Tonight was my first time at an NBA game. Upon hearing this, friends often react in astonishment. What can I say? I’m a bit of an introvert – my idea of a night out has always been staying in and ordering pizza.
I arrived at Toyota Center at around 5:30 and was met by Jason Friedman (of Rockets.com fame). Jason actually spent the next two hours with me until tip-off, showing me around and teaching me the ropes. I had heard good things about him from others, but you really won’t meet a nicer guy than Jason Friedman.
We walked into the lockerroom area and the first thing I saw was Yao Ming. It didn’t really hit me at first that it was Yao Ming. The room was empty and I was chatting in a corner with Jason. At the other end, Chinese media surrounded what appeared to be some sort of gargantuan statue. I suddenly realized, “oh my God, that giant statue is Yao Ming.” Each of his calves were the width of my entire body. I didn’t dare approach him for fear of being blown away by one puff of his breath.
Jason then took me out onto the floor where Rockets Vice President Sam Hinkie was sitting courtside, watching the team in its shoot-around routine. Sam and I chatted about basketball (and by extension life; or is it life and by extension basketball?) for a good fifteen minutes, observing the players before us. After talking to Hinkie, you can really see why this front office is so highly regarded around the league. (A friend/acquaintance of his behind us, to grab Hinkie’s attention, referred to him as ‘Stanford’ which I found humorous.)
While we were there, Jermaine Taylor was unconscious from deep, sporting a beautiful, quick stroke. The second year guard reminds me of Vernon Maxwell, both facially and in build. I’ve never heard anyone else make this comparison, (most likely in fear of heresy; Taylor’s the twelfth man and Max is a deity.) Anyways, I still can’t figure out why it hasn’t yet happened for JT.
Friedman and I had a bite to eat before he ushered me to my seat right before tip-off. I realized I could have brought my laptop as we actually had a table in front of us. I regretted not knowing this beforehand (as I could have gone to bed a lot earlier last night upon arriving home.) To my right was Chinese media and to my left were two scouts – one from the Spurs and one from the Pacers. The scouts worked diligently on their laptops throughout the game, referencing various note packets and play diagrams continuously. I had no idea what they were doing, but damn if they didn’t look important while doing it.
Prior to tip-off was a highlight compilation that induced chills. Whoever made it captured their aim impeccably, blending past with present. I was overcome by extreme nostalgia watching some of the famous clips from the title runs – will we ever feel that same excitement again? Would I get another chance to witness something of that sort, but this time from this chair? (Pause for effect. This is where you collectively plead, ‘Morey, please get us Carmelo.’)
It was also interesting to note that the video had a fairly healthy amount of McGrady highlights. This came as quite the shock as my impression was that the divorce was a rather bitter one.
Onto the game: unfortunately, I have no idea what happened. Seriously. When you do something in a certain way for sixteen years, and then for the first time stray from that manner, you’re completely thrown off and require an adjustment period. The view from my seat was great, but I’ve just never looked on from that angle. I no longer had the reference point to which I had become dependent. I’m used to my living room, sitting in my chair, and following along to the commentary from that night’s broadcast crew. In truth, a lot of my attention was divested in excitement over the realization of just how easy it would be to blog with the score/fact sheets they continually handed us.
After the game, I rushed to the elevators to get back down to the press area. I hit the ‘down’ button and waited, wondering what else lay in store for me the rest of the night. The doors opened and inside sat an attendant with an elderly gentleman standing in the corner. I did a double-take as I realized the man was none other than former Rockets general manager and assistant coach Carrol Dawson.
“Hi Carrol,” I said. “How are you?”
“Hey,” he warmly responded. “Not too well at 0-3…”
My first reaction was surprise that Dawson was still not only with the team but also still so emotionally invested in its success. My second reaction was one of guilt. This kind old man would never know how much I had written over the years of his managerial blunders.
I headed out into the tunnel, getting lost as I tried to locate the press room where Rick Adelman was sitting center stage. I finally found it, entering just as things were wrapping up. The room was much smaller than I had imagined; when you see it on television, there appears to be almost 100 seats with a cacophony of voices. In reality, there wasn’t more than 15 of us in there. ESPN’s J.A. Adande left a bit early, not completely shutting the door behind him. As I had feared, it slowly began creaking open until it was fully ajar; I was right next to the door and could feel all eyes in the room turn towards me. I didn’t know whether to close it or look for somewhere to hide; Rick already looked irritated enough.
We all then went back into the lockerroom where the players would slowly be making themselves available. As Jason explained it, every player was obligated to make himself available to answer questions after the game. You just had to wait for them to trickle out from the shower area. When I entered, Kyle Lowry was already swarmed, and then later Chuck Hayes, and Shane Battier. Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill, and Jared Jeffries all entered a bit later with no one seeming to notice.
I really wanted to ask Budinger about the skills camps he had attended when younger, and how much he attributed his current poise to that very early instruction. Everyone else was asking about the game and getting very general, unsubstantive responses. My plan going in was that I wanted to ask these players about themselves, hopefully gaining an affinity, so that I could someday take something back to my readers. I don’t care what Kyle Lowry thinks about why we couldn’t score in the fourth – I can figure that out on my own or read about it from an actual expert. I want to know if he’s always sought out contact or if those small things he does were given positive reinforcement in Memphis like they are in Houston.
The problem was that I didn’t know if such questioning would be appropriate given the somber mood in the room. I decided not to risk asking Chase to apply something that happened when he was like eight years old when he already might have been pissed.
We all then stood waiting around, watching highlights on the television. I asked someone what exactly we were waiting for. “Yao,” was the response. Apparently, Yao works out immediately after the games and the media waits patiently for his arrival. Makes sense.
I waited a good fifteen minutes for “the large man” with Battier, Hayes, and Lowry all sitting immediately behind me, completely unoccupied.
“You know, we could easily go talk to them…” I said to the guy next to me, also a virgin.
My mind scrambled to think of something even remotely intelligent to ask to the three most cerebral Houston Rockets. I froze, my mind going numb. (A reader had suggested broaching the topic of Battier’s investment banking internship – No.) What I had not realized, and for what I had not made myself mentally prepared, was just how accessible the players were. I had assumed that everyone of any importance would be mobbed and then would immediately leave when the mob was done. I had not known that they would stick around and I could literally walk up to any one of them and converse freely. A missed opportunity but a learning experience.
Yao finally arrived, towering his way into the room. We were ants in his presence; the man extended into the heavens. He slumped into his chair violently and the mob literally swarmed him.
“One minute!” he barked twice.
I thought he meant he would only take questions for one minute. I then realized he just wanted some space and a few seconds to take off his shoe.
As he cut through the foot tape, I struggled to get a glimpse. What is currently the most nurtured and volatile asset in the Houston Rockets organization had just been unwrapped, exposed into the open. I didn’t know if I expected it to shine and now be made of metal, but by God I hoped he’d immerse it immediately in the ice tub in front of him. Stay well, Yao. Stay well.
I could barely hear Yao so I turned and made eye contact with Luis Scola who had just arrived, completely unoccupied. I had to do it. Through three games, the man is now averaging a jaw-dropping 27 and 14. In past years, when given the minutes, Scola was good for a regular 20-10. I wondered, and have been wondering, observing this production, did he feel that even at this age he was continually improving or was it just a matter of finally getting the minutes? Being the humble guy he is, he wasn’t going to admit the latter, so I had to frame my query particularly:
“Luis, you’re averaging well over 20 and 10 in these first 3 games. Do you feel your level of comfort with the NBA game is even now still continuing to increase?” I inquired.
“It’s just 3 games…it’s just 3 games,” he said. “Come back to me after 30 and we’ll see where I’m at.”
In reality, I suspect an international superstar like Scola knows that for him, it was just a matter of getting the minutes. What Luis is doing right now is downright scary and hard for me personally to conceptualize given the awkwardness with which he does it. Most startling is that looking at his body of work sans Carl Landry, this is not a fluke and there are good odds he will sustain the production (albeit with a slight drop). Consider this: there’s a very serious, realistic possibility of Luis Scola finishing the season as one of the most productive power forwards in basketball.
Anyways, having gotten that first question under my belt, I decided it was now time to leave. (In actuality, Jason was also leaving and I decided it would not be a good idea to stick around without the only friendly face I knew in case I somehow accidentally got locked inside the Toyota Center.)
I headed back for the elevators and entered the parking garage. As I exited Toyota Center, I realized that for the first time I could remember, I didn’t have a single thing to say about the actual game. I had no idea what had happened and would need to read about it elsewhere. But in those few hours, I learned more about the NBA than I had ever known.