Four nights in Florida

For the regular tourist, Florida is the home of Mickey Mouse and friends. You fall in love with the adventure parks in Orlando, Universal Studios not far behind. The weather is an obvious plus, of course, but for me and my zero children it seems like a long trip for a couple minutes of swinging adrenalin rush. The Sunshine State was never on my US radar, in fact, especially having come back from a great stay in New York less than eight weeks ago.

But there I was, falling in love with Orlando and Miami, over the course of just four days, not for their sunshine, beaches or adventure parks, but their exciting basketball teams. The NBA has taken a back seat in my long list of sports I try to follow on a daily basis. Since playing intensely for years, I simply couldn’t watch it any longer. It was part derision, part bitterness. I knew I could still play at a high level, but I didn’t really want to. Fortunately, an NBA podcast rejuvenated the buzz, and then the league decided they wanted my camera and I to fly to these two cities over four nights to make a film ahead of the regular season game between the Orlando Magic and Toronto Raptors in London next January. Who would turn that down, even if you’re only partial to Donald Duck et al.

On the drive from Orlando International to the hotel myself, three other UK journalists and an NBA employee, were staying in, the five-year old Amway Center flashed into view, lit up in the darkness as we crossed the highway into downtown. We would be spending most of the next day inside the impressive building, and I couldn’t wait. A Coors Light in the ghost town that was Orlando on a Thursday, and indeed Friday, followed before falling to sleep with Thursday Night Football on the set. You don’t get these time zones in London you know. Heaven.

The morning began with eggs, then we headed over to the arena as I partially regretted not plumping for the hash brown and streaky bacon. Steering clear of the American cuisine for fear of dying before my first piece of work on American soil, I chose correctly before my first interview of the trip, with Magic President and CEO, Alex Martins.

Alex spoke enthusiastically about the Magic pursuing a trip to London which they should have made a couple of years ago before the strike-shortened season curtailed that mission. Orlando would be playing their London opponent, Toronto, that same evening, and the team were currently practicing in the facility next to where the interview took place. So close to the Magic.

Once I had wrapped up with Martins, who answered questions about further expansion in the UK with ‘that’s a question better suited for the league office’, I walked into the practice where the team were done but a handful of players were going through extra shooting drills. ‘Access’ was the first word that sprung to my mind, and I never fail to realise how fortunate I am to be in this position. When we see players working out, getting ready for a game in world-class centres like this, we of course wish we were in their position. But in the media you are as close as you can possibly get without being a player or team director, and we get to eat burgers after the game. Even during the game. Win win.

Here I was, turning in every direction like a drunk owl. Oh, there’s Scott Skiles, the head coach of the Magic. To his right and left were the beat reporters working their trade after a zillion commercial flights. Interviewed here was Skiles, who insisted he hadn’t thought once about the London game because an NBA season is ‘like dog years’, while former Magic great Nick Anderson, who went to London with the team in 1993 along with Shaquille O’Neal, remembered fondly the city’s outstanding shopping. Nikola Vucevic, too tall for my tripod, gave us 20 minutes of his precious time before we embarked on a tour of this fascinating arena. It’s huge. Ever since I first attended live sporting events, the first view of the stadium is always the best moment. The game doesn’t always live up to the excitement but that first peak can’t be topped, and it was the same here. I had already visited the Lakers home, Staples Center, but Amway seemed deeper, wider, more attuned to the needs of modern – and rich – sports fans. A car was sat parked on the middle tier as part of a sponsor area, while dinner tables and wine glasses overlooked the court where people regularly enjoy a three-course dinner in front of the action. They do say it is unlike reality in some parts of Florida.

My dad would have loved it. Ahead of a Laker game in 2010, he had paid for extra helpings of high quality food, but all I wanted to do was watch the players warm up. Funny then that I was now filming this. I was certainly covered for arena GVs, and off we went to eat lunch in a town next to Amway that looked more like New Orleans than Mickey’s town. I ordered salad, which of course turned out not to be a salad because it came with cajun ranch, a pretzel with more salt on it than an actual salt dispenser, and battered chicken. But I was hungry, so no problem for me.

Who knew you could swim in November? Outside I may add. Outside. November. Swimming. That was the next two hours before it was game time.

Magic. Raptors. 6pm tip off. Excited to say the least.

I spent the pre-game in the Magic locker room – team locker rooms are open before and after games in the NBA. While most players find a way of either showing the media they don’t wish to speak or avoiding the locker area at all costs, I managed to speak to Victor Oladipo and Channing Frye. In January on their UK trip. the former is taking his mum to Harry Potter world while Frye is excited to act like Guy Ritchie and sit in a pub having a pint, even if that’s not part of team rules on the London getaway.

Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel was kind enough to speak to me courtside before the game to break down the Magic team, something that I thought would be useful for UK NBA fans in order to get a true and honest insight into the teams on display next year. For the most part I love the US sports media and the way it works. Locker room access is great. I love the challenge of approaching these individuals, who find it normal that the media get to stroll over to them in a towel to get quotes. It makes your job easier, and the UK should learn from it. Journalists are for the most part friendly, and have always been very helpful with me. They will come on to your podcast whether it’s international or has one listener. So thanks, Josh.

I got to film around the court up until tip off, incredible as I was actually standing next to Orlando when the team were introduced. The game was great as we watched from about ten rows up, where you really feel like part of the action. During the first quarter, former Magic and Raptors star Tracy McGrady strolled in. Fashionably late they call it. It was funny to see him, sitting just in front of us soaking in the game with his friend as DeMar DeRozan missed a late free throw and the Magic took the game very late on. Post-game was all about rounding up the player interviews; Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and Mario Hezonja all spoke about the London game and the NBA’s international endeavours and with that we called it a night, at least for work, checked out the lake and surrounding bars in the city before waking up bright and early for a flight to Miami the next morning.

My first domestic flight went as I thought it would, worrying the entire time. But once in Miami, life became a little less real and a lot more glamorous. The sunshine. The heat. Palm trees lining every road from the airport to the hotel, which was located on the front of Miami Beach, fully equipped with a swimming pool, hot tub and tiki bar for mango smoothies and fresh caesar salads. The wave of different cultures hits you, just as the 30 degrees says welcome back to nice weather having spent the last month in the cold of the UK.

It was straight to Raptors practice in downtown and it was at this moment that I realised what players and the beat reporters covering these teams go through during a season. As fans all we see is the game, whether we consume it via online highlights or attend it live. The travel is constant, and players spend horrific amounts of time away from their families. At that moment I knew I couldn’t cope with what they do. I spoke with Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun, for the same reasons as Josh at the Sentinel, but spoke a lot before the interview with him about the daily routine of his job, the travel involved and how he balances his work and family time. He admitted his kids are old enough where they don’t mind if dad isn’t home, and they probably don’t want to see him anyway. He was joking, of course.

Raptors practice saw my most successful stint of interviews, with superstars Kyle Lowry and DeRozan giving me five minutes each. Inside the facility, it provided a great backdrop of downtown Miami on one side and the Miami Marlins baseball stadium on the other. A beautiful setting for both practice and filming. Here I spoke to the ‘junkyard dog’, DeMarre Carroll, along with former Kentucky man Patrick Patterson and Bismack Biyombo. Biyombo was a gentleman.

The story I will always remember is with Lowry, who was rushing to order an Uber for himself and DeRozan. They were done with practice and presumably wanted to enjoy their day off in Miami before the game the following night. He said my interview had to be quick, and when I offered him to attach the radio mic to his jersey he flatly said ‘no’. Backup plan in place, the shotgun mic atop the camera would have to do for the Uber loyalist. You will never know the pain you caused me Kyle.

Miami afforded us quite a bit of free time and I used it with some reading time at the pool, watching football at the outdoor bar, walking and eventually running down the beach and checking out the Everglades where plenty of alligators and crocodiles were on display. Turtles too. It was a fun time.

The final night was perhaps the most important for the video with the Miami Heat hosting the Raptors. Important because Luol Deng, the only British player in the NBA, would be there and had to be interviewed. We travelled a long way and there are no guarantees in this business. We spoke to him off the record before the game and he said he would chat afterward. It certainly helped that the Heat won by 20 points and Deng was in fine spirits at his locker afterward, talking about living in Crystal Palace during the offseason and admitting he still thinks there is a big future for basketball in the UK. For someone who enjoys the high life of the NBA, he still comes back every summer, holds a camp in Brixton in south-east London and is fully dedicated to growing the game in his home country. Good on him, and a nice guy who kindly invited us out after the game.

The biggest coup and biggest honour for me personally was getting the chance to speak with NBA legend Dwyane Wade, just before the Deng interview. Wade had completed his designated time with the media, who flocked him with cameras and dictaphones from all angles. But as a naive British journalist with one and only one chance to speak with him, I trotted over and asked him if he would be kind enough to answer just one question. The British accent helped, especially because I used a posh one and not mine. He kindly obliged and said how appreciative he was that Europe has accepted the NBA and taken to it as it has. Thank you number 3.

Again, the access and the game were fantastic. I really enjoyed watching the Heat from the stands, a team and court all NBA fans have become accustomed to on television thanks to Wade’s excellence and the title years with LeBron James and Chris Bosh. This trip was a dream come true, and it also brought home what really matters to me. Home matters. Family matter and loved ones matter, like they wouldn’t believe. Work matters too, and this was the sort of work that I hope I can embark on a lot more in the future.

-November 24