My first NBA Playoff Game, Pt 2
After seeing Kevin Frazier (did I mention that he was sporting a brand new US Soccer track jacket?) take his seat at the bottom of my section, a familiar figure walking down the steps caught my eye. I could only see the back of his head from 40 yards away in the dark, but it really really looked like Jozy Altidore's sizable and uniquely shaped dome. Nah, it couldn't be. He just got red-carded for pulling a Zidane on some bloke who threw the ball at that dome in England last week. He's supposed to be reporting to national team camp on the east coast soon. He's not even from SoCal. But, then again, it is a laker playoff game so its possible. The guy got to the bottom of the steps and took his seat in the first row with his friend. As soon as he turned his head, I was pretty sure it was Jozy Freakin Altidore. I'd recognize him anywhere. Good thing my friend brought binoculars. Yeaaaap. Definitely Jozy.
Now there's only a few players on the current US Soccer squad that I think are core to the team. Let's see: Donovan - the face of US Soccer, Clint Dempsey - my personal favorite who's scored 6 goals in the 11 games I've seen in person (Landon only scored 2!), Tim Howard - former EPL goalkeeper of the year, Michael Bradley - stalwart in CM for years to come, Carlos Bocanegra - current captain and UCLA alum, Gooch Onyewu - AC Milan defender and Jozy Altidore. Okay, throw in DaMarcus Beasley, who's currently out of form but still a veteran of 2 World Cups already. But those are it.
So why Jozy? Because he's the answer to the enormous hole at forward vacated by Brian McBride (maybe my favorite US player ever. Has any other player become legendary at their club like McBride is at Fulham? They named their fan pub after him). Because he's on his way to being what Freddy Adu was supposed to be. Because a Spanish team, Villareal, spent a MLS record $10 million to buy him. Because he's the Neo in our matrix. Get it? This 20 year old may very well be a stalwart for us for the next THREE World Cups. I digress.
Naturally, Jozy immediately gets up to talk to Frazier. I must admit, I kept thinking Frazier was Allen Hopkins this entire time because I knew whoever this guy was formerly worked for Foxsports and hey, he was wearing a US Soccer track jacket. Except that I knew that guy's name was Kevin and told my friend so. I just thought that Kevin was Allen Hopkins, even though they look nothing alike. (I can't really explain this but I would guess that Kevin's much better looking. And taller.) Yeah, that's some kind of weirdness, I know. By the way, I have a friend who plays recreational soccer and once told me he played in a match vs Allen Hopkins, probably on Hollywood United. Apparently, Hopkins is a bit of a dirty player. Anyway, I knew something was wrong when Kevin/Allen started hanging out with Pat O'Brien at halftime but it wasn't until I started typing this out that I realized that he was Kevin Frazier, not Kevin Allen Hopkins.
Back to Jozy. I decide that I've got to get an autograph or get a picture with him. That is now my night's mission - nothing else matters. The game was just a means of keeping Jozy seated for a couple more hours so I can plot our meet. My wife has convinced me over the years that its better to have a picture with someone instead of their auto - so that's the goal. Of course, my nice touch screen phone has everything, except a flash. Darn those freakin dimmed laker lights. But, my friend has a blackberry with a flash. Then I ask him if he has a pen. He says, "Do you want ballpoint or Sharpie?". Whaaa? This just cannot get better. I seriously feel like hugging myself. So I shoot off a couple of over-excited texts to my wife and my soccer buddy instead (he and his wife traveled to WC 2006 with us).
So what should I say if I get to him? "Hey, sorry about getting suspended." Umm, no. "Congrats on that goal vs Spain?" Maybe. "Hey, what number are you wearing for the WC so I can get your jersey?" Too stalker-ish. Millions of other conversation starters flooded in. Eh, I'll wing it.
Halftime comes and we figure he'd head up to the concourse for a break. The entire section is now crawling up the stairs. He doesn't move. And the usher is checking tickets for anyone trying to get to the bottom floor. So, I make the call. We're going down. My buddy's a good sport and follows me down, probably expecting to get tasered and thrown out by security after I man-hug Jozy like he just scored on Spain.
The stinkin usher stops me. "I just want to say hi to someone." She's not buying it. Okay, fine. I take step back and the usher turns away. So I lean over and bravely yell, "Jozy!". He's talking to his friend and doesn't hear / ignores me. "Jozy!" He looks. Yes! "Can I get a picture with you?!?" He's comes over. He's only taken one step but I've anointed him as the greatest guy ever.
I mumble something unintellible / dorky about congratulating him on a great start to a career. Ugh. He looks like he wants to get this over with. Then, I think he realizes that I'm wearing an old US Soccer jersey at a laker playoff game. My friend quickly takes a pic and checks it. Jozy actually waits to see if the pic turns out. In the meantime he asks, "Are you enjoying the game so far?". I was so stoked that I didn't even comprehend the question at first. What? What game? He repeats it. So formal and polite. I'm an idiot. At this point, I should've asked him a question that shows what a huge fan of US Soccer I am. You know, one of those awesome questions that I had been planning for the last 45 minutes. Or just told him what I was actually thinking: "I don't even care about this game anymore - I just want to have a cool conversation so I can tell everyone we did". I don't even know what I said. Probably something lame like "good luck this summer". Ugh.
He shakes my friend's hand which I thought was very nice of him. I thank him and head up the stairs. My friend knows I'm excited even though I'm keeping a calm exterior - this laker botox crowd has no idea who Jozy is anyway - so he turns halfway and gives me a congratulatory fist bump. I feel like telling him to check, double check and triple check that he didn't accidentally erase the pic. When we got back to our seats, he accommodatingly emails it to me immediately. I have great friends.
Shoot! I realized that I didn't even ask for his auto. Not on my jersey. Not on my game ticket. Stupid! Oh well. A picture is better than an auto, remember? I'm sure most people would rather pay big bucks for my picture instead of a Altidore signed jersey.
Okay. I know, I know. No, this is not the first athlete I've ever met. I've interviewed Kobe, Malone and Phil Jackson before. I've almost been eaten by Shaq. I've even seen how small Derek Fisher's ... towel is. (Why can't NBA players get beach towel sized bath towels after games? A regular towel around his waist is a hand towel around ours.) And that's just the lakers, not to mention other LA teams as well as random ex-professionals, many of whom won championships, doing analyst work from almost every sport (and some obviously drank before going on TV - ahem Eric Kramer). But that was when it was just a job.
Its a bigger thrill when you meet an athlete on a team of which you're an actual hardcore fan. For me that's UCLA Ball and US Soccer. I classify those two teams differently simply cause they are the only two teams I've ever spent money to travel and see them play. I'll never forget the day I "conducted" Jordan Farmar's press conference when he signed with UCLA (I was told many other media members would show up. Nope, just me). Or the time I interviewed Coach Howland. But even then, they're local and it was still on the job.
This time I randomly met a member of a team that I've been following passionately the past 8 years, mere weeks before their biggest moment. That's what made it awesome. And a little dorky, I know.