Ballers on the Pitch

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After the annual fortnight of moping, during which I observe the abyssal hole where the NBA season once was, idly scroll through the earliest WNBA updates, screen Draft rumors on the dumbphone, and attempt for the umpteenth time to coax myself out of a perennial indifference to baseball, I opted for a shot of NBA methadone served generously in the Lower East Side by the Steve Nash Foundation's annual Showdown game. A chance to witness Steve Nash, the closest thing the NBA has to a social conscience, in alter-ego form as a soccer talent, along with sundry other NBA ballers and sportz journos looking spectacularly out of place on the field with him and an assemblage of soccer notables.

Keeping my head down as I pass the basketball courts en route to the field at Sarah D. Roosevelt park, I locate my soccer-superfan friend Keara, who has agreed to join me as a seeing-eye foil for my soccer blind-spot. The bleachers are already packed and headed by a chorus of Italy fans leading the crowd in loose renditions of Seven-Nation Army. The field is a swirl of roving, shinguard-clad kiddies, sports-media bros, and stunning women in highlighter-colored outfits. We find a spot on the sideline for optimal pre-game people-watching as the players arrive and the field assembles into various gathering pools of autograph and sound-bite opportunities around them. The sun is low, the air is cool and the positive energy is accumulating into drumming excitement. The vast majority in attendance are soccer fans, not NBA fans, and Keara informs me that we're in the middle of what is basically "soccer Christmas in New York": Spain has just defeated Portugal on its way to the Euro2012 Final. The day also marks the opening of the fourth annual Kicking and Screening soccer film festival, sponsored by KickTV, the new Google-funded soccer destination on YouTube, whose crews are there filming the game for rebroadcast later this week.

Spotted among the throngs:
Thierry Henry admiring a someone’s Tetris tattoo. Elton Brand's dimples mugging for the cameras. Danny Green, possibly the gamest NBA player on the field—a distant second after Nash—who we’d later hear grunting, “It’s tough out here, man!” in the second half. Stu Holden, looking like a very tan version of Draco Malfoy. Grant Hill supporting from the sidelines.

While the scrum of journalists and kids dissipates, we’re offered gluten-free pizza slices and electrolyte-boasting bottled water by sponsor reps. The players assemble into press-photo formation on the field for a ceremony in which reps from head sponsor Gucci lead by example, demonstrating their commitment to charity by presenting Steve Nash with a baller-worthy timepiece.

While the NBA has recently made a valiant bid to join the soccer elite in flopping antics, one thing is clear as this game gets underway: no one’s going to get hurt here—or even fake it. Agents and coaches are on the sidelines, enjoying sponsor samples, carefree. Players aren’t even wearing shinguards. Only Elton Brand keeps his shirt tucked in. Nash excepted, the NBAers are lost, gamely running up and down the margins of the action. ESPN’s Mark Stein scored two goals, to the delight of the media contingent. Former Chelsea striker and now free-agent Salomon Kalou beams as he schools the entire field. The Foundation kids, barely contained along the sidelines, are absolutely loving it, steady shouting GOOOOOOOAAAAAAL! at the players for almost the entirety of the game.

The Gucci game clock, which stuttered more than once during the game to the concern of absolutely no one, except possibly the Gucci reps, winds down for a last time after one or two additional five-minute extensions. This game’s for the kids, and they know it: they rush Kalou and strip him of almost everything he’s wearing, pleading for scraps right down to his socks. They get 'em, too, cheering after the departing players, who toss streams of gear from the windows of the bus as it pulls away.


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