Milwaukee Bucks at a baseball stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 24, 1972. However, weather concerns kept the league from revisiting outdoor basketball, something that would prove to be a problem 36 years later.

A cold, windy night spoiled the game

Fans in Indian Wells, California look on to watch the Phoenix Suns-Denver Nuggets exhibition game.
The first outdoor NBA game in the modern era took place on October 11, 2008, in a preseason game between the Denver Nuggets and the Phoenix Suns at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, California. | Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Playing in front of over 16,000 fans as well as a national TV audience, the Suns and Nuggets tipped off at 7:00 p.m. local time. From there, it was a shivering mess.

When the game began, the temperature sat at around 70 degrees. While rain never became a factor — the game was in the desert, after all — the wind was. A consistent breeze lingered throughout, causing the temperature to dip as time went on. By the time the game reached the fourth quarter, it was 64 degrees with 15 mph wind gusts, conditions no NBA player would be used to.

“I don’t think anyone expected it to be this cold here,” said Suns guard Steve Nash. “It felt like Edmonton, Alberta, not Palm Springs.”

“If it was a warm wind, it probably wouldn’t have been so [difficult],” said Nuggets coach George Karl. The longtime coach also mentioned the troubles a few of his players had with court traction.

Suns center Shaquille O’Neal also offered his thoughts (h/t: ESPN):

“It was colder than a motherf***** out there. And you can quote me on that.”

Shaquille O’Neal

On top of everyone being cold, the quality of basketball was poor. Denver won the game 77-72, as both teams shot under 40% from the field and a combined 3-for-27 from three. Free throws were even a problem, as the Nuggets won the game despite missing 20 of their 38 attempts from the charity stripe.

The game also lacked the star power needed to overcome a bad game in poor conditions. While Nash and O’Neal played, the Suns were missing Amare Stoudemire and Leandro Barbosa. Worse, the Nuggets were without both Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson due to injury.

Despite the unsuccessful game, the NBA is considering a return to the outdoors

The cold night in the California desert wasn’t enough to sway the NBA away from another outdoor game. The next year, the Suns returned to Indian Wells, losing to the Golden State Warriors 104-101 during a warmer, calmer evening. Then in 2010, Phoenix beat the Dallas Mavericks 98-90 in 90-plus degree heat.

If the 2008 fiasco wasn’t enough to push the league away, their interest in bringing it back is real. And several owners, including Mark Cuban of the Mavericks, have long expressed their desire to be a part of an outdoor experience.

“I’ve been trying to get permission to do a late-September charity tour for years,” Cuban said in 2008. “I think it would be great PR and fun to take several teams and play a tour of outdoor football arenas in non-NBA cities to build the popularity of the game. As successful as we’ve been in building the popularity of the game around the world, the same efforts across the country would benefit the NBA as much, if not more. How much fun would it be to play in front of 50,000 to 100,000 people and build marketing momentum leading into the season? Hopefully, the Phoenix game will be a first step.”

Whether it’s preseason or regular season, it seems like the NBA is more likely to have a game outdoors again than not. But for the sake of players, coaches, media, and fans, just make sure everybody is warm.

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