We weren't a confident bunch before Saturday's game began. It was hot out, and the Dallas-Fort Worth sports media don't usually do hot. We like climate-controlled arenas and soft chairs to cushion our ample backsides. Plus, we were set to play against the Mavericks coaches in the annual Hoop-it-Up clash between professional ballers and journos--hardly a fair match-up, let alone when it's played outside in the oppressive June heat.
Each year some poor scribe or radio personality gets embarrassed in front of a good-sized crowd. The public humiliation wouldn't be that bad if it weren't for the fact that the coaches and the reporters who don't get punked have long memories. The primary objectives for those of us on the media team is not to get blocked or air-ball a shot. If you do, you can expect a year of ball busting. Maybe more. Some media members who've been throttled in that game have been known to move away under the cover of night--head out for Montana or some other remote outpost, never to be seen again. It's sad, really.
People still talk about what happened to poor Jodie Valade a few years back. She was a twenty-something who had just completed her first year as the Mavs beat writer for The Dallas Morning News--an impressive feat for anyone in our biz. But that hardly helped her once she stepped out onto the Hoop-it-Up blacktop. In fact, it may have hurt her, because the Mavs team generally likes to prey upon those they know best. They're a bunch of slobbering savages--ready to make us pay for the unkind things we say about them during the NBA season. But Valade paid too much, methinks.
On that fateful day, she drove the lane--or, more specifically, dribbled slowly through the middle of the defense with her head down--only to find "player developer" Morlon Wiley waiting with an unrepentant grin. As she threw up her shot, Wiley, bully that he is, smacked the ball into the first row of the crowd. It ricocheted off the metal bleachers, making a terrible clunking noise before rolling to a stop in front of a horrified child who then began crying. At night, when everything is quiet, I can still hear Wiley laughing--long and hard, like a movie super-villain who's just tied someone to the train tracks.
That's the way I remember it, anyway.
"Yeah, Wiley is kinda heartless that way," said Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson, chuckling when I told him of my recollection of what I now call "the Valade block." Nelson had come over to the media pregame huddle. He had come to say hello, but also to let us know that there would be no mercy. That last part was less bothersome to me than when he and I went through yet another introduction:
"Hi, I'm Donnie."
"Hi, Donnie, I'm John Gonzalez from the Dallas Observer."
(Blank expression on Donnie's face...pause.)
Goes like that every time. By my count, we've had that exchange about 10 times now. I've even gotten drunk with the man, and he still doesn't remember me. I suppose I could have brought it up, but I just didn't have the heart. Besides, I figured anonymity would play in my favor--avoiding my own "Valade" was of paramount importance. After all, it was the first time that I'd been invited to play in the game, and I wanted it to go well. (The reason I may not have been invited in previous years was explained to me by a Mavs employee at a party over the weekend: "You rip on the players." Right, I forgot.)
Shortly before the game, the media did what we do best: We found a cool place in the shade--or cooler than it was in the 100-degree sun outside the American Airlines Center where the game was held. Then we bitched to each other about how unfair it was that the coaches had padded their roster with a few beef eaters from the Mavs ManiAACs, the all-male dance review made up of big fat guys with sweet dispositions and light feet. (One more time for the slow-witted: The Mavs team was composed of a bunch of former players turned coaches and some 300-pounders who could, and maybe did, play pro football. Our team consisted of me, Dave Shore from ESPN radio, Allan Stanglin from MainStreet Radio, Skin from the Ticket and a few others. Our ringer? A skinny kid named Ryan from the ESPN radio promotions department.)
There were other concerns, too. I had injured the thumb on my shooting hand about a month ago playing pickup hoops at Tietze Park. It was bad enough that I couldn't bend it for a few weeks, and I only recently regained partial movement. I wrapped my Kurt Warner thumb tightly with the athletic tape I'd bought at the pharmacy the morning of the Hoop-it-Up game. I could have had it professionally wrapped by the medical trainers on hand, but that would have cost me $5--or rather it would have cost my paper $5, so the bosses ought to love me for my financial prudence.
"That's the worst tape job I've ever seen," Stanglin said, looking down with concern at my mummified digit. "Seriously, I think your thumb is turning purple."
And with that the game began and went about as well as you'd expect...that is, it didn't go well at all. At one point, our team was up 4-2. That was our last lead. As Shore said, the coaches just "flipped a switch on us." It was a fine use of cliché--something in which all media members are well-versed, something we employed as part of our defensive strategy. We screamed out things like: "Not in our house" and "Get that shit outta here." We screamed those things even though it was their house and they were the ones rejecting our shots without compunction.
The Mavs team beat us 11-8, which is closer than most of us figured it would be. I took only one shot, which I missed, but I had a sweet no-look pass to Skin on the left elbow and a rebound, too. I would also like to think I played sound defense on Donnie Nelson. Donnie described it another way, drawing a parallel between my defense and what the Mavs do to Shaq. He labeled it Hack-a-Donnie.
"OK, I'll give you that," I conceded to Nelson, "but you must have been scared by the professional tape job I did on my thumb."
"Actually, before the game, we said we were going to attack the cripple," Nelson said. "It worked out well for us."
In the background, I could hear someone else laughing along. When I turned around, there was Morlon Wiley, a plate of postgame grub on his lap, chuckling that evil super-villain laugh of his and threatening to tie me to the train tracks.
That's the way I remember it, anyway.
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