TAMPA — Robert Tucker came to the St. Pete Times Forum on Friday night to celebrate his son Jaylon Johnson's 16th birthday by watching the Orlando Magic and the Miami Heat in the area's only NBA exhibition of the season.
But the celebration turned to disappointment about 30 minutes before tipoff when Tucker and several thousand fans were told via the public address announcer that the expected-sellout game was canceled because the playing surface of the basketball court had been deemed unsafe for play.
Times Forum CEO Tod Leiweke issued a public apology and said every fan will receive "a complete and total refund."
"This is ridiculous," said Tucker of Tampa. "It's my son's 16th birthday, and he really wanted to see LeBron (James). We got the tickets almost a month out, so of course, it's a real disappointment. We're out of money. Even out there in the parking lot, we can't get our money back. There are expenses we're not going to be able to get back. They should have at least let us get some pictures with the players or an autograph or something."
Thousands of fans who had been kept outside the arena as officials made a final decision at 6:45 p.m. were turned away. Robert Chadwick Jr., Brian Bynum and Victor Bynum were among them. The three arrived Friday afternoon from Virginia with tickets that were a gift from Chadwick's sister who lives in Tampa.
"We were excited, planned to spend a couple of days here in Florida," said Chadwick, who expects to lose about $1,000. "We're disappointed, but we totally understand. I know that the arena is used for multiple purposes, and if you have a hockey team and you're playing in the same arena, it happens. We just didn't want it to happen today."
More than 18,000 tickets were sold, and Times Forum officials had expected 20,000 fans — a sellout for basketball. Concern about the floor surfaced during the Magic's shootaround Friday morning. Coach Stan Van Gundy said the floor was so slippery the team literally had to walk through workouts.
"What happened here is when the floor was brought back after being put out on loan (months ago), it was improperly treated," Leiweke said. "It was simply the wrong (cleaning) solution used on the floor. It had an oil content, and it should not have been used. The solution was put back on the floor when it was brought back into the building months ago. It wasn't because we had a back-to-back (hockey game Thursday night/basketball Friday)."
Leiweke said he was on the floor early Friday morning and it seemed fine, but Van Gundy and other league officials said the floor had a slippery film on it.
"We worked all day," Leiweke said. "I was optimistic a couple of hours ago, but when those trained eyes came and looked at the floor, they said it's just not right. It was sort of a polish. … We felt later in the day, it might very well be playable. As we got closer to game time, you can't advocate playing on and then, God forbid, a player goes down."
Ultimately, coaches and arena officials said, the decision by the NBA, which starts its regular season Tuesday, came down to safety.
"The disappointing part about the whole thing is that fans came out expecting to see two pretty good teams, and all of a sudden you get nothing," Magic general manager Otis Smith said. "We'll see each other in two weeks but not here in Tampa, so that's the most disappointing part."
Tell that to the fans.
"I'm not happy at all," said Jason Lovell of Spring Hill. "They wait until almost game time, it's 30 minutes before the game. Even with a refund, you're not going to get that money if you bought from somebody outside and you paid more. At least maybe if LeBron had come out and said hi to the crowd, that would have been great."