I went to the circus at Madison Square Garden when I was about six years old, and, afterward, through some forgotten benefactor, I was taken backstage. There were clowns strolling around in their costumes, but they were talking normally, out of character. The man on stilts was walking on his own two feet, carrying the stilts. The lions were in their cages. It was the first time I saw, and understood, the backstage world that made the spotlit world possible.
The next time I regularly entered this backstage was while working as a stringer for U.P.I., a wire service for whom I covered several of the less desirable Knicks games, in the spring of 1988. It was Rick Pitino’s first season as the Knicks’ coach. Patrick Ewing and Mark Jackson were the stars of the team. I was fascinated to glimpse Ewing in person—stoic and furiously silent at his locker, his knees enclosed in ice packs; intrigued by Pitino’s boyish, fresh-faced eagerness. But the most lasting image from those first forays into the backstage world of the N.B.A. occurred in the visitors’ locker room.
The Knicks had played the Cavaliers. A mob of reporters and television cameras bristling with microphones and tape recorders surrounded the Cavaliers’ young star Ron Harper, who sat in front of his locker. Harper’s face and bare shoulders were bathed in the bright white light of a television camera while he spoke. At first I could only see the top of his shaved head. When I got closer I was amazed to see that he was entirely nude. The white light framed what people could see on TV. But outside the frame, there was more to see.
These days I watch N.B.A. games in New Orleans. Being in the stands of the Smoothie King Arena is different from the stands at Madison Square Garden, but backstage, these arenas are all similar. And, as with grand museums, one moves through them faintly wondering what it would be like to stay late, past closing, and be a stowaway.
The Pelicans’ first home game of the season, on October 20th, was a loss to the Golden State Warriors. Afterward, I went to the Warriors’ locker room. Smartphones, social media, and a co-ed workforce have made locker rooms a more circumspect space. Stephen Curry, shirtless with a towel around his waist, sat with his knees wrapped in ice packs so