NBA? we don't need no stinkin' NBA

“Nuclear Winter” no more

The end of the National Basketball Association’s turbulent 2011 lockout came late last Saturday night with little pomp or circumstance. Players and owners are now on the same page for a new 10-year labor agreement -- a hope that sat atop many sports fans’ holiday wish lists. As of press time, pro hoops action could start as early as Christmas Day.

But what if you can’t stomach Bron-Bron, D-Wade, ‘Melo, and their bloated “Homecoming Tour” while you’re waiting? What if those “new look” Cavaliers have you skeptical? Or what if you just don't give a hoop about pro basketball?

Here at Fresh Water we have some suggestions.

Lake Erie Monsters
Quicken Loans Arena, 1 Center Ice, (216) 420-0000

The Play: When Dan Gilbert’s Cavs aren’t pounding the hardwood at “The Q,” our American Hockey League team offers up impressive showdowns at Quicken’s center ice. As farm team for the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche, the Monsters pushed mightily into the 2010 playoffs before the brawny Manitoba Moose eliminated them. Average attendance at Monsters games hovers near 7,000, but with tickets at a fraction of NBA prices and game play much faster (and some might even say more refined) than NBA hoops, fans and converts keep coming back for more.

Overtime: The Monsters run great promotions, which add to the allure of trudging out into blustery C-Town. Regular Friday Night Sugardale/Pepsi Dollar Dog Nights, several full-fledged “Kids Days,” and College ID nights (a.k.a. “Thirsty Thursdays,” with two-buck draft beer) make Monsters games a bona fide slam dunk. And with promotional giveaways (usually) offered to the first 5,000 arrivals, very few fans leave empty handed.

Insider's Tip: Pro hockey attendance in Cleveland has remained relatively static since the original Cleveland Barons played back in the day at the old Cleveland Arena. Here, you'll get a lot of junior players, stat geeks and hardcore puck daddies -- not fair-weather, bandwagon-jumping fans or blowhards regurgitating facts, stats and opinions from sports talk radio at a Monsters game. In short: You’ll find fans who really care about the game. Talk about a breath of fresh air.

Cleveland State University Men’s Basketball  
Wolstein Center, 2000 Prospect Ave E, (216) 687-9292

The Play: So hockey won’t cut it, you say? We get it. Not to worry. Up until Hofstra handed them their first loss last weekend, the Cleveland State University Vikings program played undefeated basketball. Head Coach Gary Waters has pushed CSU and his players into a whole other zone -- including a decisive win over NCAA tourney regulars Vanderbilt. Waters and Co. are rocking the block and making it very difficult for Butler’s head coach Brad Stevens to win another Horizon League title.

Overtime: Wolstein Center Hoopy Hour’s are offered for select games with a recession-busting two-buck draft beer and select menu items in Section 125 off of the main concourse. Affordable Family Fun nights (select Saturdays) offer the real value with a Free “KidZone,” post-game autographs from several Vikes, 2-for-2 hotdogs and a whole host of other activities, magicians, live music, balloon artists…

Insider's Tip: Early indications are that Cleveland State is pushing for a tourney bid. But even if they get in, the madness doesn’t end in March at the Wolstein Center. All-female flat-track roller derby rolls on there in the form of Cleveland’s Burning River Roller Girls, an amateur league onto itself that also competes against similarly aligned teams throughout the Midwest. The ladies return to the W Center in March for their 2012 season and are quite fun to watch.

Cleveland Indians Snow Days and Frozen Diamond Faceoff
Progressive Field, 2401 Ontario St., (216) 420-4327

The Play: “This world-class facility was created expressly for baseball,” states the official Major League Baseball website for the Cleveland Indians. And since opening in 1994, with very few exceptions, the former Jake has been exactly that: an urban landmark ballpark with fan-friendly surroundings. Special events have been few and far between, perhaps thanks to a particularly boisterous 1995 Jimmy Buffett concert. Last year, the front office opened the flood gates, offering live music and what’s likely to become a new Cleveland tradition.

Overtime: Snow Days debuted last year to much ado, drawing over 50,000 fans during its inaugural winter run of ice skating, inner tubing and other frosty, family-friendly fun. Young professionals have made Snow Days a happy hour destination in the evenings as well. Wind chill-chapped Tribe fans dreaming of sliding into home plate can do so -- throughout the holiday season -- and from a formidable bleacher-anchored snow slope affectionately called the Batterhorn.

Insider's Tip: If you also happen to be a hockey fan (see above) then the Frozen Diamond Faceoff is a January must. With the Tribe front office and two Big Ten schools in cahoots, this outdoor hockey showdown seemingly takes its cues from the popular NHL “Winter Classic” series. Likely to be the epicenter for fans from both schools and their adopted/expat fanbases, the Prog will have all the essential baseball grub (hot dogs, nachos, cold beer) for sale, along with coffee and cocoa. Bring hand and feet warmers, your OSU gear, and your best fight song voices. O-H! I-O!

Mulberry’s Cleveland
2316 Mulberry St., (216) 443-4843

The Play: With an astounding footprint of 5,500 square feet, Mulberry’s is the go-to place for sporting types looking to recapture their gym-class hero glory days. Think “alternative sports venue” meets sports bar, with a touch of high school gymnasium and “beer league” joie de vivre and you’ve got a pretty good handle on what this multi-faceted sports complex has to offer. Wanna shoot hoops? Play floor hockey, dodgeball or volleyball? This joint in the Flats is the place to do it.

Overtime: Bonus: It’s a young professional’s hang out, so if you’re looking for other gamers to play with year-round, you’ll find them here. Many are participants in Cleveland Plays -- a festive co-ed sport and social club that organizes league volleyball at Wendy Park at Whiskey Island and other amateur sporting events. They offer league football, soccer, softball, kickball and all of the aforementioned sporting pursuits, along with euchre, bar and table games leagues.

Insider's Tip: With a restaurant, bar and outdoor deck with a dynamite downtown view, this is the place for C-Town’s amateur athletes to get their game on during the cold winter months. But there’s a sports bar downstairs, if you’re feeling a little tight from that last game or do a better job managing a barstool than the shot clock. If you don’t find the game you’re looking for, Hermes Sport & Social offers some alternatives (including a Skeeball World Tour tournament) at various locations throughout town.

East 4th Street Neighborhood
2015 East 4th St. #220, (216) 589-1111

The Play: At the root of sports is play, and if you can’t play in this nationally acclaimed hotspot, you should stay home. With a dozen distinctive restaurants and watering holes, live music at House of Blues, theatrical productions and stand-up comedy at Pickwick & Frolic, there’s something for everyone.

Overtime: It may be lower key than pro hoops, but many here take bowling as seriously as the Dude. And when it’s married with upscale pub grub, lane-side cocktail service and high-tech scoring, what’s not to love? That's why C-Town’s “hipster pinsters” head straight to Corner Alley, located at the north corner of bustling E. Fourth. With computerized scoring, above-lane video screens, ice-cold martinis and exceptional grub, this is the place to get your bowl -- and rented shoes -- on.

Insider's Tip: Nearly all of the stops on East 4th are stocked with gargantuan HD flat screens, so you can watch nearly any televised sport. Six Nations Rugby and English Premier League futbol at Flannery’s anyone?
- Image 1: Lake Erie Monsters, photo Lauren McClintock courtesy of the Lake Erie Monsters
- Image 2: Wolstein Center, photo Bob Perkoski
- Image 3: Courtesy of Cleveland State University Men's Basketball
- Image 4: Courtesy of The Burning River Roller Girls
- Images 5 & 6: Courtesy of the Cleveland Indians Snow Days
- Images 7 & 8: E 4th Street, photo Bob Perkoski
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