|Me and Hall of Famer Earl Monroe. Earl looks way more dapper than I ever will. The great Knicks captain, Willis Reed, is behind me.|
February 2015 was not a kind month to my Washington Wizards. The team has collapsed over the last month plus, sliding from second place in the Eastern Conference to the brink of sixth place. In the 12 games played in the shortest month of the year, the Wizards managed only three victories, all over teams which are currently well out of the playoff hunt. In games against teams with worse records than us, my team could only manage three wins in eight attempts. In six road games in the month, the Wizards won zero. Hopefully last month's woes are behind us with Saturday's home win over the Detroit Pistons.
Fortunately, reminiscing about this year's All-Star weekend has mercifully kept my blogging attention off the Wizards and I still have a few more to go. Maybe by the time I am done with all this short-term nostalgia the team will have righted itself to some degree. Looking back, the All-Star Game, All-Star Saturday Night and even the Rising Stars Challenge in New York were all fantastic experiences. But those events alone do not tell the story of my one and maybe only All-Star experience. The reason Valentine's Day weekend 2015 was a transcendent basketball experience rather than just really really special was the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Now if you are one of the half-dozen or so people who regularly reads this blog, you'll recall that I won an auction on ebay sponsored by the Basketball Hall of Fame which allowed me to get to All-Star weekend this year. That auction win got me lower level tickets to the All-Star Game, All-Star Saturday Night and Rising Stars Challenge. It also got me four nights at the Grand Hyatt above Grand Central Station and entry into the 2015 Hall of Fame Finalists press conference, which I figured would be sort of a throwaway event, although VIP access to that event was advertised, whatever that meant.
|The lobby of the Sheraton New York Times Square. Keep an eye out.|
So it's about November of last year and I thought I'd check up on how this weekend was supposed to work. I swapped emails with my contact at the hoop hall after I first bought this package but really had no contact with him since April-ish. Now that the 2014-2015 NBA season was in full swing, I thought I'd check in. There was a part of me that was nervous about this all being a hoax. I mean it was really too good to be true, right? As of November there was no update. They didn't know where the seats were in the arena (that was what I really wanted to know); sit tight and wait. This went on until about the beginning of January 2015.
Then finally some different news. The hotel might change. The Grand Hyatt was all well and good but they were trying to get us into one of the players' hotels. Cool. I could go with that. And eventually that happened. So instead of staying at the Grand Hyatt, we ended up at the Sheraton New York Times Square on Seventh Avenue between 52nd and 53rd Streets. Seemed like a downgrade from the Grand Hyatt to a Sheraton but the price point was about the same so whatever.
How wrong was my initial reaction? It was so NOT a downgrade. We figured out over the weekend that the NBA All-Star weekend is essentially like a business convention. Everyone in the industry is there. It's like Summer League on steroids. There are official hotels, guards at the doors of said hotels, free shuttle buses to events, free Subway cards to get you where you needed to go when you were not taking the shuttle buses and signings by current and future players literally all over town. And one of the players' hotels, like the Sheraton we stayed in, is absolutely the place to be.
Our train got in to Penn Station about 3:30 pm on Thursday, February 12 and we hopped in a cab to get the hotel, rolled in the door, past security ("yes, we are checking in") and to the front desk. First opportunity really to get a look around. Who do we see standing around the lobby but Marco Belinelli, last year's Three Point Contest winner and defending his title this year. Over the rest of the weekend, we saw Aaron Gordon, Etan Thomas (former Wizard!), Dikembe Motumbo, Horace Grant, Nerlens Noel, Rony Turiaf (also former Wizard!), Dahntay Jones, well…you get the point by now, right? Awesome substitution by the Hall of Fame. The first of many very positive surprises during the weekend.
|The Hall of Fame Finalists press conference.|
So it's Friday, February 13 and we are now firmly checked into our hotel, which is paid for already (no longer a hoax) and we finally meet someone from the Hall of Fame and get our tickets. All-Star Game? Check. All-Star Saturday Night? Check. Rising Stars Challenge? Check. Instructions on how to get into the Hall of Fame Finalists press conference? Check. That's it, right? I mean that's all I bought. Nope. Wrong. Tickets to the Celebrity Game on Friday night? Can't go; already set up happy hour with friends and it sort of conflicts with the Rising Stars Challenge. Tickets to the National Basketball Retired Players Association Brunch on Sunday? Wow, didn't know I was getting that. OK, sure. Sounds like fun. So now this is getting really good.
Friday night comes. We watch the Rising Stars Challenge in person and then take the bus back to the hotel. Now it's Saturday morning. Time for the Hall of Fame Finalists press conference, where we are supposedly VIPs, again whatever that means. We head over to Madison Square Garden and squash into one of the building lobbies on the south side of the arena and wait for our passes and permission to pass through security. It's a bit of a mess, through no fault of the Hall. Apparently they don't typically hold this event at the arena itself and there are clearly access issues.
I'm sure I'm not going to do a very good job of making a long story short here but this event was awesome. Yes, it was just a press conference but the star power that was there was just amazing. When I was stuck on the wrong side of security, I managed to meet former Knick and Bullet Bernard King and say hi over a handshake. Then we passed former San Antonio Spur George "the Iceman" Gervin on the way to the VIP lounge at the press conference. Gervin and King were joined by other hall of famers on the stage, including Willis Reed, Dominique Wilkins, Oscar Robertson, Rick Barry and more.
But the signature moment of this experience was meeting former New York Knick and Baltimore Bullet Earl "The Pearl" Monroe after the press conference. I was at the ceremony when the Wizards retired Earl's number a few years ago and I happened to be reading his autobiography on the way to New York so meeting the Pearl was a real treat. Earl Monroe is one of the true legends of the game who brought street ball to the NBA game. He was wearing a ring on his hand which I asked if was his 1973 NBA Champions ring he won with the Knicks. It wasn't. It was his NBA 50 Greatest Players ring. He claimed he didn't know where the '73 championship ring was. Awesome one of a kind conversation. In case you are keeping track, that's three things the Hall of Fame delivered that we didn't expect. We turned down one, but we didn't have to.
Wall 1, Curry 0. At least someone on the Wizards won something on All-Star Weekend.
I'd never been behind the scenes at the Garden in my five prior trips there so I thought getting out of there after the press conference might be interesting, although I was pretty confident that I could get thrown out if I just went the wrong way. But since that's not really my style, I thought I would ask for directions. I got them and following the directions happened to take me right onto the upper level concourse right of the main arena right before the All-Star Practice was about to begin. Well, since we are here and in the building (even though we technically needed a ticket) we may as well stick around for a bit, right? This makes me a bad person, I know. But I was right there!
Over the last 15 years as a Wizards season ticket holder, I've been to a number of practices. Some are boring; some are really interesting. The best one I ever attended was narrated by Ed Tapscott, who has held a number of jobs in the NBA throughout his career and is currently the Wizards' Director of Player Development. He explained how all basketball teams essentially run the same plays and that the game all comes down to execution. I went to the same sort of All-Star Practice in 2001 when the event was held at the Verizon Center in D.C. right at the beginning of my season ticket holder tenure and I'm sure at that time I thought watching the practice was awesome.
On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd pretty much put this year's All-Star Practice at between a 1 and a 2. We only watched the West practice which consisted of Steve Kerr telling the crowd several times that they were (a) not going to really run any plays and (b) were going to play Tim Duncan a lot so he'd be tired when the regular season resumed. After that, I just couldn't stick around for the East practice. But we did get to see the John Wall-Stephen Curry H.O.R.S.E competition which happened about an hour into the event.
The Wall-Curry H.O.R.S.E. competition was a manufactured grudge match staged by Gillette. Yes, the makers of the particular brand of antiperspirant that Steph Curry advertises. The competition, which was really nothing of the sort, was a best of three shots event with a fourth shot if a tiebreaker was required, which it was since both Wall and Curry missed all three of their shots in the actual competition. Wall ended up winning in "overtime" with a three point shot defended by actor and director Michael Rappaport (Curry missed his three). It's always good to see a Wizard win something, so I'll take it.
The All-Star Practice became item number four that the Hall of Fame got me that I didn't expect, even though I sort of got that on my own. The final item was tickets to the National Basketball Retired Players Association Brunch on Sunday morning. This event was held at the Jacob Javits Convention Center and I honestly imagined a room a little bigger than the makeshift green room that adjoined the Hall of Fame Finalist press conference with about the same 1:3 or 4 former player to not-ever-a-player ratio that event enjoyed.
To say I underestimated the size of the event would be a great understatement. The room was huge and featured way more not-ever-a-player people than it did retired players. Don't get me wrong, there were former players there, including Hakeem Olajuwon, Moses Malone, Bernard King (he was everywhere that weekend) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, complete with official and unofficial entourages mostly made up of kids with basketballs and Sharpies. The brunch looked awesome and our nibbling at some of the dishes proved my eyes correct (we already had brunch plans so unfortunately couldn't load up).
For me this was a short event, but we did end up sitting with Andy Walker and his wife and talking hoops for a bit over some eggs. Andy played for the New Orleans Jazz during the 1976-1977 NBA season after being selected in the seventh (!!!) round of the 1976 NBA Draft by the Jazz. As a player, Andy's career in pro basketball was extremely short but it was obvious how deeply basketball has touched his life and the lives of all his family members, including his children and grandchildren. Having Moses Malone walk by and say hi to him got my attention if nothing else.
So that's the backstory of the unexpected part of my All-Star 2015 Weekend. I couldn't have imagined all that when I placed my bid on ebay and headed for whatever Wizards game I had to go watch on bid day. I owe a huge thank you for everyone at the Hall of Fame for hosting us for parts of the entire weekend and all the generosity and hospitality they extended to us. It was definitely the best way I could have seen an All-Star Weekend. One day I need to make it to Enshrinement Weekend up in Springfield. I promised them I would if they ever found it in their hearts to put Vlade Divac or Antawn Jamison in there. Not holding my breath on Jamison; I see Vlade as a real possibility.