Three weeks ago, I took a short vacation from the Midwest down to Phoenix, where I recently graduated from school. In addition to catching up on my Vitamin D intake, I also made it a point to visit my favorite restaurant, Oregano's. Being one of the most popular Italian eateries in town, my friends and I had to wait a few minutes to get a table. While we were waiting, out popped Terrell Suggs, current Baltimore Ravens linebacker, ex-Arizona State standout and 2011 AP Defensive Player of the Year. After fan-boying at the Super Bowl champion for a couple seconds (I'm a Sun Devil, what was I supposed to do?), something immediately hit me: this is a big dude. Like, could-be-from-another-planet-type big.
I've been around athletes for much of my adult life (however short it might be). As a recent college graduate at a Division I school, I'd commonly see football, basketball and baseball stars walking to and from their dorms or math classes. Yet every time I was around them, I continued to get the same impression of how superhuman these people are physically, male or female. Seeing Suggs was just another reminder of that fact.
Former commissioner David Stern was notorious for calling NBA players "the greatest athletes on the planet." Whether you agree or disagree on that specific fact, there never seems to be much of an argument against the unique athletic skills of basketball players. Their combination of height, athleticism and talent is nearly unparalleled. Through my present work at a local radio station that carries the Bulls, I was offered an opportunity to cover the Blazers in Chicago. I decided, though, that rather than writing something on deadline, I would soak in the entire experience as a first-time NBA media member. That meant doing so with a keen eye towards what makes these athletes so different and special, as well as what makes the media experience different than that of a fan.
It turned out that I learned more about the game and its players than I originally expected.
Three hours before the game, I arrived at the United Center on the west side of Chicago. After snapping the token photo of the Michael Jordan statue and making the ever-awkward inquiry to a random ticket office person where I'm supposed to go, I went through the bag check station and wound my way to the media room. It was already fairly busy, as shootaround for the Bulls was at 10 a.m. and many of the media members looked like they had been there all day.
At this point I met with a couple other reporters for the first time: one from USA Today and one from Bleacher Report. Because it was my first game, I was able to chat with both and learn more about the protocol of the media -- mainly, if you don't have a specific story you're covering, keep quiet and stay out of the way of those that are on deadline, and that I couldn't miss the Joakim Noah postgame press conference. Both recommendations were noted.
You know all that footage of coaches and players that comes during each pre-game show? Well, around two hours before the game, media availability begins for each team to capture that content. First, at 5:15, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau met outside the locker room to talk with the media. By this time, players were trickling in, like Jimmer Fredette in his hipster get-up and Jimmy Butler in some classic cowboy boots. The Portland media soon made it over to the arena after the trip from Atlanta. After talking quite a few X's and O's (how to defend against the pick-and-roll was the main topic), Thibs headed back into the locker room, and everyone set up for Terry Stotts.
Now it was Stotts' turn, fashioning the classic sweatpants and athletic polo look we all know well. It's really at this point you start to realize that, in the NBA, guys are just bigger than everyone else. For example, as a 6'3" guy myself, it isn't often that I'm around people that are taller than I am. Yet when the coach is at least five inches taller than you are, you know that you deal in a world of giants. There are a couple main things that I noticed here:
- The Jay Bilas "wingspan" chatter is a legitimate thing. I've never seen so many people that have such long arms. The first thing I immediately thought of was how important arm length really is: If you have short arms and are trying to elevate over a guy with a much longer wingspan, your shot is going to be blocked every time, and vice versa. Simple, yes, but still something you realize more seeing in person.
- The overall physical nature of these guys is very impressive. The only guy that was close to my height was Earl Watson, and I'm not short. Seeing how big a seven-footer in person is definitely a unique experience.
- Probably the most critical piece I realized in this moment was that players aren't just pieces that work for your team. Additionally, their skills, both physical and mental, are things that teams also have to adjust to. The best example of this was seeing Nicolas Batum. When you see this long, tall, lanky forward that can also handle and shoot the ball, it becomes more understandable that even when he isn't having a good game, just his presence on the floor makes an impact; the physical tools Batum possesses cannot be ignored by the opponent, which will automatically make a difference in a game. Standing next to him clinched that thought for me.
Once I got this close to the game, it also began to dawn on me: these guys work out before the game actually starts, too. This was fairly obvious for the injured players, but to see Thomas Robinson and C.J. McCollum seemingly doing full lifting sessions before they hit the floor? Wow.
Each game, media has access to the locker rooms for 30 minutes. I knew we'd get to talk with the coaches before the game and be able to stop by the locker room afterwards but beforehand was a little surprising.
Without anything to ask, I instead watched Watson call Chris Haynes' beloved Fresno State Bulldogs an NAIA team (this could have been the highlight of the night), players eat insanely large portions of pasta or sandwiches, and certain guys (like Robinson) sit intently in their locker watching game film on an iPad. Oh, and the spread of Uncrustables and bananas in front of the TV playing the Bulls' most recent game against the Pacers was pretty interesting too.
I was told that each team has its own personality when it's in the locker room. Oklahoma City, for example, is an extremely focused, business-like group. I even had one media guy tell me that he never saw anyone watch film as intently as Kevin Durant. On the other side, teams like the Houston Rockets are apparently just goofy: the same media member told me the story of Dwight Howard farting on-camera during pre-game. As for Portland, the overall feel of the team was just that they were tired -- coming into Chicago on their last game of a road trip, you could tell everyone was about ready to head home. But they had to take care of business first.
By this time, the seating arrangements for media were posted. Because it was my first time at the United Center and was technically on credential for the radio station, I was way up in the press box (with the real fans!). The game was very much a one-sided affair, with the Blazers consistently leading by 20 points, eventually winning the game and wrapping up the trip on a positive note.
At a certain point, you start to get over the fact that these guys are so large (did I mention they're huge?). After the game was over, the media split up between the Blazers and the Bulls. I decided to watch the post-game interview of Thibodeau, as a 20-point spanking was surely going to get a response from the coach that lives and dies on defense. Instead, it was a fairly routine, albeit subdued, press conference.
What was much more interesting was being in the Bulls locker room. Aside from guys getting out of the shower, changing and packing their things, there was one elephant in the room: Noah. I've never seen a look with the same combination of depression, confusion and frustration. If you looked around the locker room, it would have been pretty obvious that the team lost the game. If you looked only at Noah, you would've thought Chicago lost the championship. It was honestly that type of look. Blazers fans (and sometimes NBA fans in general) often take shots at Noah because of his thorn-in-your-side nature while he's on the court. In his own way, he slowly got his things together and softly took questions (keep in mind, probably 20 or more media people were waiting around staring at this guy so they could get quotes). I gained a lot of respect for Noah after that: it isn't that often you see a guy take losing so seriously, especially against a pretty good opponent where victory is not guaranteed.
There's the constant juxtaposition that we are fed from folks that follow NBA athletes: for fans, they can be superheroes, yet for coaches and media members, they're "just people." I didn't know exactly what my feelings about these players would be when I was done, but while collecting my thoughts on the bus going back to downtown Chicago, I finally decided: they're both.
It's difficult to say that a professional athlete is "just another person" when dozens of media people follow them around, take pictures and write down nearly every word they say. Heck, seeing the reporters that were either Spanish or French speaking reinforced that even more.
On the flip side, though, seeing Noah's face at the end of the game was exceptionally real. He hated losing. He hated getting his butt kicked, both physically and on the scoreboard. And watching him limp out of the stadium with his hood over his head gave such a deep impression of raw emotion that the argument for how human these guys are was reinforced. No one likes getting embarrassed like that, and that's how most of us would react: stunned and destroyed.
All in all, it was a great evening. Getting to meet the media members was great, getting the behind-the-scenes look was amazing, and hearing the classic Bulls intro music was a dream come true. But above all that, seeing this distinct combination of size and emotion certainly changed how I view both the players individually as well as the breadth of factors that go into just a single night. Ultimately, it reinforced the various dimensions that make up NBA basketball.