Dejuan Blair's pregame warm up routine reminds me a lot of that fat kid who was infinitely more interested in postgame sno cones than the actual game itself...
Those were among my first official thoughts as a credentialed member of the media. Sure, I had the whole "Babes in Toyland" experience only moments before, when guys like Matt Bonner and Tim Duncan were shuffling right past me during their respective trips to the shootaround, but that thought was my first. I won't ever forget it.
During the Summer of Lockout, JRW contacted me to gauge my interest in covering Spurs games. Viewing this decision as some sort of bold-minded vindication of the type of work I like to do around here, I felt equal parts ecstatic, and also as if I'd been given some sort of PtR suicide mission like Lee Marvin in "The Dirty Dozen". I mean, I consider myself to be a
good(n) amazing writer, so I did feel as if I'd managed to accomplish something I had never actually set out to do, but I also felt as if it had all been too easy, and that this was just a set up to have me extricated from 'Rock's situation as it moved to a more respectable format. Being of sound mind, I naturally acquiesced to the demands and did a Judd Nelson fist pump as I hung up the phone.
After several back and forths in which my schedule was reigned in, I selected the Spurs/Nuggets game as the ideal trial flight, and headed to San Antonio. Since JRW had experienced this sort of endeavor before, and was also well aware of my proclivities for hyperbole, he suggested that he accompany me in order to show all the ropes that tend to go with official business. The trip to the AT&T Center was immediately made more bearable by the fact that Wilco is a superb road conversationalist, and has a keen knack for only selecting talking points which feature a two hour elaboration option. I think we mentioned the Spurs approximately 1/63rd as much as we mentioned the fact that the new Star Wars movies were terrible, and that it was awesome that Bill Paxton had been killed by a Terminator, an Alien, and a Predator in his illustrious career. The Spurs will always be there...
I've always held my ability to not become nervous in a relatively high esteem. Whether it be job interviews, first dates, or Spurs coverage, I've simply assumed that nobody else can make the conversation as awkward as I can make it, and been content to move on from there. As we walked to the media entrance of the AT&T Center, I began loosely thumbing through the objectives I had for the evening. Being my first time at an actual game, the bulk of my goal was to simply pay enough attention to learn the format well enough so that I didn't crash the car once JRW handed me the keys, so to speak. I wasn't going to speak unless spoken to, in order to once again glean the awkward rhythm of press conference mobs, and I also wasn't going to fan out and try to shear a lock of someone's hair. They were reasonable goals, I felt, and none too far from my grasp.
Sitting courtside and watching various players come and go through the tunnel to the shootaround was something I never actually thought could be earned through three years of making fun of things, so part of me kind of sat there and wondered if that actually was Tim Duncan working on his post game, or if it really was Matt Bonner practicing not playing defense in the background. I did my best to listen in to the conversations that various players were having with the coaches, and even managed to send some videos to the decidedly YouTube-phobic Josh Guyer, which will probably the stand as the lone productive thing I did all night. You have to play small ball though, when you're walking around Coach Pop with a mohawk.
After the shootaround concluded, I walked with JRW and Matthew back to the media hospitality room, where we received free food and molten coffee over which to prepare our plan of attack for the evening. As the duo beside me decided that they would take care of all the official business, and that I would just kind of do whatever it is that I do, I couldn't help wondering if Manu was aware that his picture hung next to Justin Bieber's on the wall. Granted, the AT&T workers were probably unaware that this had taken place, you have to look at the hard logic and assume that it wasn't simply by dumb luck that Manu's photo had not wound up beside George Strait, or the guy from Green Day. I deemed it to be an act of miscreant, immature sabotage and followed JRW and Matthew back out for the game.
It had been awhile since I'd attended a Spurs game, so I tried to take in as much of the pregame atmosphere as I possibly could. Professional sports have tried to take on a kind of Times Square, sensory overload approach vis a vis volume and color, so I approach that in turn by trying to gulp it all down like a chunky child on Halloween. The lay up lines and PA announcer meshed perfectly with the blaring pop music that changed every ten seconds, and everybody seemed to love it. Everybody except for TJ Ford, who had missed about every shot he'd taken at the shootaround and looked to be slightly peeved that Tiago had deflected his shot out of the rim and dunked his own when "Sexy And I Know It" rolled off the speakers.
As the game tipped off, I found myself flooded with a bunch of thoughts I'd never really had before, and wondered if my newfound media privileges had turned me into some sort of scholar, or if I'd just given everything twice the attention because I felt like I was under the gun to produce something out of all this. Each time the Spurs took possession, the music would change on the PA as the ballhandler was moving up the court. I found myself wondering if there was ever a perfect storm situation, either in the early moments of a game, or even in crunch time playoff situations, where a player had received the outlet pass and had begun moving up court when a particular jam he really happened to like came on. Would this phenomenon put certain players in "the zone"? Was it entirely possible that those random statistical anomalies that lesser players put up every now and again could be attributed to the sheer Russian audio roulette of the sound guy? I simply jotted the question in my notes for later examination and turned back to the game.
Occasionally, and by "occasionally", I mean "frequently", my eyes would run from the task at hand into the waiting arms of distraction. I immediately blamed this on the fact that I was able to see Manu's bald spot with abundant clarity from my seat, and relayed the thought to JRW that Manu's bald spot is probably visible from all points of the arena, kind of like how continents are still visible from the moon. Each time I'd have my eyes drawn to it, I'd notice that he was texting on the sly. Manu possesses a fairly deft "stealth text", firmly rooted in the style I practiced through most of my college career. Recognizing the skill, I errantly did the math in my head to arrive at the conclusion that unless Pop had eyes in his own bald spot, he had no chance of catching Manu in the act.
As the first quarter drew to a close, the public relations coordinators escorted a handful of kids onto the court, and instructed them on the rules of the Spurs Charity Toy Grab. As each kid was given the instructions and returned to their respective corners, I could help but think that this scene was somehow eerily similar to that scene in Spartacus where Kirk Douglas had to fight his best friend to the death. The more I ruminated on the macabre direction the proceedings were taking, the more I found myself sucked into the allure of bloodsport and found myself hoping that one of the children would simply opt in favor of violently stripping another kid of his toy from behind, like Lawrence Taylor did on the gridiron. I so lost myself in this morbid fantasy that I never actually saw any of it take place and regained clarity nearly midway through the second quarter.
During certain points of the game, the Spurs Media Team walks by, and dispenses leaflets of information on the game at hand. Statistics are as up to the minute as paper printed twenty minutes before can possibly be, and have no hope of keeping up with most of the media's real time internet statkeeping devices, but the facade of assitance and caring is a nice one. I found myself more concerned with the fact that most of these pamphlets are doled out in a way that could be technically considered as "hurling", and that nothing was ever neatly placed before me. I like organization though, and assert that my fastidiousness allows my mind ample time to roam the boondocks around whatever job actually needs to get done. I think that makes me eccentric. I'll take it.
As the half came to a close, the Spurs had once again displayed their propensity to dig themselves into a close game by blowing a sizable lead, though I suspect Manu's injury and the resulting game plan contibuted to this somewhat. I had noticed during the half that Popovich had allowed several Spurs under the age of 473 to take the floor, no doubt in hopes that their youthful exuberance would translate into an amount of points on the scoreboard that outmeasured any notion that they really looked more like a bunch of baby horses learning to walk. Judging by the all too familiar beckoning of the ref to take a timeout however, it was safe for any longtime Spurs fan to assume that Pop grew instantly tired of letting the inmates run the asylum, and had no less than three of them immediately pulled. Atop our section and firmly entrenched in our media seats, JRW informed me that halftime cookies would be delightfully available back in the lounge, and that something else was going to happen. I didn't hear the last part from all the way down the stairs.
Returning from the cookie area, I took my seat once more and felt it worth noting that the development the Spurs had put into their dance team had paid off immensely over the intervening years since I'd been to a Spurs game. I wasn't sure if the spike in quality could be attributed to some sort of gaming of the farm system, like how the Rangers acquired the Round Rock Express from Houston when Ryan took over the Rangers, or if someone in charge had instituted more stringent experience requirements, but I found myself the beneficiary nonetheless. They used to just roll any old thing out there, like a yard sale.
During the third quarter, JRW and I had a lengthy discussion about the time out activities that the PR Department puts on to entertain the fans for 30 seconds before we all storm out of the facility in a rage and start turning over cars in the parking lot to satiate our need for fun. One of these was the HEB beach ball drop, in which a lucky fan is brought out onto the court and instructed to catch color coded beach balls as they fall from the rafters. The balls are all clearly marked, and each color rewards the catcher with a certain, predetermined amount in HEB gift cards. Despite the strategy being obvious, the participant immediately set about feverish lunging for every ball that appeared from the sky like the cash grab scene in the first Batman movie. Despite his enthusiasm, he effectivley played himself out of the big bucks by not letting the little fish go, so to speak. Both JRW and remain convinced that we'd win enough to buy an entire cow.
After the game itself drew to a close, I followed Matthew and JRW down to the postgame conferences. Keeping firm with my game plan to watch and not screw anything up, I stood behind each of them and hid from the roving eye of Pop as he (im)patiently waited for somebody to ask him a question that at least didn't appear to be a complete waste of his time. I met his eyes twice during the repartee and elected that looking away was simply more attractive than testing the waters and finding out that he was some kind of basketball Gorgon that could end my career and life before they started. After he retired to his sanctum, I followed my compatriots into the locker room, where I can attest to having only a minor freak out.
During the interviews with Danny, RJ, and TJ, I noticed how approachable the players tried to be, and that indeed the difficult part of the entire process seemed to be avoiding the ever growing snarl of camera cables that followed the throng of reporters. Perhaps their approachability had more to do with the fact that, aside from RJ, all of the players present were relatively under the radar in the NBA. TJ of course has his history, but has been far enough from the public eye to where the newness has probably partially returned. I once again watched and learned the timing of each encounter, and after about ten minutes the evening had effectively drawn to a close.
As JRW and I drove back into town, I occasionally got the sensation of the moment, as if the whole thing had been broken up into pieces and handed out along the way. The awes I experienced seemed to trade places almost instantaneously with the notion that I couldn't have just spent the evening doing all that, and that I'd simply been at a game and amongst friends. There's something kind of neat that goes with standing in the same room with guys who have been your hero at one point or another, and that's the one feeling I hope never loses it's newness.