There is something special about returning to Australia that goes beyond the inevitable sense of home-coming and familiar territory. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the fact its so far away from everything else and so isolated – you can’t exactly wander into Australia from another country. Maybe it’s the fact that it takes so long to get there you can grow a beard on the flight, and the throbbing jet lag makes you feel like Dorothy after being hurled by a tornado into the Land of Oz (or Aus). Or maybe it’s just that putting all Aussie bias aside, we know we’re coming home to the best country in the world, a fact only known to us. It’s our little Vegemite secret.
My NBA pilgrimage across America has ended. The dream that I spoke about over two months ago has become a reality, and never again will I have to wonder about what it would be like to see an NBA game. What I have noticed more than anything is how my perception of the NBA has changed thanks to this trip. As I alluded to at the first game I saw in LA, following this sport from the other side of the world for 20 years leaves you with a decidedly two-dimensional impression of the game. This is not to say you cannot gain an appreciation, or enjoy the NBA from watching it on TV or following it online. Far from it – how else would I have grown to love the sport so much? But having been there in the flesh, I can tell you that NBA basketball is infinitely more engrossing when you can see it and hear it and smell it from within the arenas. I may be a Pistons fan, but I couldn’t help be a little overwhelmed by each frenzied home crowd to the point I was standing and cheering when it came to the end of the game – or walking out of the arena head-hung if they lost (incidentally I only saw one game where the home team lost).
What made the journey even more amazing was the media access I was granted by the NBA – something I am deeply thankful for. This allowed me to experience the NBA behind closed doors, to speak with the players and coaches and other media, to get to know some of the league’s personalities on a more than superficial level, and to come away with a new-found appreciation for many of its characters. But as I sit here on my computer staring out my window at leafy green suburban Melbourne, I realise that privileged access also had another effect – it has completely demystified the NBA for me.
It is easy to build up NBA players as almost mythical superhuman beings, especially when you’ve been following the sport since you were six years old, especially when the league is an unfathomable 10,000 miles away. It might as well be on another planet – that’s how untouchable the league and its players sometimes felt. But now I’ve seen them in the flesh, shaken their hands, had conversations with them. For the most part, they’re just ordinary dudes and no matter how hard I try, I can never see them in that mythical light again. That of course is a bittersweet outcome for me. The game and players have lost that magical aura that beamed out from my old Fleer and Upper Decks and Michael Jordan VHS tapes, and even more recently when my weekly Pistons Pontel DVDs used to arrive in the mail. That has changed now, replaced with the crisp and vibrant colors and noises splattered across a very real, very palpable canvas in my mind. Dreams of the NBA used to exist in my imagination. Now they exist in my memory.
I’ve told several stories of my travels so far, and I hope that everyone following NBAMate the past five weeks has found them enjoyable and somewhat insightful. But there are a few other lingering tales and memories that deserve being told as I now reflect back on my time abroad.
As I mentioned, traveling across the USA watching games in different cities meant I was sometimes cheering for teams other than my beloved Pistons. Sure, sometimes that felt a bit traitorous, but ultimately it only made each game a more enjoyable experience – better cheering for something rather than nothing right? (For the record Pistons fans, the list of teams I would currently NEVER cheer for are 1- Cleveland, 2- Boston, 3- Miami, 4- San Antonio and 5- Utah – in that order. I did not have to compromise my integrity by cheering for any of these teams during my trip). What is an obvious fact to most NBA fans and followers is that 95% of the crowd at each stadium is cheering for the home team (this excludes Game 4 of Cleveland @ Detroit which I will soon purge from my memory). But with the other big sport in my life being Aussie Rules Football, I can say that was a completely new and foreign experience for me. Imagine going to a Richmond Tigers home game at the MCG against Collingwood and having 70,000 screaming Tigers supporters and 1,000 Pies fans. It would be weird, it doesn’t happen. Sure, when the Eagles or Swans come to Melbourne the crowd is one-sided, maybe 70-30 or 80-20, but never 95-5. In the NBA this discrepancy is normal and it has striking results – it can fundamentally change a game. There’s a reason home-court advantage counts for so much in the NBA. As an impartial observer I found the home crowds disturbingly overwhelming at times; I can only imagine how the opposition players feel.
As far as crowds go, Chicago at Boston Game 7 was the loudest and craziest I saw, Houston fans were most ruthless and clever in their player and referee abuse, while the Dallas home crowd was simply ecstatic and noticeably surprised that their team had become so good so late in the season. The Palace of Auburn Hills felt like more of a shrine at times – a teasing reminder of the success of years past, only made more vivid due to some of those champions still inhabiting the court. The Lakers crowd was the most interesting to me – nowhere else did I find myself doing more “crowd-watching” than in LA, and this wasn’t because of the Hollywood stars. To put it simply, at times I thought LA’s crowd was pathetic. They don’t cheer as loudly, sometimes they’re flat out disinterested, and during rough patches they rarely provide that encouraging “c’mon guys lift your heads!” applause that I found so admirable in Boston. It almost felt like the opposite in LA – “You guys wanna keep missing shots and playing like crap? Fine, we won’t cheer until you start hitting them!”. They’re singularly obsessed with Kobe more than any other crowd’s favorite son, and I sometimes wondered – has years of the one-man Kobe Show conditioned this crowd to begging Kobe to jack up shots on every possession? I get the feeling the LA crowd would be more than happy watching Kobe go one-on-five scoring 37 points every night with every other Lakers player shooting 1-8, and I guess it’s not hard to understand why – that is largely what happened between 2004 and 2007 (I didn’t just pluck the 37ppg out of nowhere, this is what Kobe actually averaged at the Staples Center in 2005-2006). The overriding feeling I got at Staples was a sense of expectation – this crowd expects the Lakers to be great, to win a championship, for Kobe to drop 40 effortlessly, for their team to put on a show. I guess that’s the curse of having witnessed two dynasties in thirty years.
The Detroit Pistons I watched on April 10 and April 13 in Auburn Hills were not the Detroit Pistons I’ve followed so proudly for the last six years. I’ve told the story of my reborn love for the Pistons before in bits and pieces, but I will tell it again briefly here. The Pistons were the first team I ever followed, partly due to Isiah Thomas being one of my idols, but mainly due to the fact they constantly beat up the Bulls and I wasn’t exactly fond of Michael Jordan in the late eighties and early nineties. I remember watching Michael Jordan’s Playground, hearing MJ talk about how Joe Dumars was the toughest guy he had to play against - yet another reason for me to like Detroit. I followed Joe and Grant Hill during the good and bad times in the 90′s, but like many Aussie NBA fans the NBA kind of drifted off the radar when Jordan retired and it disappeared from TV. I found myself following the NBA distantly at best, reading the papers about the lockout, watching the six o’clock news when Shaq won his first title, all while remaining aware that the Pistons still kinda sucked. When MJ returned to the league with the Wizards my interest perked, I started becoming a big Ben Wallace fan, and while following the MJ circus I became very much intrigued by Rip Hamilton. The following season I had a Ben Wallace jersey, I was a born-again Detroit fan, and Rip Hamilton was one of my favorite players in the league – I just loved the fact that when Jordan was injured during parts of his second season with the Wizards, Rip stepped up and lead the team to a better W/L record than they enjoyed with MJ. The following season I couldn’t believe it – Rip Hamilton got traded to Detroit! That was it. You could have tattooed “Pistons” on my forearm. I was in this for the long haul.
What transpired was one of the most consistent and successful runs by any team in NBA history. Six-straight Eastern Conference Finals appearances, back-to-back Finals, a Championship in 2004, a four-time Defensive Player of the Year winner (Big Ben), an All-Star game with four Pistons representatives (2006), a five-game streak of keeping opposition teams to under 70 points, a Rasheed Wallace miracle (note the fact we didn’t have possession) and four very memorable seven-game series where we came back from 2-3 down to win. All without one discernible superstar player or any individual averaging more than 20 points per game – a fact that makes them one of the most remarkable and truly unique teams in NBA history. Hell, for six years the face of the franchise was a guy who averaged 8 points per game – can you imagine that happening anywhere else?
Few other team’s fans can boast of the past six years being so rewarding and so full of achievement. Which is what made watching my Pistons those two nights at The Palace a bittersweet experience to say the least. The bitter was the fact we were a shadow of the team that dominated the league for all those years, a team now on the slide destined for a new foundation and a new identity. But the sweet was seeing some of those championship remnants, getting to say hi to Sheed before the game, watching Rip execute the exact same moves he has his whole career, watching Prince orchestrate our offense like some genius octopus with a ball. I wasn’t watching the Pistons of 2003-2006, but what I saw was a lot closer to that team than what will suit up next season. I will probably never see Sheed or McDyess in a Pistons jersey again, and who knows about Rip or Prince? That’s why I was the happiest person in Auburn Hills both those nights. It may be the end of an era, and the story of these Pistons may have already been penned to the NBA history books, but I was there while the last couple of pages were being written. For that I will be forever thankful.
The last game I attended before heading back to Australia was Game 2 of Lakers vs Rockets in Los Angeles. After the game I headed down to the press conference with a few questions in mind for Coach Jackson, Yao and Kobe. Turns out that most of my questions were asked before I got my hand on the mic, but I did get a chance to ask Kobe one. I just didn’t expect what would happen when I did. Kobe Bryant is a player I’ve been in awe of for the last six years since my conversion as a Kobe-hater (that conversion is described here), a guy whose drive and competitive nature strikes a chord with me, a guy I’ve seen do more mind-boggling things on the basketball court than any other player in my life. When it’s all said and done, Kobe is one of those players I will be telling my kids about – the NBA history books are stained of him.
If it wasn’t for the question I had scribbled on my notepad I wouldn’t have even remembered what I asked him. I was careful to over-pronounce many of my words because so many Americans had trouble interpreting my Aussie accent during my trip – I didn’t want Kobe of all people responding, “sorry I didn’t get that… you from New Zealand?” which I admit would have been amusing. Honestly, I can barely remember what Kobe said back to me. I had become a little numb. It wasn’t an ecstatic Laker fan-boy “KOBE I LOVE YOU!!” kind of numb (come on I’m not that pathetic). It was just a sudden realisation that I was staring in the eyes of one of the greatest players ever, a player who for so many years had just been one row in a box-score to me. It was a profoundly intense moment, and I will never forget it. For just one second, it seemed like maybe, just maybe, Kobe was trying to communicate to me through powers of the mind while his glare met mine. “Rob.. I can hear your thoughts.. I know about the time you put on a Kobe jersey and tried to dunk off your car and rolled your ankle”. I couldn’t look away. Was he using some special black mamba mind tricks? Maybe he had some important message for me that I was supposed to take back to Australia and spread amongst the fans? Maybe he was trying to send me instructions to improve my turnaround jump shot?
Or maybe, that’s the jet lag talking.