Links: Of Finals Past…

by Lang Whitaker

I stated doing the math yesterday, and I figured out that I’ve been to at least one game of the NBA Finals every year since 2001. Went to Philly on ’01, Jersey in ’02 and ’03, Detroit in ’04 and ’05, Miami and Dallas in ’06, San Antonio and Cleveland in ’07, Boston and L.A. in ’08, and then L.A. in ’09. And later this week, I’m back on the grind for the 2010 Finals.

I’m pretty sure one of the reasons I’m allowed to travel to the Finals every year is as much for my coverage of the misadventures surrounding the Finals as it is any coverage of the actual Finals. You spend weeks at a time away from home, weird stuff is bound to happen.

Luckily, for the last decade, I’ve been writing most of it down…

Best food in the history of the media hospitality suite was in the 2008 Finals in L.A….
The media hospitality suite that the NBA hosts is one of the greatest things about the Finals. Open bar and open buffet at the media hotel every night until 2 a.m., even non-game nights. Which makes it a great place to end the night, every night. And besides the bar, they always have some food out. On game nights they go all out (shrimp, potstickers, etc.), and on non-game nights they keep it simple (vegetables and dip, etc.). So one night we rolled in, late, stopped by the room, and the buffet appeared to have a large bowl of hummus. But instead of a little card with “HUMMUS” printed on it, there was a little card with “MIDDLE EASTERN SNACK” hand-written on it. A taste-test confirmed it was indeed hummus. But to me, from now on it’ll always be Middle Eastern Snack.

On an off night during the 2003 Finals, when the Spurs were staying in NYC to play against the Nets, Russ and I went out to dinner with my main man Kevin Willis, who was playing for the Spurs…
I’m not sure how we got to be friends with Kevin. He started playing for the Atlanta Hawks in 1984, when I was just a kid getting into the game. He was never my favorite player, but he was the urban McHale to Dominique’s high-flying Bird. He turned in some amazing years, like in ’91-92, when Dominique triched his Achilles tendon, and Kevin somehow averaged 18.3 points per game to go with 15.5 rebounds a game (including 33 boards in one game), making the All-Star team.

In the late ’80s, a few of my friends and I used to go to nearly every Hawks game to try and get autographs. The nicest player, by far, was Kevin Willis. He’d always stop and sign, even after a tough loss. And when any kid asked him a question that should have required a simple “No” response — “Can I have your shoes, Mr. Willis?” — Kevin would always answer, “Not tonight, big guy.”

A few years alter, Kevin was traded to Miami, then Golden State. From there he went to Houston, and from there to Toronto. Toronto moved him to Denver, and then he went back to Houston for another season before ending up in San Antonio this year. He’s a journeyman’s journeyman, a consummate professional who has made a living the last few seasons by always being in shape and being prepared. In Houston he was asked to tutor a younger player, which he later told me was like “trying to light a wet match.” With his ever-present scowl and Mr. Universe physique, he’s found work through this season, even though he’ll be 41 years old in September.

I had met him back in the day but he had no idea who I was, so a few years ago I approached him in a locker room and introduced myself, breaking his scowl when I mentioned his “not tonight, big guy” line. He was also friendly with Russ, and we started trying to grab a meal whenever we were in the same town as Kevin. I love it, because I can sit there and pick his brain about everything Hawks-related, as well as other NBA stuff that most players won’t talk about in the locker rooms.

I figured, being the Finals and all, that Kevin would have other things to do. But he wanted to hang out. So yesterday, on incredibly short notice, I called the best young chef in America, my main man Marcus Samuelsson, whose midtown Manhattan restaurant Aquavit has received an unprecedented two three-star ratings from the New York Times. Marcus is a soccer and an NBA fan (and SLAM reader), and his food is ridiculous; it’s the best restaurant I’ve ever been to.

Marcus squeezed us in at 8:00, prime dining time, in the best table in the house. Thanks, Marcus. We met Kevin a few minutes before 8:00 PM in the lobby of the Four Seasons, where the Spurs are staying. While waiting for Kevin, I saw Manu Ginobili (head to toe in Jordan), Danny Ferry (carrying a sack from Rochester’s Big and Tall) and Mengke Bateer all come through the lobby alone.

Once we all settled in at Aquavit, we looked over the menu and tried to figure out what we wanted. Marcus then came out to the table and suggested he just hook some special stuff up for us. So we put the menus away and plate after plate of food came out: smoked salmon, kobe beef ravioli, tuna steaks, salads, braised pork sandwiches, seabass…some of it cooked, some of it raw, sushi-style. I wasn’t sure if Kevin would like it or not, since it’s a little more European than he’s used to eating, but he threw down on everything. and then came the entrees. Since Kevin had mentioned he enjoyed steak, Marcus sent out an enormous plate of steak and vegetables. Kevin, incredibly, ate the entire thing. Marcus sent Russ and I arctic char poached in a truffle sauce that was out of this world. Here are a couple of interesting things Kevin said…

Kevin on the scariest guy in the League to have to guard:

“Shaq, man, you just don’t want him to get upset. Because when he gets angry, he’s liable to knock you into next week. So I’m always telling him, ‘OK, big guy, calm down big guy.'”

On weightlifting:
RUSS: Is there anyone on the Spurs that can outlift you?
KEVIN: Hell, no.

On Gregg Popovich:
“Pop’s a great guy. You know, when I came to San Antonio, I had never met Pop. Before I signed, he called me and we were talking, trying to get to know each other. And he was straight-up with me. He said, ‘Kevin, I can’t promise you lots of playing time. There will be nights when you might not get in at all, and there might be nights when I need you for 25 minutes.’ And I appreciated that, him being upfront with me and letting me know from the start how it was going to work, so I went ahead and signed on here. Even though I haven’t played a lot, I can’t complain because I knew what I was getting into.”

On the Spurs practices:
“Even though we’re in the Finals and everything, we only practiced for about 30 minutes today, and that was just some shooting drills and light walkthroughs. And we probably won’t do much more than that tomorrow. Then Game Four will be on Wednesday. The hardest working guy in practice? Steve Kerr.”

On staying in shape:
“To start with, I don’t drink at all. And I also watch everything that I eat. I generally only eat beef once a month. This is the third steak I’ve had this month, because the season’s almost over and I can relax on my diet a little bit.”

On The Osbournes:
“What’s wrong with that guy [Ozzy]? Does he have some problems? I don’t need to watch that show.”

In Detroit for the 2004 Finals, after LA had lost to go down 2-1 in the series…
Ten minutes after the Pistons locker room opened, the Lakers are still closed. Finally, Phil emerges and heads to the interview room. He’s followed by Kobe. As Kobe leaves the room, he and Shaq cross paths in the hallway and exchange an Oakland A’s-style Forearm Bash.

Someone points out that Shaq was going well in the first half until the Lakers went away from that tact. Shaq says, “Yep…That’s the story of my life, buddy.”

A few moments later I go back into a side hallway to write that down and I hear someone say, “Long time, no see.” I turn around to see Shaq standing there alone, apparently waiting to meet someone. We exchange pounds. Then…

ME: So, how do you fix it?

SHAQ: Fix what?

ME: This series? You’re down two-to-one, man.

SHAQ: We gotta play smart. People are trying to do sh*t they can’t do. We gotta throw me the f*cking ball.”

The worst rental car specific experience came during the 2008 Finals when Ben and I rented a car to drive from NYC up to Boston for Game 2…
We left late Sunday afternoon and were making great time, with plans of arriving in Boston around 7:00 p.m. By the time we got to Hartford, CT, we were running perilously low on gas, so we got off the Interstate in downtown Hartford and spent about 10 minutes vainly looking for a gas station. Finally we got to the outskirts of downtown and found a gas station. Ben went to fill up the car and I went inside to de-fill. A few minutes later I was wandering around in the convenience store looking for some coffee when Ben called my cell phone and asked me to come outside to the car. Was he being kidnapped or something? I went outside and found the gas cap unable to be removed. Ben and I each tugged on it with all our might, but the thing wouldn’t budge. I suggested maybe we could just break it off and buy a new gas cap, but there was no way the gas station we were at sold gas caps — they weren’t even selling coffee.

(Also, we were sure what would happen if we drove without a gas cap. Would the car explode or something? I was pretty sure it was OK to do it, at least to just get us to Boston.)

I wondered if it would help if I squeezed the cap while I turned it, so I tried, but the gas cap broke off in my hand. Worse, the hole where the gas goes was still covered by some kind of plastic sheet the cap had left behind. So now we were not only out of gas but we couldn’t put gas in the car and there was no way to remedy this. I pointed out that the Hartford airport had to be nearby, and surely the rental car company would have a big facility there. So we turned off the A/C and rolled down the windows and drove the 20 miles to the airport, holding our breath the entire time that we wouldn’t run out of gas. And we didn’t. Got there and explained the problem and they traded us a different car. But it was about an hour delay that we hadn’t planned for. Fun.

When the Spurs were up 3-0 in the 2007 Finals and I was reading the paper on an off day in Cleveland…
We’ve reached the point where it’s all downhill from here. And I just want it to end. I was reading the game story in USA Today this morning and I read this quote from Duncan…

“It doesn’t change at all,” Tim Duncan said of the Spurs’ approach. “We need to get one more. That’s it…we’ll come out and try to finish it then. If it takes one or two more, we’re willing to do that.”

I read that and actually yelled, No! Not one or two more! One more, Spurs! Win this thing and let us all be free of these Finals. Would it be amazing if the Cavs came back and won four in a row? Yes it would, but I just don’t think it’s happening. These are San Antonio’s Finals.

When I lost my mind during the 2006 Finals after spending most of a week alone in a Miami hotel room…
I’ve now been on the road for so long that things are starting to seem unnatural. Over the last 22 days, I’ve spent a total of three nights in my own apartment, in my own bed. I’m like an NBA player when the circus is in town at my home arena, and it feels as though I’m not able to return home even if I wished I could. My apartment in NYC isn’t exactly plush or luxurious, but I miss my couch, my TV, my PlayStation, my shower, my toilet, my closet full of clothes (as opposed to the bag full of the same dozen items I’ve been mixing and matching for three weeks; luckily, had my laundry delivered by the hotel a few hours ago). At least I switched out all my shoes this week when I stopped through New York, because having different shoes to choose from make me feel really pretty inside, like I’m Imelda Marcos.

Nothing against hotels, where they seem at least happy to pretend to be happy to see me, but I like walking into my apartment and smelling the way it always smells. For some reason, these big hotels always smell like liquid soap to me. You walk in the lobby and it overwhelms you. I’ve stayed in a few top-end hotels in my day, and they never smell like soap. They generally have candles burning or incense smoldering, and it imparts an exotic and warm scent, like being in an Abercrombie and Fitch. I like hotels, because you can stick the do not disturb sign on your door and live freely inside your room. Dirty clothes end up in a pile. I didn’t brush my hair all day today. And it doesn’t bother anyone. The best part about this hotel is that I have a balcony and, even just sitting here at the desk, I have a perfect view of Biscayne Bay and, way over across the water, South Beach. I don’t know what it is but the water is just so calming, so serene.

Sanity, it turns out, is playing with me. Yesterday I started wondering if people can read my mind. I went down to the lobby to get a cup of coffee. I boarded a down elevator and after about twenty floors, the car stopped on the fourth floor. A man got on board and hit the button for the third floor. Just one level down. I studiously avoided making eye contact with the man and thought to myself, Couldn’t he take the stairs? Unprompted, the man spoke up, “Believe me, if I knew where the stairs were, I would have taken them.” How did this man know what I was thinking? Was I sharing an elevator with The Amazing Kreskin?

Last week in Dallas, I went over to hang out with my friend Matt at his apartment. Ryan decided to stay behind and chill at the hotel. A few hours later I called to see if he wanted to go grab dinner with us, and he declined, saying he was enjoying his “alone time.” Ryan is married, he has a young kid, and this requires constant attention. So I understand him embracing the chance to sit in his room, read his book, watch a movie, order some room service and basically put himself first for a few hours.

At this point, though, I’ve had enough of me. I’ve been sitting around writing the last two days, with World Cup soccer and HBO on in the background. Right now I’m watching Ocean’s 12 for about the fifteenth time in the last three years. There’s a volume issue with the TV — it’s always either a bit too loud or it’s not quite loud enough. I’ve been shifting the volume back and forth and back and forth and I can’t find the happy medium. Also of note is that there’s a mini-refrigerator in my room that doesn’t work. I’d guess that perhaps there’s a mechanical problem or something, but what’s particularly strange is that this is the second consecutive hotel room I’ve had where the refrigerator doesn’t work. Coincidence? Or is this just some new way to store beverages: room temperature, but inside a non-working refrigerator so that you just think you’ve got a cold beverage?

(And I didn’t write about it at the time, but after about a week of just sitting on the tiny deck of my hotel room overlooking Biscayne Bay, bored, I started getting obsessed with wondering if it would be possible to jump off that balcony and land in the pool below, about 25 stories down, without injury. I thought about it so much that I finally figured maybe I shouldn’t go out on that balcony anymore.)

When Sam, Pascal and I decided to drive from NYC to Boston for Game 6 of the 2008 Finals, funny things happened. This is why we call Sam “GPS.” From Sam Rubenstein’s notes…
When I was booking the rental car, the economy option meant no radio. Eff that, we would have been punching each other in the face two hours into the ride. Instead, we had XM Radio and some really surprisingly great stations. Many genres, from classic early 90’s rap to music from the 1940’s. Yes the 1940s! We needed that radio badly because…

The Highway commission posted an outright lie of a road sign, claiming a McDonald’s existed somewhere in Nowheresville, Connecticut. We ended up taking a tour of the countryside. We saw cows, we saw trees, we saw tractors, we saw a roadside “restaurant” called STEAK. The delirium set in.

Instead of having lots of time to kill, we got to the arena right before the locker rooms opened up, and the media ratio:player availability was infinity. It was dinner time, nothing to “write home about.” Then came the basketball game, the presser, the celebrations, we got out of there by I believe 2 AM. Lang drove us home and kept yelling at me that I wasn’t allowed to go to sleep. The message did not sink in, and I spent much of the trip real groggy. I take back everything I said. It was sleep talk. By 4 AM, I just wanted to sleep so badly, more than anything in the universe. I wanted to go to sleep like KG wanted to win a championship. But I guess that’s not allowed when the driver has to be wide awake and needs people to make sure he doesn’t drive off the road or something. I’m not one of these insomniac stay up all night people. I needs my rest.

Pascal stunned us when some random pop song from the early ‘90s was on the radio, and I was desperately trying to figure out what movie it was from, and he called “She’s All That.” Wow! A miracle that makes the Game 4 comeback irrelevant by comparison.

We got home safely, I returned the rental car, napped until 2 PM, the NBA season is over, and they all lived happily ever after.

(Sam didn’t mention it in his notes, but when we finally found that elusive McDonald’s we were looking for, I went in and made a beeline for the bathroom, where an employee was shaving in the sink.)

Best interchange at 2004 Finals in Detroit…
I found my seat about six rows up behind the basket and sat at the table to write some notes. An NBA employee came by and asked me if the phone in front of my seat worked. I told her I wasn’t going to use it.

She said, “But does it work?”

I asked, “Does it work?”

And she said, “You tell me, it’s your seat.”

From my initial post on the 2009 Finals…
I was packing last night and noticed it was about 3:00 AM. Since I had a flight leaving at 7:00 AM this morning, I just stayed awake all night and broke off an epic nap on the flight. I missed breakfast, but I’m in First Class (got a free upgrade!), and being in First Class, it’s almost comical how great everything is, particularly when you’ve spent the bulk of your life flying in economy. When I boarded the plane this morning, I took my seat in economy (had the window seat on the exit row) and planned on falling asleep and being ignored by the stewardesses, except for the one time they come through and hand out drinks.

Then a guy came up to me and said, “Are you in 17A?”

I told him I was. I mean, I was sitting in the seat. Obviously I was in 17A.

He said, “I’m supposed to be in 17A.” He held out a ticket that had “17A” printed on it.

“Great,” I told him. “I have one of those, too.” What was I supposed to tell him?

I rang the stewardess call button, and the woman came back, made a call, seemed to be sorting things out. I felt pretty confident that I would win this battle because I have lots and lots of frequent flyer miles. I have exponentially more frequent flyer miles than I have dollars. And so it was: I won one of life’s little lotteries and was selected to move on up to First Class.

In First Class, as soon as I woke up, the stewardess trotted over and offered me breakfast. I considered this but passed because, ultimately, I wanted her to think I didn’t need her. Then I was forced to call her back over and I asked her for a napkin, because I fell asleep with a piece of gum in my mouth and that sucker turned into a rock while I was out. And while she was there, I ordered some coffee, too. It’s always nice to get coffee in a real mug.

My video of media day at the 2008 Finals…

After a Lakers practice at the 2009 NBA Finals, I attended Blake Griffin’s pre-Draft workout for the Clippers…
As practice wound down, one of the NBA officials announced that a bus would be leaving for Blake Griffin’s workout with the Clippers. This was the first I had heard about this. I happened to be standing next to blogging machine Michael Lee from the Washington Post. Mike and I glanced at each other and decided to go for it.

We went out to Mike’s rental car, spent about 10 minutes figuring out how to find the Clippers’ new practice facility, then set out. It wasn’t far away, and when we rounded the corner and saw the facility, Mike nearly swerved off the road. For years the Clips scrimmaged at a small local college, but this place, which opened a few months back, was huge and gorgeous, with a big LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS on the side of the building and a blinking LED readout on the front that read “The Clippers Welcome Blake Griffin.”

Mike and I beat the media shuttle to the facility, so the Clippers’ PR staff gave us an impromptu tour, from the huge video/tech center to a pool with an underwater treadmill that guys can rehab injuries on. The weight room was cavernous, and we even caught the coaches locker room, with a towel embroidered with each coach’s initials hanging in their lockers.

Before long the media started rolling in, and I grabbed a seat along the side of the court with a bunch of other writers, including Mike Lee, Howard Beck, Ken Berger and David Aldridge to watch Professor Griff workout. But first, a bunch of people who Mike Dunleavy later referred to as “season ticket holders and sponsors” showed up and took seats on the floor all around the court. And I mean a lot of people, like 150 or so.

A few minutes later, Griffin showed up and went through a series of stretches, then did some drills where he practiced catching in the post and dunking. He displayed a nice array of lefty and righty dunks, stopping a few times as Clips assistant coach Kim Hughes talked to him about extending himself around the rim to make his dunks quicker and harder to block. At one point they put a few cones down on the floor and had Griffin zig-zag between them on his way to the rim and then dunk. (We wondered if they told Griffin to pretend the cones represented Chris Kaman and Zach Randolph.)

Then came the shooting drills, and to be honest, it wasn’t pretty. At all. Griffin shot a lot of midrange jumpers, and he didn’t make very many of them. His release point was all over the place, he seemed to fade on most of his shots. At one point he missed 6 of 8 shots from the wings. The only place he really looked comfortable was on the baseline, where he swished a lot of jumpers. But from everywhere else, he was all over the place.

Griffin capped off the workout by doing a drill where he dribbled three basketballs at once, which was impressive and all, but I’d rather have seen him make a few more of his jump shots. And then all the Clipper fans (a group that, oddly, included actor Matthew Lillard from Scream and Summer Catch), cheered loudly. The Clippers had cut together a highlight reel of Griffin from college that they had playing on a loop, and the more I watched it, I realized it was all dunks. If he was playing on a fastbreaking NBA team, I’d say he was a great fit. But in Mike Dunleavy’s downtempo offense, I’m not sure how well he’s going to fit in.

When the workout finished, Mike Dunleavy came over to talk to the media. in talking to Clippers officials earlier, it was pretty apparent that barring a trade, Griffin is their guy, and Dunleavy did nothing to dissuade this. Dunleavy said, “Blake is a tremendous talent but an even better kid. There’s nothing more to be desired.” He compared Griffin’s body to Adonis and noted that he has “major hops.” And while he said that Griffin could “clearly” improve his range — presumably he meant getting better on anything from outside of two feet — he also stressed that Griffin was a great competitor who had the work ethic to continue improving.

From 2006 in Detroit…
Khalid and Lang’s Excellent Adventure in Detroit turned out to be about what I thought: not really excellent or adventurous. Khalid got there on Tuesday, I got there on Thursday morning, and for four days we shared a hotel room. As I mentioned to Khalid, I felt like I was in college again. Two people in a tiny room, and we spent most of our time just sitting around the room working on our laptops, because we both had a lot of work to do. On Friday, for instance, I woke up early and finished typing up my Game Four notes for The Links. Then we went out to the Palace for the team’s practices, which ended around 2:00 p.m. We left there and hit a local Burger King for lunch, then drove back to our hotel, which was in Troy, about twenty minutes away from the Palace. We sat in the room and worked until about 6:00. By then we were both stir crazy so we made a Starbucks run, as much to get out of the room as to get something to drink. Went back the room and worked until 9:00 p.m., when we went out to dinner with an NBA exec and a writer. We hung there and talked until about midnight, then went back to the hotel. The NBA had a suite set up each night for the media that was called the “hospitality room,” where they had food and an open bar, so I stopped in there for a while and caught up on NBA and Draft gossip and then went back to the room by 1:00 a.m.

That’s what the off days were like. The only time I switched it up was on Saturday night, when I couldn’t take it any more so I drove to a movie theater about 30 minutes away and saw Batman Begins, which I thought was incredibly good. (I tried to get Khalid to come along but he was hooked on “Into The West” on TNT.)

During the 2009 Finals, in the midst of Orlando benching Anthony Johnson so Jameer Nelson could return to action, I caught up with AJ, who is one of my favorite dudes in the L, at media day…
The Magic then replaced the Lakers at the hastily assembled podiums surrounding the court. Jameer Nelson and Rafer Alston were nearly side by side, though Rafer had a microphone and Jameer didn’t, so Skip was basically talking over Jameer. Meanwhile, supplanted back-up point guard Anthony Johnson was sitting alone on the scorer’s table at halfcourt, methodically working his way through a bag of sunflower seeds, a habit he said was a remnant of his baseball career in high school.

When talk turned to the point guard situation, AJ summed up the situation thusly: “I’m the third horse in a two horse race.”

He didn’t seem upset about getting benched, even though he had a great series against Cleveland. I sat with AJ for the entire Magic media availability and watched him patiently explain over and over again to a rotating crop of reporters that yes, he’d like to be playing right now, but it was Stan Van Gundy’s decision and AJ was not going to “cause a ruckus” at this point in the season. He did a nice job deflecting pretty much every question, though it was kind of amusing to see AJ fish for an inoffensive answer when Marc Berman asked him, “Do you believe in the saying, If it ain’t broke don’t fix it?”

AJ also talked about Kobe destroying the Magic in Game 1, saying that he believes Kobe is the best player in the world because he has more of a midrange game than LeBron. With Bron, he said, you try to force him into taking midrange shots, but with Kobe there’s “not as many options because he can shoot the three, he can drive or make the midrange shots.”

So what do you try to make Kobe do, I asked.

“Pass the ball,” AJ chuckled.

Some of my Travel Laws, from the 2008 NBA Finals…
A few years ago, I figured out the secret to this travel business. I spend a lot of time, probably too much time, in airports and on airplanes. It’s not really tiring, because usually all you’re doing is just sitting around, but it is boring, and the boredom can wear on you. So what I finally divined was that whenever possible, travel when the sun isn’t up. Meaning if I have to fly from, say, L.A. to New York, or Atlanta to New York, or Paris to New York, or Hawaii to New York, or wherever, the worst thing to do is to do it during the middle of the day. Because when you’re flying you’re effectively cut off from the rest of the world. In the air, you can’t email, call, read the internet. The world is going on all around you, but you’re not allowed to participate. And when you finally re-enter civilization, you’ve got to play catch-up.

So what I always try to do is fly early, the first flight of the day (or even the red-eye overnight). There are usually no delays that early because the airports haven’t had time to get backed up, and then, when I land, I’m ready to hit the ground running. Maybe I’m a few hours behind on my sleep, but I can get those later. More importantly, I didn’t lose any real working time.

(ASIDE: Having the ability to sleep on planes is a key component of this strategy. This is almost certainly an acquired skill, and it’s one I am proud to say I have mastered. For me, the key is reserving a window seat, being tired when I get to the airport (which means either staying up all night before the flight or sleeping a few hours), peeing just before I board the plane, settling in, cranking up the iPod and then letting the world fly past. More than once I’ve fallen asleep on the ground before taking off and then woken up as the plane lands. My goal remains falling asleep before take-off and then waking up at the gate.)

I put my strategy to use this morning on my way out of LA. I tried to get a red-eye out of LA after Game Five but couldn’t book anything, so instead I got a seat on a 7:15 direct flight from LA to NYC. After last night’s game I hit the hospitality suite, then got to my room and did some work. Went to bed around 2 a.m., woke up at 5 a.m., got over to LAX (where I went through security with my main men Marc Spears and Mark Jackson), got on my flight, fell asleep before takeoff, woke up somewhere over Illinois, and landed at JFK around 3:30. By 5:00 I was at home returning emails and managed to not lose an entire day.

(ASIDE II: I planned to do some work on the plane, but the person in front of me reclined their seat as far back as it would go and left it in that position the entire flight. I could barely read the new Esquire, much less open up my iBook. What really pissed me off was that the person in front of me was about 5-2. I’m about a foot taller. I never put my seat all the way back because I feel there should be some sort of implied code of courtesy between air travelers. At the very least there should be a scale dictating the angle of recline related to the passenger’s height. This is something I will work on if elected president.)

Upon arriving in San Antonio in 2007…
We found our hotel downtown and settled in. Here is a list of everything I know about the city of San Antonio:

1) The name of the city is Spanish for Saint Anthony. Or maybe it’s Saint Antonio. Not really sure.

2) The only other time I visited San Antonio, our SLAM travel agent got me a discounted rate at a resort called La Cantera, which is actually about 20 minutes outside downtown San Antonio. It must be a really nice place because the first afternoon I was there, I was walking down a hallway and I bumped into Nazr Mohammed, who San Antonio had just traded for a week earlier. As nice as La Cantera was, I ended up holed up there and never even made it to the downtown area, so I missed The Riverwalk and The Alamo and all that stuff.

3) The first time I ever went to a Chipotle restaurant was in San Antonio. Changed my life.

4) The Alamo is where a really large battle was fought a long time ago. I’m not exactly sure how it all worked out, but I do know that we’re supposed to remember The Alamo. Not sure why.

5) The Alamo does not have a basement.

And that’s about it. Even though San Antonio has a long, rich history and played a key role in the founding of the U.S., I know precious little. But then, I stopped taking U.S. history classes in college after History 202, which took me through 1865 and Lincoln, so I missed all The Alamo stuff. I think. It must have been after 1865. Or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.

(ASIDE: That History 202 class I took at UGA was one of those huge classes they had a lot of at UGA that met in a gigantic auditorium and had about 350 people in the class. I don’t remember the Professor’s name but I do recall him having a giant head, maybe the biggest head I’ve ever seen on a human. One day my friend Mike and I were walking into the class and it started snowing outside. Mike was carrying a Snickers bar, and we fantasized about what would happen if the snow turned into a blizzard and all 350 of us were trapped in the auditorium for a few days with just Mike’s Snickers bar to eat. Then we realized that if we needed to, the entire class could easily survive off our professor’s head for about three to four weeks. Also, about three years ago my friend Mike called me one afternoon and said he saw that same professor giving a history lecture on C-Span. Mike said the guy still had a tremendous head.)

In fact, the one actual fact I know about The Alamo — or at least I think I know — comes from one of the great movies of my youth, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Remember that? Dud’s bike gets stolen and he is told his bike can be found in the basement of The Alamo. He goes all the way to San Antonio only to discover The Alamo has no basement. So I assume it doesn’t have a basement. But what do I know? I guess that could have been a plot device invented purely for narrative reasons. But I like to think The Alamo doesn’t have a basement. I’m planning on finding out at some point this weekend.

After we dropped off our luggage we headed out to the Riverwalk to get something to eat. The Riverwalk is a small river that runs right through downtown San Antonio. It is green, and Mark Cuban once said it was dirty. I don’t know if its dirty in the sense that there’s trash in it, but it is definitely dirty in the sense that we immediately got lost. It’s not so much a river as it is a series of tributaries which all run together.

Ten minutes after we started walking we were covered in sweat. And then, as if in a nightmare, Bob Sura came walking past us wearing an abnormally tight tank-top. Normally I would’ve taken the opportunity to thank him for screwing up the Hawks chances at drafting Dwight Howard by posting all those triple-doubles a few years back, but I was too dehydrated so I let him go.

We finally found a Mexican restaurant and sat down to eat right on the edge of the river. These long flat boats loaded with tourists came by every so often, gently putting along as the guides spoke softly. I told Ben if I was in charge of The Riverwalk, I’d install explosions under the water and fake banditos along the way to spice things up.

Finally, the best answer to a question in a press conference came after the Heat won the 2006 Finals…
The most notable Zo moment came after Game Six in the interview room. Rachel Nichols from ESPN asked Alonzo about his “darkest moment.” And Zo said…

ALONZO MOURNING: Oh, the darkest time was in 2000, October 3, 2000, making that announcement that I wouldn’t be playing basketball again. You know, that was probably one of the darkest moments. I was on such a high at that point in my life because we had just come back from Sydney, Australia, and we won a gold medal. I had just traveled back for the birth of my daughter. I was just on a high at that time. I was on top of the world.

It all just went crashing down when I heard that news. You know, going through — I read this book a while ago and there’s a quote in it from Frederick Douglass saying that the road to success has many obstacles, and you go through adversity. I’ve gone through my share of it throughout my life.

You know what, the good thing about going through those things, it’s just made me stronger, man. It’s made me more determined to not succumb but to overcome. And I give God all the praise, I truly do. Because without Him just giving me life again, just giving me an opportunity to live, you know, and just experience this moment, just this particular moment right here, you know, I mean, I got my cousin here, and he’s the one that donated the kidney to me. Words can’t explain how grateful I am to him. I owe my life to him just saving me. 
I remember when — I remember laying in the hospital and just feeling like a newborn baby, truly, helpless, in a lot of pain, helpless. And just to have my strength again.

A long time ago, I told somebody, I said, you know what, I will trade everything, all the money, all the material things, all the success, I would trade all of that in the world for my health right now. My health is so important to me. Without your health, you can’t live a life productively and not just do for yourself, but do for your family. It just makes me appreciate just living every moment now, even more. 
And I want to share that with as many people as possible, you know, because I know I’ve been given a second chance, and I know that happened for a reason. The only way to share that particular situation is to continue to try to lift other people up in the process, and those who are going through any type of illness, those who are going through, you know, transplantation and having to deal with those type of physical obstacles in your life, you need some words of encouragement, some hope. You need that. I needed that.

I got a call from Lance Armstrong. He texted me after Game 5, he texted me. We’ve been playing phone tag because he called and spoke to my mom in Miami and wished me a happy Father’s Day and just told me “great win.” Before the series even started, he called me and was telling me, he told me that even though his heart is in Texas, he wants to see me win.

A lot of you don’t realize this, but he was a huge, huge, inspiration to me in my whole recovery period. I read both of his books after my surgery, both of them. Laying in the hospital, I was reading his second book and his first book was extremely inspiring to me.

I think about what he had to go through and literally being on his death bed. I said to myself, if he can do it, man, I can do it. And the way I looked at him, I know that there are thousands and thousands of other people that look at me the same way and I want to be here to provide them with the hope to overcome and not succumb to it. You know, that’s all you need, you need a little help and encouragement to get through. We’re human. Some people might not see me as human because of the things I do out there on the court but I’m human, I laugh, I cry, I feel pain. I’m affected by some of the things you might write or say or what have you. I’m human, you know. And what drives me is my faith, my faith in knowing that I’m going to be all right.

I know and I’ve told plenty of people this; that there are kidney patients and transplant patients and what have you that deal with all types of sicknesses and illnesses and people that approach me. I had a gentleman approach me at the hotel before the game that was dealing with some physical problems and telling me how much I’m an inspiration to him. I told him, plainly, I said, you know what, the key to you recovering is keeping this right. (Pointing to head). Keeping your mind right. Because if you keep this positive and strong, then your body is going to follow it. I never gave up up here, I never gave up up here. I credit a great deal of my recovery to that because I never gave up up here because so many people are quick to give up and say, why me, why me, and just not realizing there’s so many other people out there that has it a whole lot worse than you do. No matter how bad you got it, everybody has problems, everybody has problems, regardless of how bad you have it, somebody else out there has it worse. Think about that. Sit back and think about that, you know. That’s what drives me.

You don’t think Zo had been waiting to talk, do you? That was like a filibuster.  And completely heartfelt.

So…that’s what I got. See you tomorrow when we get The Finals crackin’…