Sports Nut

Deaf Jams

The NBA’s war against silence.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

In Detroit’s Palace of Auburn Hills, each basket made by the home team conjures an aural celebration. When the Pistons make a three-pointer, the arena PA plays a clip of the Gap Band’s “You Dropped a Bomb on Me.” For more workmanlike field goals, the technicians break out the “goin’ to work” palette: metal presses, jack hammers, and something called the “work whistle.” And when the Pistons make a historically great play, a collage of loud sirens rains down, drowning out the crowd. There might not be a lot of scoring in the Eastern Conference finals, but every point is special.

Once upon a time, a noisy arena just meant noisy fans. Now it means a “team sound engineer” who riles up the crowd with wacky sound effects, player theme songs, and instrumental versions of the latest hip-hop hits. The rise of the sound engineer started inauspiciously, with a simple “duh-dunn“—the two-note Pavlovian cue for the crowd to start chanting “Dee-fense.” Then came rhythmic “We Will Rock You” clapping. Actual in-game music seems to have originated in Utah, of all places. The Salt Palace used to rock out to Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” during opposition timeouts. At some point, one of the smart guys upstairs noticed the popularity of the haunting, opening “bwah-dah-doo” and figured, why save it for timeouts?

Back in the early 1990s, the NBA rulebook didn’t say anything about in-game sounds. While not expressly forbidden, there was something of a gentlemen’s agreement between teams not to disrupt the action with cheesy effects. And then, in 1994, the Indiana Pacer race car shook everything up. The screeching motor sound was the brainchild of Jeff Scalf, the team’s director of game operations and entertainment. In his words, “I really felt the crowd needed some prompting; perhaps a battle cry or fight song. … It occurred to me one day, there was a sound that really captured what Coach [Larry] Brown was teaching and drilling in the minds of players and fans. It was a sound I had heard all my life as a Hoosier. … It was the powerful, racing sound of an Indianapolis 500 Motor Speedway Indy Car.”

So began the league’s love affair with pop-up audio. After the race car’s “success”—complaints from opposing teams, decibel meters showing that Market Square Arena was the loudest in the league (a shameless claim that ignored the digital goosing of the passive crowd), and a rule change prohibiting the cacophony when opponents had the ball—a spate of similarly themed noisemaking was unleashed by copycat NBA franchises. The Grizzlies have a blood-curdling growl. The Raptors offset their clubby soundtrack with a terrifying dino roar. The Charlotte Hornets’ mind-bending buzz effect sounded more like a Brood X precursor than a terrifying killer bee swarm. The angry hornet sound didn’t follow the team to New Orleans, but Baron Davis baskets are still followed by a canned clip of pro wrestler Ric Flair’s patented “Woo!

The league’s sound-effect bylaws prohibit music with lyrics when the opposition has the ball. An instrumental version of “In Da Club” is OK. So is, “Boom-boom-clap, boom-boom-clap.” But “We will, we will rock you!” will get you fined. An NBA rep with a handheld decibel meter polices the sidelines during every game, enforcing a 90-decibel limit on in-game noise. Should the needle reach 91, a phone rings upstairs and the “game technician” has to pump down the volume.

As an Atlanta resident, I usually appreciate the excess noise—hot beats from local artists like OutKast and Usher are usually more entertaining than the miserable Hawks. But sound effects don’t fit into a basketball game as naturally as they do in baseball, a sport with short, predictable stoppages. When hip-hop audio beds, sirens, and whistles shake the rafters at an NBA arena, it just feels like an admission that it’s impossible to fill arenas with a mere basketball game.

The conference finals, though, could come down to how the players and the crowd respond to the “game entertainment.” The West will be settled, unsurprisingly, with Shaq on the free-throw line. Minnesota uses a howling wolf to intimidate opposing foul shooters. The Staples Center blasts the “Superman” theme whenever O’Neal does anything remotely Shaq-esque. Slight edge to L.A.

The Eastern Conference finals are a bit more confusing—both the Pistons and the Pacers play the end-of-shift-style work whistle. Indiana’s Scalf, the creator of the Pacer race car, originally conjured the whistle effect when the Pacers were coached by Isiah Thomas. Isiah preferred hip-hop, though, so Scalf handed the whistle to his friends on Detroit’s entertainment staff. When Pistons coach Rick Carlisle jumped to his current berth in Indiana, Scalf started playing the whistle at Pacers games too. The whole sound-effects soap opera would probably be funny if it wasn’t so difficult to understand.

But in the battle for the workingman noise demographic, the Pistons have emerged victorious. Where the Pacers’ Jermaine O’Neal is received by an unoriginal calypso “Jay-ooooooohhhhh,” the Pistons trot out a wide assortment of canny musical selections. Rip Hamilton’s hoops are followed by Jay-Z’s “Threat,” which features a snarling “R…I…P….” Turkey’s own Mehmet Okur is favored with “Istanbul” from They Might Be Giants. But the Pistons win this matchup mainly on the strength of the Big Ben Bong, the snippet of AC/DC’s “Hells Bells” that is to Ben Wallace what “Shaft’s Theme” was to Richard Roundtree. No wonder that the Palace’s upper levels are called the “Noise Factory.” If it’s loud enough, you might even forget you’re watching Eastern Conference basketball.