The day was February 12th (Thank you Aykis), 2006, and the Sacramento Kings were heading into their last playoff appearance to date. At the age of fourteen, my sister was enjoying a blossoming career as a musician, and was invited to Sacramento State University to perform with several other pianist youths. As a prepubescent male, Beethoven held little appeal to me. I was more interested in taking my worn-leather basketball to the Hornet's practice court to shoot some hoop.
I arrived at gym, sneaking my way into the facility, dribbling my basketball through the halls. Yes, I know, not too sneaky, but I was twelve and not especially observant. Finally I reached the court, but it wasn't empty. I heard the familiar tone of many basketballs colliding on hardwood, and the chatter between the players. I cracked the door open, and inside I saw a group of humongous, muscular men going hard in their drills. On the sidelines sat several older men, all of whom seemed focus on speaking to the man closest to the court. He wore a black sweatshirt with red trim lining the sleeves and chest, with a logo above his heart. He must've been the coach. But the coach of what? This was a lower-tier conference squad? They were way too big to be college athletes. I looked back at the players, who were conducting a fastbreak drill, with three players streaking down the court towards two awaiting defenders, the point guard passed the ball over to the corner three and the player shot the ball. Dear God his form was ugly.
But... I knew it from somewhere, he seemed to be pushing the ball from his chest with both hands. It was much like my own form years before, when ten foot hoops were too high to reach without a heave. But this guy was over six feet tall and very athletic. He had an Afro that made him stick out, but it was that shooting form that caught my eye. I'm sure some of you have guessed who he was already, it was Atlanta Hawk at the time, Josh Childress.
This was no college team. It was the Atlanta Hawks, practicing in a college gym before facing my Kings.
At this point, the coach noticed my presence, as I had entered the room and closed the door behind me quietly. He waved me over, I was scared he'd be angry at me. To the contrary, he smiled and asked my name. His name, Mike was monogrammed on his jacket. I quietly told him it was Chris, and he asked me how I was doing. I said I was good. He gestured to my basketball, which I was holding with a death grip from nerves.
"Were you going to shoot some hoop here?" He ventured.
I looked at him, back at the court, then back at him. "Yeah, but I'll leave if you guys are busy."
He shook his head, "No, stay we were wrapping it up anyways." He gestured to an assistant who then blew on his whistle. He called the players back to a huddle, but instead of the normal speech given at the end of practice, Mr. Woodson (Mike) told them to have a short scrimmage, and told them to play with me. I was flabbergasted, and totally scared.
I got the ball from Childress on the top of the key and the guys cheered me on to score. The guy ahead of me though? Josh Smith. A full six foot eight he towered above me with arms outstretched. I charged forward to the left, trying to surprise him with a strangely well-developed lefty game, blew past him, and hit a layup. I couldn't believe it. His teammates all jokingly jeered him, but he just smiled back at them, and then grinned at me. People always talk about his character issues, but Josh Smith definitely isn't a bad guy. We ended the scrimmage after a few more possessions, but it was an amazing time for me. I met everybody on the team, and shook hands with them; Mike Woodson told me to keep working my game and maybe he'd have a look at me when I was older. I knew he was humoring me, but it meant a lot to me at the time. I can't count how many times I went out in my driveway to try and better my left-hand game that earned such praise from him.
I don't play anymore, but it was one of those things that helped me gain a love for the game. I've never been able to meet a Kings player, but playing with the Hawks definitely made me root for them when the Kings weren't playing. I know it isn't Kings related, but this type of story is why we have to remember at the end of the day no matter how much we loathe the other team while we're playing them, they're all people like you and me.