USA Basketball Stalking Tour: 2006

When the announcement came out that the National team was scheduled to practice in the Raleigh/Durham area, I pondered making the trip but quickly came to my senses.

Then, of course, I caved. An evil friend from Iowa said SHE was going, and there was NO WAY I was going to let someone from Iowa one-up a New Yorker…. An Orbitz ticket and aPriceline car/hotel later, and voila! I was in North Carolina.

Part 1
Arrived safely at the Raleigh/Durham airport and took a long trip to pick up the rental car.

 

It’s a small world insert: waiting for the rental car, the guy behind the desk notes my WNBA bag. We get to talking… he wants to know my 5 top W players. Then it evolves into who’s got the best fundamentals (I’m treading water there), then into bounce passes (he was a point guard back in the day). He loved the way Rebecca Lobo caught a bounce pass.

Later, a gentleman walks in to drop off his car. We strike up a conversation (it’s a pathological thing with me, striking up conversations with strangers) and it turns out he’s a Philly kid. Knows, and has worked with, Dawn Staley for years. He can’t say enough about Dawn the player but, more importantly, Dawn the person. He’s a huge fan, and honors her for all she gives back to his neighborhood.

First open practice: North Carolina State 
Okay, so who’s in charge of the signage at NC State? We saw much of the “under renovation” campus before we stumbled on Reynolds Arena. Surprisingly subtle, compared to the open air extravaganza of the RBC stadium area. (No, don’t ask why we were out there first, though it was cool to see).

Dumb luck found us a parking spot right by a sign that said “Women’s Basketball.” We walked in to the arena and the gentleman at the desk knew exactly what we were looking for. Up the stairs we went, the squeak of basketballs and sneakers on the court guiding us, and then Ta Da! the USA Basketball team appeared below.

Lots of people in the stands. I was, admittedly, very surprised. Not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t 500-600 people. Kudos to the hosting colleges and USA Basketball (is this Val’s influence, I wonder?). Everyone entering got a flyer advertising the upcoming game vs. Australia, along with the other 2 open practices.

 

Historical note insert: 2000. NYC. The US team is preparing for the Olympics. They have a meet and greet at the NBA store (remember when W players did that during the season?). Basically, no fans show up.

I overhear a discussion about a scrimmage (closed) at John Jay College. Wrangle a couple of my friends into joining me, and we walk up to John Jay, wander in to the college (clearly, pre-9/11), slouch our way towards the gym, book bags in hand, and then wander in, sorta asking “so, what’s going on here?”

We join a couple of interested bystanders on the bleachers, and watch the team maul the Hungarians. Lena Williams (former Liberty beat reporter for the NY “use the internet if you want coverage of women’s basketball” Times) was there, and wrote about the team. I whined, “Too bad this wasn’t open to the public.” Coincidence? I don’t THINK so!

Back to our regular programming: The open practice.Like most every women’s basketball audience, the range in age, size and shape was profound. Saw some Sting t-shirts, and Orlando All-Star t-shirts, and several kids sporting various AAU- type shirts. Clearly, some coaches in the stands, too, taking notes.

The practice was NOT a “media” event (all I saw were the NBA TV guys I recognized from back in the day at the Garden). Nor was it a walk-in-the-park fan event “open practice.” There was a sense of focus and purpose throughout — taking advantage of every moment and moving efficiently through the drills. ALL the coaches were actively involved, and there was some on-the-ball (no pun intended) ball management by the aides to make sure balls were in the hands of players ASAP and when needed.

Notes: 
– Seimone was on the court. No Leslie, but Tina was in the house. Must say, without the lipstick and TV close up, she’s tougher to identify.

– Watching Mike T. play defense in the post on Snow and Tina was pretty funny. He sorta had to stretch to push his arm bar into the small of their backs. And there was some serious pushing.

– Parker threw down a couple of dunks with the greatest of ease. It was like she simply needed to stretch, like an elegant giraffe. It caused some buzz in the stands, but no one on the court gave it no never mind.

– Gail G has a new hairdo.

– Was the team trying to make weight? The arena was a friggin’ SWEAT box.

– All drills, not scrimmage… working on coming off picks and delivering the ball.

– Autographs post-practice quickly organized and lasted for a timed amount. Every station was mobbed. WNBA basketballs, Storm t-shirts, small shiny red-white-and-blue basketballs were in evidence. I must admit, tho, the yellow flyers clutched in the hands of the 4-years-olds were my favorite… they had no idea what was going on, but they had a great time. Wonderful watching the players take care of the little ones…Once the buzzer sounded, most of the players scooted. Understandable, what with the heat and the fact it was their second practice of the day.

– Friend of mine had one of the “jersey cards” for the players to sign. Handing it to Sheryl for her to sign, Tina looks over and says, “What’s that, a scratch and sniff?” Friend is looking forward to getting her Taurasi “jersey card” signed, and telling DT, “Don’t forget to tell Tina that YOU have a scratch and sniff card, too.” I’m sure DT will be confused, but I’m laying odds she’ll say something to TT…

– A teenager carrying the card that she wants to get autographed walking the arena, saying “All I want is to get Sheryl Swoopes.”

– The NBA TV director saying, “Kay Yow in the house. How great is that.”

– Liberty fans who remember ’97-98: Trina Trice (Hill) was in the house (she’s a 3rd year assistant at NC State) She was kind enough to guide us to a sports bar so we could watch the Finals… she was going to go hide in her office and watch. Couldn’t get her to admit to a favorite, cause she has a friend on the Shock, and Walker is a Virginia girl.

– Watching Anne Donovan and Yow chatting it up: History.

– Watching Anne and Dawn walking across the court, talking… Dawn peering up, Anne stretching down: Comical.

– After practice, Dawn Staley holding court with all the NC State players on the sidelines: Classic.

Off to UNC tonight!!!

Part 2
For anyone keeping track, NC State will start the season up 1-0 on North Carolina.

Showed up in a timely manner in the land of powder blue… oh, EXCUSE me, North Carolina Blue, and found that they were busy keeping up with the Joneses (aka NC State), so there was plenty of construction going on. Signage was equally subtle, so we did a tour through the middle of campus, pausing often in order to avoid blue clothed human beings, and entered an area labeled “Historic District.” I was, of course, looking for Victorian and older, but saw houses closer to the 30’s/GI bill era. Anyone care to enlighten?

A quick u-turn on a gravel road returned us to the center of campus… Was intrigued to see that a sign that, because of where we stopped, looked like: “ISTRY & ZOOLOGY BOOKSTORE.” I was hoping for Ministry and Zoology. No such luck. Disappointingly, it was Chemistry & Zoology. Would have made good story, though, wouldn’t it?

Lucked out with parking right on the main drag… granted, it was metered, but we thought, heck, it’s 5.30, what’s a quarter? Then we got some serious sticker shock: 25 cents for 12 MINUTES!!! And the meters ran through 9pm. Say WHAT??? I thought I was back in New York. And then realized even NYC wasn’t that bad…

We quickly exited our spot and drove around to find vacated faculty parking. For free.

A couple of false starts down some stairs eventually led us onto the soccer field (with sexy powde….ooops, Carolina Blue sidelines). Odd though, we could get on but we couldn’t get out. Had to climb a wall to reach the not Dean Smith Arena… wandered in. No one around, but some series of trusting souls had left all their gear along the front hall walls. NOT IN NEW YORK!! reminder.

Entered the arena — it was all but empty. Darkish seating area, the court shiny, but seemingly dim-lit. Sat next to a father and his son. He’d picked up his son at 3:30 from school and they’d driven over to avoid the traffic. Dad wanted his son to understand all the options that were out there and how hard you had to work to achieve them. Dad knew the college players more than the pros … talked about Augustus, loved DT… was great to see him walk over to where the NC team (some of ’em) was sitting and ask Latta if he could take a photo of her and his son.

Must say the son was very gracious and grown up, for what seemed to be his 12 years of age. Patient, friendly and attentive to all that went on.

Some fans filled in — I’d say about 75 total. Lots of that blue color.

Arena has a very interesting feel to it — don’t know how bright the stands get, but there is a clear energy focused on the court. And it’s clearly the women’s court, now that the boys play in the big, modern building… 3 banks of permanent seating, 1 set of pull out bleachers… Hanging from the ceiling, the ’94 championship banner and portraits of UNC women’s players from Mann to Reid…. very cool.

As the US team came on the court, it sounded like theNike Freestyle commercial.

At first I thought the players were just getting used to the traction of a new court? New sneakers? New varnish job? Then it became clear that something was actually on the court… not sure the maintenance crew believed’em, but the USA aides and coaches were all over the court pointing out something… may be that the humidity had made the floor sweat? Honestly don’t know, but there WAS a leak, so the practice was run with a couple of towels on the floor.

More drills — lots of outside shooting. Again, impressed with the focus and .. I wanted to say business-like manner, but it was more like a total lack of superfluous action… yes, there were the hand pats, yes there were the “nice”, but there was not a lot of frivolity — moments, yes, but quick and almost private. Practice was cut short – dunno if it was because they couldn’t run the full-court- 3-passes-don’t-touch-the-ground-layup drill or because they just wanted to get done.

Autographs were done — this time a long bank of tables across the front of the court. Clearly someone KNEW they weren’t going to get the amount of people they got at NC State. Don’t know how, though. Could be the 6 o’clock start and the threat of hurricane, but that doesn’t account for it… which is why I say NC State is one-up on NC… they turned out the vote.

Of note: Star, a woman between 50 and 60 years of age. Seems she’d come over from UNC rehab. Had had some sort of viral meningitis that had all but crippled her and rendered her speechless for 9 years. Finally diagnosed and she’d relearned to walk, talk and eat. Didn’t know much about women’s basketball, but was thrilled beyond words to be there… be living… and revel in her ability to climb stairs. I made sure to get Dawn to chat with her — gracious and strong as ever, was Ms. Staley.

Watched the team slowly exit the arena.. ice everywhere — all over Tina’s legs, around Cappie’s knees, on Sheryl and DT’s back… but nothing outrageous… gotta say, Delisha sure has a brilliant smile.

Someone’s munchkin was in the house… clearly an ex-player that all the team knew — couldn’t get close enough to see who it was, but it was a joy watching the entire team interact with the kid. Looked to be ’bout a year and a half, and could all but sneak between Catch’s legs. I know kids at the arena isn’t unusual to women’s basketball — does it happen on the men’s side?

Wandered back to the room — the rain falling a tad more enthusiastically than we were really comfortable with, but no harm done.

Looking forward to something that looks like the sun appearing tomorrow… cross d’em fingers.

Notes of random import
– A shout out to Mercy who drove up from NJ to catch the two practices. Somehow she figured out we were Rebkell.net posters and said “hi.” Then hopped into her car and made the 8-hour journey home.

– Is there a rule about bands of young men jogging without their shirts on? ‘Cause it sure seemed like there’s a whole bunch of ’em around here.

– Catchings claims she wasn’t the one who sent Augustus to the hospital. Unwilling to point the finger at her teammates, she then claimed it was… one of the male practice players. Uh huh. We believe you Catch. Really.

– Yes, my friend DID get DT to sign her “scratch and sniff” jersey piece card. Good fortune placed DT next to Tina — so Diana promptly looked at Tina, scratched it, took a deep whiff and said, “It smells GREAT!”

Part 3
Note for the Oxford Dictionary: Just wanted to start out by saying that visiting the Duke campus for the National team’s third open practice officially pushed this trip into the realm of a “Stalking Tour.” By (my) definition, a trip that involves one traveling to two or more basketball venues to see “your” team qualifies.

A trip from NYC to DC, on the other hand, is just a Road Trip. No disrespect intended to wbball travelers, but having seen Pluto recently demoted to a Dwarf Planet, it became clear that we (the royal we, of course) needed to codify the definitions we use.

Before we reached the Duke campus, we had two days off to recover from session one and two. Hurricane/Tropical Depression/Rain Storm Ernesto honored us with lots and lots of rain, so we of course, went to see a movie. Ah, the Devil DOES Wear Prada. All hail the Meryl!! Having just seen her live at the Public Theater in Mother Courage just reinforced the amazingness that is her acting.

Another plus? In Carolina, a $10.50 movie goes for $5.50. Who says there’s no bargains in travel anymore… “That’s all.”

Drove back over to Damon’s to catch the Detroit/Sacto game and, pulling in to the parking lot, we realize DOH! It’s Friday — it’s packed. Had a feeling that they’d resist putting on ESPN2, and that feeling was confirmed. *pained look on maitre d’s face* “Sorry.” Yeah, right, women’s sports apathy in action.

Momentarily stuck, we stood out in the rain and pondered our options — did we know any sports bars in the area? (HA!) Might a gay bar in town have the game on? (On a Friday? HA! HA!) At a loss, we drove out of the parking lot and by total chance, came across a Ramada. Brakes screeched (ok. fine. I exaggerate a bit. sue me) and in we go to plead for some basketball.

Turns out a big family reunion is just wrapping up, and we’ve got the big screen TV all to ourselves. We dine, watch the game, and get a kick out of the waitress who is drawn in to watching. Finished eating, we move closer to the TV, and a gentleman (who’s pulling for Bill L ’cause he loved him as a player) offers to turn up the sound. Sacramento loses its mind and implodes, Katie hits a killer three, and it’s all tied up.

Saturday was stunning. This big yellow thing in the sky appeared and birds were singing. ROAD TRIP!! Off we went to check out Danville, Virginia where we had, as mom might say, aVictorian House orgy. WOWZA!!

Clearly Danville was something special in its heyday (cotton, tobacco, power). Hard times hit, but there are hints of a revival. With mutterings of its own “Research Triangle” in the warehouse district, Main Street is full of Victorians rescued by the optimistic and somewhat insane. Even the side streets have hidden treasures. Long chat with a gentleman – a lawyer from Northern Virginia. He and his wife bought the Victorian he was working on at an auction. They’ve been working on it for five years, and expect to be done in another five. Weekend workers, doing it themselves.

The work involves lots of scavenging — part of their new porch roof is made of slate tiles rescued from the dump. The back porch ironwork is made up of the remnants of the old front porch. The front porch is from another abandoned house…. He was busy laying the tile of the front porch, carefully cutting and matching the pieces. Says there’s not really people who know how to do all the work — but it’s clear he loves it.

Down the street, two workers — older gentlemen — were finishing up a contract roofing job on a wacky Victorian turret. We struck up a conversation as we played gawking tourists with cameras walking down the street. On the way back up the street, one of the workers invited us over to check out the stunning stained glass at the back of the house. Such great pride in their work, and willing to talk about the details…..

Later in the afternoon, we did a quick tour through the Danville Museum, but like little kids who’ve eaten too much candy, we were pretty much done. Definitely worth a return trip. Actually have an invite from the lawyer-carpenter to visit in a year. Might have to take him up on it!

By the way, if you’re interested and aren’t busy for the next couple of years, a couple of Victorians in need of some care and attention are up for sale.

The Day of Duke arrived and the sun was still shining. Driving over, another oddity to add to the young men running without shirts: abandoned cars. Is this some sort of North Carolinian tradition? I swear, I saw more deserted cars by the side of the road in 5 days than I’ve seen in a month of Sundays. (Ponder moment: Is that four Sundays, or 28-29-30-31 Sundays?)

In the Land of Duke they apparently don’t know the Joneses — or don’t care what they’re up to — ’cause there was no construction. Found Cameron with a minimum use of gas, and appreciated that the *uh-oh* metered parking was only for weekdays.

Campus was very quiet. We were early, but we wanted in, so we wandered around the arena tugging on locked doors. Read about Coach Cameron, paused on a lovely bench, then followed a couple of other tourist types as they disappeared into the arena.

Observation: Anyone who’s been to Duke knows about the architecture: Impressive, fortress-like stone buildings echoing back to an early era. It’s odd, though, about Cameron. You don’t FEEL like you’re going into an athletic venue — you feel like you’re going into a London library — the thick, blonde/oak heavy doors adding to the illusion.

Cameron – Their ACC, championship, AP rankings continue the scholastic scheme — they look to be of paper and hang like scrolls. Very nice to see Beard’s jersey up there. Air-conditioning ON! (bravo!) No leaks. (even better!)

Perched myself on a folded bleacher corner and watch a couple of players do some work. A male transfer player (I think) and a woman working on her threes. I think the/a football coach was working with transfer player’s footwork as well as a younger – 13ish? girl and young 9ish? boy.

As Duke student-staff prepped the floor, tourists dropped in and out to take peek at the arena. A 60-year Dukie (as the woman described herself) was giving a Rutgers couple the tour (husband was wearing an RU cap). I, of course, struck up a conversation. We talked basketball — they couldn’t stay for the practice because of dinner plans — but he related a great Cappie story — a reversal of the traditional “fan” story.

She and another player were having dinner out, and this couple recognized them both. He went over to congratulate them on their seasons/careers and thank them for all the good times they’d shared. Husband left them to finish up their dinner, and started his. Later, waiter comes over and tells him that his next round of drinks was paid for by those two young ladies they’d been speaking with. By that time, of course, Cappie and pal had slipped away into the evening….

That trio left, and another foursome appeared — looked like a couple with the in-laws. Clearly impressed with the arena, Mr. In-Law spotted a deserted basketball. Like a kid sneaking into a cookie jar, he said, “I’ve GOT to make a basket on this court.” He scooped up the basketball, and did just that.

I, of course, made him repeat the action so I could take a photo and email it to him. He obliged, and then his son-in-law got over his “omigodwe’regoingtogetintotrouble” fears and copied him. I got their emails and the photos are on the way. Jimmy Olsen, look out!!

Fans started filing in to the permanent seating overlooking the court around 4:30ish. While there weren’t as many as at NC State, there were at least 300, easily beating out UNC.

Little boy (7?) watching the couple of guys going one-on-one on the court wonders aloud, “Why are the boys on the court?” Later on, he sees a little girl (5?) running laps around the court. Sounding not impressed, he says, “I can run faster than that little girl.” She picks up a stray basketball and starts to bounce it… again, the elder statesman speaks: “Does she know she can’t keep that ball?”

Speaking of little ones, a correction from my previous post — the little man running around court is Tina’s. I kept on denying it, because he was born such a short time ago, but there he was, stomping his little legs around the arena. I can only imagine what it will be like for him to be raised by a Pack ‘o Players (see Sheryl’s Jordan). Clearly personable, he shows signs of having a crush on Dawn.

Tina was walking in, followed by little man, when little man loses his hard-earned balance and plunks to his knees. He looks like he’s pondering a wail. TT looks at him, having none of it, and waves at him to stand up. He takes a breath in preparation to sound off, when a basketball, rolled towards him by Dawn, bumps into him. Enthralled, he forgets his dismay and proceeds to engage Dawn in a serious game of “You push the ball to me, I push the ball to you…” Lasted quite a while. Wasn’t sure Dawn would be able to extract herself in time to coach!

The tenor of this practice was very different. The fans were more emotionally invested vs. the other practices, which had a more detached, “we’re watching the best players practice and then there’ll be autographs” feeling. Clearly it helped to have two of their “own” (Gail and Alana), but USA BBall did some different stuff, too.

First, Carol Callan used a mic to introduce all the players w/ their USA BBall background. All got great rounds of applause, but Beard and GG got the most enthusiastic. Sheryl wasn’t there, having eating something that disagreed with her tummy, but was mentioned. Her stand-in? Duke’s own Abby Waner. What a thrill it must have been to run drills with the team.

We noticed and wondered that there was no mention of Lisa Leslie. Now we know why….

After warm-ups, in all three practices the team starts a fast-paced clap as they gather in a circle, and the clap stops on a signal. At Duke, the audience joined in.

As the team practiced, the audience continued its participation, sounding more like the crowd at a celtic ceili, shouting out players names as they drained their shots (LOTS of 3 work.) There was a moment when Sue had to put on her mask — she sniffed it suspiciously when she put it on, and looked relieved to remove it when the mini-contact drill was done.

Looked like the entire Duke team was there… it was amusing to watch them try and figure out where to sit — remember the old politically incorrectly named kids game Chinese Fire Drill? Off they went, to sit behind the bench. No good. On the end line. Ooops, need more chairs. Go get the chairs. Nope, not on the end line. OK, everyone bring all the chairs back behind the bench.

Bales goofed around with Parker and Cappie, reminding us that the players know each other from AAU and previous USA BBall and have developed friendships beyond the color barriers of their college.

How different was this practice? As it ended, both Parker and Snow were given the go ahead to dunk. Both checked in with each other and gave themselves the “go at it! look.” Parker was impressive — missed as many as she made. Snow doesn’t have the ups Parker has. Lots and lots of fun. Downright foolin’ around, I say letting off some steam.

Practice ended earlier than the scheduled hour, and tables were set up for autographs (no photos please!!) Like the NC State team (and unlike the 6 or so NC players that showed) they took a group photo at the end of practice. Earlier, during the practice, they were all dragooned into handing out raffle tickets to the audience. As people stood in line for autographs, numbers were called. Apparently Nike had donated shoes.

Now, I couldn’t figure out how they were going to match size to person, but it seems (can’t confirm) that they were handing out PLAYER’S sneakers. The look on one older woman’s face was priceless!! She looked like the kid at Christmas who’d gotten the bike she dreamed about, but knew she couldn’t get. “It’s BEAUTIFUL!!!” she grinned as she walked towards her family, clutching a pair of sneakers.

Lots of milling around and interaction with the various coaches while autographs were in progress. My friend Maria, who was kind enough to call me and give me updates on the Sacto/Detroit game, got a chance to say “Hey” to coach G, who was gracious enough to say “Hey” back. Oh, and yes, someone at the scorer’s table WAS following the game online. Brief discussion amongst those surrounding the computer about Detroit and leadership issues….

After the majority of fans exited, “all Duke fans under the age of 15” were called in to an area — and there was a cheer-off that turned into a dance-off for USA t-shirts the players gave out. Classic moment? Little blond munchkin in a pony tail, no more that 10, dropping to the floor and doing the worm. Sue Bird FELL OUT!! And, of course, gave pony-tail the shirt.

Equally classic? All the t-shirts are gone, and they’re trying to shoo the remnant fans/players out of the arena. (Not an easy task. We’re all having too much fun laughing and being goofy). Bunch of teens are mock bustin’ on the players ’cause they danced and didn’t get a shirt. They show Augustus their moves, and she starts to copy’em. An enormous amount of laughter — though I don’t know that the moves will make it into a Sao Paolo nightclub — kinda looked like Cotton-Eye Joe with a twitch.

Finally escaped back out into the sunshine and waved as the players drove off in their stretch limos… oops, wrong team… squeezed into their rented KIA vans and vanished into the sunset….

All in all, a perfect ending to a wonderful stalking tour.

Stalking: It’s not for the criminally obsessed.

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