Almost Chatting with Top Draft Prospects

OK, so here's what happened yesterday afternoon when we all weren't chatting with some of the top picks in this year's draft.

It started when I got to the ESPN Zone in Times Square, where everything was happening. There was a lot going on. ESPN Radio, ESPN TV, ESPN lounge chairs. Everyone was very nice, and hustled to make things comfortable.

Don't make me go into the whole internet-connection-not-working details. Those stories are all the same, and they're all kind of sad, right?

Mike Conley, Jr.
So, after Mike Conley, Jr. arrived, and things still weren't right internet-wise, eventually I just turned to him, grabbed my notebook, and said forget it. We'll do this the old fashioned way.

Mike Conley, Jr.Which meant I was about to spend the next hour and a half, mano a mano, with NBA draft prospects, and I really hadn't prepared one single question. Hadn't done my homework, other than what I read online every day.

I made things especially hard for myself by leading off with a question that went something like, "So, I know you have been interviewed ten million times already today, and I promise not to ask you the same stupid questions everyone else has been asking you time and again like 'What's it going to be like not to play with Greg Oden?'"

See, that's a good question and all -- it establishes a certain "let's be real" tone -- but it makes you look pretty stupid if you don't actually have all that much to talk about. I was now disqualified from asking anything but stellar and insightful questions.

And I really only had one little tiny bit of insight that wasn't really common knowledge. I had heard that Greg Oden and Mike Conley, Jr. were really into the movie Stomp the Yard. So I trotted out that fact and prayed for some kind of connection.


Conley was thrilled to be talking about this: "We watched that movie a lot. You should see us back in the dorm room. We had all the moves perfected. We must have watched that movie five or six times."

Not too long later, Greg Oden strayed in. He was due to do a phone interview across the room, but I barked out that I heard he was ready to "Stomp the Yard," and sure enough he did. Well, he did something. It looked pretty smooth and agile for a big guy, although it wasn't a move I could really describe -- other than to say he wasn't chicken about it. He did that move.

Talking to Conley, however, it also became clear that these two were not holding out hope that they might be NBA teammates. That dream is over for now. Mike said he was sure they can handle it, because they have played on different teams before ... in practice. In practice? That's it? That's the only time they haven't played together? Wow.

Corey Brewer
Then Corey Brewer arrived and it was shift change time. Undaunted, I decided to repeat my idiotic "let's make fun of the other reporters" opening line. This time he and I agreed that just about the stupidest most over-asked questions were "what's the difference between college and the NBA" (Corey's hypothetical response: "I haven't even played in the NBA!") and "what's it going to be like to not play with your Gator teammates?"

Corey BrewerI then proceeded, according to my notes at least (did I really?) to spend at least ten of the fifteen minutes asking him about not playing with his Gator teammates.

He played along nicely. The key quote: "We had to go through so much. We were together 24/7. We kind of got to know each other like brothers. I mean really like brothers. You form a bond. And then it all becomes about the team, and each other, and knowing your role."

Will he get that in the NBA? Who knows, right? His idea is that you do your best to make it happen again. What more can he say?

He also told me that in workouts he had gone up against Al Thornton five straight times. That's like a playoff series. He also saw plenty of Thaddeus Young.

Oh, and his personal possessions are all stashed away in Tennessee somewhere. Whenever he finds a place wherever he is moving, he'll get it shipped.

Which makes me think: wow. These guys have been living on the road since the pre-draft camp, not even having time to do laundry, and the day after the draft these high picks will all fly to their new cities to be introduced. Then they have to start impressing coaches and all that in the quest for playing time and community support. Then it's summer league.

And none of them even really know how they're supposed to find somewhere to live, nor who will help them. The team? The agent? All TBD according to several players I talked to today.

When do you get to relax again, and see your own ... (what do college students own ... lamps? laundry detergent? bottle openers?) stuff? Corey said that if he found a break in the schedule, he'd take his deep breath in Tennessee. That's what he's shooting for.

Other topics Corey and I covered: has he talked to Rasheed Wallace? (They share an agent.) The answer is not yet, but Corey would love to, because he really likes Rasheed. He'd also like to talk to Florida guys like David Lee (a legend in the minds of all three Gators, it's clear) and Mike Miller. And if he could ask the media a question, it would be "do you like starting controversy?" He has found that some reporters like to cover the story, and some others try to trick people into fights, by asking stuff like "who's better: Joakim Noah or Al Horford?"

We even (it was a busy 15 minutes) managed to establish from Corey that if Conley and Oden start to Stomp the Yard at some point, "I'll get in with them," says Brewer.

I smell a half-time show at next year's rookie game.

I remarked to Brewer, at the end, that it seemed like a lot of the newest NBA players (this year's class and last year's) were not much about self promotion, and were more into the team concept than a lot of NBA players. "It's a new breed!" he announced. "It's about winning championships! We're going to be like Tim Duncan and win titles!"

Music to my ears as a basketball fan, but someone somewhere is hoping that, for marketing purposes, all these young players do not emulate Duncan.

Joakim Noah
Enter Joakim Noah.

Honestly, this was the conversation that I'll be remembering for years to come. Based on the next 15 minutes, Noah is easily one of my favorite players in the world.

I finally abandoned the "stupid question" opening and went instead with a tale from David Thorpe. David has been using Joakim Noah, in conversations over the last two or so years, as the prime example of a great teammate. His biggest point is look: every time the TV cameras are on, there's Joakim talking up someone besides himself. And it's true. It's always: look how great Corey Brewer is. Look how great Al Horford is. Let me tell you how hard my dad worked. Stuff like that.

David is of the opinion, and I'm inclined to agree, that it's a rare player indeed who makes it his primary mission to lift up his teammates. And players like that are catalysts for teams that are teams.

I think back to what Brewer had told me moments before: "We had to go through so much. We were together 24/7. We kind of got to know each other like brothers. ..." And you know what? Every college team has those opportunities to bond. But the vast majority never achieve noteworthy roster-wide selflessn

You have to have special people, people who are amenable to caring for others, to make that happen. And all the Gators I met get credit for that. But you also have to have the real leader to establish that the thing the team will do is be good to each other.

It's impossible to spend 15 minutes one-on-one in ESPN Zone with Joakim Noah and not think he's that guy.

Anyway, I opened with that tale. And Joakim took a deep breath, and said "Wow. That's love. Not a lot of people pay attention to that on that level."

Then he immediately, ironically, and I think subconsciously, spread the credit out to his team: "That's just who we are. You realize you have to sacrifice in order to get ahead in a team sport."

Now, of course, the key realization is that things are different in the NBA. As rare as that kind of teamwork is in college, it's even rarer in the NBA. Can Joakim make it happen at the next level? Does he even intend to try?

"I'm not sure," he said. "I have never played in the NBA. And I'm a rookie. I'll do a lot of listening. But I know I'll play hard every day. And I know I hate to lose. Those things are part of my character. I hate to lose. The next morning is the worst. It just kills me. And winning takes teamwork. Also, I don't think you should ever be afraid to be vocal, if you have something to say."

At this point his phone rang. He glanced down at the screen and asked "do you mind if I take this?"

I had no problem with it. He picked up and launched into French. I could kind of follow along, but it was tough channeling my inner 11th grader. But then he suddenly lapsed into English. "My suit," he says, "is SO funky. You are going to say 'I am proud of my son.' I'm going to be looking like Al Green."

His dad, retired tennis star and gap-toothed, mega-selling Euro pop star Yannick Noah is, Joakim says, playing to 20,000 people somewhere in France tomorrow and can't make the draft. (But Joakim's grandfather is in town from Cameroon, where Joakim visits him every year. They have bought him a suit and he's going to be looking good, too.)

Phone call over, we got back to how much he hates losing.

He remembers clearly how Florida nearly lost to Georgetown two years ago in the tournament. "They missed a wide open jumper. That shot goes down, and we are out, and we never get to be what some people are running around calling the greatest college team of all time. We're not talking about repeats, and probably we're not sitting here getting ready for the draft."

As much as it should not be so, it's amazing how playing well in the NCAA tournament helps your draft stock. It is not lost on me that five of the six players I'm seeing at the ESPN Zone (counting Oden, whom I did not interview, but did see dance) played in the title game.

GMs and owners watch those games, I guess.

At some point around here I stopped taking notes. It just ceased being an interview. We were just two people who had met each other and liked talking. The journalist inside me is not proud of this, but it is what it is. It doesn't happen often, and it's always good to make friends.

And I'm telling you: it's CRAZY to judge this Joakim Noah by height, weight, points per game, or the arc on his jumper. You get this guy on your team because he gives you at worst a puncher's chance at becoming a real team. And he'll play his a-- off too.

Kevin Durant
While Joakim and I were wrapping up, Durant was across the way doing a phone interview. He was so ... steely. Joakim and I were giggly schoolgirls to his gunslinger. He's just the cat over there at the bar watching everything unfold, hoping he won't have to get up out of his seat to kill you.

Kevin DurantHe's not calling his dad to brag about funky suits.

His nickname, I am certain, must become "Killer." (If you prefer something else ... you tell him.)

He sidled over and plopped down. I felt for the guy. He's not even 19. He has been telling boring stories about himself for two days straight. And he's tired. This was the last stop of the day.

Thus began one of the most difficult interviews of my professional career.

I was now in my rhythm ... no opening by making fun of dumb questions! Instead, I opened with an anecdote. One from a TrueHoop-reading University of Texas student, that I posted the other day, about playing pickup with Durant.

In the middle of this story, Durant turned to his personal communication device and started clacking away at the keys.

I stopped.

He had arrived early, when I was to have had a break. Amazingly this whole thing was not only on schedule, but ahead of schedule. We had 25 minutes until Al Horford was due.

So I said, hey, why don't you take a few minutes? We can start whenever.

He said (without looking up or stopping his work on the keyboard), no, it's cool.

I finished the tale. He said "wait, what happened?"

I summarized. He said he didn't remember. I asked him if he ever played pickup basketball at the University of Texas. He said only with teammates.

Somebody has some explaining to do.

I moved right along, and asked him about the story in today's New York Times about the time he kept score while the managers played. He was sincere on this one, and seemed to really care: "They had done so much for us all season, and I knew they would get a kick out of it if I did that. Besides, I was addicted to watching them play. It was so funny."

I then tried to enlist his help in settling one of the bigger draft questions: will Durant play three or four in the NBA? Everyone has been saying all along that he's the perfect fit in Portland because they need a small forward. But some smart people tell me he's better as a power forward (where, for the moment at least, Portland is way deep with Zach Ranolph and LaMarcus Aldridge). His offense mainly starts in the post anyway, and if he's guarding most power forwards, he's less likely to have to exhaust himself, and pick up fouls, running around screens all night.

Then, as further evidence, I showed him the official NBA Draft Media Guide, which lists him as the top prospect in the draft among power forwards.

I handed it over. He took it. And proceeded to read it for the rest of our time together. I felt like I was talking to a teenager. And I was.

We still covered a fair amount of ground, though:

  • He explained why, even though he spends a lot of time on the perimeter, he tends to catch the ball while posting up: "It's easier to catch it there, and then you can move away, or maybe something will happen and you'll get a layup." I pointed out that that was like Kobe, and he cracked a big smile and said, "yup." He had been thinking that same thing. Not too many smiles in this interview. You have to enjoy them.
  • He said that he got his drivers' license a few weeks ago because he wanted to start driving. Having his mom drive him everywhere had gotten old. And, yes, he bummed rides all the way through a year of college, even though he's way too big to squeeze comfortably into most back seats.
  • He said that it was a very real consideration that he might to back to college for another year, because he loved college. "It was hard," he said. "I love the people. I loved meeting new people every day."
  • He said that he admires LaMarcus Aldr
    idge and listened to everything LA had to say. He said that a couple of weeks ago the two played against each other, and while the personal battle was a tie (they were going hard at each other, says Durant) Aldridge's team won. He also said that LaMarcus had told him wonderful things about Portland. Then, by interpreting his tone of voice, I swear he stopped just short of saying "but that doesn't matter" or something like that. I get the distinct impression Kevin Durant thinks he's going to Seattle.
  • He said "my mom kind of did that" when I asked how he chose Aaron Goodwin as his agent.
  • He said he does not have a shoe deal yet.
  • He said he knows William Wesley and talks to LeBron James, who tells him to keep working on his game and getting better all the time.
  • He said he listens to Lil Wayne .
  • He said he is on board with the idea that a lot of young players are very team-oriented. "Everybody wants that ring! Can't be about yourself."
  • He said that he grew up a Raptor fan because of Vince Carter, whom he has met, but if the Wizards take Nick Young he'll root for the Wizards. Yes, even though he'll play for a competitor at that point.

He read the media guide through all that somehow. I got used to it. And every now and then he'd call out something like "Donyell Marshall was a second round pick?" (And this proves to be a mis-reading: Donny Marshall was a second-rounder in '95. Donyell was fourth overall in '94.)

Then, just near the end of our twenty-five minutes, the TV in the corner of the room showed something that made Durant's face light up with joy. "Look!" he said. It's an EA Sports commercial with Gilbert Arenas and ... Kevin Durant. We go silent. "I have never seen that before," he said. (Does this count as history? I was there with KD the first time he sees himself in his first commercial.)

Al HorfordAl Horford
The Durant interview had thrown me for something of a loop. For one thing, I had been interviewing for a while at that point. I was a veritable David Letterman, without the writing staff (or the comedy, backing band, fast cars, and mom in Indiana). I needed some water, or speed, or something.

What's more, his apparent disdain for the interview process made me feel just a tad like the cub reporter for the college radio station again -- terrified that the batteries would run out, asking the stiffest questions imaginable.

But Joakim had fired me up on the topic of teammates, so I plunged in with those kinds of questions for Big Al. He too was genuine as hell: "It's the only way we know to act. So unselfish. Those guys always want to see the other guy do really well, and try to bring each other up. We get on each other sometimes, but it's not negative. It's all about respect. We play around and joke, but when the ball goes up between the lines, we have so much respect for each other."

Al Horford admitted that he is not as vocal as Joakim. Few are! But he was not bashful, he pointed out, about leading by example.

Then we got to the part of the interview where I try hard to think of suitable topics.

  • I asked him if he heard that Billy Knight has said, essentially, that he might pick Al Horford because his butt is wide. I am not making this up. Horford's eyes go wide. "What?" I repeat myself. He is quiet, and shakes his head. "That's crazy."
  • I asked him to forget NBA teams for a while, and just talk cities. Did he get to like any of them? He said he barely left the hotel as he worked out everywhere. He saw a tiny bit of Minneapolis and Boston. But he has been to Atlanta a million times and likes it a lot.
  • He said his pre-draft workouts were partly in Florida with his college coaching staff, and partly in Seattle with agent Aaron Goodwin's people, Eric and Tim. They did some crazy stuff with him, he said, and he feels like it has really helped a lot. He said that he's also now trying to eat a lot more vegetables, to become one of those guys who can stay really healthy and perform at a high level all the time.
  • Out of the blue I asked him if he knew of any basketball players who used performance enhancing drugs. It was getting late. "Not that I'm aware of," he said, while allowing that beyond his sphere of knowledge "there might be some guys out there."
  • He told me that all of his personal belongings were at a friend's house in Florida, and he had no idea when he'd be able to go get them again.

And on that note: boom. Time's up. Show over. Everyone shook hands, and packed up, and headed off into Times Square to see what happens next. And tomorrow? I'm rooting for all of them to head somewhere where they can be happy. (And I'm relieved that there's a player for whom that could be Atlanta.)