JACKSONVILLE — Two summers ago, as I groggily walked to my
parked car on the campus of the University of North Florida, I saw
the yellow $40 parking ticket — the thing I had just gotten
out of bed at 8 a.m. to avoid paying — tucked as comfortably
under my windshield wiper as I had just been on the floor of my
friend’s dorm room.

Pay the ticket? No way. I’ll never come back to UNF.

But three months ago, an e-mail from a fellow writer would
change all that.

Some how, a student-newspaper writer like me could apply for
media credentials to watch the “I Have a Dream Team”
practice at . . . the University of North Florida in
Jacksonville.

Spending the summer in Orlando — a two-hour drive from UNF
— I decided to end my asylum and return to the Land of
Parking Tickets. I’d risk $40 for a chance to bother the USA
Olympic basketball Team.

But what was I going to write about? How could I relate Team USA
with Michigan sports?

Hmmm … Team USA coach Larry Brown led the Detroit Pistons
to an NBA Championship; Ann Arbor is just 30 miles away from
Detroit.

Nope, not a strong enough connection.

How about Emeka Okafor? He was drafted by the same NBA team
— the Charlotte Bobcats — as former Wolverine Bernard
Robinson.

But when I mentioned Robinson to “one-word” Okafor,
he recognized no more than the name.

I was running out of ideas, so I did what any self-respecting
student journalist would do: take my media credential off and see
if I could play a game of one-on-one or H-O-R-S-E with a member of
the team.

The first target was Stephon Marbury, my favorite basketball
player. Because no reporters were talking with the New York Knick,
I walked up and started asking him about Allan Houston’s
injured ankle and the Knicks’ latest draftee, Trevor Arriza.
Noticing the lack of eye contact and the fact that
“Starbury” seemed more interested in tying his shoe
than talking to me, I just flat out asked him to play some
ball.

“No man, I’m way too tired to play,” Marbury
said.

Way too tired? You just scrimmaged against the New Zealand
National Team for 12 minutes. I can’t even pronounce the name
of their best player, and Marbury tells me he’s tired. So, I
thanked him for his time and move to my second choice, Miami Heat
guard Dwyane Wade.

First, let me say Wade is a gentleman. He politely answered
questions about Shaq and how he was going to miss his best friend
Lamar Odom. As Wade chatted away, I didn’t listen to a word
he said. Rather, I sized him up. Our six-and-half-inch height
difference didn’t seem too pronounced standing side-by-side.
When he stopped talking, I asked him to play.

“I would play,” began Wade in his best sympathetic
attempt to amuse me, “but I’m all iced-up. I’m
sorry man.” He then pulled his shirt up and verified the
sweater of ice.

No worries, Dwyane.

Zero-for-two. I looked around nervously, considering Bill
Walton, but his short-shorts were kind of intimidating.

Then, I saw this little guy standing at center-court buried
under a pile of reporters. He would be perfect. So, I waited and
when the pack of circling vultures slowly dwindled away as if there
was nothing more to chew from my next target, I cautiously
approached.

“Mr. Stern, I’m a big fan,” I said to the NBA
Commissioner to which he replied non-sarcastically, “Thanks,
I need all the fans I can get.”

I told Stern that I wanted to be a lawyer like he is, that maybe
someday my passion for sports will land me a job in the NBA front
office. I tried to establish common ground.

Stern didn’t seem interested, so I cut to the chase and
asked him to play a quick game of H-O-R-S-E.

“Nope. Sorry. I don’t have time,” he said with
a chuckle. And before I could offer a rebuttal, Stern quickly
walked away as if no one asked him that question before.

The clock was ticking. Half of Team USA had boarded the team bus
and were waiting for the stragglers. I was about to give up when,
buried within the bear-hug of LeBron James, the perfect challenger
emerged. He was wearing Jordan sneakers, a Jordan shirt and a
Jordan hat — this guy came to play.

“Steven A,” I yelled. I called him by his first
name. “Will you play H-O-R-S-E with me?” Earlier, I
struck up a conversation with Stephen A. Smith, the loudmouth
“Nu Skool” guy from ESPN and a columnist for the
Philadelphia Inquirer. We talked about the Knicks, our favorite
team, and I thanked him for repeatedly bashing their former GM
Scott Layden on television. I think he liked me. I told him I
wanted to write a story about playing a game of H-O-R-S-E with a
Team USA player, and he must have felt bad that I had failed. So
Steven A. became my silver medal, and I asked him to play.

“Yeah sure, go get a ball. But I will not play H-O-R-S-E.
I’ll just shoot with you,” Smith said, resonating his
television personality. “I haven’t shot in like three
days and I won’t risk losing to someone who will write all
about it.”

I told Steven A. that I hadn’t shot in a while as well and
that my biceps were killing me because I had worked out the day
before.

“How about a game of K-N-I-C-K?,” I asked, hoping
that my wit would pay off.

He reiterated that he would just shoot with me.

I grabbed a ball and began shooting and just as my first
shot-attempt rebounded towards Steven A., a UNF staff member
informed us that we needed to leave the court immediately because
Okafur was having a private photo-shoot that no one could
watch.

Steven A. offered to play me the next day after Team USA
scrimmaged with the Puerto Rico National Team, but I wouldn’t
be at the game.

And so I walked out of the arena towards my car, dress-shirt
hanging out of my nice jeans, and called my editor. I told him that
I couldn’t find a Team USA-Michigan connection and that no
one would play H-O-R-S-E with me. He told me not worry, that I
should just “cherish the experience.” And he was
right.

For those two hours, when I was supposed to be a journalist
looking for a story, I couldn’t help being an adoring fan. I
experienced Larry Brown’s arrogance, Marbury’s
indifference to Knick fans, Stephen A. Smith’s sympathy,
Stern’s small stature and Wade’s class — almost
imperceptible to the seasoned journalist.

Naivety almost cost me $40 at UNF two years ago; but for those
two hours, it was priceless.

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