DALLAS -- Wake up, make coffee, take warm shower, iron shirt: Sunday was just another day in Corinth, Texas starting up in rhythm with my usual morning routine aside from putting too much cream in my coffee. No time for breakfast, I figured, I have to be there early to soak it all in. I jumped into my car and drove towards the heart of Dallas, ready to take a bite into a marble cheesecake I had been chasing for so long. A rich dessert I often daydreamed of after tossing up 1500 word breakdowns with play charts, or something as simple as a run-down of the top Tweets regarding the Los Angeles Lakers the prior night.
I was headed to American Airlines Center to catch a huge game between the Dallas Mavericks and Lakers, and the fine Dallas public relations folks granted media credentials to me to go to the game representing SB Nation and Silver Screen and Roll.
Finally in the arena, it was empty aside from employees setting up the many food dispensaries. The air smelled like freshly popped popcorn and cinnamon buns, but oddly enough there was no sign of either as I walked around the plaza level. Perhaps that was simply the smell of twenty-something food stands prepping their goods at the same time, like all of the colors combining to make black. Before taking the elevator down to the "press only" portion of the arena, I had to take a look at the floor that was about to become a battlefield for two teams desperately clawing their way to the playoffs. Hoping to take even a long-shot against teams well ahead of them in the standings. Walking down the stairway towards the hardwood floor it began to set in. "I'm here". Looking down at the barely lit court was one of the few serene moments in a whirlwind of a day. It was time to enter the fray, though, and get down to business.
The elevator took me down to the "event level" and it was more of the same: employees scurrying around to set things up. My lap around this floor ended at a sign reading "Media Dining" and a woman sitting at a sign-in table before entering. I leaned down, told her I was with "SB Nation", and left my unrefined, sloppy, signature in the box. Walking in it was nothing out of the ordinary, much like a small cafeteria. Surveying the room, I spot something extraordinary, grabbed a tray and a black plastic plate, and went down the line. "Hash browns and scrambled eggs, please", I told the caterer. "Is that it," she inquired, and I nodded hurriedly. With my half full plate at hand I made my way over the the table I couldn't help but sit at, currently occupied by one man. He was wearing a gray, worn, hat that had an emblem I couldn't make out on it, and a white and pewter-checkered long sleeve shirt on.
"Would you mind if I sat here"?
"Absolutely not, go right ahead", the man responds. "So, how are you feeling about today's game?", I asked just breaking the ice. The man sipped his orange juice slowly and shook his head, "These days I know better than to feel about any game, I just call what I see out there". I shift my rubbery scrambled eggs around the plate and grab a fork full of potatoes instead while I nod in agreement. "It's been that kind of year, definitely", I respond. The man sighs out a yep under his breath, and looks on at the T.V. which is airing ESPN. I remained focused on the food in front of me and decide it's tasteless.I pour Tobasco across my hash browns and eggs and remain calm. Nothing more usual than hash browns and eggs for breakfast, this is just another day, I tell myself. Though, no matter how much Tobasco I doused my eggs with, the taste was never going to be what my mind was properly registering as I ate breakfast and chatted with Stu Lantz.
Another man, apparently a part of the Lakers team, takes a seat and small talks with Stu. "Have you seen the weather in Denver, Stu? Big storm. We barely escaped Boston and now we're going right back into it, it's just following us around," he tells him, and Stu responds by saying he brought his overcoat with him because he expected it, his eyes fixated on an older man who just walked into the room.
"How old do you think he is... Dr. Jack Ramsay? He still travels around his his giant briefcase, I guess that's what he does though. He loves stats-- a stats guy. I'm not a stats guy, Bill is. Bill loves that shit, I don't care about how many points some guy scored last week. If basketball was all about the stats and percentages they might as well not even play the game, just give this guy his 16 points and be done with it". It's hard not to agree with Stu, perhaps because it's a voice I've heard breaking down the game over the airwaves so many times in my life. "I have to agree with that, I mean, if you look at a game like the last one against Portland, Steve Nash went two-for-eleven. With the kind of looks, playing the percentages, there's no way he misses nine of those shots," is about the best I can muster up," and Stu quickly chimes in, "Exactly it, and that's why these percentages and stats really don't matter to me. Steve would've hit ten of those shots the way he was getting open if that's all that mattered," and he returns to talking to the other man across the way.
I look around the room and spot Mike Breen eating breakfast before calling the game with tea which he has in two stacked cardboard coffee cups to keep his hands safe from the scalding water inside while it soaks. I can relate-- feeling like I had just been dipped into boiling water while I soak as well. Realizing media availability begins in roughly ten minutes I grab my breakfast tray, which I just notice I finished off in the midst of this, toss it with the rest of the dirty dishes, and walk out of the room. One last note: whichever airline flew Stu from Los Angeles to Dallas, that pointedly negative review of the too-dry-to-eat grilled chicken is probably from him. Step it up.
Back to the circus now, which has gotten even busier with media availability set to begin. Finally reaching the visitor's locker room, I catch the back end of Mike Trudell interviewing Antawn Jamison. Carefully maneuvering through the crowd, being sure not to get in front of the Time Warner Cable SportsNet cameraman, I keep moving along. Robert Sacre is in the hallway doing lunges with a slide board on the floor and giggling with the training staff employee standing with him. As I get closer I hear him humming "Ommmmmm" with each lunge and notice he has his hands in a prayer stance with each lunge his foot slides backwards with. It's hard not to laugh at this giant of a man doing this and we all catch a quick one together as Sacre appreciates me joining in with them. I swing back to the entrance the locker room, which should be just a minute away from opening up, and stand in a small crowd of people waiting to invade.
"We're open," says the American Airlines Center valet, and we all push our way into the small visiting locker room. There's a furious debate being had as we walk in, led by Dwight Howard in his ridiculously skinny and bright red pants. "McDonald's fries are legendary. Nobody likes Burger King, Devin," he exclaims to teammate Devin Ebanks who sits next to him in a folding chair. Sacre makes his way to his locker, which is in the corner next to Dwight and Devin, and takes a seat as well. Taking stock of the locker room, on one side Dwight, Ebanks, Sacre, Metta World Peace, Earl Clark, and Steve Nash are assigned. Only Ebanks, Sacre, and Howard are sitting in place currently. On the other end it's nearly completely empty with only Antawn sitting. Kobe Bryant, Steve Blake, Chris Duhon, and Antawn are designated to this side. Tawn has on his Beats by Dre headphones on and stares at the projection screen which is playing chopped clips of the Mavericks and New Orleans Hornets game. Noticeably focused on the Mavs in the pick and roll both offensively and defensively.
Dwight begins taking an open poll on the great fry debate, starting with Sacre who doesn't hesitate to call McDonald's the best and goes on about the salt they put on their fries, but later points out that Jack in the Box curly fries are the best ever. Howard proceeds to ask the crowd that has amassed, beginning with a woman who he is notified only speaks Spanish. He sits, stunned for a moment, then bounces back, "you... like... McDonalds fries..... or.... Burger... King?!", he asks, which fills the room with a chorus of laughter. "Nice Spanish Dwight," I tell him as the laughter fades away. Blake crosses the middle of the room and Dwight can't help but ask him as well, and he too chooses McDonald's but "with that sweet and sour sauce. That's the best". Dwight looks at Ebanks and raises his eyebrows, and Devin cuts in with, "hold on a second, we're sitting here talking about fries being legendary. Besides, they're all just picking McDonald's because you're Duhwight".
The chatter dies down and Howard opens a chicken caesar salad that Ebanks picked out for each of them earlier in the day. The Lakers staffer sitting in the corner with Dwight and company chimes in after he takes his first bite, "it's nine in the morning on the west coast Dwight, why are you eating a salad right now?" he asks. Dwight drops his fork and looks over his shoulder at Ebanks, "man, that's a good point. Why am I eating a salad in the morning? This salad isn't even good, I should've known better eating the same food as someone who likes Burger King fries more".
The salad was never seen again.
Blake sits in his corner of the locker room, focused on the projection screen that's still airing clips of the Mavs and Hornets game. Tip-off is getting closer, and media availability will be over even sooner, so I approach him with pen and pad in hand (which I later should've brought out my voice recorder but live and learn). I ask him if I can ask him a few questions, explain I write about the Lakers for SB Nation, and he obliges without pause. My first question, how is the recovery going and what has been the hardest part in coming back? "The recovery is going well, I haven't had any setbacks since starting. The hardest part is getting back into condition though because I was out for months and wasn't even able to take part in five-on-five scrimmages, so that's been a process". Next up, I ask about the bench playing together, especially with them playing in big stretches without Howard, Nash, or Kobe in the lineup. "I think we're finding a rhythm. I don't know the plus-minus differential, but I definitely feel like we've been going in and either building or maintaining leads. We're getting comfortable. Twan is great, he's just a very smart player on the offensive side. He knows when to slip screens and knows where to be on the offense. Not only that, but the angles he uses are brilliant. He's been big for the bench, along with Jodie". We go back and forth about the pick and roll game, which he had high praise for Howard setting better screens lately, and proceed to shake his hand and I thank him for his time.
Biggest takeaways? Steve's a good guy, was extremely gracious in answering my questions and talking about the team, and he watches the film. As soon as I walked away he went back to studying the clips the staff had looping.
I scoot back towards the entrance to the locker room and just stood there, slightly overwhelmed I'm standing there, and wondering how to get to the "press box" up top where I'll be seated in a few minutes. Nash has moved in and out a few times, but hasn't spent time sitting around the locker room. With the tweaked back he suffered, I can only assume he's spending time getting work done on that already suspect back. Then, he, passes through. He being Kobe Bryant who, unknown to us all in that room currently, is about to give the Lakers one hell of a game in their fight to get back to .500 and the playoffs. He doesn't stop, doesn't break stride, and isn't asked his preference in french fries. Kobe heads to the shower area with two training staff members trailing him, carrying a bucket of ice water together with two bags of ice inside of it. Then, a familiar song cuts through the locker room from where Kobe was last seen walking into-- "When I flow for the street-- who else could it be-- Nas". Yes, Kobe was getting his final pre-game work done while listening to 2nd childhood by Nas. Yes, I couldn't help but nod my head along with it.
Locker room availability was closed, though, and it was time to head up to the press box to watch the game. I've already tapped out 2500 words describing the experience, and from this point forward it's much as you'd expect. The game itself was a phenomenal watch with a ton of Lakers support in the arena. The fourth quarter felt like a playoff atmosphere with the OOHS and AAAHS as the two teams exchanged baskets. Kobe's heroics didn't go unnoticed and the crowd was buzzing as he had a perfect fourth quarter-- MVP chants poured over him as he took his final free throws and the extremely disappointed Mavericks fans ran out of the arena to try and beat the massive traffic jam that was going to occur one way or the other. Post-game, it was exactly as one would expect-- a giant crowd of people shoving microphones in players faces to try and grab that juicy line the other 20 media outlets will be reporting within the next hour. In short, it was a mad house where nothing constructive could be said. Worse, the proximity of three huge crowds talking as loud as possible (one in front of Dwight, one in front of Nash, one in front of Kobe) made it next to impossible to hear anything from the players who talked much lower than anticipated.
But the Lakers weren't sticking around long after the big win, it was just another game. "Denver is storming, we need to get out of here ASAP so we're going to close down media availability quickly" was the message delivered, so the crowd thinned out. Kobe sat with both of his knees wrapped in bags of ice and his feet submerged in ice water with the final bit of the crowd that remained. Just another day in the life of one of the greatest competitors of all-time. The media just a routine breakfast of hash browns and scrambled eggs he sprinkles Tobasco on with his quotes.
- Follow this author on Twitter @DrewGarrisonSBN
- Many thanks to C.A. Clark, Dexter Fishmore, everybody here as a whole at Silver Screen and Roll, Seth Pollack, Lisa Rotter, and Sarah Melton for making this possible.