Thanking Marty Farmer, the sports editor at the Wednesday Journal, will never be enough. He welcomed me with open arms in February as a sports intern. For the past 10 months, I’ve gained valuable experience as a sports journalist for the Journal.
In addition to all of the wonderful high school sporting events I’ve covered, I had the opportunity to interview Oak Park and River Forest High School alum and current Cleveland Cavaliers guard Iman Shumpert last July at his annual summer camp in town. Listening to him open up about his NBA journey was a special moment for me.
On Dec. 4, 2017, my special moments list hit an all-time high. I represented the Wednesday Journal at the United Center. To say the night was a dream come true would truly be an understatement.
The Cleveland Cavaliers were in town looking to extend their winning streak to 12 games against the Chicago Bulls. The Cavs being in Chicago meant that Shumpert was home.
A few weeks prior to the game, Marty reached out to the Bulls media relations office, requesting a credential so that I could write a story about one of Oak Park’s finest. My mission, which I enthusiastically accepted, was to attend the Cavs-Bulls game, talk to Shumpert, and write a feature story about the 6-foot-5 guard. A day before the Cavs’ scheduled arrival in Chicago, I learned that Shumpert was undergoing knee surgery and would not be traveling with the team.
This meant that I would not have the chance to write the Wednesday Journal’s annual reunion story about Shump. I also figured it meant I would no longer have the chance to head down to the Madhouse on Madison. Maybe next time, I kept telling myself.
Nevertheless, Marty encouraged me to pursue the story; he wasn’t going to let my dream of attending an NBA game as a sports reporter vanish, which is why I’m forever indebted to him. Instead, he suggested that I still attend the game but make the story about my experience at an NBA game.
So come along with me, readers, as I attempt to push back the curtains of what a typical night in the NBA entails.
On Dec. 1, I received a press pass at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Pavilion to cover the OPRF vs. Fenwick boys basketball game. Three nights later, I walked into an even grander setting, Gate 3 ½ at the United Center around 4:45 p.m. and received a press pass.
Talk about a dream weekend for a basketball junkie!
After going through security and picking up my credential, I headed down the stairs to the huge hallway that circles around the arena. Marty used to write for the Bulls, so he insisted I check out the pre-game dinner available to media. There was a lounge area with an all-you-can-eat buffet (I’m a foodie who eats at Skrine Chops every day, so this was a highlight).
There were about a hundred reporters and photographers in the room, eating and socializing before tip-off. I was absolutely the youngest media person in the room. Several other reporters seemed to wonder what I was doing there. I didn’t mind because I was too excited to even bother trying to analyze their reactions.
Rachel Nichols, host of The Jump on ESPN, and K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune were sitting at the tables surrounding me. Being around some of the best in the business felt surreal and sweet.
Following the delicious meal (thank you, United Center chefs), I rotated between hanging out by the locker rooms and watching individual warm-ups. Needless to say, I arrived early to fully take in the night’s events.
Despite being a Bulls fan, I spent almost all of my time by the Cavaliers because, you know, that guy LeBron James is on the team. The press room was adjacent to the Cavs locker room; some Cavs players would come out randomly and grab food from their buffet; some would stay in the locker room and mentally prepare; others would head out to the court to warm up.
I listened in on Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue during a pre-game press conference. I wanted to ask him about Shumpert, but there were dozens of reporters there crowding in front of me. Following two delightful hours of being behind-the-scenes to observe all off the pre-production work involved with an NBA game by players, coaches and reporters alike, it was finally time to head up to the press box on the third level of the UC.
Upon arrival, I noticed a giant TV screen showing seating assignments for reporters. Seeing “Patrick Skrine – Seat 35” was just as incredible as being side-by-side with Dwyane Wade before the game. The timing was perfect—as I walked to the elevator, the Cavaliers trailed behind me, huddling up before running out through the tunnel. There was one player I didn’t see though: King James. As expected, he was the last one to run out, and I was already at my seat by that time.
There were three rows for reporters in the press box. I was sitting by two very nice guys who were in charge of displaying the advertisements on the side of the baskets and on the scorers table. The number one thing I learned that night was how different it is being a media member at a game rather than just a fan. There are so many people working hard behind-the-scenes. The media production efforts are just as noteworthy as the entertainment provided by the players.
With the game started, the entertainment was in full-swing. The home crowd was very quiet, however, throughout the game. The United Center fans only grew loud three times: every time LeBron scored, when Chance the Rapper appeared on the jumbo screen, and when they showed actor/model Taylor Lautner.
It felt like Bulls fans were there solely to watch LeBron rather than the last-place Bulls, winners of just four games. I don’t blame them—watching LeBron play basketball live is unreal. He’s effortlessly smooth and a freak athlete.
My seat, while high up from the court, had a special lens. I was among professional reporters who all had a unique outlook on the game. As aforementioned, it was inspiring and humbling to have the opportunity to be on such a platform.
Not surprisingly, the Cavaliers coasted to a 113-91 win as LeBron finished with 23 points, seven rebounds and six assists. I hurriedly filed into their locker room with the other reporters for post-game quotes and observations.
I was in the same room with the greatest basketball player in the world. I’m a reporter from his perspective, but the basketball fan inside of me was stunned to be in the presence of a global icon. LeBron, Wade, J.R. Smith, Jae Crowder, and Kevin Love were all smiles after the win, cracking jokes and talking about how hungry they were.
LeBron and Wade eventually both went in the hallway for their interviews due to the media’s high demand. I listened in on their pressers for a few minutes, but I knew it would be difficult to ask one of them a question since I don’t have priority over Rachel Nichols.
So I capitalized on my opportunity and did a 1-on-1 interview with one of my favorite NBA players: Kyle Korver. What a moment. I didn’t use my voice recorder for this one.
Personally, when an experience like this comes around, I soak it in. I’m not the guy at the concert holding my phone up the whole time. I’m the one relishing in the moment.
And that’s what I did with Korver. He was so humble and so kind to me; no arrogance written on him at all. I asked him what his team did tonight to continue the win streak considering it would be easy to get complacent against an overmatched Bulls squad.
“We’re doing a good job of focusing on ourselves,” Korver said about the Cavs’ consistency. “We like the way we’re playing so we want to keep that level of intensity going regardless of who we play.”
I also asked him what it’s like to play with the greatest basketball player on the planet.
“He loves the one-handed rifle passes,” Korver said about LeBron. “His vision is incredible and he somehow always finds a way to make the impossible pass. As a shooter, he makes my job a lot easier.”
Korver was a class act, giving me eye contact during the entire interview. Successfully conducting an interview with a player I used to model my game after was such a confidence boost. I thanked him for his time and the Cavs packed up and headed to their bus.
Bulls players walked past me with disappointed expressions. Reporters went to the press room and began working on stories.
Around 10 p.m., I exited the United Center and hopped in my dad’s car.
The last thing I heard was LeBron yell down the hallway,
“Home, home, home we go!”
Although it was just another night in the life of LeBron James, it was the night of a lifetime for me. Just a college kid living out his dream by attending an NBA game as a sports reporter. I went to bed with a big smile that night.
It was back to reality once I left the United Center; however, hopefully it’s just the beginning. For the players, they either went home that night (Bulls) or grabbed a late flight (Cavaliers) to prepare for the following day in the NBA life.
I cherished the experience on that warm December evening and will always remember it as I continue to chase my dreams.
Thank you, Marty.