My Night as a Pro Journalist

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    Erik Jepsen/Guardian

    Playing their annual preseason game at the San Diego Sports Arena, the Los Angeles Lakers were nice enough to grant me full media access to their Oct. 23 match against the Denver Nuggets. For one night, I was a professional sports journalist.

    The experience was overwhelming — so much that that I spent my first hour experiencing facial bipolar disorder: I would break out in an enormous, goofy grin at the thought of being courtside at a Lakers game then immediately go expressionless as I tried to look professional and fit it.

    After finding my seat at the media table directly behind the Nuggets bench, my photographer and I went to the ESPN hospitality room to grub on the complimentary buffet dinner. I almost threw up my free meal from excitement when — while walking through the tunnel to the court I crossed paths with current Lakers assistant coach and NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I nodded and he nodded back. I felt cool.

    As opening tip-off approached, the experience of being a sports journalist intensified. Players from both teams were now on the court for warm-ups and there I was, shooting the breeze with the other writers as fans filled the stands.

    As the start of the game approached I settled into my spot at the media table — with a writer from ESPN.com on my left and one from the German Press Agency (random) on my right. I was so close behind the Denver bench that I could have easily reached out and touched any of the hulking players — which I eventually did do when Chris “Birdman” Andersen offered me an epic fist bump after our brief conversation in the third quarter.

    As the final tune-up before the regular season starts next week, the game itself was pretty irrelevant; what made the night incredible was watching and listening to the players during the course of the night. No matter how many mega pixels your HDTV has, nothing compares to hearing the players curse a bad call or to being downstream of the sweat and smells wafting from the bench.

    In the second quarter both benches emptied when the Lakers’ Lamar Odom got in a shoving match with the Nuggets’ Kenyon Martin, giving me the chance to see the emotion and machismo of professional basketball in its most raw form. Overhearing Birdman Andersen — a recovering drug addict — from three feet away yelling about the scuffle is about as close to being a part of the game as you can get without covering your body in tattoos and growing seven inches.

    The incident also allowed me to see Denver’s star player, Carmelo Anthony, acting like a reformed goofball. Anthony — who served a 15-game suspension in 2006 for a on-court fight with the New York Knicks — stayed on the bench as his teammates streamed out onto the court. Very aware of his previous outburst, Melo laid down, winding his arms and legs through five chairs in a make-shift straight jacket. Smirking from ear to ear, the Nugget’s perenial all-star joking repeated “hold me back, hold me back.”

    Scenes like that are never important or interesting enough to be covered by major media networks, but it was that exact type of pro sports subtlety that was so refreshing to see up close.

    The game lacked the star power of a normal match — Kobe Bryant and most of the starters played only in the first quarter — but magic of my journalistic experience was waiting in the post-game interviews.

    After hearing from both head coaches in the tunnel, I joined the swarming mass of reporters as we slithered into the Lakers locker room. Even the decrepit state of the San Diego Sports Arena and its pathetic facilities couldn’t sully the fact that I was about to go fully behind the scenes and speak in person with some of the world’s biggest sports stars.

    I didn’t really know what to expect from such a privileged vantage point into the lives of pro athletes. I wasn’t sure if I would feel awkward or not for intruding on their personal space. Imagine being forced to talk to strangers the moment you step out of the shower. There wasn’t really a sense of pressure or anxiety after the preseason game, but I wondered how intrusive it must be to approach athletes after an important game.

    If anything it made me respect professional athletes even more; dealing with the media is such a huge part of their job description and one that must get pretty tedious after a while.

    Admittedly, I was pretty nervous when I walked into the room where the Lakers were icing up and changing into their street clothes. I wanted to make sure that I looked professional and scored interviews fast instead of awkwardly standing around while naked millionaires got dressed. I walked in, saw Derrick Fisher sitting down and threw my digital recorder in his face while blurting out a question about the game. Fisher stared at me for the longest two seconds of my life, motioned down with his eyes and said, “Normally I at least have my pants on.” Apparently you’re not supposed to prod players for interviews while they’re only wearing a towel. Lesson learned.

    A little embarrassed, I walked over to the corner where Kobe was addressing a group of reporters. I was more than happy just to stick my microphone in with the sea of waving microphone-yielding arms and observe the delicate tango between players and journalists. I was surprised at how approachable Kobe and his Lakers teammates where — and none seemed bothered to talk with a college kid who was trying his hardest to look nonchalant.

    No matter how comfortable I felt around my new acquaintances, however, I still didn’t dare talk to Artest, the Lakers’ new hitman, whose face is permanently frozen in a prison mug shot.

    Hulking in the corner was DJ Mbenga, the Lakers’ backup center. Standing at a modest seven feet tall and weighing a humble 255 pounds, Mbenga looked like a giant trying to blend in at a dwarf convention. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo but raised in Belgium, Mbenga speaks very limited English and didn’t have a single reporter asking him about his evening’s solid performance — 14 points while spelling the injured Pao Gasol and Andrew Bynam.

    Mbenga looked hesitantly at me as I walked towards him — assumingly unenthused about having to do another interview in English. Despite his initial surprise at my speaking in French Mbenga opened up and happily talked with me.

    When I eventually left the Lakers clubhouse and walked out of the stadium I felt a calm sense of accomplishment. For one night I had been a professional journalist and aside from briefly annoying a near-naked point guard I did a damn good job. I held up the appearance of a seasoned sports writer, asked poignant questions and got a great sense for a profession that — if it weren’t for the impending death of print media — I would love to pursue for a living.

    Along with picking up solid tips on how to be a pro journalist from other writers I also absorbed a lot of random facts that the average fan could never pick up on from simply watching a game. Chief among these tidbits is the fact that Denver head coach George Karl’s left pinky finger bends straight out to the side at the joint and that Laker forward Adam Morrison’s mustache somehow looks even more slimy in person. Ah, the benefits of behind-the-scenes access.

    Seeing as how basketball isn’t my favorite sport — baseball gets that honor — the Lakers game was the perfect place for me to earn my journalistic chops. Sure, I was excited about mingling with basketball stars all night, but I was never so giddy that I was more of a fan than a writer.

    While sitting courtside I couldn’t help but think about how great it would be to do this professionally: following teams, interviewing players and writing articles seems like the greatest job possible. The challenges of becoming a journalist were evident all around me — most of the other writers at the table were middle-aged, a fact that speaks volumes about how severely the job is in decline and how difficult it is for a writer to get started.

    Despite my love for sports and a whole lot of ambition, I most likely will never become a journalist — and I’m okay with that because for one night in San Diego, I was and it was incredible.

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