Last week, the NBA rolled into London for a 1-game showcase of what the best basketball in the world looks like. Many of you will have been tuned in (or possibly there with us) and will have witnessed what was a fantastic game of basketball; a genuine OT thriller that had the big moments and late game drama that every sports fan craves. What you might not have got a sense of, however, is what life is actually like as a player or general member of the NBA family. We were fortunate enough to get to speak to several of the players and get a real feel for what it means to be a pro baller. This behind the scenes look into life in the NBA was such an experience we decided to share it with you.
The first thing that really stood out was the level of professionalism and drive that the players (as you would expect) showed. It would be easy for the players to get distracted by all the pomp and pageantry that comes with playing a game in a city outside of the usual NBA locations, in a different country halfway across the globe but the general attitude of both sides was more or less summed up by Kyle Lowry: “For us this is still a business trip… we have to win. You enjoy the moment, you enjoy a great country, you enjoy everything you can with your friends and family but when 8 o’clock comes you got to focus on winning a game.” And you would hear no excuses being made regarding potential jet lag from the long flight. “It’s tough,” Elfrid Payton remarked, “But we have a lot of guys around us that know what to do so we just take their advice and go from there.” That ‘business as usual’ mentality was one shared by Tobias Harris too, “we prepare for every game the same way. Just to be focussed and locked in to our game plan and execute what we do. We prepare for this game the same as the rest no matter how many miles away it is. We just got to be ready; that’s the bottom line.”
Another interesting titbit was one we gained from a chat with Patrick Patterson is that, despite what the “good old days” brigade would have you believe, rivalry is alive and kickin’ in the league. We asked him which games had special importance to him and he replied that he looks forward most to playing against the players he grew up with such as his fellow Kentuckians John Wall and Demarcus Cousins as well as the teams he used to play for and trying to better the players he grew up watching like LeBron. Yes, players do work together in the offseason (Payton mentioned working with Chris Paul to help adjust to life playing the NBA’s toughest position, the Point Guard) but the rivalry and competitiveness is definitely still there. Patterson would also shed some light on how the play-offs atmosphere compared to that of the regular season. “It’s night and day. Just the energy and the atmosphere; the fans just how crazy and rowdy they are. When it’s play-offs it’s basically win or go home and every single game matters, every possession matters so the fans take it as if there’s no tomorrow.” That rowdiness and crazed play-off atmosphere would be exactly what we got down the stretch of what would be a nail-biter and The O2 but we’ll get to that.
It was also important to note just how hard the players worked. Both Kyle Lowry and Victor Oladipo separately used the phrase “a lot of blood sweat and tears” to describe the graft of being a pro-baller. Lowry was especially upfront in telling us about the stress and strain that you put on your body when playing in an 82 game season, the playoffs and then working out to get better over the summer. It’s easy to forget that these players are just men with physical limits when you see them out on the court doing superhuman things – and it is a requisite of the job that they push themselves to these limits (and on occasion beyond) in the name of achieving greatness and pleasing us; the impassioned and oft fickle fans. The weight of expectation was something that was acknowledged and accepted by all the players we spoke to as something that they have to live with – part of the trade-off of positives and negatives that comes with living the dream.
While the players were consummate professionals throughout our interaction with them, it was also interesting to get a sense of the players’ personalities. Whilst one would be forgiven for thinking that the stars of the magnitude of NBA players would be arrogant or have an air of superiority about them, what really shone through was just how chilled and down to Earth they all were. Even Lowry, an All Star and a guy who clearly wants very badly to be great and his drive, ambition and hunger was very noticeable in his answers to the questions was very easy to talk to and more than willing to crack jokes and share his experiences with us. As he said himself, the players realise that, despite all the hard work they put and how physically and mentally tough it is to be a professional sportsman, they are blessed to be in the position they are. You just have to look across to Oladipo to see that that mentality was shared. The guy really doesn’t stop singing and cracking jokes. Not because he isn’t taking it seriously (he spent the whole open practice working on coming off high picks and shooting pull up jumpers from the elbow – getting what felt like hundreds of reps in) but because they are all happy to be there and do not take for granted how great their job is. Everybody was cracking jokes and we really felt like they adopted us and the rest of the media into their family and that yielded some hilarious moments. Such as Ross and Patterson bantering over an old hair cut to Lowry’s reaction when we asked DeRozan about the dunk contest (HINT: it was heavily implied that DeRozan will be competing and had something crazy in his locker… can’t say more than that right now) to Oladipo taking on the role of reporter to quiz David Haye on his fight with De Mori. We also definitely chuckled a little when a member of the Raptors’ staff slipped a note into Terrence Ross’ pocket and told him that an old college “teammate” was looking to reconnect with him.
On game day, the whole vibe changed. That down to business attitude that was alluded to was plain to see from the press conferences to the warm ups. Us fans like to think of professional sports as being a great job and an easy life but imagine you were doing your day to day tasks in your 9-5 in front of 18,000+ expectant and demanding people. The level of focus and drive on display was even greater than you could imagine and it really was impressive the manner in which the players stepped up as soon as it came to the serious business.
The arena itself was buzzing with anticipation. Chelsea and Arsenal were amongst the best represented in the celeb ranks with stars current and old such as Eden Hazard, Michael Ballack, Didier Drogba, Robert Pires and Oxlade Chamberlain all in attendance. Krept and Konan were there, as was Lethal B, Michael B. Jordan, Gordon Ramsey, Fleur East and so on and so on. In the arena walking around near the floor seats you get a sense of just how big an event an NBA game is and the kind of draw it has amongst stars as well as fans. You may think that’s obvious but trust us, you don’t fully understand until you’re there in the flesh with people you’re a fan of acting as much if not more like a kid in a sweet shop then you.
The game itself did not disappoint. The Toronto raptors started off the game hot, getting into the key and breaking down the Magic defence – overcoming a 1/5 start by PG and Floor General Kyle Lowry. The magic, however, would go on a run in the second and get hot from 3 to drag themselves from down 12 to back within 3 late in the second; all in the face of more hostility from a section of the Raptors faithful located behind the basket they were attacking. The Raptors, though, would close the half out strong. Luis Scola and Kyle Lowry scored some big buckets to abate the pressure and push the lead back out before an acrobatic finish by Elfrid Payton ensured the Magic would go into the break down by no more than 7.
Raptors started the second half strong but the range of Evan Fournier kept the Magic within range. The teams would go back and forward, with the Magic refusing to quit when their endeavours to get close were answered time and time again with runs by Toronto to stretch the lead back to double digits. They trailed by 11 points with 7 minutes left to play and the game looked to be slipping away from them but they just would not be denied. The atmosphere wnt up several notches when they started closing the gap. Fans came to see a close game and went mad at every basket as they hoped things would get close to allow for late game heroics. The earlier chants of “We the North” in favour of boos for the “road” team to crazed support in the arena for the Magic. By the time we got to the final few possessions and OT the energised O2 Arena were screaming, cheering and waving various props for every single play; irrespective of player or team.
The Magic’s late run was sparked by them tightening the screws on defence and fuelled by the fans in the arena who never stopped screaming for the comeback. It got them to within 3 and, despite missing a couple of 3 pointers looking for the tie, were able to level the score with 32.9 seconds to go on an Oladipo pull up jumpshot at the free throw line coming off a pick that looked eerily similar to the ones we saw him working on in the open practice. They would even have 2 opportunities to win, with Oladipo missing a 3 after the Magic rebounded a Lowry miss and Jason Smith (who was outstanding off the bench with 16 points 5 boards and 4 assists) unable to hit a tough shot off an inbounds play with just 0.7 seconds on the clock.
The Raptors would go on to win the game in OT 105-103. Lowry finished with 24 points 8 rebounds and 6 assists with DeRozan posting 13 points to go with 11 rebounds in a rough shooting night and Cory Joseph proving invaluable off the bench with 19 points on 9/11 shooting. The Magic got 27, 6 and 6 from the impressive Oladipo, 21 points from Frenchman Evan Fournier and 17 points and 11 boards from Nikola Vucevic but it wasn’t enough to get the win.
After the game the players fulfilled their media obligations, clearly aware of what a great advert for the league the thriller turned out to be. The Raptors were evidently relieved to have escaped with the win and held off the young upstarts to tie the season series at 1. The Magic, conversely, were obviously annoyed at not being able to complete the comeback win. Both though were happy to mix with the fans and VIPs at the after party to end what was a fantastic night and all around experience; bringing to a close our inside look into life in the NBA