Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Glance Behind The Curtain

Aerial view of downtown Grand Rapids
Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Home to half a million people, an industrial base that coughs and wheezes, the headquarters of Meijer (think WalMart with better groceries, comparable prices, and a union workforce), the base of the Christian Reformed Church.  The urban center votes Democrat; the money supports Republicans.  Economy's been bad for a long time and the area was nailed hard when real estate collapsed.  Big money lives in Kent County, but it doesn't go there of its own volition I've noticed.

That's some of what I was thinking as I hurry-walked to the side entrance of the Van Andel Arena downtown.  I was running heinously late and didn't know where to go.  See, in an inspired moment of insanity, my mother had written to Mr. Mark Cuban, and next thing I know I have a message that press credentials would be waiting for me at the arena for the Meijer Basketball Classic.  What happens is during the preseason, the Detroit Pistons play a game in Grand Rapids -- nod to their West Michigan fans, whip up enthusiasm, all the rah-cheer stuff.  The Mavs happened to be the visitors for the night.


Van Andel Arena's JumboTron
I'm a lousy reporter.  So I'll do the Fear and Loathing thing.

It's easy to get spoiled by the American Airlines Center.  Most everyone is nice.  Most everyone is helpful.  Most everyone is used to seeing massive shitloads of human beings.  None of these things are true about the Van Andel Arena.  Already late, no idea where I'm supposed to be, intense crowd-fear from my mother and rank impatience from my sister, low agony in my right knee, hip to hip with my fellow Michiganders.  There are no ropes or ribbons, there is no one with a bullhorn, there are no police.  There isn't even a line, just a mass of humanity shoving its way towards three or four windows.  There's no differentiation between people buying tickets and people picking them up.  I hope for the sake of Pistons fans that the Palace of Auburn Hills is run better.  This is in every way an out-of-control mess.  This must be how the riots start.

Aunt Bobbie, Ginny, and Mom . . . I think.
(Aside -- I ordered tickets a week before Mom and I left for vacation.  Because my aunt has a bad back and my mother has bad knees, I requested handicapped accessible.  The AAC's idea of handicapped accessible is bare floor with padded chairs; the chairs can be taken away if someone arrives in a wheelchair.  The Van Andel's idea of handicapped accessible is a bank of standard seats, with one on the end that has a removable arm.  ADA Fail.)

The Credentials
Press credentials obtained.  Bit anticlimactic, if I'm honest.  I was expecting little plastic doohickies like one sees at rock concerts.  It's a little square of not-quite cardboard with the Pistons logo and a plain sticker proclaiming PRESS and the date and time of the game on one side and a block of legalese in print so small an ant would need glasses on the other.

Naturally, the lady at the ticket window doesn't know where to direct me.  Guys in the NFL go through this every Sunday, I think as I force my way back through the thick mass of people, throwing excuse-mes in all directions and hoping someone doesn't take the shoving personally.  Back outside, walk around the arena to the unobtrusive door I started at half an hour earlier.  The guy there doesn't know where I'm supposed to go either and vaguely waves me back.

Heart in my throat, I meander backstage.  All bearings lost, and I mean that in every possible respect.  What in God's name am I doing here?  I'd counted on someone seeing me and calling me over; didn't think it through, of course Fisher wasn't going to travel to forfuck'ssake Grand Rapids.  I saw the lady who'd directed me to the box office for my pass and latched onto her like Crazy Glue on your favorite flannel.  Any port in a storm.

Earl K. Sneed, and his snappier credentials
It's halfway through the first quarter before I hit the floor.  For lack of anything better to do with me -- the only Maverick press presence is the radio guys and Earl K. Sneed, no Fisher and no Cuban either -- the media relations chica parks me at a table set aside for the local news affiliates.

Right behind the Visitor bench.  Two yards and I'm sitting in someones lap.

Fall back on manners, bloggers should be seen and not heard.  I shrink back into my chair, wishing I'd thought to bring a notebook, trying to eat everything up with my eyes.
The view from my table.  Thud!
Caron Butler (back to camera) and Jason Terry.

Brendan Haywood and his big innie

Caron Butler.  Remind me never to make him mad.  About anything.
Tyson Chandler.  Please make me like you.
This has happened before when I've gone to conventions; the first time you see a person as a three-dimensional reality when all you've ever known of them is print or video is a little strange.  Images are still images and lose something in translation.  Like noticing Dirk's hair frizzes a little, or that Jet Terry can't sit still, or that Shawn's almost always smiling (or that Caron still chews on straws, we'll assume he laid them off for the regular season).  Like hearing an operatic soprano live for the first time; the recording is just not the same.
Pistons shooting freebies

Pistons horsing around at halftime.

Shootaround after halftime.

Damn it feels good to be a Maverick.
Brendan at the stripe.
The game passes in a blur.  Kidd and Dirk aren't playing -- damn.  The whole reason I dragged my family along was to share my newest fancrush and the massive sea change said crush is making in my life.  If on New Year's Eve 1999 someone had told me that '10 would see me living in Texas of all possible places, spending two or three evenings a week screaming myself stupid whilst wearing blue makeup, becoming a basketball fanatic, for God's sake-- I'd've asked what you were smoking and if you'd share.

I'm not knocking anybody, really I'm not.  It's a meaningless preseason outing and these fellas have more important things to do with their legs.  Besides, the day you catch me talking smack to someone a foot taller will be the day the sky splits in two.  I am not a moron.

Up and atem, fellas.
Which brings us to a heretofore unnoticed job requirement for NBA players -- selective hearing.  After the first, the two guys sitting next to me at the table (Al Whitley's one, I don't recognize the other) leave and two other guys sit down.  From the conversation with some folks in the row behind me, I gather these are season ticket holders and there was a problem finding their seats.  For the next thirty-six minutes, all these asshats do is heckle Nowitzki.  "Get in the game Dirk!"  "Turn around and smile!"  "Lemme get a picture!"  "Get out and play!"  For three quarters solid.  The man's got the patience of a saint or an internal Mute button.  I wanted to tap him on the shoulder and just explain and apologize-- Michiganders aren't spoiled and rude, most of us were brought up better.

The mood in our little pocket of enemy territory is upbeat.  Jet's a little late out of the locker room and isn't playing in the second half.  He seems antsy, a long stretch of nervous energy, as he stalks around behind the bench like a leopard in a cage, bumping fists with press and spectators.  One of those fists is mine.  Eeep!

JJ Barea, not holding still.  Grr.

Nowitzki and Kidd -- plotting universal domination, discussing philosophy, pondering great mysteries, kibitzing about where to find the best sushi in Kent County, who knows?
By the late stages, almost every billboard guy is sitting down.  Dirk and Kidd spend most of the evening chatting quietly.  About what I don't know, I can hardly hear myself think.  Shawn gets up for time-outs; more nervous energy, I guess.  He and Caron dance a little-- to the left, to the left, to the left, to the left.  Naturally that's when my camera's memory tops out.  What pictures I get are distorted by movement.

Front and center, gentlemen.
Revelation of Master Plans.

Most everyone looks carefree and relaxed and a wee bit goofy.  With a few exceptions.  The fellas still playing -- Dee Brown, Ian Mahimni, Dominique Jones -- are all engaged and looking nervy.  Big shock, these guys are in Prove Yourself mode.  Rookie looking to earn Coach's trust and guys looking for those last roster spots.  When the games start counting they might or might not even play . . . but they can put I Was A Member Of A Team In The NBA on their resume.  Coach, of course, is one thousand percent business.  His cheeks would crack if he smiled, I swear.  I'm sure he's a different guy when he's just being Rick Carlisle -- tender to his wife, gentle with his kids.  But right now he's Coach.  I feel the same way about him that I feel about Gordon Ramsey; thank God he's not my boss.

Before I know it, the game's over.  I drift over towards where the players vanished backstage, waiting for the go-ahead to proceed after them.  No familiar faces, no clear idea where to go.  I must stick out like a cockroach on a wedding cake.  But, so what else is new?  When given the nod I let the other reporters go -- they've got deadlines, I don't -- and follow them back.

If there's a tradition of hazing reporters who're here to cover the bad guys, I don't see it.  I'm left alone.  When the folk congregate, I hang back in the crowd and unsling my voice recorder.  Right idea, wrong coach -- the tape I get is the postgame Q'n'A for Pistons coach John Kuester.  Three point defense and rebounding being the main points of discussion.  Give the guy credit, he puts on a good brave face at the start of what's sure to be a dismal season in the Big D.  After it's over, everyone disperses amidst quiet, indistinct talk.

It's gotta be weird for the Pistons organization, doing this.  Home but not, and God knows Grand Rapids isn't much of a party town.  There's things to do and there're places expensive people can go -- there's the B.O.B. if it hasn't emptied and the Amway Grand Plaza with the Cygnus Room -- but, being real, Grand Rapids is a backwater in a declining region where the Union ideals of practical innovation and hard work have turned into jokes of themselves.  I wonder if any of the committed fellows on either team have couple-y plans, wonder if the Mister and Missus Jet Terrys might snatch an evening away from the kids before the season really starts rolling.  Are kids and wives and girlfriends and . . . others even allowed along on roadtrips?

Show's over, clearly.  I don't want to leave.  Ever felt overwhelmed by an anticlimax?  I find a space in the hall behind a shipping container and just stand there.  Directionliess.  One by one, I see guys leave.  One of the fellas passing is favoring a leg; out of reflex I ask if he's okay as he passes.  I get a nod and a mumbled yeah.  Pretty sure that was Rodney Stuckey.  Meep!  I see Tyson Chandler on his way out -- my goodness, remind me to dust the top of the fridge should he ever drop by for dinner and Momcake.  I see JJ Barea -- I wanna see the ruler that says he's five-ten, he's my height and I'm five-eight in shoes.  I see more, get a nod and a smile or two.  I see Coach come out, the suit exchanged for practise wear of T-shirt and track pants.  Coach gets some questions about his health -- he fainted in practise a few days ago, an episode chalked up to an electrolyte imbalance or a blood sugar crash.  All friendly stuff; he probably still has acquaintances in the rank-and-file of the Pistons organization, people he hasn't gotten to see in a while.  People in pro sports learn to live with that, I guess.  The ultimate temp job, different city every few years, barely see the kinfolk for weeks on end.  The money's fantastic, but tell that to a parent who has to relearn who the hell their kids are every few months.  Another strange little subsociety.  Not for the first time I wish Emmy was here.  Strange little subsocieties are a specialty of his.  He'd get what I'm feeling, have a better grasp of it, do a better job conveying the sense of it.

In any event, my feet hurt and my knee feels like it's coming apart.  It's time to go.

Another limping walk through a concrete tunnel.  I pass by a couple of idling buses, some guys working to secure big plastic crates of stuff.  NBA roadies, how do you get a job like that?  Cool moist air and I'm outside, wrapped in the early hours of an autumn night.  In a perfect world I'd have a notebook full of observations and a tape recorder full of cliches.  In a perfect world I'd walk across that parking lot to a bar and partake of some girly drinks whilst bashing out what I've seen and what I think about it.  Stare at the dark building where a faux-Irish pub once did business, look at the Transit Center where I spent so much time waiting to go elsewhere, reflect over fast pace and eternal constants.

Instead I stand outside the back of the Van Andel Arena and listen to a group of a dozen or so fans yell at the buses.  It's a bad noise and a bad vibe, jagged and greedy.  Listening to them, I hang my head.  Is this all the team hears of their fanbase?  All that they know of us?

Out front.  I'm pensive, sore, rather bowled over.  Out comes the phone to call for a ride back to the Aunt'n'Uncle house in Burton Heights.  As I wait, I wonder.  I wonder if the guys're on a plane already to Chicago.  I wonder if they bother with a plane at all -- at Michigander speeds and taking the Indiana turnpike, Chicago's about four hours.  I wonder if I can sneak into the Amway Grand Plaza and catch somebody in Real Me mode.  I wonder why I didn't get a picture of the steampunk pig statue across the street from the arena.  I wonder if I could make any friends if I offered Arnie's Bakery's fudge-covered cheesecake.  I wonder if my eyes were decieving me when I saw bits of bare leg through track pants -- tell me, were you wearing any pants this evening, my dear?

The Red Hatchback of Death rolls up.  I fit myself inside, careful of my knee.  I don't say anything.  There's an epiphany around here somewhere, an astonishing insight into What It All Means.  I'm sure of it, I feel it.

Then my mother asks me how it went.  Fatigue and pain all crash down, the wonder of the moment fades, and the feeling is gone.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Break Out The Hankies

To the disappointment of the younger set of panting ladyfolk, Kris Humphries is turning in his blues and packing his kitbag for cooler climates.  Gina Miller first brought down The Word via Facebook:

marc stein (his twitter name is too confusing for me) reporting that mavs trade humphries & shawne williams 2 nets for najera.

Good to see the ass end of Williams, going away.  Less good to see the back of Humphries.  I hope his stay in Jersey lasts about two seconds; he deserves better than that particular corner of sporting Hell.

Safe journey, Kris.  And thank you.