ORLANDO Feb. 26Â Serge Ibaka crossed the court of the Amway Center in a state of complete and total awareness.
The locker room had never felt so far away. Every sense he had felt heightened, burdened to the max by the power of the venue and the occasion. His ears were burning with the sounds of fans making their way towards the concession stands, mixed with the remnants of the sting from the halftime buzzer. His eyes focused on Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant as they too walked towards the locker room, just a few feet in front of him. In the corner of his left eye he saw an ever jolly Craig Sager â€“ in a horrendous green and purple suit topped off with a red tie â€“ interviewing a sweating Blake Griffin, and above them he saw the shimmering scoreboard lights that read “West â€“ 74, East â€“ 68″. His shoulders felt heavy under the weight of his first ever all-star jersey, and his mouth was completely dry. Every step felt like a miscalculation. He didn’t even know if he belonged.
To be fair, though he was still somewhat of a work in progress, Serge had made major strides this season. The new and improved mid-range jumper he developed in his summer Eurobasket stint would come (34 points, 8 of 11 from 16 to 23 feet against Sacramento) and go (4 points, 2 of 13 from the field against Dallas) as it pleased, and he still had very little non-dunking offensive game without it. But he was the main force behind the league’s second best per-possession defensive squad (those pesky Thibsy Bulls just couldn’t be usurped), leading the league in blocks per game (3.4), approaching double-digit rebounds (9.6), and even showing the courage to yell directions at Kendrick Perkins.
And yet, in the deep West, it didn’t feel to him like he should be an all-star. Ibaka wasn’t named in the original 12 man squad, and with guys like Kevin Love, or break-out third year guards Tyreke Evans and Stephen Curry being held out by their teams’ bad records, Serge didn’t seem like he would be next in line. Even when Kevin Durant, asked about the Thunder’s league-leading 49-8 record going into the all-star break, said that it’s “ridiculous” that the Thunder were only granted two all-star spots, the NBA’s analytical community used the remarks as a chance to pump up the candidacy of James Harden, who was banging home a nightly 18 points per game behind a newly found 40% three point stroke and had 6th man of the year wrapped up by mid-November. But when Zach Randolph announced that he’ll sit out all-star weekend in order to rest his sore hamstring, commissioner David Stern decided that the replacement had to be a third Thunder rep, and had to be a forward. In that case, it had to be Serge.
Coach Scotty Brooks, who was awarded the privilege of managing the exhibition game’s Western rotations, already told Serge not to expect many minutes. “You were a replacement”, Brooks said, “and even though I love you more than anybody on this roster, the fans want the West’s power forward to be Blake. Nobody else”. And boy, did the fans speak out on that one â€“ Griffin virtually broke the ballots as far as all-star fan voting, outranking even Kobe Bryant in the Western Conference. This time, the fans couldn’t even be blamed of any wrong-doing â€“ with Blake’s Clippers holding up at a surprising 32-22 come break time, Griffin was making noise even in MVP discussions. When he decided to skip out on both the Rookie Challenge (“he’s not really a sophomore anyway, so I’m cool with that” said replacement Ed Davis) and the Dunk Contest (Kia remained a sponsor), ensuring that he could only be seen on the big stage, Ibaka’s minutes were the first casualty.
When Serge finally did enter the game, there were only 5 minutes left in the half. Even worse, the game was a complete and total farce. Serge had seen all-star games before, but he never realized how lax they were â€“ never the person to stop running, he started off by making two wide-open fastbreak dunks before he was accused of cherry-picking by players from both sides. He spent the rest of his first half stint running around, setting picks, jumping for blocks on defense. On one of those jumps, he connected viciously â€“ Deron Williams had set up a Dwight Howard alley-oop with a gorgeous pass, only Serge jumped with the herculean big man, his arm meeting the ball a solid 12 feet above the ground, and sending it earthward with a loud smack. Charles Barkley managed a tired yelp from the broadcasting booth; Serge just focused on the next possession. It ended with yet another Kobe Bryant 30 footer rattling in above Paul Pierce’s amused, barely stretched arms.
And so came the buzzer. Serge left the court slowly, trying to figure out if he had a place here, or at least, whether he’ll be given a chance to prove so. When suddenly, a voice came from behind him.
The voice drawled, and was full of contempt, as if the speaker was making fun of the nickname that the media had so willingly bestowed upon Serge.
Westbrook and Durant immediately stopped their walks and swiveled toward the voice, as if sensing that a friend was soon to be in need. Serge turned as well, though without the determination that defined the motions of his teammates. In front of him stood the full form of what seemed like a very irritated Dwight Howard.
Seeing an irritated Dwight Howard wasn’t as much of a rarity as it was in previous years. The ever-present joy from previous years had seemingly dissipated in a tenuous Orlando locker room. When the Magic lost their first four games, Howard demanded more shot attempts; when they were 2-8, he asked a reporter why Ryan Anderson wasn’t getting more minutes over Brandon Bass; and when the team stumbled to a 6-15 record in mid-December, despite him maintaining averages of 23 and 12, he had finally requested a trade. The request was granted mere hours before the All-Star tipoff, with the final deal being Howard and Chris Duhon moving to Los Angeles for Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, surprising rookie guard Darius Morris, and a future first round pick. Since the deal was announced so close to the game itself, a combination of logistics and Stern dictated that Dwight would still play for the East.
The All-Star game itself wasn’t going much better for Dwight. Appearing in front of the Amway Center crowd as a home player for the last time, Howard was booed rigorously during introductions, drawing even harsher jeers than LeBron James. He then proceeded to miss two straight wide open dunks to start the game, as well as airball a three pointer that he took at the first quarter buzzer, with an eager Carmelo Anthony egging him on. Ibaka’s block, specifically, had seemed to affect him harshly, though he concealed it well to the untrained eye, wearing his trademark smile and laughing heartily once he and Ibaka had descended from the apexes of their respective jumps. The Amway crowd’s cheers upon witnessing their former idol’s humiliation couldn’t have been helpful, either.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Howard asked Ibaka, agitation still radiating from his brow, “this is the second quarter of the All-Star game. We don’t play defense before the 4th. You tryin’ to make me look bad?”
“I don’t know, Dwight”, Ibaka answered, “I always play defense”.
By this point, not only Durant and Westbrook were looking, but so were Sager and Griffin, their generic interview clearly much less interesting than what was happening well within earshot’s range. Griffin scratched his head, while Sager’s incredulous expression looked almost as unnatural as his clothing.
Howard leaned closer to Ibaka, and said in a deep voice “defense is my thing, not yours, kid.” Seemingly unsatisfied, he added “and let me tell you, you better be playing that defense in May.”
The two men stared each other in the eye when Westbrook’s voice broke into the conversation:
“Or what? You’ll get stopped by Perk again?”
Howard’s head shot quickly towards the point guard. Durant was trying very hard to stifle a smile. The arena felt much quieter than it actually was as Dwight strained his face, clearly unfamiliar with the bully role. He was much better at intimidating his opponent on the court than off it, much more in his element making Stan Van Gundy noises than making threats.
Suddenly, he smiled again.
“Just playin’, Sergie boy”, he exclaimed happily. “Good block, good block. Try to get Bron next time.” He then proceeded to run into the tunnel, perhaps a bit faster than he intended, mumbling something about playing with Pau Gasol in the high post.
Ibaka looked at Westbrook, then at Durant, then Westbrook again. They had the same look in their eyes as they had after their double overtime win in Miami in December: a quick flash of satisfaction, followed by hunger for more. He knew that his own eyes were projecting the exact same picture towards them.
Kevin nodded his head, and Russell extended a fist.
Serge bumped it, and the three headed into the tunnel.