I have not been to Dallas since I was 15 or so. I lived in Dallas until I was about nine, when I moved to Houston. It's why I'm a Mavs fan: I got into basketball while I lived in Dallas; I grew up watching Dirk develop. I used to go back to visit Dallas fairly regularly, but stopped as I got older. I have not been to the AAC since I moved away, so I was not aware how poorly designed the downtown Dallas streets are. Getting to the stadium is way more arduous than it has any right to be.
I walk around the bottom floor for a while, credentials in hand, more excited just to be here than anything else. It's 5:45, but tip off against the Nuggets isn't until 7:30, so I have a lot of time. Nothing is really open and only a few non-employees are here. I'd have thought that the place would feel dead, that the employees would be in the sluggish I-have-to-be-at-work mode I'm so used to, just reporting to work, and the lack of anyone else would really kill the atmosphere, but already the stadium feels alive, energized, and expectant. The ushers are gathered around entrances joking (mostly at each other's expense) since it's too early to start ushering fans into the rafters, and they're generally not looking how I tend to look right before I go to work. Maybe their workday has already started, or maybe I'm projecting my own anticipation on to them. But it seems like the employees are as excited to watch the game as I am.
Tim Cato arrives a few minutes later. If you were wondering, he's an incredibly nice person. We immediately go down into the tunnels. We enter through a side door to a stairway right next to the press entrance. It's the kind of door you never, ever notice unless you're conditioned to, and even then, the appearance of it alone suggests, "you don't really want to use this door." But we do, and we go down an elevator next to the stairs.
Elton Brand passes across the tunnel hallway as soon as we get out of the elevator.
"Oh yeah, that's Elton Brand," Tim points out. "You'll get used to that."
I do not believe him.
I am similarly shaken by my first foray into the locker room. We enter to join the press interview of Cuban - which he does on a Stairmaster, but the way - because we were both too late to catch the Carlisle interview. We beat the rest of the press to the locker room, so we're just standing around. Mike James is giving Shawn Marion and Brandan Wright an intense religious pep talk. They all look really interested in the message. I'm mostly interested in the fact that I'm a few feet away from SHAWN FREAKING MARION. THE MATRIX. I am aware, and shocked, that it will only get more intense from here.
The Cuban interview is long and interesting, including a hint that Cuban would like to resign Vince past his current contract. As I'm trying to record Cuban talking from an awkward position behind the Stairmaster, he sweats on me. I'm not sure whether billionaire sweat is any different from normal person sweat. I wonder a little bit if it's anything like fairy dust (actual fairy dust, not the drug). Mostly, I'm just grossed out, because someone has just sweat on me, and that is unpleasant.
We go and get food. Dessert is free. I really, really like Dessert.
The game is near tip off, so we head up to the press box. It's higher up than I expected, but it offers a fantastic top-down view of the x-and-o's of the court movement, which I think is really cool.
The game starts. I learn we are not allowed to cheer.
I do not manage the not-cheering thing very well, at first.
When Marion steps on the court, a personal favorite, I cannot help letting out a little cheer and clap. I realize as soon as I do it that it wasn't kosher, and Tim's looking a little chagrined, but I notice that - at most - everyone around us looks amused, if anything. There almost seems to be something else in the looks I get though. I can't quite place it exactly.
I have another relapse after a particularly monstrous dunk from Manimal. I pop out of my seat and freak out. A long "DAAAAANNNNNGGGGG." The kind of reaction any fan who's not conditioned otherwise would have. I don't particularly regret it. Still, even after my second infraction, I get the same amused-with-something-else look from everyone. No one seems irritated.
More free dessert at halftime. I still really like free dessert.
My third and final relapse occurs in overtime, which only really happened because OmfgJ Mayo went and OJ Mayo'd. But then, OJ hit a really clutch three. I couldn't keep it down; I popped out of my seat again and threw up my fist in exaltation. The guy next to me laughs this time.
"I know, man, I know," he says. "It's really hard. I hate it. I can't cheer when I just go to games as a fan now. I've just shut off whatever lets me cheer. It sucks."
I'm starting to suspect that that extra "something" in everyone's look is longing, maybe nostalgia. Everyone else wants to cheer too, but can't anymore. They want the naiveté that I have that it takes to break those particular rules. But maybe I'm just, again, projecting my thoughts here. But if that's indeed the case, I wouldn't blame them.
The Mavs won, by the way. So that was cool.
After the game, we make another B-Line for the locker room. By the time we made it, Mayo and Marion were already dressed, same with Mike James. Vince (who had played a stellar game), Dirk, and others were still showering. It felt like going to try and catch the actors of a play after its finished. The divas always come out last, so to speak.
The feeling of absolute wonder of being in the same room, the dressing room no less, as OJ Mayo, Brandan Wright, Shawn Marion cannot be overstated. It is amazing. While everyone is hanging around waiting for Vince to come out post-OJ interview, I go and talk to Mike James. We have not exactly been kind to Mike James on here on Moneyball; I've written that I thought he was mediocre, in many ways better than Collison for us, but certainly not the guy we want. Nonetheless, asking Mike James a real basketball question was absolutely thrilling. He gave a generic, clichéd answer, but it was really exciting nonetheless. These are the people that I have celebrated for so long. These are the people I write for.
I realize that I'm excited about Mike James. I want to emphasize: this is such an exciting experience, that I have become excited about Mike James. It is that cool.
In fact, that air of excitement just fills the locker room. When we came in, Mayo and James were going at each other, joking back and forth, taking shots at each other. The rest of the press is getting into it too, throwing the occasional barb in one direction or another. But then the cameras come on, the crowd hustles in on the player, and the excitement dies down. The questions are quiet, the answers subdued and generic. In truth, there isn't much to say after this game. The Mavs won a great game, but we'd already been eliminated. It's just over.
It's hard to reconcile the feeling of the locker room before, during, and after the interviews. After they do the official interviews, the atmosphere goes right back to where it was before they started. Energetic. Thrilled. Really, the press is as big a part of this excitement as the players. Everyone is ecstatic about the win.
Vince comes out next. The same things happen: everyone messes around, does the official interview, then messes around again. Everyone moves away from Vince when they think Dirk might be coming, but I hang around. Someone informs Vince that he tied his career high in offensive rebounds, and he doesn't believe them. I tell Vince that he led both teams in offensive rebounds as well, outperforming both Manimal and Koufos. I don't think he hears me, but I SAID WORDS TO VINCE CARTER. HALF MAN, HALF AMAZING. I still cannot believe this happened.
Dirk comes out next. I don't say anything. There really aren't words for being that close to that man. But it is worth noting that the Dirk interview felt even more ceremonial than the other interviews. More interview-like and less exciting. Which is weird, because this is what we've all been waiting for.
I think the difference between the non-interview atmosphere and the interview atmosphere is the equivalent of the difference between being a fan, and being the press. When the interviews aren't happening, we're all fans. We're excited because the team we love won, and that win is worth celebrating. We get to talk with the players - the people we most admire. But when we have to be the press, that all changes. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. The important thing here is to remember that no matter what, we are fans. We always will be fans. And somewhere, somehow, we will reconcile this difference between fandom, and our responsibility. In fact, we do reconcile this difference, just not in the locker room. We do it in our writing. Because we can't not be fans. At least, not for that long.