What’s it like to be an NBA sportswriter? Well, courtesy of NBAMate I had the chance to find out, by attending two games in Chicago and New York during the first round of the playoffs. As experiences go it was off the charts, a dream come true for a life long hoops fan. ‘Surreal’ is the best way to describe it.
I am not going to take you through the nuts and bolts of the game; that’s old news. What I will do is describe the experience of attending the playoffs as a member of the media. From walking into the stadium through the media entrance, to the post game press conference, I’ll lay it all out for you.
Before we proceed, a valuable tip. If you’re going to make this epic journey from Oz to realise your NBA dream, then don’t let your mother-in-law drive you to the airport. Let’s just say, if we cut it any finer ‘JT’s Playoff Odyssey’ would have been over before it started.
CHICAGO – April 18, 2011
Chicago (96) v Indiana (90) – Game 2
I arrived two hours prior to tip-off and entered the United Center through the media gate. The security check was surprisingly lax (considering the level of access I was granted) as they barely glanced into my bag. After receiving my pass I made my way through the bowels of the arena in search of the ‘press room’. It’s located next to the player’s locker rooms and it’s where the media gather before and after the game.
As I head down the corridor I immediately see Chris Webber milling about, flanked by a couple of TNT hotties. This would be my first up close encounter with an NBA great, but on this night, certainly not the last.
I enter the press room, and being playoff time it’s packed. It’s a two-part room, half filled with reporters tapping away on their laptops, the other half a buffet/dining area (available for a minimal fee). Trying to appear like it was a routine experience for me, I meandered over and joined the long line of hungry journos. I immediately realise that I am standing behind Sam Smith, the famed Chicago Bull’s beat writer and author of the bestseller ‘The Jordan Rules’. A small, ragged looking bloke.
Pre-game locker rooms
90 minutes prior to tip-off coach Thibodeau holds a quick Q&A session in the corridor outside the lockers, so I join the scrum. Nothing interesting to come out of it, just your typical back and forth. And my mind was focused on getting into those lockers; they can be accessed 90 minutes prior to tip off for 45 minutes.
I make my way over to the Pacers locker but no one seems to be coming or going, so I confirm with an official that they are in fact open, which they are. They must already be in there I thought, so I open the door and walk in. No media was inside but the entire Pacers team was, they were sitting at their lockers (with headphones on etc.) and are now looking in my direction. Probably appearing like a deer in the highlights, I made out I was searching for someone (I bet I fooled no one) and hightailed it out of there. Suffice to say, everyone was in the Bulls locker room.
Derrick Rose and Carlos Boozer were the only ones present when I entered. Rose was surrounded by a three deep scrum peppering him with questions, while Boozer lay unmolested on the floor stretching and watching game film. Joakim Noah and Luol Deng made brief visits inside, but they exited before anyone could collar them. The rest of the team was presumably in the trainer’s room or on the court warming up.
As I get my first up close look at this NBA megastar in Derrick Rose, the first thing that strikes you is how soft spoken and polite he is. He’s such a humble young guy, seemingly just like you or me, so unlike most players of his stature there’s no ‘superstar’ aura surrounding him. This trait makes the man even more impressive.
As I emerge from the player’s tunnel I am greeted by the impressive sight of courtside at the United Center. I am unsure how far I can roam, so I take a front row seat behind the basket. Tyler Hansbrough and Jeff Foster are warming up. At center court the Bull’s dancers (nicknamed the ‘Luvabulls’, and trust me they clearly earn this title) are going through their paces. All of a sudden the players become a bit less interesting as I enjoy the show before me. That is until I spot Larry Bird sitting courtside. Yes, that’s right, ‘Larry The Legend’ is no more than ten metres away (he would later walk right past me in the tunnel).
At this point I realise that my access is unlimited, so I start circling the edge of the court to see who I can see. As I reach the other end I encounter NBA legend number two on this night, Scottie Pippen. He’s seated alongside Bill Wennington doing TV pregame. I also see former Bulls Randy Brown, Toni Kukoc, Stacey King and Cliff Levingston (involved in various capacities). Clearly, the Bulls look after their own.
As I stand underneath the basket in a state of amazement, I realise there’s only 15 minutes to tip off, so I move off to find my seat.
According to the seating chart in the press room I am allocated to the upper level press box. It’s in the bleaches but I am not complaining, just being there is special. And once again there’s food and drink on hand (free).
As the game gets going I find myself playing the part of real life jouro, feverishly scribbling down notes. And from that point on the game flew by.
At the start of the third quarter I decided to try my luck in improving my view, so I go and stand at the entrance of the player’s tunnel, off to the side of the Pacers bench. And to my surprise no one objected to me being there. It was in this location that I could truly appreciate the speed and intensity of the action and the magnificence of D-Rose. This is where I stayed for the remainder of the game.
It was a hard fought victory by the Bulls, but what sticks in my mind is the transcendent play of Rose (36 points, 6 assists, 8 rebounds) and the ‘MVP’ chants echoing around the arena. It was an absolute privilege to see it in person.
10 minutes after the conclusion of the game, coach Vogel enters the press conference and goes through the motions, followed by Thibodeau, Rose and Danny Granger. The face in the media crowd that immediately stands out is Michael Wilbon from ESPN’s PTI. Despite his overt nature on TV he seemed like a pretty low key guy, as he stood in the corner and scribbled on his notepad (I would meet him in the next game).
I did have the opportunity to ask a question in the press conference (the microphone is handed around to whoever wants it), but every time I thought of something relevant the question was answered. And I wasn’t about to ask something just for the sake of getting my mug up there. And being in the presence of seasoned reporters like Wilbon and Sam Smith, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intimidated by the scene.
The players quickly vacated the Pacers locker so I headed over to the Bull’s rooms. Kyle Korver and Boozer were surrounded by reporters, whilst Rasual Butler, Keith Bogans and Ronnie Brewer were getting changed. After milling around Boozer’s pack for a while I glanced around the room, taking it all in. And at that point I saw a bit more than I bargained for. Like a virtually naked Korver and Butler. I did the old ‘try not to look’ trick, but trust me, it’s a very small room.
As the players slowly drifted out I moved back to the press room, which now became ground zero for journo’s filing stories and meeting deadlines. And naturally, a nice platter of food and drink was on hand. That’s one thing for sure; these guys certainly won’t go hungry in the course of their work.
I finally departed the arena at 12:30am, but unlike most journos I didn’t have to file a story that night, so you can imagine what time some of them leave. So although they live a somewhat dream existence covering basketball games for a living, they clearly put in the time and earn their pay check.
NEW YORK – April 22, 2011
New York (96) v Boston (113) – Game 3
After a long drought, playoff basketball was back in the Big Apple and all the big names came out to see it. So I’ll warn you now, I am going to shamelessly name drop here.
Celtics morning shootaround
At 11am on game day, myself and around 20 other reporters were escorted down onto the court of Madison Square Garden. The players were finishing up their workouts; to my right was KG shooting free throws, Shaq and Paul Pierce were stretching on the baseline and Big Baby was going through drills on the other end. Just think about that for a second. Here I am a lifelong Celtics fan, having watched them religiously on TV for years, now standing on the same court with these guys. I had to try very hard to hide the smirk.
The media horde quickly gathered around Doc Rivers, who seemed surprisingly jovial. I was listening to Doc when all of a sudden someone big brushed past me. It was Paul Pierce making a beeline for the tunnel, quickly followed by Shaq and KG, presumably trying to avoid the media.
When we finished up with Doc everyone turned to look for the next victim, but all that was left was Big Baby and assistant coach Lawrence Frank. Baby walked over, plonked himself down in front of us and declared ‘I am ready’. Clearly not media shy.
I was surprised by some of the lame questions. Some pleb opened up by asking him about his nickname. Talk about old news, and Babies bleak response reflected that. The Celtics online reporter (she’s hot, check her out) followed it up with a question about his ‘abs’ and if he ever owned a pair. At that point I thought I better restore order to the session and ask a basketball related question – my first to an NBA player. ‘Was he disappointed to miss out on the 6th man award?’ (which I thought he deserved). It didn’t bother him he said, he gave the standard ‘it is what it is’ line.
Game night – Press room
I arrived at MSG two hours prior to tip-off and made my way to the press room. Over the course of the next half an hour, the who’s who of the NBA media world drifted in: Bob Ryan (Boston Globe/ESPN), Jackie MacMullan (ESPN), Chris ‘the Blanket’ Mannix (Sports Illustrated), Michael Wilbon, Chris Broussard (ESPN) and David Aldridge (NBA.com), to name just a few.
As I watch the scene before me it’s quite apparent that there’s good camaraderie between them, they seem genuinely friendly towards each other. Quite understandable when you consider how much time they spend together on the road, sloshing around in well catered press rooms and hotel bars with their snouts in the trough.
Once again I am surprised that my flimsy little media pass allows me to roam wherever I please. I stand on the side of the court and watch Amar’e Stoudemire go through his paces. As time goes by, more and more familiar faces pop up: Jeff Van Gundy, Mike Breen, Mark Jackson, Clyde Frazier, Allan Houston and a miniscule P. Diddy.
Pre-game locker rooms
Around 25 media cram in to the visiting Celtics locker room. It’s tiny and claustrophobic, it’s like a furnace in there. It’s no wonder most players make themselves scarce at this time. Pierce, Rondo and West make brief visits inside, but only the media loving Baby sticks around for questions.
The Knicks rooms are more spacious, but again, only the small fry are present (Mason, Williams). As I am about to leave, Chauncey Billups walks in dressed to the nines (he didn’t play) and is immediately engulfed.
I return courtside. On my way out I pass Paul Pierce, who was on the receiving end of some vicious heckling from the Knicks fans as he re-entered the tunnel. His response; he had a smile from ear to ear and said out loud “I love this, I love this shit man”. Look no further as to why this guy’s as good as he is (he had 38 points on this night). He clearly feeds off this energy.
The Garden’s humming now. Fans are filing in, there are recognizable faces everywhere and it’s electric. I stand on the side of the court, leaning up against the scorer’s table. Next to me stands Lisa Salters (ESPN), and directly behind sits a frail looking Donnie Walsh in his wheelchair. To the roar of the crowd Spike Lee then strolls onto the court, he walks straight up to Salters (who I am standing next to) and gives her a peck on the cheek.
As you can imagine I am feeling a bit like a fish out of water in this scene. It’s like I am just waiting for someone to come up and tap me on the shoulder and tell me to bugger off. But that never happened.
With about 25 minutes to tip-off I head back to the press room to indulge in the buffet. Once I’ve had my fill I go and check the seating chart to see where I am positioned for the game, and bloody hell, my name’s not there. I am informed that due to the interest in the game they’re overbooked and not everyone has a seat. I can either watch it on TV in the press room (you’re kidding me right?) or ‘go and stand somewhere’. I am fed some cock and bull story that they’ll endeavor to find me a seat if I wait in the press room for 20 minutes (bear in mind that the player introductions are now on), and although it sounds hollow I have no choice but to sit tight and wait (and hope) and watch it on TV, with the 20 or so other poor bastards that missed out.
As expected no one shows, so early in the second quarter I go in search of the upper level press box in the hope of finding a spare seat. Not a good decision. Contrary to popular belief that MSG is the ‘best stadium in the world’, it’s certainly not; it’s a rundown rabbit warren that’s confusing to navigate. And it doesn’t help that the ushers seem to be clueless; I asked three ushers for directions and I got three different answers. And when I finally found it, it was packed.
It’s halftime now and to this point I’ve seen very little action. I am starting to fret. Media relations people are scarce, so I decide to cut my losses and watch the remainder of the game standing in a concourse entrance, about halfway up. A pretty good view but you had to contend with the passing traffic (some of which was a little distracting, if you know what I mean).
Reflections on the game itself; the Celtics were just lights out on this night, seemingly hitting everything. And the venom from the Knicks fans over the loss was brutal. Despite being injury depleted (they’re a 3 man team and 2 of them were injured) no mercy was shown, boos reigned down and I could hear people whining about the Melo trade. Did they honestly expect to beat the Boston Celtics having to rely on guys like Bill Walker, Jared Jeffries and Roger Mason (who barely played all season)? And I was under the impression that the Knicks faithful were knowledgeable basketball fans. Apparently not.
As soon as the buzzer sounds I head courtside and into the players tunnel. The media throng is jammed in awaiting access to the lockers. I am shoulder to shoulder with all the heavy-hitters – Jackie Mac, Broussard, Wilbon etc. Other names to surface; ex-Knick Larry Johnson, that tool Steven A. Smith and Doc’s son, the highly rated prospect Austin Rivers (headed to Duke next season).
We filed in to the Celtics locker. Like a smack in the chops I immediately see a naked Big Baby Davis sitting in the corner icing his knees, with nothing more than a scrunched up towel covering his privates. A sight that won’t easily be forgotten I can assure you. And yes, I can confirm he still has man boobs.
A large scrum surrounded Pierce, and then KG emerged. Being at the back of the Pierce group allowed me to get the jump on KG, so as he was engulfed I found myself right up in his grill. I actually had to brace myself from being pushed into him from the advancing pack. And in true KG style, after about 2-3 minutes (and before I could get my well-rehearsed question in) he just stood up and ended it.
Ray Allen poked his head in at one point but decided he didn’t like the scene and closed the door (I don’t blame him). Danny Ainge was also milling about.
As I head to the Knicks locker I pass Rajon Rondo standing alone in the corridor, talking on his phone. Despite the massive impact he has on the game, he’s a pretty small, unassuming looking guy.
The Knicks locker was packed. The media surrounded Landry Fields and Jared Jeffries, but Amar’e Stoudemire sat alone unmolested in the corner (he was flanked by a burly official, presumably to protect him from the media). He ripped off his jersey, gingerly stood up and walked to the showers. I have to say (with no gayness attached) he’s a pretty impressive looking specimen. He’s long, lean and ripped. It’s hard not to be in awe of a super athlete like this.
Back in the central corridor a sombre Melo walks through, hugs Doc Rivers (a little odd I thought), shakes Wilbon’s hand and continues on. Amar’e follows suit and also does the rounds. Again, I am right there, no more than a metre or two away. Crazy!
There’s some confusion as to where the press conference is held, so I opt to walk back up to the court and get one last look at the Garden. Impressive to say the least, but for mine the United Center in Chicago is the better arena to watch basketball.
I head back to the press room to grab a late night snack and then make my way out of the arena. As I take the long elevator down through the media entrance, I hear some familiar voices talking behind me. It’s Wilbon and Steven A Smith. Wilbon heads in my direction so I can’t resist, I shake his hand and introduce myself. We chat a little, he seems surprised that PTI is shown in Australia, then we part ways into a cold New York City night.
Frustrating as it was to miss so much of the action, it can’t dampen the experience of this night. Attending these games in New York and Chicago was everything I hoped it would be, and more (although it may take a while to get over not seeing Kim Kardashian in person, which was at the top of my wish list). Being able to stand shoulder to shoulder with the elite players in the NBA (and legends like Bird and Pippen) was a surreal experience. It was something I’ll never forget and hopefully something that I can one day do again.
To read more of JT’s stuff, check out his blog at NBAozblog