by Chris O’Leary

For most Canadian basketball fans, the opportunity to check out NBA basketball is pretty rare. Just about every year, the Toronto Raptors hold a preseason game in a Canadian city to fill that void. For the first time in nine years, the Raptors came back to Edmonton, Alberta to play the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday. The following is a two-day log of my experience covering the game for the paper that I freelance for. I’ll warn you now, I ran long on this one. Skip through to the bolded sections if you want the compact version.

Oh, if you’re wondering where the sneaker info’s at, don’t worry. I’ve got you; it’s coming later.

Mon., Oct. 20

Dear Allen Iverson,

Your sore ankle has broken my heart.

Signed,
Chris O’Leary

I woke up early Monday morning with a bad feeling in my gut. I took care of that and then did a quick search for the latest on AI. From the day it was announced back in August that the Raptors would be coming to Edmonton to play the Nuggets, I feared the worst about Iverson.

I’ve never seen Allen Iverson play in person. And as hard as I tried, as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t picture AI in Edmonton. Even putting his name in the same sentence as my hometown makes me feel weird.

Sure enough, as the pre-season marched on, Iverson’s DNP’s stacked up like his free throw attempts do during the regular season. He played this past Friday against the Phoenix Suns, coming off of a sore knee. He missed Sunday’s game with a sore ankle.

That sore ankle (and I’m sure the birth of his daughter, Dream Alijha, last week) kept him in Denver Sunday night when his team flew into Edmonton. The news was disappointing but expected, at least on my part. Still, there was a lot to look forward to.

I got to the arena for the Nuggets’ practice Monday afternoon and walked into Rexall Place. I’ve spent my fair share of time at Rexall covering a number of different events in the past: hockey, lacrosse, cage fighting, hockey, bull riding (seriously), some more hockey. In November I’ll probably be back there for the rodeo. I’ve heard a lot of sounds in that building, but walking into it Monday and hearing the squeak of basketball shoes on hardwood was music to my ears.

I followed the sound to a large black curtain that extended around the openings of the bleachers. I poked my head through the curtain and saw Juwan Howard in a layup drill.

Then a security guard pulled the curtain closed, bringing my exclusive practice access to an abrupt end.

By the end of the Nuggets practice, the rest of the local media filed in. I thought about this moment the last few months and was eager to see how it would play out. Edmonton’s a big hockey town, one of the biggest there is. As a result, the local sports media is a hockey-centric group. So it was strange to see people out of their element, scanning over rosters they had printed off, asking each other who this guy was and who that guy was.

Of course, since they were in the Oilers’ house, a lot of questions were asked of the Nuggets on their knowledge of the Oilers’ winning history. Surprisingly there wasn’t a 1980’s Oilers trivia buff to be found. Carmelo Anthony basically owned up to using a cheat sheet on the question when he said he looked up to the rafters and saw the names of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier.

Andrea BargnaniPerhaps the most interesting quote that I heard on Day 1 was from George Karl, who revealed some surprisingly low expectations for his team, in light of a tough November and December schedule.

“I haven’t told anyone in America this, but I actually have it that if we’re at .500 by New Year’s Day we’re in a really good place,” he said.

“We could actually be a game or two under .500 and we could still be OK. That’s how brutal our schedule is.”

The Raptors didn’t get into the city until Monday afternoon. After back-to-back games on in LA, seven Raptors–Hassan Adams, Andrea Bargnani, Chris Bosh, Kris Humphries, Jermaine O’Neal, Anthony Parker and Roko Ukic–were bussed straight to a Boys and Girl’s Club in downtown Edmonton. The group spent an hour with a group of about 100 kids, answering their questions and then answering media questions in between games of table hockey and autograph signing.

The thing that I took away from the Boys and Girls Club was how media-friendly Jermaine O’Neal is. The guy stood and talked with a scrum of reporters for a solid 10 minutes, when he could have been in and out of there in three or four if he had wanted to. It got to the point where a Raptors media guy had to intervene and pull J.O. away to sign stuff and pose for pictures with the kids.

For any Edmonton readers—whatup, Subway!—a couple of other notable faces at the Boys and Girls club: Andrew Parker (check SLAM 101) and Edmonton Eskimos offensive lineman Patrick Kabongo.

Tues., Oct. 21

Tuesday morning’s media time went from an already early 11:30 a.m. to a near ungodly 10:30. The loss of an hour of sleep seemed to irk Raps coach Sam Mitchell, who was extra cranky after practice.

Mitchell’s crankiness culminated in a TV reporter trying to get the coach to talk salaries. Mitchell walked away saying he didn’t want to talk about how much money people made. The TV guy pressed him and Mitchell turned around, and said he’d talk salaries if the TV guy would turn the camera around and talk about how much he made.

The TV guy obliged, saying he makes $51,000 a year. Mitchell turned around again and said, “Well, a lot of people don’t make that.”

And with that, the Raptors were off the floor and the Nuggets were on. And the media was out for an hour.

We reconvened with the Nuggets and got to watch Melo and Juwan Howard trash talk each other as they went through shooting drills. Another TV guy had the afternoon’s best question, this time for George Karl. He told the coach that NHL players are known for being down to earth.

“Are you saying basketball players aren’t down to earth?” Karl asked back.

“I’m asking you as a coach how do you deal with the ego in basketball and what is it like?” the TV guy asked.

Karl paused for a second to think, then came back with this:

“I think there’s ego in anything. There’s ego in your business, there’s ego in…I worked for ESPN for two years. I wouldn’t want to go in that newsroom in a million years, there were so many egos in that room.

George Karl“I think there’s ego in any business that has millions of dollars floating around someone can earn by doing a job very well. Usually egos come with confidence and sometimes very confident people have a lot of ego.

“Basketball is an incredibly…there’s a lot of eccentric behavior. I think unfortunately, from a media standpoint, the dysfunctional, which is probably 10 or 15 percent gets more attention than the 85 percent which is real, real good. We have some class citizens, professionals. They just don’t get the spotlight.”

Pre-game

Back at Rexall 90 minutes before tip off, Sam Mitchell appeared to have let his guard down. Pouring what seemed like endless packets of sugar into his coffee, he stood at the podium that Oilers coach Craig MacTavish normally stands at and gave thoughtful answers to all the questions thrown his way.

The talk of the pre-game centered around Jamario Moon and his troubles through the pre-season. Moon has been in and out of the Raps’ starting lineup through the preseason. Mitchell said that it’s not so much about Moon, but finding the right combinations for next week when the games start counting.

The shock of the night: the Oilers actually gave up their locker room for the Raptors. Sure, the Oilers were on the road, but I was very surprised to see the Raptors’ white jerseys hanging in the locker room when I made my way in there for the pre-game press time.

“We put in the asked, and they said they were honored to let them use it,” Raptors PR guy Jim Labumbard said of getting the room.

“I think most teams are guarded about their locker rooms and I think that seems to be more true for hockey. There seems to be more superstition around locker rooms. We were very pleasantly surprised and we took it as a sign of respect and we were very flattered.”

On my way out of the locker room, I saw Bryan Colangelo standing in the concourse. He was taking pictures with fans and thanking them for coming out. I was kind of surprised when he said he’d talk with me, but…

Bryan Colangelo interview

SLAM: What are your impressions of the preseason?

Bryan Colangelo: Well, like any preseason, you’re trying to accomplish a few different things and what we set out to accomplish was integrating a new player, Jermaine, into the mix.

Early on, he was probably lacking some basketball conditioning and wasn’t able to play a whole lot of minutes. He had a great summer of conditioning and getting his knee in shape, but he shied away from a lot of basketball competition.

We spent a lot of that time and we’ve now got a player who’s progressed a long way. We saw against the Clippers on Saturday what we had anticipated in terms of the combination and Chris and Jermaine. We had 43 points, 19 or 20 rebounds, six or seven blocks. It was a textbook game, if you talk about what we planned on paper to what we hoped to see during the season.

SLAM: Was there a point last year where you knew something had to give with T.J. Ford and Jose Calderon?

BC: Of course. It became a factor where the chemistry of our team the previous year was our biggest strength and even though we felt we had a deeper team, we didn’t seem to have that same flow, that same chemistry.

When you get into that season, you know you have a situation like a point guard controversy, so to speak. Jose had played so well in T.J.’s absence and when he came back we just went downhill.

It wasn’t because T.J. doesn’t have the talent or wasn’t healthy; it was because something obviously had to give there.

We knew there was a decision to make. It was pretty obvious that Jose had done such a great job and the players had responded to him and we were playing such great basketball that we felt the better guy to go out to the market with was T.J.

The fact that we’ve got two legitimate 20 and 10 threats in the middle is certainly something to speak for. It’s also taken a little pressure off Andrea.

Gametime

The game was decided early on. Denver built up a 10-point lead in the second quarter and the closest Toronto got was five points at the start of the fourth. The win wasn’t really a priority for Sam Mitchell, though, as he played his second unit through the fourth quarter.

Here’s what stood out from the game:

You know it must be preseason when Smush Parker is taking it to a rookie and the opposing coach lets it all slide until the player figures it out or runs himself to the point of exhaustion. Parker handed it to Raps rookie guard Roko Ukic in the first quarter, getting free from his man and then dunking on Jason Kapono (not sure how he ended up under the basket).

Ukic did correct his mistakes in time to lead the Raptors’ fourth quarter comeback attempt. He only had nine points for Toronto, but I was impressed with him. He looks like a rookie at times, but he has a flow to his game and struck me as a smart player. Smush fouled out in the third quarter.

The 17,534 in attendance gave Melo a warm welcome during introductions. When he coasted and half-heartedly put a one-handed dunk down, the crowd turned on him. It totally made me think of Vince Carter opting to do a layup on the fast break in his last game at Vancouver.

The crowd got behind Andrea Bargnani early on, giving him one of the louder welcomes of the night when he checked in off the bench for Jermaine O’Neal with 4:40 left in the first. An airballed three-pointer late in the game brought the boo-birds out for the big Italian.

No question on the biggest play of the night. At the end of the first half, Nene took a pass while cutting baseline and stuck a nasty one-hander in Jamario Moon’s face. At halftime, they played Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. I can’t prove it, but I think it was a subtle tribute to Nene.

J.R. SmithRunner-up to Nene’s dunk was the putback jam that Joey Graham had for Toronto in the third quarter.

Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel sat courtside with Oilers alternate governor Cal Nichols, and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment chairman Larry Tannenbaum.

J.R. Smith was a killer for Denver, finishing with 22 points to lead the Nuggets. He scored 13 in the second quarter and added another big three in the fourth that kept that ten-point cushion between the two teams.

Jermaine O’Neal downplayed his early departure from the game, saying back pains extended down to his leg, so he decided to call it a night.

Post-game

The NBA locker room is the only one I’ve seen where the players get dressed with their backs to the media, then turn around when they’re ready to talk. I think it was something that a lot of people in Edmonton hadn’t seen before either. A big scrum built around J.O. after the game, and a few people got tired of waiting for the big man, who looked like he was definitely taking his time getting dressed. Probably because he knew he’d have to talk about injuries.

The Denver locker room emptied out quickly. George Karl sat outside the room on a folding chair, like an old man chilling on the stoop of his home, sipping on a Diet Coke. Karl said he had been worried about the game coming in and was happy with how everything went. He should be, after missing Iverson, Kenyon Martin and Anthony Carter in the game and still controlling it.

With the Denver room emptying out, I went back to the Raps locker room. Bosh, J.O. and Sam Mitchell were the only team members left, and were hanging out, talking with each other.

Mitchell showed his twin towers a two-third-length coat that he picked up in LA, explaining that it was cashmere and he got it 70 percent off. Bosh didn’t seem to be too interested in cashmere, or in bidding on the coat.

“I’ll give it to you for 400 bucks,” Mitchell said to Bosh. “Come on now.”

Bosh passed.

On my way out of the locker room, Raps assistant coach Alex English walked out with me and another guy and asked us if we were in Green Day. We looked at him strange, and he said we looked like musicians. The guy walking with me said he only played Rock Band. That led to the two of us explaining to English how the game works. He said it sounded fun, then boarded the team bus.

On my way out of the arena, I looked in at the court one last time, and saw that the nets were already taken down and that half of the court had already been dismembered. The arena crew was hard at work, getting ready for Wednesday night’s junior hockey game and Monday’s Oilers game. I look at the court and wonder when I’ll see it again. I won’t hold my breath. It might be better to just not think about it at all.