Watching an NBA game live and in person was almost like a religious experience for me as a kid. Here you are in this giant "cathedral" (most of my childhood featured Spurs home games in the Alamodome) watching these idols you've worshiped since you could physically pretend you were Michael Jordan shooting hoops in your driveway.
My driveway was all gravel with a wrought-iron pole holding up a backboard and basket near a barn - like, cows and sheep would watch me shoot - and come nightfall, I'd head inside for dinner and (ugh) homework with hands caked in dirt and generally pretty gross. But it didn't matter because I was merely practicing my faith, and with no shot at an NBA career (though you wouldn't have dared to tell me that at the time), it was almost as if the work I put in would be of some assistance to those who actually did matter. These elusive players, the larger-than-life giants of the Association, they seemed so untouchable. They were right out of stories you'd heard and pictures you'd seen, so seeing them in front of your face, from whatever distance, proved their reality. Getting David Robinson's autograph was a memory I still vividly remember to this day, so all I could think about in Vegas, where players and coaches casually floated about in as disarming a way as you can imagine, was, "Holy crap, man, what I wouldn't have given to be one of these kids out here in the stands with this kind of access."
I'm not attempting to be blasphemous, I assure you, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't worship David Robinson growing up. He was this gentle giant with an amazing, welcoming smile who also happened to be really, really good at basketball. Any time I was lucky enough to be anywhere near the same vicinity as him was a treat, so as I thought about that while watching the NBA's most prolific figures of today interact with fans and one another in such an unguarded manner I had to laugh. It's different for me these days. I've been in the locker rooms and talked to these guys personally. The feeling of awe rarely surfaces for me anymore - which is OK because it's kind of been my job - but the 12-year-olds in Las Vegas had yet to become jaded. There they were, basketballs, posters and ticket stubs in tow just waiting for the numerous opportunities to present themselves.
And this wasn't just a stage for the small fries. As I sat in my seat on press row and looked around the gym at Cox Pavilion one day, I noticed them everywhere. Tucked away in the different rows and corners of the arena were All-Stars and Hall-of-Famers from all eras watching and relaxing in enjoyment. But elsewhere, in the upper rows of the stands, there were the others: packs of children waiting, plotting, readying themselves for the descent. My eye caught a specific row to the right of the gym where Amar'e Stoudemire, J.R. Smith, Mike Woodson and even James Dolan were seated right next to one another. Stoudemire was wearing a beanie - it was actually roughly 127 degrees outside - and a black T-shirt with a big shark on it. Like, one of those nature shirts. Smith was rocking a blue, bejeweled backpack (swag) that would have been WAY out of my parents' price range when I was in junior high, otherwise I TOTALLY would have gotten one of those things. I don't remember seeing them in Walmart anyway. But there they sat alongside Woodson, his goatee and Dolan with his Blackberry (or whatever).
Out of my peripheral vision I caught a sight that must give mixed feelings to people of this stature. Among the rows of spectators, an amorphous blob of sorts began to form and weave its way down the stairwells and around the ticket-holders heading toward the concession stands. A group of 20-plus children had found its target, and as it approached these giants of men, a happy and cooperative Stoudemire stood to greet them, exposing his shark shirt. When the kids were done with this group they moved onto the next target, muttering things like "Hurry up!" and "There's so much work to do." It was indeed a procedure and a mission, one the 12-year-old me would have just loved to be a part of. Basketball players were everywhere and only a little blue tape and a 74-year-old security guard named Melvin (or some other old-guy name) stood in the way.
Elsewhere in the stands, Gregg Popovich smirked. He knew these kids gave not a single crap about his autograph. The bloggers, on the other hand? Well....
It's taken me a bit of time to revisit the diary, mostly because of the time needed to reflect on the week that was. The days had become jumbled directly from the start, and I had decided to not even attempt to track the number of hours I was sleeping each night as it would have only caused stress. In that city, I learned you simply don't concern yourself with time. Last I left you with "Part One" we had just finished a high-stakes game of blogger poker, which evidently means there's no money involved, one person is waiting on the effects of a sleeping pill to take and people are going all in with little to worry about. Seriously, Michael Levin from Liberty Ballers was pushing all-in until someone took it. Every time. I was the only one who could, anyway. The other guy who still had chips had succumbed to the strength of Western medicine.
Anyway, it had been a night since my poker victory at the SB Nation house, so I felt obligated to get back out on the strip. Fellow Spurs blogger Andrew McNeill of 48 Minutes of Hell arrived in town with that "if there were such a thing as sleep-partying I would totally do it" look after a travel day and afternoon arrival in Vegas, but it was time to get back out on the scene. Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News was telling stories of beer pong from the night before, a game he had never played. He told a story of hitting his first-ever game-winning shot while Sam Cassell cheered on karaoke contestants in the background (McDonald also explained performing a certain dance Cassell brought to fame after the victory in honor of the former point guard, though this hasn't been confirmed). As a fan of the game myself, we decided to partake in the insanity of beer pong in a crowded casino. The setup was great. Surrounded by blackjack tables and a karaoke stage, regulation beer pong tables had their own corner next to a bar that sold an entire starter kit - 22 plastic cups, two ping-pong balls and two pitchers of beer - for $22. It's a novel concept: make it really easy to buy beer for players of a game that requires a lot of beer in general, especially for those who keep winning. And speaking of winning, McNeill and I formed a team that proved impossible to beat. Molded in the living rooms and on the ping-pong tables of San Marcos and Lubbock, Texas, respectively, we simply ran the joint. Challenger after challenger, pitcher after pitcher made their way to the table hoping for a win. I'm not kidding, there was a crowd building ... watching. We played for three hours, easily, and not once did we lose. We were simply unstoppable, which evidently feels a lot cooler when you're under the influence of alcohol and in the midst of the game than it does when you're typing the phrase sober on a Thursday night before crashing out in a San Antonio apartment. Still, though, it's not often I'll turn down the opportunity to play some beer pong, even if it's in Las Vegas.
I took a cab back to the SB Nation house where I was CLEARLY the most inebriated of the group. Not even other housemates' night at the Palms could equal my beer-pong experience. But that just made things more enjoyable for both parties in a group of people that had suddenly become very close. It's funny pulling actual people out from behind their Twitter handles, which is the only place I had met, let alone talked to, these writers. There are certain thought processes I have when I picture what a blogger might look like, and we all probably conjure up similar stereotypical images. But these people were ... normal. Not only were they normal, they were exceptional. They were talented, they were hilarious and there was even a girl there. And by the final days there were TWO girls around the place. It was like, "GUYS THERE ARE GIRLS IN THE HOUSE WHAT'S GOING ON THIS ISN'T AS NERDY AS I EXPECTED AND AGREED UPON WHAT ARE WE SUPPOSED TO DO." Come to find out, that
awesomeness nerdiness mutual interest in the sport we love was more than enough to tie everyone together just days after we all met. The basketball blogosphere is a tight-knit space that's as entertaining as it gets, and it's because of the people involved. Relationships were forged and good times were had by all. It's a cool feeling getting to know new people in all corners of this country (even if one of them is a chick who lives in New York and oversees this one sight called MavsMoneyBall.com., but she's alright though).
Update: Day o' Bacon
Waking up with no hangover after a night of beer pong was clearly a thing of my collegiate past. Perhaps it was the fact I could sleep all day long on the weekend, but I guess I'll probably never know again. Still, there I was pulling myself out of bed to walk down the stairs and join my fellow bloggers for morning conversation only to find them basically in the position I had been just minutes prior. There were quite a few of us in the house with more bodies than beds, in fact. Lisa Rotter - the aforementioned New Yorker - was clearly in a state of unrest. The night before, her blowup mattress had apparently deflated no more than half an hour after its inflation. It was no longer a "blowup" mattress given its current state did not reflect the original product description. So, all that remained between her and the hardwood floor was clearly just a 'bloap' mattress, which was the name we decided to give to such a worthless item.
To her right, Levin and Seth Rosenthal of Posting and Toasting had found a way to "sleep" through both nights under similar circumstances. It was impressive as none of the three awoke with any significant bruises or form of paralysis generally suffered from body-on-wood sleeping situations. But their power would soon be restored in the form of one of the planet's greatest energy-boosters (I dunno that's probably not true).
Rotter looked up at me from her 'bloap' mattress and requested the making of bacon. Never one to turn down an opportunity to prove chivalry still exists and exhibit my "good Texas manners," I obliged. Really, bacon's just so awesome in the morning I'd have made it anyway ... and nobody else KNEW HOW TO MAKE IT! As I piled pig strips into the pan on the stove top, the interest of my "roommate" had clearly been piqued. Conrad Kaczmarek of Fear the Sword made his way toward the kitchen for the bacon-making event. Kaczmarek - pronounced 'Kaczmarek' but sounds like 'Kaczmarek,' though everyone just says 'Kaczmarek' - disclosed the information that he had never made bacon once in his 19
freaking years of life. To his credit, he tried, putting in a slice before getting splashed by grease and immediately reacting as if he had just been hit by a Justin Verlander fastball in the hand. But it was all part of the learning process. He watched, commenting on my apparent domestication. Whatever, bro. Bacon.
Before long we were enjoying the crispy delight of grease-soaked pork, bathing in a kitchen cloud so thick we thought it might begin to precipitate bacon ... which wouldn't have been a bad thing. Although, it's probably best to make sure there's proper ventilation for this type of undertaking. Apparently the smell of bacon dissipates much less rapidly than that of most food clouds. As this all happened, our vegetarian friend Ian Miller, a.k.a. Alan Smithee of that MMB, sat patiently in the smell of meat, not saying a word. It was easy to admire.
As the show ended, our fearless SB Nation leader Seth Pollack looked through the refrigerator, clearly confused about something. Over the past several days we had consumed four packages of bacon, but Pollack had only purchased three. (He was unaware of the random single package Levin had recently bought.) As he worked his way through the math, using fingers and everything, I sat there confused while trying to help. I was not privy to the fact he had no knowledge of the fourth bacon package, and as he declared it simply as "miracle bacon" I wrestled with the idea of telling him and thus inciting an argument similar to religion versus evolution. Though he eventually learned the truth, would the prior idea in his mind be so ridiculous?
Have you ever tried bacon?
Author's note: We went to the midnight showing of the Dark Knight Rises that evening - or Friday morning at 12:01 a.m. to be exact - but the night was shrouded in too much heartbreak for me to attempt to bring levity to the evening. None of it's relevant given the situation. We learned very shortly after the movie's end of the tragedy in Colorado and spent time reflecting on what had happened. The trip to Las Vegas represented nothing but entertainment for those involved. Sure, there were people working hard to get jobs, but it's still just basketball. What happened in Aurora that night should make us all realize how precious, and at times fleeting, life can be. This isn't the forum for in-depth discussion on the topic, but the overwhelming feeling of shock, sadness, confusion and hate was a gut-shot during a week of frivolity and a carefree mentality. And none of it matters. The families involved, including that of San Antonio's own Jessica Ghawi, were struck with life-altering tragic news. It's in these moments reflection and perspective are necessary. May the victims rest in peace and their loved ones find solace in the support being offered by so many great people.
For several in the house, Friday was the final night in Vegas. We held a BBQ and shared several final memories from the week and for the time ahead. It had been a while since I laughed as hard as I did that night. If you follow us on Twitter - especially @LJRotter's account - you basically had a list of quotes from not only that night, but days before. They were hilariously inappropriate and probably only remotely funny with some sort of context involved. But closing out an event like the one we had the chance to watch in Las Vegas was a bundle of mixed feelings. We were all glad to get out of there, but man, were we going to miss it. Still, it was time to recover, to bring our bodies back to their normal physical states; to say no to In 'N' Out burger (for just a little while); to refrain from pulling a $100 bill out of the ATM, knowing full well where it was going at the blackjack table. It was just time for a little peace.
Whether or not I get the opportunity to go back again next year (which obviously depends on my situation as well as Mr. Wilco's desire to send me back out there), I know this'll be hard to beat. The great dinners, the rush of gambling, the new acquaintances with great people and, oh yeah, the basketball and the access we got are all burned in my memory bank. I watched Pop sit there, perpetually smiling in loafers without socks. I watched Danny Green walking around getting non-stop dap from friends and admirers on his new contract (seriously everyone LOVES that guy). I saw the entire coaching staff out there all week, and the chance to watch Jacque Vaughn interact with young Spurs in what could end up being his Orlando Magic head coach audition was quite interesting.
I could cop out and make some sort of "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" joke, but it doesn't apply here. What happened out in the desert last week isn't something that manifests itself and disappears into thin air, it serves as a building block for what's to come. For the Spurs, it was an opportunity for Marcus Denmon to showcase his skills and find a spot with Chalon in France and others to receive invites to training camp. It was a chance for Kawhi Leonard and Cory Joseph to run the show, which they both did quite well. It was a tease during the summer down time for what happens a few months from now.
It was a rough start to the summer for the Spurs and their fans, but this season is now underway with not much time remaining before Halloween, when San Antonio opens the season in Anthony Davis' baptism by fire down in New Orleans. But that's not what's currently marked on my calendar. The AT&T Center opens its doors for the first time since they last closed in the images of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden leaving the River City with a 3-2 series lead in the Western Conference Finals.
I don't know about you, but I'm counting the days until those blue jerseys walk back on that court.
Follow along on Twitter: @mtynan_PtR ... It's gonna be fun.