Tracy McGrady’s 13 points in 33 seconds, Kobe Bryant’s 81 points and even Giannis Antetokounmpo’s leapfrogging Tim Hardaway, Jr. in a professional basketball game—those moments are why I watch the game.
Aside form the obvious, other moments often end up being the reason why I cover it.
As fans of professional sports and those that cover the game, we spend so much of our time sitting through expected occurrences just in case something exceptional happens.
Kyrie’s three-pointer to sink the Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals and Ray Allen’s three-point shot to give the Miami HEAT new life back in the 2013 NBA Finals are two examples, but the truth of the matter is that moments of grandeur occur fairly often. Obviously, though, the higher the stakes are the more those moments will resonate as time progresses.
What I’ve appreciated most over the past five seasons, however, have been the moments that occurred behind the scenes and away from the public eye. As journalists and those that follow the game, we have a front row seat to both the action that occurs on the basketball court, but also many of the things that happen off of it.
Here are a few that will stay with me forever.
Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant’s Rendezvous
In 2012, with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh by his side, for the first time in his career, LeBron James knew what it felt like to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy. Little did he or Kevin Durant know that it would be the first of a few times that they would be doing battle for the right to sit atop the NBA’s iron throne.
It’s been a long six years for James. Dating back to 2011, he’s made eight consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, emerging victorious in three of them. One could argue, however, that the past six years have been even longer for Durant.
Back in 2012, the basketball viewing public was still euphoric at the thought of James, the mercenary, still being winless.
In many ways, the 2012 NBA Finals featured the HEAT—a team that many felt were attempting to “buy” their way to a championship—against the team that had come to embody all that was right about professional sports. Along with Durant, Sam Presti and the Oklahoma City Thunder had an organic program that featured players that had been drafted by the franchise. From Russell Westbrook to James Harden, Serge Ibaka and the oft-used Reggie Jackson, the marketing tale of the 2012 NBA Finals was one of good versus evil.
Still, after the HEAT somewhat easily dispatched the Thunder in five games, the contrast between the upstart Thunder and the veteran-laden HEAT was stark. The HEAT turned American Airlines Arena into a South Beach nightclub, while Durant and Westbrook sat silently in their locker room after Game 5 had concluded. I stood over Durant’s shoulder for about 10 minutes. He said nothing, but found refuge in his iPhone. In all likelihood, it appeared that he was finding a way to cope with the loss and responding to the hundreds of text messages he’d received that were each attempting to reassure him.
None of those text messages, however, probably resonated with him as much as his chance encounter with Dwyane Wade.
The two had an impromptu rendezvous as Wade’s media availability ended. Standing in a white tee-shirt that smelled of Dom Perignon champagne, after going up and addressing the media, Wade spent about five minutes chatting with Durant while I stood about 10 feet away.
In the conversation, Wade told Durant to keep his head up and assured him that as long as the Thunder stayed together and remained dedicated to one another, that they too would be winning multiple championships.
For the most part, Durant simply nodded, even as Wade instructed him to never be afraid of failure. Wade held the Larry O’Brien trophy in his left hand and embraced Durant with his right.
The two eventually went their separate ways and, interestingly enough, would never see one another in the playoffs again.
Years later, in our last one-on-one conversation, Wade, then a member of the Bulls, discussed Durant and his defection to Golden State with me at length. Wade drew comparisons between his experience with James and what Durant would experience in Oakland and advised him to not try to play into the villain role.
Now a two-time champion, Durant can obviously do things his way. But I’ll always remember how he appeared in Wade’s embrace after the 2012 NBA Finals.
Humble and meek, the young Durant has come a long way.
Greg Oden’s Triumphant Return
Just as it’s impossible to mention the name of Michael Jordan without thinking of Sam Bowie, it’s equally difficult to think of Kevin Durant without Greg Oden.
Oden was believed to be the second coming of Bill Russell back when he was dominating college basketball, and for the Portland Trail Blazers, the decision to use the first overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft to select Oden (instead of Durant) was easy enough to understand.
Unfortunately for Oden, he would play just 82 games over his first five years in the league and would eventually be waived by the Blazers after undergoing a fifth micro fracture knee surgery in February 2012.
After spending the 2012-13 season away from the game, after an edict to curb spending had come from the Miami HEAT’s ownership group, the club made the decision to trade Joel Anthony to the Boston Celtics in what amounted to a salary dump. The departures of Anthony and Mike Miller—two vital contributors to the HEAT’s championship success—played an indirect role in James departing for Cleveland some years later, but that’s another story for another day.
Part of the reason why the HEAT opted to send Anthony packing was because they thought they could get similar production from the 25-year-old former first overall pick. Best part? Oden would only cost the HEAT about one-fifth of what Anthony would, including luxury tax charges.
Internally, the HEAT kicked the idea around a bit before deciding to take a flier on Oden. He was still just 25 years old and Miami only needed him to give them some spot minutes here and there.
During the 2013 preseason, Oden wasn’t able to get on the floor on this particular night at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, but he was kind enough to chat with me, anyway. I met Oden outside of the locker room after the game was over. In our one-on-one conversation, the center told me what he’d endured over the past few years. He hadn’t been traveling with the Blazers and cited only the love of his family and his dream of salvaging somewhat of a career as the things that kept him from self-destructing.
In the years since, Oden has battled depression and has done his best to remain close to the game, even though his knees have consistently reminded him that they have other ideas.
What I’ll remember most about my conversation with Oden that night was his conviction and the simple answer he provided when I asked him exactly what he hoped to get out of his tenure with the HEAT.
“…to walk off healthy,” is what he told me.
Sadly, it simply wasn’t meant to be.
Oden went on to play just 23 games for the HEAT. He played about seven cumulative playoff minutes for the club en route to their succumbing to the Spurs in five games in the 2014 NBA Finals.
Polite and reserved, Oden had a slight limp when he walked toward me at Barclays Center on that October night. And as we parted ways, I remembered hoping that it all worked out for him.
Years later, after attending the NBA’s 2015 Las Vegas Summer League, I ran into Oden at McCarren International Airport. We exchanged pleasantries, but he wasn’t interested in conversing with me.
I had a feeling I knew why.
Visiting Kemba Walker In Charlotte
A city with a proud basketball tradition, Mo Bamba and Cole Anthony will now carry the cross for Gotham.
If they’re lucky, they’ll follow in the footsteps of Kemba Walker.
For as long as I’ve known Walker, he’s been quiet and humble, but when I paid him a visit in Charlotte back in January 2015, I was startled by the tremendous growth he’d experienced—both physically and mentally.
After Steve Clifford wrapped up practice, Walker found me in the corner of the team’s practice facility and we shared memories of the night he was drafted. That night, in New York City, Walker assured me that he would put everything he had into proving to Michael Jordan that his team had made a smart decision in drafting the undersized UConn product.
In the years that followed, Walker lived up to those expectations, and more. Despite relocating his family to Charlotte, he remained connected with his hometown of the Bronx and made it his personal duty to pave the way for New York City’s next torchbearer.
What stood out most about the encounter with Walker was the pride that he had when he told me all about what it took for him to secure the funds necessary to refurbish courts in the Sack-Wern housing development where he grew up in the Soundview section of the Bronx.
I told Walker that there were quite a few that expected him to be named an All-Star in the coming years, and he shrugged the thought off. Walker assured me that what was most important to him was simply being renowned as a kid who works hard and one who serves as an inspiration to his teammates, his family and, most importantly, those in New York City that were told that they were too small or not good enough.
Speak with Walker today and ask what motivates him, he’ll surely tell you it’s memories of his parents going to work under all circumstances. A first-generation American with Caribbean lineage, like my parents, Walker’s came to America many moons ago with nothing but summer clothes and dreams.
Growing up in the Bronx, Walker could relate, except that his dreams were draped in a bubble coat.
Walker’s eyes opened wide and he beamed at me before admitting that it wasn’t until sometime after he participated in the McDonald’s All-American game in 2008 that he thought he had a chance…
On draft night, he assured me that he’d make the most of it, and seven years later, in Charlotte, it was obvious that he had.
As fate would have it, in 2017, Walker and I found ourselves standing at center court at Madison Square Garden shortly after he’d received the phone call letting him know that he’d been named an All-Star for the first time in his career. It was fair to say he’d live up to his billing. Of all places, it was in Madison Square Garden—where he’d become a household name during the 2011 Big East tournament—that Walker reflected.
There’s still much further for Walker to go, but observing him lead his team on the practice floor and do all that he could to be exemplary on a regular afternoon back in January 2015—it was refreshing. And it sure was memorable.
Hanging Out With Jeff Hornacek
Perhaps it was Phil Jackson’s affinity for the triangle, or maybe it was the belief that he wasn’t ready to return to the professional coaching ranks, but Jeff Hornacek’s being hired as head coach of the New York Knicks back in 2016 caught everyone by surprise.
Especially those, including me, who hung out with Horancek during the NBA’s Draft Combine in 2016.
The Combine took place just three months after Derek Fisher had been surprisingly fired by the Knicks, and questions as to who his successor would be were rampant.
In this day and age, it’s difficult to move in stealth, but, to their credit, the Knicks and Hornacek managed to do exactly that.
Days after the combine, Hornacek was named head coach of the Knicks, and after doing a little digging, it was easy to connect the dots and get confirmation of the fact that he was interviewing with the club’s brass in Chicago. That and the fact that he maintained close relationships with other team personnel is probably what brought Hornacek to Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse at the Intercontinental Hotel on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile.
For a few hours, after the duties of the day had ended, writers had filed their stories, scouts had sent in their reports and agents had finished their socializing. For those few hours, dozens of men of different disciplines were united by their love of basketball, and all were equal.
I was a part of a group of a half-dozen who spent a few hours socializing with Hornacek. Soft spoken and friendly, he didn’t make the conversation about him, and interestingly enough, nobody bothered to ask what he was doing there.
He told a story about how his wife had given him a clever idea as to how to teach young players proper shooting mechanics. The tactic involved tape and, without giving away his secret, using it to tape certain fingers together in order to dissuade improper finger manipulation of the basketball.
He talked about his playing days in Utah, told some stories of Karl Malone and overall, admitted to missing coaching.
Hornacek probably knew that he had a big payday coming from the Knicks, because although he was only drinking tonic water, he paid a pretty hefty bill for many in attendance, including myself.
There aren’t many media guys who can boast that they’ve been bought drinks by the head coach of the New York Knicks.
Even though we didn’t find out about Hornacek’s hiring until a few days later, it still counts.
Just as NBA players lace up their sneakers, hard-working journalists put on their walking shoes. As fans of the game, we spend an incalculable amount of time watching and observing with the hope of seeing something incredible happen. That’s why we continue watching when our favorite teams are down by 20 points or continue watching a playoff series when a team finds itself in an 0-3 hole.
The thrill of the chase and the fortunate of witnessing the improbable—that’s why most of us are here.
For someone like me, it’s often the opportunity to cover the game from up close and the ability to find oneself in a moment or a situation where you hear or see something that stays with you forever.
Fortunately, I’ve found myself in those situations a few times over the past five seasons.
These are four of many. And if I’m lucky, in the future, there will be many, many more.