One-on-one with a legend

Published 11:07 am Monday, September 1, 2008

I stood and watched as he interacted with friends, family and fans. There he was, larger than life to me.

Growing up an avid sports fan, I picked up on his career during his first go-round with the Philadelphia 76ers. Naturally, when my beloved and notoriously frustrating Atlanta Hawks traded for the all-star defensive stalwart, I was more than a little excited.

Injuries plagued him in the years following that deal, leading him to three more NBA cities before he landed back with the Detroit Pistons last spring. But to me, he was still Theo Ratliff. I still saw him as the guy who could turn back shots better than just about anyone in the league.

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He was a hustler, a team player and the kind of guy a franchise needed in order to win championships.

It wasn’t his fault organizations mired in mediocrity continually sought him as a mentor for their younger players throughout half of his largest contract; a fact that more than any other has prevented him from donning a coveted NBA ring.

He could just as easily have been a less-than-desirable teammate and person, created turmoil, asked out of bad situations and gotten the chance to be on more competitive teams. But he didn’t.

And on this day, he could easily have declined my request for this story, citing his jam-packed schedule that was headlined by his annual basketball camp.

But he didn’t.

And in that moment, because he didn’t, I was on the cusp of stepping onto the court with one of the best defensive centers in the game.

He made his rounds and talked to a few people while we waited on the camp exercise to cease. We had planned on playing at noon, figuring the campers at the activity center that bears his name would be at lunch. What we did not realize when we made the appointment just a day earlier was that, on this final day of camp, things were way ahead of schedule.

I had arrived as prompt as a sports guy ever is for anything; a minute or two late depending upon whose clock is considered the standard. I felt no anxiety, no awe. It was going to be a fun moment, which is really about how long I figured the game would last.

But the camp activities being ahead of schedule threw things off a bit, meaning I had to wait while my esteemed opponent arranged our “contest,” for lack of a better term.

The delay meant two things. First, it created a scenario in which I stood by and watched as he took care of setting everything up. This proved slightly detrimental to my mindset as it allowed me to come to the realization that I was, in fact, about to be on the court with the same Theo Ratliff I had long watched in the NBA. Moreover, he was an awful lot taller in person than he seemed on television.

I mean, his 6-foot-10-inch frame dwarfed everyone else in the room. That, in and of itself, was almost as intimidating as the picture that hangs just to the left of the main doors of the facility. In that picture, he’s schooling Yao Ming. Clearly, there’s a considerable difference between myself and Yao Ming in terms of height, talent and general athleticism. That photo and my personal observations validated my plan to avoid the post at all reasonable costs.

The delay also meant that our brief exhibition would be played in front of some 80-plus people. That, more than my opponent’s stature and general presence, allowed the anxious thoughts to begin creeping into my head. I suddenly became cognoscente of the fact that I had not touched a basketball in more than six months. Moreover, I didn’t much know what to do with one when I did touch it. Now, my humiliation that had been intended to take place behind close doors before eventually being recounted in print was to be far more of a public embarrassment than I had originally conceived.

After several minutes, the children at the camp finished their drills and were asked to move to half-court, allowing Theo enough room to put on a brief show. And at that moment, more than any other before it, I hoped it would be a brief show.

The moment of truth

It felt as if all of the blood in my body was rushing toward my core as I walked toward the court. My arms felt numb. Why was I so nervous? This obviously was not a contest that carried expectation on my behalf. In fact, this obviously wasn’t a contest at all. But still, the anxiety lingered.

On paper, there was true disparity. He came in at 6-foot-10, 235 pounds. I entered at an optimistic 6-2 and a robust 220 pounds. His last big-time contract paid him about $11.6 million a year. I’m not sure offhand, but I think that is almost as much as my student loan debt. He has made playoff appearances in five separate seasons. I have watched the playoffs for more than five separate seasons. In the 2000-2001 season, he was voted the starting center for the NBA’s Eastern Conference All-Star Team. I am pretty sure I have voted for NBA all-star teams at some point. Twice in his career he has snatched down 17 rebounds in a game. I once came up with six rebounds during an intramural game at a small Christian college. On March 22, 1998, he scored his career high 27 points against the Boston Celtics. On March 22, 1998, I was hoping to pass my driver’s test so my mom wouldn’t have to drive me to anymore of my dates.

All in all, this was a no-contest on paper. But I knew I had heart. And at that moment, it was beating pretty rapidly.

In retrospect, a warm-up shot or two may have been a good decision. Instead, I chose to employ some logic that mandated “saving” any good shots that might be in me. Besides, I still couldn’t feel my arms.

So the moment finally came. Just as any gracious host or hands down favorite would, Theo opted to give me the ball first. I went to the top of the key where he proceeded to check the ball.

This was it. I had the ball in my hands at the top of the key against one of only seven players in the history of the National Basketball Association to lead the league in blocked shots at least three different seasons. I thought of Yao Ming. I thought of every bit of his 7-feet, 6-inches getting owned down low. No, there was no chance I was taking this thing down low.

I thought about driving. Maybe I could get by him and go for the early lay-up. That idea was quickly rejected as I envisioned a chain of events in which Theo would effortlessly pin the ball against the backboard as I fell haphazardly to the floor and twisted some appendage in some direction it wasn’t intended to go. Yeah. That was a bad idea, too.

As I remembered that I have no capacity to dribble with my right hand, I did the only thing I could think to do. I went about three steps to the left and flung the ball toward the basket.

Then I watched dejectedly as the attempt fell well short of the goal and bounced out of bounds. It was in the fraction of a second between realizing just how atrocious that shot was and hearing the uproarious laughter of the crowd that it dawned on me. Theo was the Harlem Globetrotters and I was that other team. So I embraced the role.

As I watched the shot miss everything, I doubled over in anguish, creating a caricature of the disappointment I felt. Suddenly, my heart rate slowed a little.

As Theo took over on offense, I stepped back toward the middle of the paint and hoped he didn’t decide to bring the ball anywhere near that area. I knew the game would be over rather quickly if he did so. But I also knew that my insurmountable clumsiness might reveal itself at an inopportune moment, resulting in some sort of injury to the then-free-agent player. This was the worst possible scenario. Plus, the further I stayed away from Theo, the harder it was for the photographer to document the beating on film, leaving me with some measure of deniability.

Thankfully, Theo obliged me for a time, opting to stick to mid-range shots in the early going.

I managed to rattle off a few more shots during the game. My repertoire that day included a brick, a blown lay-up and a three-point attempt from the right side that rimmed out. That one was a bit of a heartbreaker. However, most disconcerting was the monumental lapse in awareness in which I inexplicably picked up my dribble and then decided to put the ball on the floor again in an attempt to drive the lane.

Theo continued to make the exhibition fun for the campers, at one point taking suggestions from them as to what type of shot they wanted to see him make. The most popular request seemed to be a uniform chant of “Dunk! Dunk! Dunk!”

Theo instead played it off, giving a quick step to the right before crossing the ball back over and heading back to the top of the key.

“I can’t get around him,” he said to the kids. “He’s in the way.”

Then he opted to shoot a three. I was okay with him taking that shot. In his 13-year career, he’s attempted two of them. He missed one during his rookie season of 1995-1996 and then whiffed on the other with the Timberwolves last year. That’s a shot I would give him all day long.

On his next possession, the requests for a dunk quickly resumed. Theo played it off one more time.

Then the popular chant seemed to be “Shake him up! Shake him up!”

After a moment, Theo obliged, blowing by me on his way to a one-handed jam. The crowd erupted. That left him one basket away from taking the game in a shutout.

He took the ball back to the top of the key. This time, there was less playfulness in his manner as he darted for the goal.

The next succession of events seemed to work in slow motion as he leapt toward the rim, pulled the ball back behind his head and mercifully ended the game when he slammed it home with an authoritative two-handed dunk.

But it was somewhere between Theo taking the ball off the floor and flushing it through the hoop that it really hit me.

“I just got dunked on by an NBA player,” I thought. “And it’s about to happen again. What a cool story.”