By Steve Weinman, for NBA.com
Posted Aug 15 2009 1:34PM
Tarrytown, N.Y -- More than a month after we met on the biggest night of his life, Hasheem Thabeet and I find ourselves together again.
This time around, we're at Sunday's NBA Rookie Photo Shoot at the Knicks' practice facility in Tarrytown, N.Y.. The new center for the Memphis Grizzlies appears exponentially more relaxed than he did on draft night.
On draft night, Thabeet moved straight from shaking David Stern's hand through 12 interviews before catching his breath. The nervousness and accompanying drained expression won't appear today. When the players stroll into the gym shortly after 9 a.m., Thabeet punctuates a joke by playfully cuffing new teammate DeMarre Carroll in the head. An hour later, he flashes a smile and invites a child to stand on his back for a picture. The gregarious giant looks happy to play all day.
So do his rookie colleagues.
Camera equipment, tables and assorted memorabilia cover the courts in making up approximately 10 stations that the 35 rookies in attendance must hit over the course of the day, mostly for an array of photos with NBA Entertainment and Panini, which co-hosts the event and begins its inaugural season as the league's exclusive trading card partner.
The players arrive in t-shirts and baggy shorts before changing for the first time into their own jerseys. These will be their first photographs in game uniforms, and they will receive their own trading cards from Panini. When they aren't taking pictures, answering survey questions for NBA.com or signing merchandise, the players are free to mingle, shoot around on one open basket, chat with invited media or compete using their likenesses in EA SPORTS' NBA Live '10.
The relaxed mood manifests itself early. De facto class clown James Harden (Oklahoma City Thunder) saunters in with a wide grin and shouts, "Good morning! Good morning!" in every direction. The players jostle for position and laugh while taking the group photo to start the day. Blake Griffin (Los Angeles Clippers) pals around with brother Taylor (Phoenix Suns) and banks in several shots behind his back. James Johnson (Chicago Bulls) tosses alley-oops while Brandon Jennings (Milwaukee Bucks) dances. Harden jives to the stylings of the DJ in the corner of the gym, shows off his lefty stroke from the outside and takes on all comers at the video game console.
Truth is, the third pick is excited just to run around with his name on his shirt. "Even in college, I didn't have my name on the back," Harden tells me. "To finally have my name on the back of my jersey, to have a video game with myself on it, it's a great honor, a great accomplishment."
The rookies speak in virtual unison about the mood change from draft night to the photo shoot: They know where they will be come autumn.
"Everybody has their jersey on, everybody pretty much has their preference of where they're going to be at," Darren Collison (New Orleans Hornets) tells me. "There's no reason to be miserable. This is somewhere you want to be happy."
Jitters about falling out of the first round or making it into the draft at all fail to appear. Smiles, trick shots, happy munching on burgers, cookies and juice boxes (juice boxes!) and even an impromptu break-dancing contest do, but no worries.
Jrue Holiday (Philadelphia 76ers) gives me his best Kevin Garnett: "I'm on top of the world, and I'm not comin' down soon."
Encountering Thabeet highlights my day. As I reintroduce myself as the comparatively diminutive thorn in his side from draft night, he smiles and envelopes me in another gigantic handshake-hug: "You wrote that Facebook story, right?" I nod. "I liked that. It was good." Which means that the following of my burgeoning writing career instantaneously jumps 50 percent, from just Mama and Papa Weinman to Mama Weinman, Papa Weinman and Hasheem Thabeet. Confetti, anyone?
We chat about Thabeet's travel-heavy first month in the NBA, his upcoming trip home to Tanzania and his goals for rookie year. Though the big man considers wearing his own jersey a dream come true, he remains focused on the name on the front.
"I'm not worried about how many minutes I'm gonna play. I'm worried about what I'm going to do to help my team get to the playoffs."
I remind Thabeet of my draft night confession that I was still bummed about his UConn Huskies knocking my beloved Missouri Tigers out of the NCAA Tournament this spring. Does he remember which Tiger he said impressed him the most?
"Him," Thabeet points to the dreadlocked fellow five feet away, forward DeMarre Carroll. In a timely coincidence, the Grizzlies selected Carroll 45 minutes after Thabeet and I had that discussion.
A grinning Carroll assures me that Thabeet won't cause him any undue grief about that game: "He won't bring it up because he played really, really bad."
These days, each enjoys having the other as a companion on his trip through life as a rookie.
After briefly tiring in the mid-afternoon, the players spend the final hour rejuvenated upon receiving their first set of cards from Panini. The jovial Harden leads the way, zipping around the gym pleading his brethren for signed cards. Many of his colleagues follow suit, and shouts of "Just need three more!" and "Got a full set!" fill the building.
It's a fine concluding reminder that on this day, they are all kids playing games and seeking autographs from soon-to-be sports heroes.
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