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NOTES FROM A MAVS PRACTICE

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On occasion, I get a call from an editor at ESPN the Magazine, where I once interned, asking me to help with a story. Today was such an occasion. And because I’m between stories for D, and ahead of all deadlines, Tim said I could head over to the AAC.

My goal: to interview six tall men, three Mavericks and three Rockets.

My success rate: well, that’s after the jump.

First some background. ESPN is doing a mid-season report on the NBA, to hit stands days before the All-Star break. In that report will be a survey answered by the players themselves. My job was to ask some of them basically what it’s like to be rich, young, popular, and more times than not, beautiful. (The short answer: it’s pretty sweet.) I was to interview Dirk, Jason Terry, Josh Howard, Shane Battier, Tracy McGrady, and Chuck Hayes.

The Mavericks practice first, in a facility next to the Mavs’ office in the bowels of the AAC. It’s not quite a full length court, but has six hoops spaced throughout. As the players exit, it becomes obvious that the growing media scrum gathered just out of bounds is here to interview Dirk and Jason Terry, yet they continue playing a modified version of H-O-R-S-E, then working some more on their mid-range jumpers, oblivious to us all, some 30 minutes now after practice has finished. (Dirk, you’re not getting proper backspin on your shot. Might I recommend really snapping your forefinger through your release. Worked for me back in the day.)

Finally, they step off the court. This is the part of journalism I hate the most–the scrum. Suddenly, 30 people are jockeying mikes and digital recorders for position, those late to the party climbing up stepladders to better obtain the wisdom of these two men. After the scrum loses interest, I’m able to ask Dirk and Jason my equally banal questions. When I finish with them, and later, Josh Howard, who waits for me in the Mavs office, I wonder if I would hate the press as much as these guys seemingly do if I were in the league. And you know, I think I’d hate the media more. What a nuisance: so, whaddya think about tomorrow night’s game? Over and over, 12 seasons of this if you’re lucky, every day dedicating at least a few minutes to morons like myself, and seldom, if ever, a change in the questioning. In fact, the only thing that changes is the questioner. The Mavericks, and later, Rockets, tolerated me I think only because my questions weren’t about the game at hand.

The Rockets practice is supposed to conclude at 3:30. It doesn’t until 4:10, and unlike a Mavericks practice, the Rockets coach, Jeff Van Gundy, doesn’t allow the media near the court until he’s satisfied with his team’s effort. So, myself, a Houston Chronicle beat writer and Rockets Web writer wait just outside the door even longer. (That’s right, the Rockets Web writer, who’s on the Rockets payroll, is disallowed from practice. That is how Jeff Van Gundy rolls.)

I interview Chuck Hayers first. A competent young man. Shane Battier went to Duke, and it shows. He’s acerbic when he needs to be, thoughtful when it suits him, all in all a joy to be around. If Shane Battier worked with you, he’d be the most popular guy in the office, hands down. I almost went in for a hug at the end of the interview.

Tracy McGrady, not so much. And, okay, I realize that three paragraphs ago I said that I’d hate to talk to the media if I were in the league, but McGrady, on first impression, has the distant, slightly bemused look of the sullen athlete that personifies professional sports. And I don’t say that only because he refused to talk to me or anyone else…Oh, all right, it may have influenced my judgment. But still, sullen. I stand by sullen.

Growing up, I thought a sportswriter would be a great life. Now I know it’s not. Your life is centered around the availability of people 20 times richer than you. And your job is to perpetuate the myth that these guys are heroes, as impressive off the court as they are on it. I think it’s best to appreciate athletes only for their athleticism. To ask anything else of them is to be dissapointed. That’s what today reminded me about the roughly five years I spent as a sportswriter.

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