by Lang Whitaker

I arrived at New York City’s John F. Kennedy Airport yesterday morning at 7:15 a.m., a full 100 minutes before my flight was scheduled to leave. Normally I’d come rolling in as close to take-off time as possible, particularly for a Sunday morning flight. But I was grasping at straws this mroning, and an early arrival was my last attempt to salvage the six-hour flight out to L.A. When we booked the flight a week ago, SLAM managing editor Susan Price and I were looking online at the seating chart, and there was nothing available other than middle seats. For a six hour flight? No thanks.

Thing is, I didn’t have a choice: I had to be in L.A. today to do a story the next SLAM, so I bit the bullet and booked the middle seat. I called the airline late last week and asked if anything else had come open. It hadn’t. But a kindly phone operator named Dixie informed me that the airline holds three exit row seats until the morning of every flight, just in case someone really needs one of those seats or something. So I showed up mad early, and found a longer security line than I’ve ever seen in my life. I went up to the check-in counter to try and score one of the coveted exit row seats, but was told to ask at the gate.

I got in the security line and we inched along slowly. The highlight of that experience was when some dude showed up and had only a few minutes until his plane boarded, so he tried to run up a down escalator. He missed a step and stumbled halfway up, and everyone watching let out a loud “Whoa!” Seconds later he hit the top and stumbled forward about five steps before finally flipping into a forward somersault, landing flat on his back, spread eagle. That drew a huge roar from the crowd, myself included. I don’t know if that was somehow captured on a security video camera, but that would be in the running for the $100,000 prize on “America’s Funniest Home Video.”

Anyway, I finally got through security was told I had to get on a bus and ride to a new mini-gate. Finally got down there and it was only about 15 minutes before boarding, so I knew there was no way I was getting a prime exit row seat. I asked anyway, and the girl behind the counter said, “Well, actually I do have an exit row seat available. Is a window seat OK?” I nearly leaned over the counter and kissed her. (Although I didn’t, because I didn’t want her mustache to scratch me.)

Got to L.A., checked into my luxury hotel and headed right back out to the Staples Center.

Phil Jackson was holding court in the hallway outside the Lakers locker room when I walked in. He said he occasionally (once or twice a year) takes the job of scouting the next team the Lakers are playing, and he’d scouted the Bulls. He said that they have “more froth than substance…kind of like a latte.” Make mine a grande, please.

(Mutoni has already seized on this for a blog post. I don’t think Phil was trying to be a jerk. He was just talking and he kind of seemed to stumble upon the analogy.)

Stopped in the Bulls locker room, where it was snack time. Menus:
Ben Gordon — some sort of candy/energy bar
Malik Allen — plate of tomato slices and an orange
Tyrus Thomas — handful of popcorn

Out on the court, the scoreboard was showing an interview Kobe did a few months ago on Stephen A. Smith’s show. I’d swear that even Kobe was trying not to crack up at Stephen A’s braggadocio.

Kareem was on the floor in jeans, a black t-shirt with an embroidered trumpet on the front and dress shoes, rebounding for Andrew Bynum.

I tried to get a cameraphone shot of Luke Walton and Brian Cook pregame, but was too far away. They were doing some sort of strange workout where they were basically tied up with a bunch of bungie cords, as they stumbled around making themselves stronger, I suppose. They looked like they were in “Saw.”

The scoreboard shifted to NBA TV, which was showing NBDL action. It appeared that Albuquerque was taking on China, and losing. One of the Albuquerque guys was missing part of a number on his jersey — the top layer fell off and the underneath layer remained, so it looked like he had one black and one white digit on his jersey. And for a second I thought the NBDL was a lot more fashion forward than it turned out to be. Only player I recognize straightaway is Troy Bell. He’s balling with the Thunderbirds. Also saw TJ Cummings getting into it with a Chinese player.

• The Bulls came out to Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979,” as well as a few scattered boos.

• Lakers play-by-play guy Joel Myers leaned over and asked why I had to show them up by actually working at the press table.

• Danny Crawford is in the house! That’s Kwesi Mfume to you, though.

• Lakers enter to “Right Now,” played a bit too loudly.

• The Staples Center is announced as the “Sports Entertainment Center of the World.” Well.
• The National Anthem is performed by some guy who looks like the skinny guy from Boys II Men but sounds like the fat guy who (allegedly) dated Brandy. After anouncing the Bulls lineups, a huge cloth tube dropped from the scoreboard and Lakers highlights was projected on it. Then we got The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly.” Just before tipoff they played The Roots’ “Here I Come,” so they get major props for that.

• Lineups:
BULLS: Luol, Nocioni, Big Ben, Hinrich, Duhon
LAKERS: Odom, Walton, Bynum, Smush, Kobe

• All that great music is undone by “Let’s Get it Started” as the players walked out into the center circle.

• Bynum blocks Big Ben on the opening posession and the place explodes. Did I mention I saw a bunch of kids in the street pregame wearing “Bynum Brigade” shirts?

• Bulls score first on a Nocioni runner. Lakers reply with two from Lamar. Three possesions for the Lakers and I don’t think Kobe’s even touched the ball.

• Bynum isos on Ben Wallace and I expect Walalce to throw him into the stands. Instead Bynum patiently backs him down and spins and shoots a left layup that misses. Nice move.

• 9:04 left in the first and Hinrich gets called for his second foul. Hello, Ben Gordon.

• A Nocioni three puts Chicago up 7-5. Lamar pushes the ball back in transition and, surprise, goes to his left and gets stuck. Suddenly he rockets a pass to a cutting Bynum who catches, spins and lays it in. On the next play Bynum rips a rebound from over Ben Wallace’s head. The kid came to play tonight.

• Deng It! Luol makes a nice tip in on a missed free throw. Five straight by the Bulls. And then out of nowhere, Smush drives the lane and tomahawks on Ben Wallace. Really. First buzz of the night in the Sports Entertainment Center of the World. Time out. 12-9, Bulls.

• During the timeout, we get an underwhelming routine by the Lakers girls to “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”

• Out of the timeout, the Bulls run whatever Scott Skiles designed and end up having Duhon shoot a three from about four feet behind the line. I can see steam coming out of Scott Skiles’ ears from my seat across the floor. Lamar gets an easy two on the other end, and the Bulls come back and Duhon bricks another three. The Lakers come back and Luke Walton nails a three from the corner to give them a 14-12 lead.

• Bulls come back down and Duhon shoots again, this one swatted by Bynum. Duhon is determined to score some points. This Bulls latte tastes great.

• Kobe takes his first shot of the game with 4:28 to go in the first, a reverse layup that he misjudges and ends up getting stuffed by the backboard. Then Bynum tries another up and under and Ben Wallace easily plucks the ball from him. Timeout Lakers, down 14-17.

• I can’t tell what celebs are here. Jack Nicholson is across from me, but there’s a few people in front of me with their backs to me, so I can’t make any determinations.

• Odom just took a right handed layup that was so surprising to everyone that I heard Lakers play-by-play guy Joel Myers scream, “Lamar with the right hand!” He missed the shot, by the way.

• Bynum scores again in the post on an entry pass from Kobe. Bynum has really good footwork for a guy his size and age. I don’t think that’s something you can teach.

• Bulls (well, Nocioni) keep making shots, hanging on to a one or two point lead. Nobody can stop Nocioni.

• Vlad Radmanovic checks in and looks terrible, like he just woke up in a parking lot after a night out.

• Farmar comes in just before the quarter ends and gets a loud ovation. Skiles counters with Tyrus Thomas. Kwame gets in, too, and he and Farmar run a pick and roll that gets Kwame free for a monster dunk…that he fumbles away. Foul is called.

• Bulls up 21-19 after 1. In twelve minutes of action, Kobe has no points on two shots, with one rebound and one assist. What’s with this team stuff? He must know I’m here.

• I know Henry Abbott is trying to sell this “Swiss Mister” nickname for Thabo Sefalosha, but we have to come up with something better than that, right? I like “The Human Lisp.”

• Kwame grabs a defensive rebound and Tyrus Thomas reaches up and yanks his headband off his head; it flutters to the ground, as everyone boos. Kwame looks angrily at the refs. No whistles are blown.

• Thomas gets extended minutes and looks pretty good, getting his hand on balls, diving around. Then he spots up for a jumper from the wing and hits nothing but the side of the backboard, hard, nearly shattering the glass. I think that’s the hardest jump shot I’ve ever seen.

• Kobe’s first basket comes with 7:34 to go in the first half. Gives LA a 24-21 lead. Next time down Kobe and Sefolosha end up sharing a loose ball and a jump ball is called, which infuriates Kobe. Sefolsha outjumps him and wins the tip.

• PJ Brown finally gets involved, sinking a free-throw line jumper late in the second. Can’t believe they’re not getting more from PJ. Is he diminishing a little bit? And did the Hornets move him just in time?

• Haven’t noticed the dark lights in here, really. It’s more pronounced on TV.

• Sefolosha gets his first hoop of the game, a dunk on Lamar with 3:20 left to put Chicago up 32-31.

• Out of a timeout, the Lakers get all screwed up and Kobe ends up throwing it out to Sasha Vujacic, who nails a three from the wing off the glass. No he didn’t! Yes he did!

• I think Luke Walton has lost about 15 pounds of muscle. He looks noticably slimmer this season. Maybe he’s been wearing all those ropes at meal time.

• Nocioni, with his Beno Udrih haircut, is feeling it, although he just bricked a three.

• I wonder if Eddy Curry is upset that the Bulls gave up his number 2 to Sefolosha? Actually, I wonder if he even knows?

• On the last play of the half, with the Lakers up three, Kobe catches a fullcourt inbounds pass at the free throw line and tries to turn and shoot, but he isn’t able to turn or shoot before the buzzer. Kobe says he was held by Luol. As everyone walks off the floor, Kobe stands there staring at ref Rodney Mott, not saying a word but really staring him down. No techincal foul is called. I’m a little intimidated.

• Nocioni leads both teams with 14 points. Lamar has 8 for L.A.

• Lakers come out hot, on a three by Smush and a turnaround by Kobe (Where he gets away with shoving Hinrich). Hinrich, incidentally, played all of 3:39 in the first half, addled with foul trouble. As soon as I’m about to write about how crucial his return will probably be, Hinrich gets called for carrying the ball and somehow injures his own back on the play.

• Nocioni is en fuego! He finds himself alone with the ball under the rim and somehow flips it up and in without looking.

• Bynum is huge in person, and he dwarfs Ben Wallace out on the floor. With 6:54 left in the third, Bynum finds a rebound in his hands and dumps it in the basket, giving him 9 points and giving the Lake Show a 50-42 lead. This is a really strange game and I can’t quite get a feel for it…feels like very little energy from the crowd. Nobody on the Bulls can get anything going other than Nocioni, and Kobe seems content to play the team player role tonight. Kobe doesn’t seem totally recovered from his knee injury, either.

• Daisuke Matsuzaka is in the house. And seconds after we notice him courtside, Kirk Hinrich and Ben Wallace crash into the stands where he’s sitting, narrowly avoiding crushing the $51 million man.

• The Bulls find some hustle and cut it to 52-49. Kobe seems to be able to drive at will against Kirk Hinrich, but he’s so intent on getting everyone involved that he doesn’t force anything. More than once he stands motionless at the top of the key for the entire posession. Back to back threes from Nocioni make it Bulls 55, Lakers 54.

• Nocioni might have the worst haircut of any good player in the League. He looks like a long-lost Barry brother.
• Watch the speed that Luol plays with, expecially when he’s coming off picks. Nobody can keep up with him out there, including many of the Bulls.

• Bynum gets knocked down by Ben Wallace, but because the refs don’t want to to call a foul on Ben, they whistle it on Ben Gordon, who is nowhere near the play. He can’t complain and he can’t say anything to the refs, so he walks around furious while Bynum goes to the line.

• Ben Wallace from the line…brick front rim, brick front rim.

• Sasha Vujacic looks like a club kid who won a contest and was plucked off the set of “Entourage” and allowed to play a game for the Lakers.

• Last play of the quarter, Kobe isolated on the wing against Sefolasha, and Kobe does that thing where he pump fakes about five times as the clock is running down. He finally throws it up at the buzzer and misses, but the refs call a foul on the play. But before shooting any free throws, they checkt ht ereplay to see if any time was left. There wasn’t. So they take the foul and free throws off the book. And for some reason, none of the fans seem irate about it. Lakers lead 62-59 after three.

• This may be the worst “Kiss Me” segment of all time…half the couples they show are too busy checking their BlackBerries to worry about kissing on the scoreboard.

• Nocioni for three! This hombre has 28 points with 11 minutes left.

• Kwame picks up a loose ball in the corner and from my seat at midcourt, I can see a thought pass through his head: Maybe I should drive tot he basket. Of course he mows over about eight Bulls players and get an offensive foul. Play within yourself, grasshopper.

• Tie game, 9 minutes to go. Bynum has four blocks thus far, a career high.

• Out of a timeout, Mo Evans catches the pass and starts to dribble aimlessly, when the crowd goes nuts, alerting him that there’s just two seconds on the shot clock. He fires a three up and that rattles around and in. Just like Phil drew it up.
• Nocioni mugs Lamar Odom on a drive and gets called for a foul. He then starts gesticulating wildly, like Maradona or something, and he gets T’d up. Lamar makes two of the three free throws and the Lakers lead 67-62, with 8 minutes left in the game.

• Bulls come down and get it to Ty Thomas, who runs over a few Lakers and gets the offensive foul. I think we’ve seen the last of Mr. Thomas tonight. Next time down they get it on the wing and Luol Deng fires up a long two that misses. No idea why they aren’t going to Nocioni every time down.

• The Bulls come down and again can’t get it to Nocioni, so Sefolosha turns it over. Kobe patiently pushes it down court and dumps it off to a trailing Kwame, who flies in and posterizes Nocioni. That might be the greatest play of Kwame Brown’s career.

• Next time down Kobe hits a long jumper. Then Kwame doubles Sefolosha and knocks the ball away. Then Radmanaovic blocks a layup and Mo Evans fights for the rebound. These Lakers are scrappy! These Bulls are a latte!
• Kwame is replaced by Bynum with 4:52 to go and the Lakers up 10. Everyone goes crazy and gives him a big round of applause.

• Two minutes later, Bynum has fouled out with 13 points and 12 boards. Kwame replaces him. Everyone at the press table I’m at is confused because we all have Bynum just having picked up his 5th foul, and the official box score we’re all looking at has him with 5, even though they announced it was his 6th. Maybe the PA announcer just wanted Kwame back in the game.

• Word comes down that they took a foul away from Odom and gave it to Bynum at some point. They just didn’t tell anyone else.

• Before all that, Gordon nailed a three and the Bills got a two to make it 74-70 with 2:47 left. Luke hits one of two from the line to make it 75-70, 2:38 to go. Kobe is on Ben Gordon, and BG crosses him over hard. The Bull end up missing three consecutive shots, all rebounded by Ben Wallace. The Lakers miss one, and then the Bulls miss another BG three.

• For all of Wallace’s talk about leaving Detroit so he could have a chance to be a part of the offense, that’s not happening in Chicago so far. They’re not even looking at him on offense.

• After all that mess, it’s still 75-70 with 1:14 left. Nocioni has 30. Odom leads L.A. with 19 and 9.

• Out of a timeout, Hinrich walks. Then Smush runs him over on the other end. Finally the Lakers get the ball to Kobe, who draws a foul and drains one free throw. Hinrich gets it to Ben Wallace for a layup. 76-72, Lakers. 25.7 left. Can’t this thing end? Ever?

• The Lakers make their free throws and it comes to a close, 82-72.

• Postgame, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar walks the hallways under the Staples Center, wearing a blue denim shirt with huge metal buttons in a pattern on the front, kind of like a chef’s shirt. A group of reporters mob Kareem and ask about his pupil, Bynum, and Kareem answers their questions sort of angrily.

• And that’s that. I head out back to my luxury hotel, and by the time most of you read this, I’ll be on my way back to NYC. Now, let me go get a latte…