FLORHAM PARK, N.J./TARRYTOWN, N.Y.—When the NBA asked if SI.com wanted to take part in the 2015 Panini NBA rookie photo shoot—complete with jersey, rookie card and everything—it took me all of five seconds to say yes. This was my long sought-after chance to experience a day in the life of a blossoming NBA star.
Fast-forward to the first day of the event itself, and it took me all of five seconds to realize this was a lot different than what I had envisioned.
Absent were the rows of fresh sushi and all-you-can-drink Gatorade I had conjured up in my head. In their place were some chips, cookies, and a bunch of bleary-eyed rookies who had flown in from all over the country to have their photos taken in New Jersey.
The visions of grand excess were replaced by perhaps something much more meaningful: an important milestone. Each rookie would be wearing his NBA jersey for the first time. And the very next day, the players would receive their first basketball card.
Most people who care about sports dream of one day putting on their favorite team’s uniform, emblazoned with their own name on the back. Before I could take any photos for my own card, I had this dream, but the reality, as often happens, didn’t exactly play out as I hoped.
You’ve seen an NBA jersey before. It’s sleek. It’s sleeveless. It’s made for the modern athlete.
Unfortunately, it is not made for an aspiring sportswriter who just ate chocolate chip pancakes as a side dish to his breakfast. My personalized, No. 3 Miami Heat jersey was form-fitting, to be polite.
Once I put on my uniform and laced up my shoes, it was time for photos. My shoot was scheduled around the same time as Atlanta Hawks center Walter Tavares and Chicago Bulls forward Bobby Portis.
I followed the two into a room adorned with black curtains, with three separate setups. One was for tight headshots, the other was an open space used for a series of poses for the rookie card, and the third took a 128-camera head scan of your face to be uploaded to NBA 2K16.
I would only be using the first two stations, as my attempts to convince the video game people I was an actual NBA rookie were futile. (I wasn’t sure if it was my height, weight, non-matching shorts, general awkwardness or lack of basketball skills that gave me away. Probably the shorts.)
It was soon apparent that rookie photos were serious business. Portis, Tavares and I were run through a battery of poses and movements to capture the perfect photo. We held the ball near our waists. We threw a chest pass. We lowered our heads, turned our chins slightly to left and looked stoically at the camera. We put our hands on our hips. We jumped and threw one-handed passes across our bodies.
If the NBA’s photographer ever wanted to steal my identity, he would certainly have enough photos to populate his fake Facebook page.
From there, it was to the tiny box for some tight shots. Each one, of course, with an official NBA basketball pointed perfectly at the camera, so those at home could read Adam Silver’s signature.
For the actual rookies, the day was just starting. Immediately after his shoot, Tavares was sent to a ballroom to sign stuff for hours. Basketballs, cards, jerseys, you name it, Tavares signed it. I bumped into Tavares by the cookies a couple minutes later and he was still scribbling his name on one piece of memorabilia after another.
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The second day of the shoot—up in Tarrytown, N.Y. at the Knicks’ practice facility—featured every photo possible. Team shots, solo shots, photos with a smoke machine, a photo in front of a fake brick wall, a photo in between two giant white screens with a photographer capturing the image while laying on his stomach in the facility’s parking lot.
Fortunately, there was time for other stuff as well. The Lakers’ D’Angelo Russell staged a halfcourt shooting contest. Players hung out with their old college buddies. Others took advantage of the NBA 2K15 setup.
Still in my jersey, I had an opportunity to chop it up with the rookie class myself.
I played one-on-one against the Celtics’ Terry Rozier, who quickly ended my playing career forever through sheer embarrassment. I launched a three near a dying-to-block-it Karl-Anthony Towns. Perhaps most importantly, I spent some time with “fellow” Heat rookie Josh Richardson, extolling to him the values of Publix sandwiches and the importance of trying a chicken tender sub.
These moments are when you realize how young everyone is.
When Portis asks you for a deep-dish recommendation in Chicago. When you see former Duke teammates Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones cracking each other up. When Russell busts out a new dance move for each track the gym’s DJ plays. Everyone was having fun, as 19-to-22-year olds should be, as they took one of the first steps of their pro career.
When I received my card, it exceeded my expectations in every way. Despite the fact I don’t look athletic, let alone like a professional athlete, it felt very real to hold the card in my hands. The NBA was nice enough to send me a whole stack of them, complete with a biography on the back. For the rookies, the card marks an important first step in their NBA career. For me, it marked my first and my last.