By Chris O’Leary
For eight brief hours on Wednesday, the NBA was back in Vancouver. Kind of.
EA Sports, which has one of its offices in the land the Grizzlies used to roam, brought out a handful of NBA players to test drive, fine-tune and lend their own personalities to the soon to be released NBA Live 08. They also invited a handful of media to the event and highlighted it as being hosted by the game’s cover athlete himself, Gilbert Arenas.
What EA should have known—what we all should have known, really—was that when it comes to Agent Zero, you should expect something odd to happen where for most people it wouldn’t. So it really shouldn’t have been a surprise when we found out that Arenas had passport issues at the airport and didn’t get in to Canada.
“Yeah, I left my passport in the house,” he said via phone interview. “Me and my girlfriend got in a little argument, so I couldn’t go back home.”
So the events EA had planned, like their Hibachi cookout, didn’t have the same appeal to them that they would have if the host was there to you know, host it.
That said, the players that did make their way across the border: Paul Pierce, Shawn Marion, Randy Foye, Delonte West and Channing Frye held the virtual fort down and made for an entertaining day.
I need to break away from the play-by-play tip for a minute and get you into my mind frame for you to really appreciate my experience with this thing. At the risk of sounding overdramatic, my morning had probably the most bizarre contrast of highs and lows that I’ve ever had in a five-hour span. It starts with the lows. At the airport, I was selected for a random security search. I wasn’t offended or anything; that’s the world we’re living in. It was awkward having some guy thoroughly pat me down without even introducing himself to me. I mean, the least he could have done was wear a nametag. No, scratch that. The least he could have done was be a woman. A hot one. If you’ve got to be subjected to a random search, why should both parties have to be uncomfortable? I was reminded of the awkwardness I shared with this unnamed man when I ran into him later on my way to the washroom. There was eye contact, a lookaway, and a nervous shuffle on my part as I looked at the floor and kept walking. It was worse than it sounds.
Upon arrival in Van-city, I let my thrifty side get the best of me and I took a shuttle bus to the spot where EA was sending cabs to pick us up. I walked onto the shuttle and sat on the bench seat in the back of the bus. A minute or two later, some young dude, probably in his early 20’s sits down at the opposite end of the bench. A quick look at him showed he was pretty strung out. But whatever, right? I’ll keep to myself, he’ll keep to himself. We can share this bench, it’s a long seat.
Two minutes later, the strung out kid is sprawled out on the bench seat like it’s his mom’s couch, making those stretching noises you make when you first get into bed at the end of a long day. Still, the guy’s not touching me or anything, he’s just got his head a few inches away from me. So (foolishly, in hindsight) I don’t move. The guy starts tossing and turning and this is when I notice that he didn’t actually finish buttoning up his pants when he got dressed today. I’m about to change seats, but am waiting for a red light or something. Why, I don’t know. How much weirder does sh*t have to get before I move? This is how much. He moves again and I look over and before I can look away, I’ve seen it. You know. It. The snake had left its lair. I curse to myself, curse my stupidity for not moving the first time the guy creeped me out, get up and sit by myself in a regular two-person seat. Unreal. My stop comes up shortly after and I gladly hop off the bus, having learned the hard way why you take cabs from the airport. Or move seats when you sit next to strung out dudes on public transit.
Anyway, with the inappropriateness of the morning behind me, I’m ready to hit the Mecca of videogame technology. We board a limo bus that’s taking us out to Burnaby, the location of EA’s worldwide studio. Just before we head out, Randy Foye and his agent hop on and sit down with us. Foye and his agent seem to have that Jerry Maguire-Rod Tidwell relationship.
It’s hard not to want to work for EA when you walk into their building. Inside the lobby of the one-year-old structure is a full out games room, with four XBox 360s and two Wiis set up, where the Live 08 team is already going head to head with each other on the demo version game. While the systems are temporary, the other side of the room is permanent: arcade games, foosball tables and if I remember correctly a pool table are all there at the employees’ disposal. Of course, this is all situated next to the cafeteria. Out of sight but on the other side of the cafeteria is a full workout center and what would complete every hoop-fiend’s dream-job scenario, a gym with a full-length basketball court. Jason, a PR guy at EA tells me that there’s always a good run going with the EA employees on Thursdays and Saturdays.
No matter where you are, even if you’re expecting them to show up, it’s still kind of surreal to look out the window and see a crew of NBA players making their way into the building. Marion and Pierce come in first, then Foye. Delonte West and Channing Frye come in a little later to see the other three guys already gaming away.
Paul Pierce is by far the most into the game. He talks smack to all of his opponents and still takes the time to look over at the game Marion’s playing and critiques what’s going on on his screen. A few media people are sitting down and talking with the guys while they’re trying the new system out. I saw the Matrix going un-interviewed, so I talked with him.
SLAM: There were a lot of trade rumors with you guys this year. How will you guys handle that when training camp starts? Does it affect team chemistry?
Marion: It’s not even so much about the team, it’s more (how you handle it) as a player. Sometimes it’s a business and that’s what you have to take it as. You’re hearing trade rumors all the time. You don’t know if they’re true or not but that’s part of it.
SLAM: Yourself, you must be used to it by now. Your name’s in there every year.
Marion: The thing is, you never know if any of the rumors are true or not. Sometimes it’s true stuff and sometimes it’s not.
SLAM: Looking at the way the season ended, how do you face the coming season? You’ve got this 82 game grind just to get back to where you were in May. Is it frustrating?
Marion: I don’t even look at it that way. I look at it like we gotta get better. We gotta get better team-wise and player-wise. At the same time, you have to learn from your mistakes, live and you learn. You gotta try and not do the same thing over and over again.
SLAM: With all the Donaghie stuff happening, when you first heard about it, did you think of him calling game 4 against the Spurs? Did that game pop into your head?
Marion: Nah. What’s happened has happened. It sucks, but at the same time you gotta learn from it and the NBA’s gonna take all the precautions, commissioner Stern is gonna make sure it won’t happen again. But what’s done is done. You can’t turn back the hands of the clock. I don’t think (Donaghie) even had anything to do with it.
SLAM: Have you been watching Amare play in Vegas?
SLAM: There’s talk of him wanting to add a three-point shot to his game. Is that something you’d encourage? Bill Walton thinks it’s a bad idea.
Marion: I mean, how you gonna tell another player not to add another dimension to their game? Basically you’re telling them stop where they’re at and add nothing else. That’s not encouraging. Amare’s a very talented player and if he’s gonna do that he’s gonna do that. Everybody got aspects of their game they can work on. It’s either scoring, or passing the ball or playing defense, there’s all kinds of stuff they can do. They can make themselves better and their teammates better.
SLAM: Is taking part in this something you always wanted to do?
Marion: I never really thought about it. It’s cool because you put yourself in the game, like your actual movements in the game, you know?
After playing the game for an hour, we were ushered outside, where Marion filled in for Arenas as the cook of the Hibachi cookout, rocking an apron while manning the grill. On my way to get some food, word came through that one of the EA people had Gilbert on the phone. I took up their offer of an interview, because really, how often does someone ask you if you want to talk with Gilbert Arenas? The food wasn’t going anywhere anyway.
SLAM: How are you feeling right now, are you ready for the season?
Arenas: Yeah, I’m already playing. My movement is back to normal, my jumping ability is back to normal, my cutting, now it’s just mental. I’m just going back training and everything is healthy. I played an outside basketball game the other night and had 40.
SLAM: So a pretty average night for you?
Arenas: Yeah. I tried not to hit ‘em hard.
SLAM: How hard was it watching your team end their season without you?
Arenas: It’s really hard for me to watch basketball anyway, because I get so excited that I have to go play. I’ll watch the USA team and you want to be out there so bad, like ‘Aww man, they look like they’re having fun,’ so I end up going to the gym to work on some of that stuff.
SLAM: Do you still wish you were involved with the national team? Do you have any hard feelings about last summer?
Arenas: If I was healthy and tryouts were now, I’d have gone out for the team. Since I was hurt, I was just focusing on my knee. People didn’t really understand, I didn’t really have hard feelings, it was just something I needed to do to make me better. If I went out there and held that in, I wouldn’t have been as good as I was last year. By me expressing myself and saying it, that means people had to critique me. That means I had to be on my game.
SLAM: Are you gonna make any more promises this season? You still owe Portland 50.
Arenas: Yeah, I still owe them 50. You know what’s so funny, and I didn’t know this, I’ve never scored more than 30 points on them. That’s the only team that I haven’t scored 30 points on, in my whole career.
Arenas: Yep. In my whole career.
SLAM: What’s better? Being on the cover of Live 08 or having your own sneaker?
Arenas: Wooh, those are like neck and neck. You know what, the cover, because that’s an actual thing. People might not know your name, but they can see your face. You can go buy some shoes and they’re like, ‘which shoes are these?’ And they’re like, ‘Ah I don’t know, who cares, they look good.’ But when you’re on the cover, they can go buy the cover and they can recognize me walking down the street and they’re like, ‘Aww, that’s the guy on the cover I just bought.’ I’ll take the cover.
After lunch, everyone moved over to EA’s motion capture facility (where they’ve got an autographed Chris Kaman sneaker on display) and the players—and Bill Simmons, who apparently will be in the game—all squeezed their way into their spandex suits and got ready to have their movements put into the game.
For anyone who doesn’t know, here’s how motion capture works: the athletes put on a spandex suit that has about 50 reflective balls stuck to it. The balls (called markers) go on the joints of the body, and are detected by a series of cameras that are hanging all over the studio. The cameras find the markers, and translate that into a dot on the monitors that the EA technicians are working with. All of the markers together form a skeleton of the player, which the animators work with then hand off to the software engineers, who put that character into the game.
None of the players were fans of the spandex suits. As soon as Paul Pierce had his suit on, he started joking that he “had to take a doo-doo.” This drew some laughs from the children that were on hand watching. And yeah, from me too.
While none of the guys were comfortable in the suits, Sonics guard Delonte West seemed to come alive once he had it on. The second he stepped on the studio’s court with the suit on, he busted out a fantastic robot. He told me later that he didn’t really pick up his robot skills anywhere, it just came to him, like it would to anyone.
“I think everybody has a robot inside them somewhere. You just need the right suit and the right situation and it’s gonna come out,” he says.
The suit seems to bring some foolishness out of Pierce too. In between motion capturing, he takes a break and I sit down and talk with him.
SLAM: Where were you mentally at the end of last season? Did you expect to be going into this season with the kind of team you got now?
Pierce: I don’t think anybody in the organization expected this. It’s quite a surprise, we thought we were gonna get the one or two pick and get a franchise changing player, but it didn’t work out that way, and fortunately we made two blockbuster trades. I’m the happiest guy in the world.
SLAM: What was your mindset like at the end of the year?
Pierce: I was drained a little mentally because of the losing, the injury. I didn’t know what my future held with the Boston Celtics. I didn’t know if it was time for me to move on from that situation, maybe move somewhere else to a team that could help me win a championship, or just stick it out and see what happens. But I was glad I was able to stick it out and not complain to the media about getting traded. They did a good job this off-season acquiring some guys that are gonna help me out next year.
SLAM: Did you find yourself biting your tongue the last couple of years on a trade request?
Pierce: I always voiced my frustrations at the losing, but I’ve showed a lot of loyalty to the franchise who drafted me who I’ve been around in good times and who I’ve been around in bad times. Hopefully I can end my career off with some good times, and when you go through a long-term relationship you’re gonna have some ups and downs.
SLAM: Is this the most excited you’ve been going into a season?
Pierce: Other than my rookie year, I’m gonna have to say yeah. I’m excited to finally step on that court and play with some great players and have an opportunity to win a championship.
SLAM: What’s the mood like in Boston right now with the fans?
Pierce: The fans are really excited and we’re selling a lot of season tickets. All the people I haven’t seen in years are talking about how they’re gonna come out to Boston and watch us. So the atmosphere has definitely changed and that’s what you want, because Boston’s a storied franchise.
SLAM: The one knock on your team right now is depth. You’ve got three fantastic players, but people are wondering if you have those spots like four through nine or ten covered. Is the team deep enough?
Pierce: I think we have what it takes to win a championship. Rondo’s an up and coming star of this league, Kendrick Perkins is a great role player at the center. We just signed James Posey and he’s got championship experience. I just think everything is overshadowed by the three all-stars we have on this team, and people aren’t going to expect anything from the other guys but that’s not true.
SLAM: How is it wearing that suit?
Pierce: The suit is tight as hell. I just wish they had a hole in it so I could take a dump. I’ll deal with it for another hour or so.
I had to end the interview there. What do you say to that?
When the motion capture session wrapped up, everyone headed back over to EA’s basketball court, where the players were paired up with kids from a charity that EA is involved with. They had a shootout where each player got 15 three-point shots. The player that won the shootout got to give a prize to the kid they were paired with, who rebounded for the players. Channing Frye showed a surprisingly hot touch from behind the line, hitting his first seven shots. It looked like he was going to walk away the winner until Delonte West got hot and hit 11–15. Pierce went last and had a chance to win on his last shot. After about five minutes of hyping everyone up, he pulled up and overshot. Delonte’s kid won a Wii, and all the other kids got a Nintendo DS.
From there, everyone piled out of the EA studios. SI writer and former SLAM contributor Arash Markazi sparked an impromptu game of one-on-one with Marion and…well you can imagine how that played out.