by John Krolik

So here we go, our intrepid young journalist’s first time as a credentialed member of the media without his boss present. Our goals for tonight were to not disgrace SLAM, to ask a few legitimate questions, to get to and from USC to the Staples Center without dying using public transportation, and to meet Baron Davis, who, since I grew up in the Bay, I treat as a legitimate folk hero.

Pre-game

Well, acting like I somewhat belonged with the media did not get off to an auspicious start. If you were in the press room and wondered what that 19-year-old kid was doing aimlessly wandering back and forth, that was me. My apologies. Eventually, I made my way over to the locker room:

– Al Thornton, who has one year and five games under his belt, entered the game as the Clippers’ leading scorer. He was my first interview subject.

– He feels a bit like a rookie and a bit like a veteran, as he’s still learning more about his game and trying to improve, but at the same time is helping the younger players and guys new to the team adjust to the League and fit into Coach Mike Dunleavy’s system.

– The extra time he spent in college relative to most rookies helped him a lot in refining his game, but more importantly it helped him keep the off-court stuff under control better than most rookies do.

– When asked whether playing a high-quality team like the Rockets after a tough start would only cause more trouble or galvanize the team, Thornton responded it didn’t matter who they were playing, the team just wanted a win.

The Rockets’ locker room, thanks to the crew of reporters there solely to cover Yao, had the benefit of making me look relatively un-awkward. For this reason, I spent most of my time in there.

– Luther Head backed up my theory that teams coming off losses like the heart-breaking one the Rockets had just suffered to the Blazers actually like getting to play a back-to-back, as they get to go right out there and get a win the next night.

– When asked how he adapted from being a featured scorer on a fast-paced team to being a spot-up shooter on a slow-paced team, Head responded he knows he might only get 3 or 4 shots a game to prove himself, so he treats his 1st shot in practice like it’s an in-game shot.

– Okay, this will sound cheesy, and I actually predicted it, but it’s true: Ron Artest is an absolute prince. Absolutely the best guy I interviewed, and there was no second place. Could not have been nicer or better for quotes. I got to him after he was done being surrounded by Yao’s mob, and I apologetically asked him if he could stand another question; he said absolutely, asked me to sit, asked my name, who I was with, was just a pleasure all the way through. I didn’t feel comfortable in a locker room until I talked to Ron Artest.

Cheesy– When asked if a game like the one last night stayed with him, he said it’s happened to him so many times that he can get over it, no problem.

– When I asked about the adjustments needed for TMac and Yao, he said he didn’t make any consciously–he just went out and played.

– When I asked about the combination of him and Shane Battier, two of the League’s best perimeter defenders, he said he looked forward to Shane coming back so they could give each other rests, but absolutely predicted they’d fight each other over who got to guard the Kobe Bryants of the league.

– When I asked how he’d stop Baron’s Clippers from trying to run, he said he’d stay low to the ball and above all, hustle, which he says is his no. 1 rule. I was actually talking to Ron longer than I was supposed to stay in the locker room, and he never seemed bothered a bit, and gave me a good-natured handshake and eye contact when I left. Trying to describe just how cool Ron Artest is in person would be like trying to explain how big Yao Ming is in person.

First quarter

– Yao Ming got a HUGE cheer during player intros. Massive. A good one-third of the crowd is distinctly Pro-Yao.

– Meanwhile, Ron Artest got easily the most vehement and pure boo. How Dare They.

– The Clippers’ jumbotron pre-game mantra: “We are what we repeatedly do.” No Comment.

– The incomparable Brian Kamenetzky gave me the following wisdom last year: “Considering the Lakers and Clippers play in the same building, it’s kind of amazing how…ghetto Clippers games can seem sometimes.”

– On that note, before the Lakers come out, sheets come down over the jumbotron and an epic montage of historic Laker moments comes on that gives me chills–and I hate the Lakers. The Clippers have dancers pumping up the crowd and the Corona “Starting Lime-ups.”

– On the first Clipper possession, Marcus Camby tries to dunk over Yao. Didn’t go so well.

– There’s a heckler solely focused on Artest. I want to take him down, but such behavior would not be good decorum.

– Baron’s starting off the game trying to post up Skip.

– The score’s 10-6, but the Rockets are moving the ball and missing shots while the Clippers just have nothing going on whatsoever. Only Al Thornton is making anything Lankywhatsoever happen.

– Clippers call timeout-straight out of it, Luis Scola steals the inbounds and cruised the length of the floor for a dunk. Not a good omen.

–Actually, Scola is absolutely on fire, hitting everything he looks at from midrange and eventually getting confident enough to just BURN Tim Thomas with a spin for a layup.

–The Rockets score after a possession that took about five minutes and involved four offensive boards. Clippers down 15. Crowd pissed. Things not looking good.

– But then Here Comes Baron Davis. A layup, a dime for a basket, a ridiculous fadeaway against a double-team, a drive for a foul. The Clippers escape the quarter down only 25-18.

Second quarter

– I’ve seen the video of the Laker girl tryouts. It’s like 2,000 absolutely gorgeous women doing their damnedest to be Laker Girls. You would think that out of 2,000, the Top 40 or so would be absolutely interchangeable, and so the bottom 20 of the 40 that become Clipper Girls should be indistinguishable from the Laker Girls. You Would Think.

– Seen: Two emo-looking teenagers chasing each other up the stairs, one of whom with pants with chains on them sagging tremendously, with Darius Miles and Lamar Odom Clipper Jerseys on. This was one of the saddest images I’ve ever seen.

– Baron ABSOLUTELY DESTROYS Aaron Brooks with a crossover and gets an Swaggerousup-and-under layup. The crowd’s back. We’ve got a game.

– Baron calls for an Iso on Ron-Ron, spins off him, gets to the line. Quite swaggerous.

– Eric Gordon flies down the court on a fast-break and gets a blocking call on Brent Barry. When he tries it again, Barry picks his pocket and flies the length of the court for a layup. Welcome to the League.

– You know, the Clipper Girls are quite respectable indeed so long as they’re going up-tempo.

– Artest is hitting threes to maintain the gap–this has become one of those “hump games,” where the lead never gets into double digits but never gets overtaken, either. I swear on Demar DeRozan’s life I wrote that in real-time in my notes.

– Carl Landry dunks in traffic to end the half at 49-41, Rockets.

Third quarter

– Yao and Baron match unblockable fadeaways to start the second half. It’s going to be a game.

– Baron makes a lob to Chris Kaman, then drains a three when Skip trips over his own feet back-pedaling down the court.

– Thornton’s making a lot of deep twos–if he can make that leap from the college 3 to the NBA 3, he’ll be really dangerous.

– Brian Skinner, filling in for Tim Thomas (who went down with an ankle sprain in the first quarter) makes a strip and a block on consecutive plays-he’s still got it.

– Even years after The Brawl, there’s still A LOT of animosity for Artest when he’s shooting free throws-the crowd’s energized, they’re bouncing those thunder-sticks, and a guy’s holding up a beer at him to taunt him. Clearly, they don’t know Ron like I do. Jerks.

– With the Clippers down two points, three potential game-tyers go in-and-out. Not a great sign.

– After a long period of the Rockets’ lead looking vulnerable, Ron hits a three to stretch it to a safer 71-64. Suck on that, haters.

– With the crowd dying again, Marcus Camby keeps the building alive with a steal and coast-to-coast flush. The crowd’s pumped, and it’s not because the jumbotron just played Godzilla with a sombrero on doing the Mexican hat dance to “De-Fence.” I swear to God I’ve had nightmares with that exact thing happening. Real Talk.

– 66-71, Rockets, going into the fourth.

Fourth quarter

– Every time the Clippers get it close, Skip seems to be draining a long J.

– With Ron Artest holding the ball around the 19-foot area, Ricky Davis decides to try to D him up in such a way to challenge Ron’s manhood. Don’t do that. Layup, double-digit Rockets lead.

– Chris Kaman is a lot more dynamic that you’d think–he’s got mid-post spins, he can handle the ball, and he knows angles. Great game from him–he actually did out-play Yao in this one. Yao himself wasn’t that impressive unless he got it deep on the left block, where he’s absolutely millennial-Shaq level unstoppable.

– Eric Gordon-Brent Barry, Round 3: Barry draws the charge. Live and learn, young fella, although Gordon did look great in this one and appears to be working his way into the eight-man rotation.

– Baron’s still trying to keep his team in it, with a bucket and sweet feed to make it a seven-point game.

– Clippers down five, huge moment, Artest drives straight into the teeth of the D and sets up an easy slam.

Influential– Must be said: In the big moments, the ball was in Ron Artest’s hands, and he was absolutely fearless to make the big play. I swear this isn’t just bias because Ron is my new favorite person: Ron Artest’s fearlessness is what kept the Clips from overtaking this lead.

– If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned TMac, he was 0-5 with two points, and didn’t play crunch-time. Rockets personnel said he was “sick.” I have a different theory, although he could well have been sick. I came up with my theory before the post-game where it was revealed he was sick, and I like being right. In other words, I could be wrong, I don’t know what I’m saying, don’t sue.

– Two minutes to go, Baron drains an absolute V-2 of a floater to make it a five-point game–every possession counts now.

– Chris Kaman makes a beautiful move on Yao, puts up a lefty layup, has the ball hang on the rim, stay around for a while, and roll out. Next possession, Carl Landry misses a 17-footer, only to have the rebound come straight back to him for a dunk. With the Rockets now up seven with 1:22 to play, the game’s essentially over, and on a perfect microcosm.

Post-game

Coach Mike Dunleavy correctly diagnoses the problem to the Clippers’ start, where they scored six points in 6 minutes, and were consequently forced to play catch-up for the remainder of the game, but other than that was happy with the Clippers’ play.

He noted the Clippers are playing with the best in the West right now and, with the injuries during pre-season, “The regular season is having to be a part of training camp for us.”

Chris Kaman says the Rockets aren’t the best team in the League–they’re not the Celtics–but Yao is probably the best center in the NBA, although he derives no pleasure in having out-played him in a losing effort.

When asked how he’s adjusting to Baron Davis, Kaman says he’s getting used to it, and that Baron is talking him through it, and that Kaman feels bad for Davis having to adjust from the offense-all-the time fast-break style of Don Nelson to Mike Dunleavy’s demanding system, and says that everyone’s adjusting to Baron, but that above all Baron is a truly special player.

Baron Davis (!) clearly displeased at the loss, says that in the NBA there are no moral victories, and that they should’ve won this game. He says he thinks the Clippers just have to put together a full 48 minutes and win. I decide this isn’t the best time to tell him I’m from the Bay Area and he’s my hero.

Back to the Rockets’ locker room, and Ron Artest, who is surrounded by a gaggle of reporters on the Yao beat. I squeeze in to hear him say that he doesn’t consider his role to take a lot of shots, that he doesn’t count how many threes he takes in a game, he’s just going to shoot it if he’s open, but that when Yao and TMac aren’t in the game, he has to pick up the slack. When asked about the trade, Artest says he’s just glad to be playing basketball in the NBA, and he’d know what he’s saying there. He says he’s still not pleased with his own performance or the Rockets’ performance. When asked about the Rockets’ title expectations, he says “You always accept the challenge, but we still have a long ways to go.”

As we leave and everyone says “Thanks, Ron,” I meekly say, “Thank you, Mr. Artest.” Artest then stood up, made eye contact, shook my hand, and said thank you and Best Of Luck With My Career. Ron Artest: God.

So that’s it. My first game as a real live reporter. The prospect of doing this more–a whole lot more (?) with awkward media dinners, getting asked for credentials every 24 seconds by security guards who think I’m a punk kid from the upper deck, having your childhood heroes stare-dare you to ask them inane questions when they’ve just had a tough loss and just want to go home, and trying to stammer my way toward getting athletes to telling a kid something they haven’t said a million times before? It’s scary. But as my new favorite player and the guy who got me through my first day (along with the L.A. Times’ Lisa Dillman and NBA.com’s Dave McMenamin, both of whom were very welcoming and nice) said, “I accept the challenge, but I still have a long ways to go.”