VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- As the NBA draft approaches, soon-to-be rookies reside under a merciless spotlight of analysis and critique. Pre-draft evaluations reveal every single imperfection and shadow of a doubt that might be a concern once these players shed the cushy confines of their college athletic department for the NBA.
It's nice that along the stressful path toward that glorious handshake with David Stern, there are a few moments of fun for these talented young folks. I witnessed a few of those moments during the EA Sports "NBA Live '08" Draft Camp.
Six of this year's top prospects were recently invited to a getaway in Vancouver -- where the snowcapped mountains offered protection from the critics, for a few days anyway. Here's what went down when Kevin Durant, Brandan Wright, Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer, Al Horford and Julian Wright gathered together in British Columbia.
• Upon arrival, we headed to Gotham -- the trendiest steakhouse in downtown Vancouver -- to break the ice over dinner. Our group was seated fireside in the restaurant's private "Boardroom," around a large table beneath a wine cupboard wall. About 10 ESPN and EA Sports reps, along with the players' publicists/handlers, were liberally requesting bottles of the finest vino to complement their choice filets.
I was sipping a gin and tonic, infused with lime and lavender at the suggestion of our private waiter -- who, it turns out, did not need a pen or paper to remember Julian Wright's tall order (a Shirley Temple), the first reminder that underneath it all these superstars are still kids. They'll be rich kids in a few days, but their drinks still have cherries. Would you like a swirly straw with that?
• The second reminder of the players' youth? Bathing a $50 steak in A.1. sauce.
To see more of Mary's pictures with the future NBA draftees, click the link at the top of this page.
• Noah is an amazing storyteller -- you just want to sit cross-legged on the floor in front of him, and listen openmouthed to his animated tales. Lucky for us, Noah was spinning stories all weekend. His first tale came after dinner.
The backdrop was a game back in 2005, Noah's freshman year, against South Carolina. He played very limited minutes that year, but in that particular game he went on a tear -- with four blocked shots, five points, two assists and two rebounds in just 10 minutes. Then he recalled one particular play when the Gamecocks' Renaldo Balkman had the ball at the top of the key. Balkman blew by his defender, Matt Walsh, so Noah slid over to help just as Balkman took flight.
Suddenly Noah jumped up from the dinner table, arms out, as if he were guarding Balkman right there in the steakhouse. He said he knew he should have taken the charge, but he couldn't helping going for one more blocked shot. This time though, all Noah got was a Balkman dunk -- on his head -- followed by Balkman pulling himself up on the rim, hanging his junk right in Noah's face.
The expression Noah made during this explanation said it all. "I was just standing there under him, and he was hanging all up in my face! Messing with me. Right then Coach called a timeout. I was like, 'Aww man, here it comes.'"
Apparently Billy Donovan simply stared at Noah the entire timeout -- not even saying a word until the horn blew. "And I'm thinking, 'Please don't take me out, Coach, please!'" Then Donovan yelled for someone to sub in for Noah.
After finishing his story, Noah asked the other players if any of them remembered that play. And one by one, all the players nodded their heads. Noah then hung his head for a minute, as if atoning for the transgression.
• But Noah wasn't done entertaining us. We soon headed upstairs to the bar, where a singer was playing some tunes on the piano. After a few minutes of sitting at a booth by the wall, Noah stood up and made his way over to the piano, slid onto the bench, grabbed the microphone and started to wail. Imagine the look on the faces of the innocent bargoers who happened to be "treated" to Noah belting out "I Believe I Can Fly."
• One more note on Noah: He had with him a long-time friend who stayed in the shadows all weekend and looked exactly like Turtle from "Entourage." You can't make this stuff up. Jay Bilas actually called him out on the striking similarity, and everyone had a good laugh.
• The next day, a shuttle bus left from the hip, happening luxury Opus Hotel at 7 a.m. The six future draftees promptly filed into the lobby one by one -- all in matching black hoodies, with iPods and groggy visages, apparently suffering the aftereffects of a long night on the town. We rode over to EA Sports' Vancouver headquarters -- imagine a sprawling, ultramodern, Jetson-like college campus complete with athletic fields, locker rooms and flat screens on nearly every wall. The TVs made for hilarious fodder, as the guys were able to watch their appearances on ESPNews, "SportsCenter" and the like.
• The three Gators sat on a couch, waiting for their turn in the video game motion capture suits, and watched their own interviews on TV. The ESPNews anchor asked each of the Gators why his teammates should be top picks and what order they should be selected. Each guy deftly dodged the question -- but the players fell quiet while watching the interviews, and seemed afraid they'd said something they shouldn't have.
The mood turned lighter, though, when Noah started chiding Brewer for his interview. Brewer had been grinning ear to ear the whole time, and hardly looked at the camera. Then Brewer -- who thought the interview was being taped -- fumbled his words and asked if they could stop and start over. The interviewer had to tell him, "It's OK, we're rolling, just keep going." Noah and Horford found this hysterical, and even Brewer got a good chuckle out of it. Click here to see Brewer's interview for yourself!
• A similar incident occurred when all the players were sitting around watching a "SportsCenter" segment featuring Durant and Greg Oden. The others started taunting Durant at certain points, but he handled it well. And he had the last laugh when one of the highlights showed him scoring on Julian Wright, who was standing there watching, with his tail between his legs.
• In fashion news, Brewer noticed that during the "SportsCenter" interview, Durant was wearing the same Jordan polo shirt he was currently wearing, and the fellas called Durant out for his threads. The guys gave him a good ribbing for that faux pas. Meanwhile, Julian Wright and Horford have supercomparable taste in clothes -- they wore the exact same Roca Wear shirt with the exact same pair of Air Force 1s, but on different days.
• My personal highlight came when I was standing next to Julian Wright, who, I couldn't help noticing, was staring at my feet. Finally, he said, "Hey, can you take off your shoe, can I see one of those?" A bit startled, I bent down, whipped off one and handed it over, not knowing what he was going to do with it (and a little anxious about its scent). He gave my retro Jordan III a good inspection, and proceeded to ask me all kinds of questions (which I could not answer) about the generational progression of the Air Jordan sneaker. Finally, he handed it back with an approving grin, and told me he had never seen this model before but thought they were pretty fly.
I of course blushed like a schoolgirl, right on cue.
• The rest of the day was dedicated to capturing the guys' signature moves for "NBA Live '08" in the EA gym. Durant was pumped that his trademark chest bump (fist to chest after big buckets) was going to make it into the game. Keep an eye out for that when you're at home with your joysticks.
• "NBA Live" project manager David Pekush explained to the boys why they had to wear the special suits to create some gamelike moments. "We want all your moves in the game," Pekush said. "Julian's dunks, Brandan's hook, Corey's defensive stance, Joakim's jumper " -- but Pekush was cut off before he could finish that sentence, since Brewer and Horford burst out laughing at the idea anybody would want Noah's "unique" jumper in the game. Noah was quick to shoot them a look of antipathy.
• As the guys continued to harass each other about their unique styles and techniques, shooting form was hardly the biggest point of contention. The day quickly boiled down to who had the best dance moves. Horford's two-step and Noah's Harlem shuffle earned top honors, although Durant was not shy about breaking out his unidentified shimmy all day long.
Brewer's svelte frame made for an inimitable boogie that was startlingly graceful and -- at times -- even balletlike. At one point the whole bunch was suited up in goofy spandex suits, covered in ping-pong-esque balls from head to toe, cutting the rug and basking in the corresponding animated images on the jumbo projection screen.
Brandan Wright secured the status of most stoic, opting to stand on the sidelines and shake his head (not his tail feathers) at the dance party that ensued in Vancouver.
Mary Buckheit is a Page 2 columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.