Dunk Food

Basketball isn't really my game. To the extent that I'm a sports fan at all, I like football and baseball. I'm really a movie buff. The signature snack of my pastime isn't peanuts or Cracker Jacks, but popcorn. As appalling as ticket and concession prices have gotten at the movies, it's still an affordable diversion compared to even a modest excursion to a professional sports venue.But when the opportunity comes to attend my first NBA game -- Game 3 of the second-round, best-of-seven playoff series between the Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Lakers and a sky-box seat at America West Arena -- I jump at the chance.

As I pass out of the world of the proletariat below into the realm of polo shirts and trophy wives, an usher stamps my hand with a readmittance symbol visible only in black light. I'm expecting something really sumptuous and elegantly appointed.

And the food at such an outing? My mouth waters at the prospect.

But I can see at a glance that the reality won't live up to the fantasy. The sky box, with its plain gray walls and functional sofa and chairs and TV monitor, looks very much like a doctor's office waiting room. And this one isfull of doctors. The five-year lease on the place is held by a group of five docs and five non-docs, and the room is crammed full of them, their friends and their families.

I peruse the 13-page, spiral-bound notebook titled "Suite Indulgence," which serves as the menu. The selection is amazing -- hors d'oeuvres, salads, deli meats, hot dogs, entrees, booze and desserts.

Even though I came expecting obscenity, the prices on this menu still leave me slack-jawed. The sausage dip with fried won ton chips is $59.95. There are two sizes for the chilled jumbo shrimp -- a small (which serves about six) is $59.95, while a large (serving about 10) will run you $114.95. You can enjoy a tossed green salad, served with a fat-free ranch dressing, for a mere $17.95. An order of grilled bratwurst over sauerkraut, "accompanied by gourmet buns and a spicy brown mustard," runs $39.95 or $69.95.

Care for some stuffed chili poppers? If you're not too hungry, go for the small at $43.95, but if you've brought your appetite, you'd better opt for the large at $87.95. If you're eating light, you can always try the penne pasta with marinara sauce for $29.95 or $55.95, or baked wings with choice of hot wing, honey/garlic or barbecue sauce and fat-free ranch dressing for $33.50 or $63.95. Wash it all down with a six-pack of pop for $10.50 or of domestic beer for $15.95. On every page of the menu, we are reminded that "all suite services are subject to sales tax and a 19% gratuity and service charge."

What's the justification for all this, you ask? Is the bratwurst made from snow leopard meat? Did the baked wings once belong to spotted owls and whooping cranes? No, as far as I can tell it's just junk food, sold to people for whom spending $80 isn't much different from spending 80 cents.

Skip, a pleasant OB/GYN who is our de facto host, has done the ordering for the whole room. On the little table between the sofa and chair is our appetizer for the evening, the Farmer's Market. This "array of fresh garden vegetables served with a new vegetable/herb dip" will set you back $24.95 ($40.95 if you get a large). It's a vegetable tray distinctive only for the pathetic state of the vegetables -- the dry, excema-colored carrots droop like the spirits of a Suns fan. And if the vegetable/herb dip is "new," they should consider going back to the old. It's so utterly flavorless, it can't even properly be called bad. I assume that the bowl of popcorn sitting next to the Farmer's Market is complimentary, but I later discover that it, too, has a price: $7.95 for the small and $9.95 for the large.

The game begins. I edge to the front of the room and look down at the unremarkable behind-the-basket view. Shaquille O'Neal, the young actor who starred in the movie Steel, is playing for the Lakers. Apparently, he's also a basketball player, and he seems to be doing rather well. The Suns have the lead, though, so I wander off to have dinner.

Our buffet-style entree is the Fajita Bar. I'm not sure whether it's the small ($82.95) or the large ($149.95). What is clear to me by the time I'm halfway through my first fajita is that the Farmer's Market was no fluke. This food isn't just mediocre, it's vile. If a caterer served it at your business luncheon, you'd have grounds for civil litigation. The tortillas crumble in my hands like parchment from a pharaoh's tomb. The flavor of the chicken, perhaps mercifully, is indiscernible through a shield of indiscriminate spice. I attempt a second wrap, this time with the beef, but toss it into the wastebasket halfway through. Two points.

The game turns out to be pretty good, until the dreary final minutes, which dissolve into a tedium of panicky, failed three-point attempts by the Suns, who've fallen behind, and flawless free throws by the Lakers. When it's over, I leave, with a brick in my guts.

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