Like most people who spend a lot of time online, I’ve made a few “e-buddies” over the years. People I regularly interact with over the Internet, be it through emails, blogs, message board posting, etc. I’ve never felt the need, however, to meet any of these individuals in the “real world”.
That act has always felt a little too weird for my tastes; plus there’s that unshakable image of Chris Hansen and the crew of “To Catch a Predator” hiding in a bush somewhere ready to pounce.
This past Friday, I put my fears aside, and met SLAM Online’s very own Holly MacKenzie at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. Holly turned out to be just as pleasant, full of life, and knowledgeable in person as she appears on this website. It was a pleasure spending three hours with her. And perhaps best of all, Chris Hansen was nowhere to be seen.
-In the media room, just down the hallway from both locker rooms, Holly was too pumped up about the game to eat. I, however, dug right in to the catered food offered (for free!) to the knights of the keyboard: Oven-baked chicken, fried veggies, baked potatoes, and pizza. A solid B+.
-In the Laker locker room, everyone is in a good mood and very approachable. Can you blame them? A few hours earlier, it had been announced that the team had gotten rid of Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton and two future first-round picks. In return, they got Pau Gasol, a former Rookie of the Year and All-Star, and a guy who immediately makes them legitimate title contenders.
(While everyone – from Derek Fisher, Kobe, and Lamar Odom – stuck to the company line about it always being tough to lose longtime teammates, the renewed energy in the room was palpable.)
-Just before the press is kicked out of the locker room, Lamar breaks into an impromptu rendition of Canada’s National Anthem. When I ask him if he knows any other words to the song besides ‘O Canada’, Odom laughs and confesses that he doesn’t.
-As the Lakers get introduced to the crowd, Kobe’s name is surprisingly not called out last. Derek Fisher gets the honor. The Raptors faithful, it should be noted, are not in a booing mood. So far.
-The entire Laker bench, perhaps in a show of team solidarity, remains standing until the starters knock down their first shot. D-Fish hits a jumper, and the bench finally takes a seat.
(The cynics in the press box are making fun of them, calling them a bunch of college players. Whatever, you miserable haters.)
-Kobe comes out looking for his shot. A dunk inside (nothing special) and a pull up jumper from 17 feet out (after crossing up Anthony Parker) give him four quick points to start the game. 7-6 Rapts.
-The press box, where Holly and I are sitting tonight, is approximately 75, 000 feet above the court. This means we’re face to face with the tens of banners spread out across the ACC. Nothing but jerseys of Toronto Maple Leafs greats and past championships up here. I wish someone would “accidentally” put one up of Vince Carter.
-Chris Bosh’s girlfriend is sitting in her customary seat tonight, courtside facing the Raptors bench. She doesn’t seem too animated, which means the gag order is still in full effect. Probably a good idea with the League’s second-leading scorer in the building.
-Andrea Bargnani, who has struggled mightily this season, looks like he woke up on the right side of the bed this morning. The Italian forward catches the pill on the baseline, gets around a couple of Laker defenders, and throws down a nice dunk. Good to see that he’s still alive.
-Anthony Parker is receiving a free lesson in the art of ball handling tonight from Kobe. After making Anthony dance a few times, Bryant finds
Kwame (whoops!) a wide open Ronny Turiaf under the hoop. Easy dunk.
(The Raptors come right back with an oop to Bargnani. That one was of the one-handed variety. Very nice.)
-Kobe just dunked all over Rasho Nesterovic. Two things: 1) Perhaps thanks to the big Gasol trade, Kobe seems to have an extra hop in his step tonight, 2)Even before he got smashed on, Rasho looks completely depressed. I don’t think he’s managed a single smile since he’s been in the L.
-Jason Kapono is sporting a scraggly beard, and I can’t decide if he looks stylish or homeless. It could go either way, really.
26-23 Lakers after 1.
-I’ve said this before, but I think it’s worth repeating: The Raptors have very cute dancers. I don’t really have anything else to add, just thought I’d share that with you all.
-Violet Palmer is in the building!
(Gotta give her a lot of credit. Seems like an eternity since she was considered the worst ref in the League.)
-DJ Mbenga looks completely overmatched out there. On consecutive possessions, Rasho takes him to school. First with a facial dunk, and then with a curling layup. DJ also has enormously goofy ears. Just an unfortunate situation all around.
-A Bargnani dunk makes it 38-32 Lakers.
-Not to sound crass, but I’m at the point where I almost wish someone’s eye would get taken out by one of those Thunder Stix every gym seems to have nowadays. A lamer prop does not exist. I didn’t think it was a possible for an inanimate piece of plastic to enrage me, but here we are.
-This is obviously not news, but Kobe Bryant is absolutely ridiculous. He just dribbled the ball 85 feet, stutter-stepped at the free throw line to create a bit of room, and hammered home a one-hander with Anthony Parker riding him the whole way.
(And of course, as soon as I typed the last paragraph, Bryant does something even more disgusting on the very next possession: Splits the double team at the top of the circle, sizes up a frozen and absolutely terrified Carlos Delfino under the hoop, and proceeds to defecate all over him with another one-handed dunk. I’m not entirely sure, but Holly and I may have bear-hugged after that one.)
-This is actually turning into a great, high scoring game. Lakers up two with under a minute to go in the first half.
-As I made my way back to my seat following the halftime break, security had the hallway blocked, and I was forced to stand with a gaggle (a very lovely gaggle, I should add) of Raptors Girls for a few minutes. I was just about to strike up a conversation with one of the dancers (hey, you only live once!), but a kernel of the popcorn I was munching on got lodged in my throat. Not exactly the suavest moment of my life.
-The Lakers have increased their lead to 10 to start the second half.
-While Kobe is having a predictably big night, Andrea Bargnani is single-handedly keeping his squad in the game by knocking down silky jumpers all over the floor and strongly finishing dribble drives by the guards. The Italian has 21 midway through the third.
-Ronny Turiaf should have a camera trained on him at all times. From the second he wakes up to the time he hits the sack at night. Always animated, constantly gesticulating, and urging teammates on, he could very well be the most genuinely happy and excited person in professional basketball.
-Sitting with Holly and I are two young guys – one from Hoopsworld and the other repping for Raptors TV – and they’re both huge Raptors fans. After every Toronto bucket, they pump their fists and talk all kinds of smack to us. We, of course, shove it right back in their faces when our guys score.
(With the game tightening up and the play getting chippier and chippier going into the fourth, there’s a very good chance that we’ll come to blows with the Raptors lovers. And if that happens, I’m counting on Holly to protect me. She’s wearing long red heels; those suckers could probably do some damage.)
-Kobe just hit an absolutely INSANE fadeaway three on the baseline with a defender hanging all over him and the clock running out. 83-77 Lakers. The Raptors fans won’t even make eye contact with us after that one. Should be a great finish
-The in-house DJ and the Jumbotron (featuring a disturbingly effete Anthony Paker) are urging the crowd to make more noise. I’m shocked, bemused, and horrified all at once.
-Bryant must’ve been offended by what he just saw, too, because he swung the ball under Parker’s arms and hit an impossible jumper in his eye. Add the free throw. He’s got 37.
(Before the final stanza, some of us in the press box were playfully betting on how many points #24 would end up with. I said he’d get 40, which now looks to be an embarrassingly conservative number.)
-Jason Kapono and his beard are starting to heat up. Two straight buckets cut the lead to six.
-Jamario Moon, who’s just layed one in, eerily looks like a young Scottie Pippen. Right down to the short cropped hair, freakish athleticism, innate defensive ability, and occasional awkwardness on the offensive end. It’s an uncanny resemblance.
-Greg Dole, who wrote a compelling series about his travels alongside Leandro Barbosa for True Hoop, is sitting next to me in the press box. Greg is here to work on a piece for an upcoming issue for SLAM. The guy has a ton of basketball knowledge and regaled Holly and I with many entertaining stories about international players.
(According to Greg, a relatively famous player (who’s been in the news of late) on a pretty good Western Conference team has joined a cult and is an out-and-out weirdo.)
-The Raptors are now doubling Kobe hard (not exactly sure what took them so long to adopt this strategy), and after he hits a three from about 35 feet out, that tough defense has now limited him to a pedestrian 42 points (on 13/16 shooting). Hey, better than 81, right?
-With just over 6 minutes to go, the Lakers are up by 15 and the game looks to be in the bag. Is it time to obnoxiously taunt Raptors fans? Yeah, I think so.
-Despite Kobe’s high-flying theatrics and 46 points, it was Lamar who had the play of the night: With about a minute to go, Odom picks off a crosscourt pass, throws the ball around a dazed and confused Jose Calderon (reminiscent of this), and finds a trailing Kobe for a reverse layup with a no-look behind the back pass. That’ll be all, folks.
Final Score: Lakers (121) – Raptors (101)
-Much like during the pre-game pow wow with reporters, Phil Jackson spends most of his time in front of the cameras talking about Pau Gasol. Jackson talks about the team had been discussing the possibility of adding Pau for about a year now, but that talks really only heated up over the past ten days.
-Jackson adds that Gasol fitting in with the Lakers will depend a lot on the forward’s level of interest, ability to learn and willingness to be malleable. I’m pretty sure that’s the first time the word “malleable” has been used anywhere near an NBA locker room.
(It’s quite something to see Phil Jackson in the flesh. As you might expect, Jackson has the airy confidence (bordering on cockiness) of not only a man holding almost two handfuls of NBA championship rings, but also gives the impression of being someone who knows a lot about life and basketball than you could ever hope to. Multiple health problems have also left him with a gimpy gait: coat-hangers for shoulders, butt permanently stuck out, and wobbling along like an over-sized penguin. Quite a sight.)
-I spent a few seconds chatting up Luke Walton, who’s still out with a hip pointer. Walton, like the rest of his teammates, says he’s excited to play with Gasol but that he’s sad to lose Kwame and Javaris.
(Here’s the thing: I’m sure Kwame Brown was a tremendous teammate, and a blast in the locker room and on the team plane, but can anyone wearing the Purple & Gold honestly say they’ll miss Kwame the ballplayer? Methinks not.)
-While we wait for Kobe to come out of the showers, I spot longtime assistant coach Jim Cleamons wordlessly slide one of the locker room attendants a nice tip as he makes his way out of the room. Not sure why, but I thought that was a really cool, old-school move.
-Perhaps not surprisingly, Kobe is the only one who comes out of the showers completely dressed and ready to go. Image is everything, I suppose.
-Sasha Vujacic, meanwhile, doesn’t care about image. He’s put a ton of gel in his slicked-back hair, and is wearing a beat up jacket that he either picked up at the Army Surplus Store or stole off of a homeless man on his way in.
-It doesn’t get reported a lot, but the Laker locker room is full of interesting, eminently weird characters. Here’s a snipet of the conversation between Kurt Rambis and Vladimir Radmanovic:
Vlad Rad: “Are we catching the bus or just going out?”
Kurt: “Going where?”
Vlad Rad: “To the restaurant”
Kurt: “What restaurant?”
Vlad Rad: (Smiling now) “Don’t know. I’m just a guest. I’m not from around here.”
Kurt: (Stares at Radmonovich blankly, and then walks away shaking his head.)
Vlad Rad: (Cackles maniacally.)
And with that, Holly and I make our way out of the ACC and into the cool Toronto night.
For two big Lakers fans, this day could not have turned out any better.