"Trying out with the Houston Rockets"
"Butting Heads with Shaq"
This story picks up the day of my first tryout with the Houston Rockets--July 17, 1997. I got the invitation to workout at the Westside Tennis Club in Houston, Texas (the Rockets' official practice facility) at ten o'clock at night...they invited me to come workout at 9 o'clock the very next morning-- not exactly "advanced notice".
It was a restless night for me to say the least...I had forgotten that cranberry juice is a diuretic and drank almost an entire bottle of Tropicana Orange-Cran Twister (46 oz)-- I woke up around 3:30 in the morning dehydrated and feeling very "icky" (not to mention having to pee ;-) and consumed approximately one-half gallon of bottled water. I tried to sleep after that, but I just couldn't get comfortable. When my alarm went off in the morning, though, I still felt pretty refreshed and eagerly anticipated the morning's events to come.
I had my agent (with whom I lived for approximately 5 months) take me in a bit early. I didn't really know what to expect...whether or not it would be approximately the same routine as the Bulls' rookie camp I had attended a year before was beyond me. But alas, my anxiety was unfounded....it was almost exactly like the Bulls' camp. We started off with some basic post drills, shooting this way and that, which then led into some one-on-one with the three big men that were there-- Othella Harrington, the Rockets' new draft pick Serge Zwikker, and myself. Later we joined the gaurds on the other end of the floor to do some 5-on-5 half-court offense.
During our little play-running session, I noticed a rather large dark-skinned man joking around with some people on the other end of the court as he threw up a few shots. I didn't know who it was, and really didn't give it much thought--I was too busy snatching rebounds and running the play. After a while, the coaches had us all gather 'round and we did the old "1-2-3 Rockets!" and I went off to have my thumb taped up (it'd been bent backwards and sideways and jammed so many times before that day that it hurt just to look at it and sure enough I had it bent back again that day!) in preparation for some full-court 5-on-5 action. It was then that I got an up-close view of who the large dark-skinned guy was.
As the trainer taped up my thumb, I looked up to see this mammoth human being and his trademark "million dollar smile" holding his hand up to say "Hi". I was calm on the outside, but inside I felt as if my stomach did a somersault. I had just said "hey whazzup" to Shaquille O'Neal....all 7'1", 330-or-so pounds of him. "Wonderful...nobody told me he was going to be here" I said aloud. The trainer just kinda chuckled and told me not to worry about him...just to play my game and let him play his and it'd be "a'ight". What else was I going to do?
I hadn't rolled out of bed that morning thinking "Whelp, today is my big day vs. Shaq" and I'm not ashamed to admit that my first reaction was to soil my drawers. I could just envision myself getting a forearm snapped in half or just basically totally humiliated in front of the entire crowd there (there were quite a few players from teams all around the League playing that day), not to mention the entire Rockets' coaching staff. The last thing I needed was to get humiliated in front of the people from whom I'm trying to get a job.
Instead I threw up a quick prayer-- "Lord...he's big. I'm gonna need a LOT of help today...I can't handle this man alone!"--and headed out onto the floor.
Shaq wasn't really trying his hardest to run up and down the court and stay in the action--after all, it wasn't a real game and he doesn't have to impress anyone. However, the times it was obvious that he was giving it his all was during those moments he found himself within his "strike zone"--the zone about 4'- 7' from the basket--the dunking zone. I wasn't surprised that he was going to try to dunk on me...I fully expected to get posterized a couple of times at least. But somehow, of the 6 or so times that he went up to dunk on me, he succeeded not once. Sure, I fouled him a couple of times on those block attempts (kinda hard to avoid body contact with someone twice as wide as you) but I also had a few *clean*, foul-free blocks. He called foul once during one such attempt but he and I both knew it was a clean block....and I let him know that I was pretty dissappointed in his calling that foul.
During the first couple of games, one of the other players on my team was having a really, really rough time containing the "Man of Steel". Shaq went around him, over him, and through him...and I was the only other one on the floor with the *cojones* to step in front of him and even attempt to block his dunks. This was something about which the other guys talked quite a bit after practice. "Shoot, I was going up to dunk but then thought...man, if he's gonna challenge Shaq and Othella like that, what's he gonna do to ME?" went one commentary. I just kinda sat back and chuckled a bit. I was still in shock.
I also managed to put up two or three hookshots right over the big fella too. I just wonder if I'd have gotten them off (or even gotten the ball in the first place) had he truly been playing like I know he can...hrmmm. Hopefully one day I'll get to find out during a real game.
Afterwards, I walked up to Shaq, and offered my hand. We shook did the "good game" thing and he says "You sign yet?". I chuckled. "Not yet...still working on it" was my reply. I was flattered.
Did I mention that I told Shaq that he couldn't shoot? In between games, Shaq and I were milling around throwing up shots waiting for both teams to assemble. On one such shot, he gave me a look like he was going to shoot over me from about 16 feet out.
"Go ahead," I said, I ain't worried about you way out here."I was going to make some snide comment about his free-throw shooting percentage, but I thought it not the wisest of things to anger someone 80lbs. heavier than myself right before engaging in a contact sport. I've had enough broken teeth and more than my share of contusions and lacerations to last a lifetime.
We started trash-talking back and forth a little...him insisting that I should worry about his jump shot, and me insisting that his jumpshot was a joke. He wound up taking that same shot later that day and it didn't even hit the rim. I was going to say something, but again deemed it an unwise thing to do. I contained my laughter.
Well, after all was said and done and I had done my share of socializing in the locker room with "the fellas", I went out to talk to my agent. The Rockets' coaching staff, evidentally, were impressed by my athleticism, hustle and my "frame". In summation, that I was a "good prospect".
All in all, I think the only way my 25th birthday could have gotten any better would have been if the Rockets had signed me then and there. :)
Next...Miracles do happen.