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Wishing for playoff fever for central Florida teams

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 14, 2001


Watching these NHL and NBA playoffs, I feel like a TV-dependent outsider, with no more late-May attachment than a hockey zealot in Montana or a basketball nut on some West Virginia mountaintop.

Look, but don't touch.

Playoffs approach their mesmerizing best. Decidedly more meaningful than the scrimmages of January, February and March. Unquestionably more important to players, coaches, owners, agents and patrons.

But from my Florida perch, it's like I'm on Mars or Pluto, gazing through a network microscope, so far away, checking out hoops and pucks back on Earth.

"Say what?" you ask?

Do I sound out of this world or just out of my mind? Humor me. I'll try a closer-up analogy. In this part of the country, we're kids standing on the outside, noses pressed to a plate-glass window, eyes buggy and hungry, getting the best looks we can at NHL-NBA works getting snappier all the time.

I can't be the only one who wonders when mid Florida will have its next turns. Our experiences deep into NBA and NHL brackets have been slight. Even that seems like such a long time ago.

Might the Lightning by this time next year have adequately improved to earn at least a quick buss from Lord Stanley? As for our gangly Orlando neighbors, presuming Grant Hill will at last be healthy enough to partner with Tracy McGrady, I do like Magic chances of surviving until well into May 2002.

Seeing the NBA/NHL arenas from half a continent away, sensing playoff passions, being awed by human artistry, cringing at some of the collisions, trying to embrace top-shelf hockey and basketball through TV, it reminds us outsiders how invigorating playoff competitions can be.

In compact venues, where 15,000 to 20,000 spectators cram, cranked by fiery combat on wood or ice, sporting exhilaration can test the stoutest heart and toughest mind. In such tight quarters, the impact can exceed even the far larger outdoor locales where football and baseball are played.

We see Allen Iverson, so outlandishly tattooed and graciously gifted, making blurring moves, taking quick jumpers, executing dazzling passes and spurring a Philadelphia house to an apex of delirium.

Across the country, in Los Angeles, at the corner of Tall and Broad, a man wearing Lakers gold and going by the name Shaquille O'Neal plays basketball like the sport's inventor, James Naismith, never imagined. (He is so enormous, so mobile, so dominating, so unique.

But do even the NBA's roaring parlors equal the vigor of a Stanley Cup joint at a moment of victorious jubilation? Like the other night, when Mario Lemieux, who came back from a rocking chair and cancer, scored a goal to keep his Pittsburgh Penguins alive, leading to two overtime wins that bounced Buffalo.

It doesn't get any louder, more captivating or athletically empowering than that, although voices on behalf of MLB, the NFL and NBA may choose to argue. Seems to me, crowds at NHL playoff games rank as the most savvy, most involved and most reactionary of all.

They know well the renowned bad guys of hockey, the thugs, so when a nauseating cheap shot comes, the Stanley Cup choir could not be more vociferous if it were Saddam Hussein out there on skates, throwing a blind-side elbow at Pope John Paul II.

So, we fantasize; can this happen in Tampa? If the Lightning becomes a contender, engaging in a playoff series with a Philly or St. Louie, might the tumult approach what has long been the deafening post-season norm in a Toronto or Detroit?

Maybe.

Maybe if the the Lightning gets good, a far smaller percentage of Ice Palace audiences will come dressed in colors of the visiting team. Hockey will never approach pro football's popularity in this neighborhood, but the zest, for a moment, on Tampa ice has a chance to match just about anything.

Watching these playoffs from afar, whether from outer space or just beyond bulletproof glass, my hope intensifies that something close to the window-rattling NHL roars of Denver or Buffalo, or even the NBA madness of Philly or San Antonio, might occur before long in a place we can touch.

I'm for Bucs in Super Bowls and Devil Rays getting out of trouble, with hot across-the-board demand for tickets. But there seems a special, boxed-up exuberance with arena sports, basketball to a lofty degree and hockey perhaps even beyond.

Got to go now.

Telescope is calling.

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