The regular season is just three weeks away, and on Saturday, the much-fancied Thunder’s performance came slowly to the boil in Istanbul against Fenerbahce Ulker, while the 76ers only just edged Spain’s Bilbao Basket a day later. On Tuesday, the touring teams will meet at Manchester’s Phones4U Arena looking to crank up their performance levels.
On Monday, the 76ers were the first to hit the practice court, and in the hotel, veteran kit-man Scott Rego was ready and waiting with perhaps the most prized possessions of any NBA star - the trainers. Having worked for the team for over a quarter of a century, Scott has perfected his art, and whips out the correct pair for each player and the handovers are as swift as anything you’ll see on-court. And it’s clear that NBA players can act their shoe size; swiping the tank-sized footwear before heading to the team meeting room for discussion, making the more-than-capable security look like table-top decoration in the process.
We are allowed courtside at the arena for the final moments of the 76ers practice session, before the teams’ PR professionals invite the waiting media to talk with coach Brett Brown and a selection of players, who answer questions on how the team is taking shape for the new season, and their experiences of playing outside the US. And with a media pass in possession, it made sense to have a stab at the journalism too.
Among those doing their bit is seven-foot Spencer Hawes, who jokes with local journalists about his claim to English ancestry, with his surname said to have originated from the small North Yorkshire market town of the same name. And while the pre-season travel is tiring for some players, Hawes says his experiences in Europe give him quite the opposite feeling, and that he’d even like to see more regular season games played outside the US.
“I’m very excited to be here in front of these fans,” Hawes said. “They are great basketball fans over here, and we’re all very excited. Hopefully there is more of this to come in the future.”
Next, it was the Thunder’s turn to take to the court, with their media commitments to come before their workout. One of those we got up close with was Serge Ibaka, and the Congolese-born Spanish international, who won a silver medal at last year’s London Olympics, was happy to show off his multi-linguistic skills with the international press as he discussed his teams’ chances for the coming season.
So, what does a coach say to a four-time NBA All-Star when he looks to refine the jump shot that has earned him the league’s scoring champion title for three out of the last four seasons? During the last campaign, Kevin Durant became the sixth and youngest player in league history to reach the exclusive ‘50-40-90 club,’ for players making more than 50% of their field goal attempts, 40% of their three-point efforts and over 90% from the free-throw line during a season. It takes a brave man to question the shooting technique of the most efficient shooter in the sport, but Durant looked fired and focused when being given tips on his airborne release while the media are being assembled courtside. Durant is the star attraction, and soon disappears within a sea of journalists, and speaks softly about his preference for the quiet life over the celebrity scrutiny.
The players joke their way through their warm-ups, but when it’s time to play, the intensity is ramped up a few notches, and the coaches’ demands are unrelenting. The speed of the game at court level, and the regularity and ease with which players sink their shots when away from the fierce competition of regular season action, is staggering.
Back at the hotel, the 76ers players are recovering from their session with a well-earned lunch, before paying NBA employees a visit in an adjacent room to sign some specially-created Global Games jerseys, and basketballs, to make ultimate pieces of sporting memorabilia.
For some of the players of both teams, their work for the day isn’t over – many give their time to an even worthier, heart-warming cause. Stars of the Thunder and 76ers joined two teams of local Special Olympics athletes, and a group of former NBA players, including Dikembe Mutombo for the Unified Sports Basketball Game, in the name of NBA Cares, the league’s global community outreach initiative. A combination of remarkable talent and good humour, ending with plenty of posing for photos and autograph signings, make this a joyous watch.