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Raptor For a Day
Michael Grant Jaffe
April 25, 2005
On assignment for SI, a novelist got a crash course in the NBA
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April 25, 2005

Raptor For A Day

On assignment for SI, a novelist got a crash course in the NBA

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?OPTIONAL WORKOUT (10:04 A.M.) "You're late. We start at 10," says assistant coach Jim Todd as I wander out. "I hope you don't mind being fined." He's kidding, I think. I'm 6'5", but I'm 40 and haven't played organized hoops since high school. During the shootaround, forward Matt Bonner sees a defect in my release: I'm holding the ball against the heel of my hand instead of my fingertips. The other players watch, snickering, as he guides me through a drill to improve my form. Says Bonner with a smile, "We usually do this with 10-year-olds."

?MEDICAL TREATMENT (12:15 P.M.) I have a sore right thumb that trainer Greg Spratt diagnoses as a sprain. I don't tell him I got the injury helping my daughters build a Harry Potter clubhouse in our yard.

?FILM SESSION (4:53 P.M.) We gather on the practice court to break down film. I sit between Bonner and guard Omar Cook, behind Jalen Rose. We watch Pacers guard Reggie Miller slither around a series of picks before sinking a jumper. "He's gonna do a lot of catfighting to get free," says coach Sam Mitchell. When the 15-minute video ends, Todd leads us in a walk-through of offensive sets. Says Mitchell, "The farther away from the basket you force [Pacers forward Dale] Davis, the better."

?PREGAME (6:20 P.M.) I stand beneath the backboard feeding loose balls to Bonner and forward Chris Bosh until the team breaks into two lines for a shooting drill. "Get in there," Todd tells me. I meekly follow swingman Morris Peterson; Cook pats my back. Thousands watch as I dribble and launch my shot from 12 feet out. I'm so nervous, I can barely feel my limbs. The ball is shot-putted from my hand--I've forgotten Bonner's tips. Mercifully, it grazes the rim. Moving to the back of the line, I see two guys in the stands paging through the game program, looking for ... me? My second shot feels perfect. It hits the rim and ricochets over the top of the backboard.

?GAME TIME (6:50 P.M.) In the corridor we "get our stretch on," as guard Milt Palacio says. Guard Rafer Alston says earnestly, "You gotta lead us out there." No chance, I say. We run onto the floor; I'm among the last. The roar of 15,000 fans sounds like cannon blasts. I stumble as I take my seat beside the bench. We lead for much of the game, players chattering encouragement to one another. Palacio engages in an ongoing swap of good-natured insults with Pacers guard Stephen Jackson. Once, when forward Eric Williams goes in, I snag some gum from a pack under his chair. At halftime, tied, we drink Gatorade in the locker room while the coaches huddle and amend the game plan. "Did you see me get hit in the face [by Miller]?" asks Peterson. "They didn't call a thing." I nod, indignant at the officiating.

?POSTGAME (9:56 P.M.) Bonner misses a shot that might have sent the game into OT, and we lose 94--90. Security guards clear a path to the locker room. Everyone's tired. The subdued players shower, then pick chicken sandwiches off a buffet spread. In an hour the Raptors will fly to New York. Peterson sidles up to me. "You coming with us?" he asks. "No," I say, "this is the end of the line for me."