The Joy of Six: in-game entertainment

Jakub Frankowicz
The Guardian
The Joy of Six: in-game entertainment. From the sometimes deadly bombardment of the t-shirt cannon to the prowess of The Freeze, here are half-a-dozen traditions to liven up breaks in play
The Joy of Six: in-game entertainment. From the sometimes deadly bombardment of the t-shirt cannon to the prowess of The Freeze, here are half-a-dozen traditions to liven up breaks in play

1) Baby races

The baby races that NBA and college basketball teams hold during timeouts are a pure delight. Watch, for example, the Sacramento Kings’ 2019 entry into the ever expanding lore of triumphant tots. Tell me that Maverick doesn’t have the clutch gene. Watch how Gemma’s selflessness in attempting to share a ball costs her dearly, despite her ability to (almost) walk. The mascot signaling his disappointment is the icing on the cake.

Then again, perhaps no team puts on as good a baby race as the Kings, who take the event very seriously. This year marked the ninth edition of a race that has become a fan favorite. Aspiring baby athletes (OK, their parents) post audition videos that range from adorable to highly produced in an attempt to gain the attention of the team, and a chance to highlight their crawling ability.

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And, as with any battle contested by dedicated competitors, there’s been controversy. A mother who leaned over the finish line in 2016 to pick her child up as the winner caused an argument over the rules, and the Kings released this hilarious faux-serious segment on the uproar it caused.

2) Small kids playing ice hockey

If there’s anywhere that you can see the ecstasy of victory and the agony of defeat play out in stark terms, it’s somewhere watching kids play their favorite sport at their favorite team’s arena in front of thousands of fans. You can get a slice of it at the half-times of some soccer matches, but the added slapstick comedy of kids slipping on ice makes hockey the top-shelf of tyke sports. For what it’s worth, the joy of falling on ice makes everything funny.

Throw out everything you know about tactics and team play. Instead the joy is in the scrums of kids fighting for a puck hidden somewhere under their tangled bodies. Witness players hang their heads in shame after a slip wastes an open-net opportunity, brutal body checking, and over-the-top celebrations. This is hockey at its rawest and most fun. And when the crowd gets behind it, it can make for a lasting memory for the kids who play.

3) Red Panda

An about-face from the frenzied chaos of the previous two entries, the careful balance of Red Panda’s act has captured the attention of thousands of fans across the globe. If you’ve paid attention to the NBA or college basketball, where Red Panda makes frequent appearances at half-time shows, chances are you’ve witnessed her grace and skill. Someone balancing a dozen or more bowls on top of their head while riding a seven-foot unicycle is one of those things you didn’t know you wanted to see until you have.

Red Panda, whose real name is Rong Niu, comes from Shanxi Province in China, where she trained under her father to become an acrobat. After a stint on America’s Got Talent, she has taken her unique skills across the globe, but she’s particularly known in basketball. After her unicycle was stolen at San Francisco’s airport, she performed with one parsed together from replacement parts, until the Golden State Warriors gave her a new one, and she returned to excellent form.

4) Half-court shots

Is there a more fitting metaphor for American capitalism than the half-court shot for prize money? Fail, and you will rue your missed chance forever. Succeed and you’re propelled into instant monetary windfall (or free tuition) as well as praise and worship from the masses.

Critical economic analysis aside, it’s just good entertainment. There’s often a practice three-point attempt beforehand that builds suspense, an announcer who acts as a hype man or woman, and when a contestant drains a shot, the jubilation of the winner and the crowd is heart-warming.

5) T-shirt cannons

Few things are more absurd than the measures teams go to in order to deliver memorabilia to their fans. And in this realm, no item is more iconic than the t-shirt cannon. Launch a $10 shirt into the stands, and watch crowds fight over it like it’s a limited edition Versace.

The great thing about t-shirt cannons is their flexibility. They can be used at any sporting event, they can be fired by nearly anybody. And it’s always fun to see something that doesn’t quite make sense as an airborne object soar into the air. Oh, and be careful because if you’re not careful t-shirt canons can injure or even kill.

6) Themed races

There are all sorts of races in break-from-play history. Of note are the Milwaukee Brewers’ sausage race, the Washington Nationals’ presidents’ race, ice hockey sled races around the goals, and spinning around a baseball bat five times before dizzily trying to make it from first base to home plate. All deserving of a place in sporting lore.

But one of the newcomers to this space is the best. The Atlanta Braves host a race called Beat The Freeze in which seemingly fit members of the crowd take on the aforementioned budget superhero for a $500 first prize (the challengers get a headstart). The catch is that below The Freeze’s silly outfit is former college sprinter Nigel Talton.

In nearly every race, it looks like the fan has got the race in the bag, and yet almost every time (one of the exceptions was a guest appearance at the London Series), Talton catches the contestant in the waning moments. On one level it is a fun chance at winning some cash, but it also shows shows the unsung excellence of athletes who didn’t quite break out into the top of their field (this 2018 article says Talton’s 100m personal best is the 4,791st quickest of all time). If Talton seems superhuman, it places the speed of somebody like Usain Bolt in another realm.

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