Sorry. It’s been a long few days. Delayed flights. A near-house fire. A run-in with this guy. All this is to excuse/explain why I attended an NBA game on Thursday night, and why you’re only reading about it 87 hours later. I hope you understand.
I was in Chicago last week for a conference for my new job, which wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it might be. I actually, like, learned stuff. Also, I found this spot called Burrito Beach, which did not have a beach but did have really good burritos. The highlight, though, was getting to an NBA game for the first time since December, when I left the SLAM Dome. Pistons at Bulls, a fairly heated regional and divisional rivalry with implications for playoff positioning. I wasn’t about to miss it. Here goes…
After a longer-than-it-should’ve-been cab ride from my downtown hotel to United Center — my man keeps asking me to repeat the destination, apparently because “United Center? The big arena? Where the Bulls play?” isn’t clear enough — I get to the gym just in time for pregame media availability.
And a funny word, that: “Availability.” As you may or may not know, when they’re on the road, NBA teams often take two buses from their hotel to the gym. Figure between players, coaches, trainers and PR guys, they’ve got something like two doezen in the traveling party; consider also that most of the guys in the party are tall and used to certain standards of travel, and you can see why they wouldn’t try to cram them all into one bus.
I bring this up because, when the lockerrooms open up pregame Thursday night, only the Pistons’ “first” bus has arrived. I put “first” in quotes because, in NBA speak, the “first” bus usually means “the one full of people no one cares about.” The good players are generally on the second bus. And the second bus is nowhere to be found. This is disappointing.
See, I have big plans to BS with Chauncey Billups for a while, both because Chauncey is cool, and because I have a groundbreaking theory I want to run by him: This year’s Pistons are just like the 2003-04 Pistons, a good team overshadowed by the flashy, dominant squads out West, but well built for the postseason. They’ve even got Chris Webber as the ’07 version of Rasheed Wallace, that midseason replacement who’s working out much better than anyone expected and could be the missing piece. Yes, this theory is flawed for many obvious reasons, but like most sportswriters and people in general, I like having points of comparison to lean on.
Only Chauncey’s not here, and by the time he gets here I’ll be in the press room getting fat. So, whatever he thinks about my genius theory, I’ll never know.
Ben Wallace is here, though, ambling down the hallway with his Starburys in hand. As you may have heard — and which the media in attendance is made aware of thanks to a handy press release — Ben is the first athlete other than Steph himself to endorse the “Starbury movement.” Yay.
I don’t talk to any of the Bulls because I can’t find them. Other than Ben Gordon, who’s the first of the regulars to take the court to get some shots in, the Bulls appear to be hiding. Speaking of Bulls, having a two-year-old has given me fresh insights into many things, and this is one of them: Isn’t it weird that the Bulls wear red? My son has a book about a spoiled squirrel named Earl who, among other things, almost gets mauled by a bull named Conrad because he wears a bright red scarf that some girl made him when he goes into Conrad’s field to steal acorns. As my son points out whenever we read this (which is often), “Conrad doesn’t like red.” Which leads me to two points: One, my kid’s a frickin’ genius. Two, does this mean the Chicago Bulls don’t like themselves? This team could use some therapy.
Obligatory press room food report: Veggie lasagna that is loaded with enough cheese to make the whole “veggie” concept seem laughable, but it’s not bad. Salad is decent, as it always seems to be here. Desserts: bangin’. Raspberry chocolate cake and something that I think is apple cobbler. It’s really messy and sugary and awesome. I eat about three pounds of it. Overall: B.
Red Kerr is sitting at the table next to mine. I don’t have a media guide handy to look it up, so I’ll guess at his age: 147. Later, after Red rolls out, Joe Dumars and some other guy who I assume is Pistons brass sit at the same table. At one point, Joe is coming back from getting utensils or an extra napkin or something and this woman, apparently noticing the Pistons emblem on his credential, stops him. Keep in mind, this is in the PRESS ROOM AT AN NBA ARENA. They have a conversation, she and Joe. It starts like this:
Woman: Oh, you’re with Detroit?
NBA Hall of Famer Joe Dumars: Yes.
Woman: What’s your name?
NBA Hall of Famer Joe Dumars. Joe.
I’ve seen this woman before; she’s here everytime I come to Chicago, and I’m pretty sure she goes to All-Star and the Finals and stuff. Point being, she’s around basketball a lot, and has been for a while, I think. And she pretty clearly has no idea who Joe Dumars is. Here, apparently, is her deal: She’s a “reporter” for a local hip-hop/R&B station, which I guessed by the fact that she often dresses how she thinks 19-year-old black guys dress. But, because she’s a short, fat and (I’m guessing) 40-something white woman, this isn’t really a great look for her.
I’m so glad she has a credential.
Anyway, her main reason for coming to games is apparently to bring all the hot new mix tapes to players she knows. So she’s got this plastic bag, and she asks NBA Hall of Famer Joe Dumars to deliver this bag of bootleg mixtapes to some Pistons player who is unfortunate enough to have gotten friendly with her, and she feels compelled to explain all this to Joe, who says, just politely enough, “I’ll make sure he gets it.” That’s Joe Dumars, dutiful errand boy.
Later, I hear her trading stories with some other guy who seems to be passing for working media, and she’s telling him how she “knows all the rappers by their government names. So, you know, if they’re acting big-time, I just bring them back to earth. Like, I’ll just go, ‘Hey, Sean.’ Or, ‘Hey, Cornell.'”
This is awesome.
In a little while, the game will start, and I think I’d like to watch it. I pull myself away from the cobblerific ecstasy on my plate and make my way toward my seats up in the pressbox, which, on a clear night, you can see just below Orion. Yeah, they’re up there. On the way, I pass the Pistons, who are bouncing around and clowning on each other and random passerby to kill the time before they take the court. These guys are relaxed. They may even define the concept.
Eventually, I get to the press box. It’s all you can eat popcorn up there. During the game, I will eat three pounds of it.
On the pressbox TVs, the pregame feed shows “highlights” of some of the nastier moments in the Pistons-Bulls rivalry, including an Isiah Thomas swinging elbow on Bill Cartwright that’s straight UFC, and which I’d somehow totally forgotten about. Simultaneously, there are current Bulls players being shown on the bigscreen trying to be funny as they remind (re: threaten) the fans about behaving during the game. This makes me sad.
Game time: No Rip and CWebb means Flip Murray and Jason Maxiell get the starts for Detroit. Meanwhile, Nocioni’s still out for Chicago, so Luol and PJ Brown start alongside Ben up front.
Ben Wallace takes the first shot of the game. This shot is emphatically blocked by Maxiell, who is essentially Ben’s replacement in Detroit. This would seem not to bode well for the home team. This also has me thinking that this game features some pretty cool matchups: Wallace v. Maxiell, the relatively undersized but burly centers; Tayshuan and Luol, versatile two-way players trying to negate each other’s impact; and Kirk Hinrich and Chauncey, two heady point guards who do their damage in different ways. This should be intriguing.
In the end, though, it’s only marginally so. This is an ugly game. There’s not a single player in double-figures at halftime, when the score is 41-38 Detroit. Sheed fresh off his suspension for technical foul accumulation, starts a new streak when he gets T’d early in the third quarter. Ben Wallace takes the single dumbest-looking shot in NBA history, which bounces off the top of the backboard, hits some kid in the nose up in section 319, and falls gently through the hoop. The Bulls build and then blow a 12-point, fourth-quarter lead, shoot 35.7 percent for the game and miss six straight free throws down the stretch, but still manage to beat the East’s best team, 83-81. Hinrich wins it by suckering Carlos Delfino into fouling him on a three-pointer, making two of three free throws and leaving Tayshaun Prince to brick an 18-footer at the buzzer.
As for all those intriguing matchups I was so intrigued by? Kirk and Chauncey shoot a combined 8 of 30. Maxiell and Wallace combine for 10 points, though Big Ben does pull down 19 boards. Tayshaun goes for 26, 6 and 5, which is good but not good enough to counter the combined efforts of Loul (16, 8 and 5) and BG (25), especially when Flip Murray makes up for Rip Hamilton’s absence by scoring… 1 point.
Also, Tyrus Thomas is entertaining. He seems likely to hurt himself soon.
Postgame, Scott Skiles opens his press conference with what has to be a Rasheed Wallace tribute. First thing out of his mouth, honest to god, is “Both teams played hard.” Standing at the podium, Scott looks like his dog just died. The Bulls players in their lockeroom are similarly solemn, a reflection of their coach. The Pistons, meanwhile, are a reflection of themselves — loose and relaxed, Sheed flinging his underwear at people, business as usual. If you hadn’t seen the game and had only the postgame lockerooms to judge the outcome by, you’d swear the Pistons won by 20.
The buzz on the way out is on the Cavs’ visit on Saturday; if the Bulls win, they’re in second place in the Central. They’re feeling themselves. In the second half of the TNT doubleheader, which I’ll catch part of when I get back to my hotel, the Suns and Warriors have scored 36 more points at the end of the three quarters than the Bulls and Pistons did in a whole game. It’s called a nutshell, and you can put the whole damn season in it.
Last thing, if you’re wondering. It takes a little less than an hour to walk from the United Center to the Marriott on Michigan Avenue. If the weather’s nice, I highly recommend it.