What I Did on My Summer Vacation
Part I: Let the Players Play
Walking into an NBA locker room is not as intimidating as you might think. Or, rather, it's intimidating in a way that is totally different from what you might expect. The lavishly appointed, Playstation-in-every-pot Mark Cuban special is far from the norm. It looked pretty much like any other locker room, but with wood paneling instead of metal. What was intimidating was feeling like an intruder in a room full of dudes just hanging out, trying to stay loose before playing a game in front of tens of thousands of people. Most of the guys were engaged in private conversation with the notable exception of Viktor Khryapa, who was comically folded up in a chair intently reading some papers the whole time. As the nom de plume implies, I'm not the most gregarious guy, so approaching total strangers outside of a formal interview context was a little bit awkward.
The situation was not helped when Tyrus Thomas (the first player DLIC and I tried to talk to) rebuffed our humble interview request ("Do you have a few minutes?") with a soft-spoken, yet firm, "No, not now." It turned out he was joking, which was an early indication that Tyrus is not your average cat. He was refreshingly honest and direct, pretty weird for an NBA player, but really about like you'd expect an intelligent, but still naive, 20-year old to be. Although he was really nice, there was something defiant about the way he looked me straight in the eye as he talked about former LSU teammate Big Baby's chances of NBA success ("I really don't know, he has to work hard, nobody's guaranteed anything in this league, everyone has to work hard to succeed."), having no idea what the coaches' expectations are of him, and how he likes living in Chicago ("I liked it a lot until this past Friday. I walked out to my car and it was full of snow. This is the first time in my life I've ever seen snow.").
We batted .500 in terms of gaining some veteran insight into the state of the Bulls. PJ Brown was the coolest guy we talked to all night (as one might expect), and was the most willing to talk about the Bulls early adversity. Ben Wallace, on the other hand, well, let's just say that DLIC didn't get to ask him the burning question of whether or not *HE* thinks 20,000 fans wearing Buckwheat wigs is racist.
Like the rest of the Bulls, Thabo Sefolosha was similarly laid-back and humble, also stressing the importance of hard work and practice. Scott Skiles what? Surprisingly, he had never talked to his obvious progenitor Scottie Pippen, much less worked out with him, even though Pippen lives in Chicago and has attended a couple Bulls practices this season. I knew that the kid grew up in Switzerland and played ball in France for several years, but I was still a little surprised to hear him speaking with a French-sounding accent. I guess I stupidly thought he'd sound like Steve Biko or someone. Thabo did spend holidays and summers in South Africa, where his pops was a relatively well-known saxophonist. He said that he loves South African music, although his dad stopped playing a lot when Thabo was 8 or 10, which would have been around the time he wrote a song for this Santana album. He seemed confused about why I was asking him about South African music and said I probably hadn't heard of a lot of his favorite artists except maybe Miriam Makeba. Things did not become any clearer when I mentioned one of my favorite groups of all time, the Brotherhood of Breath, whom he didn't know, although he was familiar with the earlier, South Africa-based version of the group, the Blue Notes.
Being FreeDarko's lone college hoops fan, I asked him if he ever thought about playing college ball in the States, and he said that was the original plan before he started having so much success in France that he had to go pro. Even growing up in Europe and South Africa, he had a few college teams that he liked and seemed slightly embarrassed when he said he was a Cincinnati fan "because I liked the way their jerseys looked." A true 80's baby, his favorites were Georgetown and the mighty North Carolina Tar Heels.
Speaking of the Tar Heels, we got to talk to Antawn Jamison over in the Wizards' locker room, and he was not moved in the slightest by the revelation that we attended UNC at the same time. It's not like I expected us to lock arms and sing "Tar Heel Born, Tar Heel Bred" together, but can I get a smile of acknowledgement or a handshake or sumfin? Damn, son! He had a bad night on the court, so maybe he just wasn't feeling it that night. Anyway, I don't want y'all to get the wrong idea, he was cool to us, very polite, just real unenthused.
Far more interesting than anything Jamison said was the conversation going on in the background, initiated by Antonio Daniels and Deshawn Stevenson about the "Top Ten NBA Swags." I don't want to shatter any illusions here, but my ear is not exactly firmly pressed to "da streets" these days, but my understanding is "swag" in this context is short for "swagger." The consensus Top 5 seemed to confirm this theory: (1) Kobe; (2) T-Mac; (3) KG; (4) Chauncey Billups; and the laughter-producing (5) Wally Szcerbiak. Funnily, the most swag showed during the actual game was Deshawn holding his follow-through all the way down the court after a made jumper and then kissing his hand.
While with the Wiz, we also chatted with FreeDarko icon, Andray Blatche, about his experiences in the D-League. He actually seemed to love it, saying it gave him "confidence" and added that he would "get excited" when they sent him down, because it was a chance to prove himself.
Part II: I Love This Game
The game itself was nothing too exciting. The Bulls came out focused, and the Wiz never seemed to get on track. DLIC goes into more depth about the differences between the two teams, but on the court, the Bulls were clearly the better team. And if you ever doubt any of our basketball knowledge, I've got to give it up to DLIC's reading of the game. Early in the first quarter, he said the Bulls were going to run away with it, and he was right. Blowouts are always enjoyable for us FreeDarkoites because we get to see the Andray Blatches and Tyrus Thomases of the world get some run. Blatche played most of the third quarter, somehow acquiring five fouls and showing a little game, as well. The best part was actually seeing fatasses James Lang and Michael Sweetney bang in the low post. Fittingly, Sweetney scored the Bulls' 100th point, thus ensuring free Big Macs for all in attendance.
For me, the weirdest part of the game was a toss-up between hearing about 17 seconds of DJ Shadow's remix of "Meiso" booming over the arena's loudspeakers and a promotional contest for Hinckley Springs where the announcer urged the crowd to “pull out your race cards,” which seems like an odd request in a relatively racially divided city like Chicago. I guess that's better than inciting the crowd to shoot the president to get the attention of an actress. The second time we were told to pull out our race cards was for a Dunkin Donuts ad where a cup of coffee, a bagel, and a chocolate frosted donut raced each other. The chocolate donut won, so I guess that means that blacks run faster than Jews? Hey, the announcer TOLD me to pull out the race card!
Part III: Deliverance
Part III: Deliverance
But, of course, the highlight of the night was giving Gilbert the shirt. We initially tried to give it to him before the game, but he was elusive, slipping on his headphones and walking out of the room just as we approached. After the game, we made a point to hang out the locker room, lying in wait as Gilbert tried to explain to a group of reporters why the Wizards can't seem to play well on the road. Gilbert was rightfully pissed off with his night, and we got to hear a little bit more off the record that indicated these weren't really the ideal conditions for fanboy t-shirt gifting. Nonetheless, when were we going to get a better chance? I made DLIC do all the talking.
DLIC: Hey Gil, we're from this website freedarko.com.
Gil: They still do that? [What we think was a reference to the fact that PCA approached Arenas over the summer in Las Vegas with an original FreeDarko t-shirt.]
DLIC: Huh heh, yeah. Um, we made this t-shirt, it's called FreeDarko, but it's not really about Darko. We don't really care about him, but you're kind of like an icon for the site.
Gil: [looking at the shirt] Oh yeah? Okay. What that mean? [pointing to the Cuban idiom that serves as a tribute to Arenas's Cuban roots and his fondness for playing pranks.]
DLIC: Uh, it means "the foot of the devil."
Gil: [relatively nonplussed] Oh, cool.