A couple Heat walked from the Westin Memphis hotel to the bus, drawing applause. A few moments later, another player sauntered out and was greeted with more raucous clapping.
The athletes, wearing expensive suits, headphones and sullen expressions, ignored the fans as they cheered them.
I was in Memphis to watch the NBA game between the Grizzlies and the Heat last week and caught that scene as I walked from a parking lot to the FedEx Forum where the game would be played. A friend and I stopped when we saw the crowd gathered around the Westin's doors on Lt. George Lee Ave. Most were wearing costly Heat jerseys and looks of hope. Maybe one of the players would look up and wave at a fan. None did during the time we watched.
My friend made an observation, and while she's not a huge sports fan, it was telling.
“Why are they taking a bus when the stadium is across the street?” she asked.
And it was. The front steps to the FedEx Forum were across South Third Street, maybe 200 feet away. Obviously, the players couldn't walk from the hotel, through the Forum's front door and the crowds of ticket-holding fans and work their way to the floor. But surely, there was a side door somewhere that allowed the access to the inner sanctum of stadiums that only they are provided. Players all do it at their home games, I assume.
But instead, they boarded the bus and waited and continued ignoring those who worshipped them.
About 15 blocks to the north was the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital where a small boy, according to a Memphis television station, was a patient. He underwent a bone marrow transplant for a rare disease and stayed in the hospital for 70 days. His wish was to meet LeBron James and his Heat teammates that day.
James declined. I guess it was too far to go.
We idolize players more than ever. Maybe because their exploits are shown to us on ESPN and other sports broadcasts daily and repeatedly. They are ingrained in our minds by the endless loops on SportsCenter. If you're older, you remember the days when we'd only catch glimpses of the NBA on the 5-minute sports segments of the local news, or on a Game of the Week televised on a weekend.
So maybe it's the exposure that creates this more intense fan worship. I know the love has always been there; I'm sure fans enjoyed seeing stars of ago. In 1985, I drove seven hours to Kansas City to watch the Kings play the Boston Celtics so I could see Larry Bird.
But it's different today. I read once that Billy Martin, Whitey Ford and others used to take the subway to Yankee Stadium on game days in the 1950s and 1960s, riding with the regular folks who were also going to the game. Now, players take buses across the street.
Bob Greene, the former Chicago Tribune columnist who is my writing hero, wrote an amazing book about the idolization of Michael Jordan called Hang Time. Read it.
Of course, there's always the double standard that I do. While I questioned the fan support of the Heat, I was walking to the floor of the FedEx Forum. My friend's employer was able to get a court side visit before the game for those who attended. About 20 of us walked down the stairs to the floor and watched as Chris Bosh and Rashard Lewis and Mike Conley and Marc Gasol practiced.
The game was televised nationally by ESPN and I stood behind the seats where the announcers would call the game. As we were getting ready to leave, the color announcer, Hubie Brown, walked to the table.
“Hubie Brown! Hello, sir,” I said, stunned.
Hubie said hello, reached out and shook my hand. “Have a good game,” I managed and he thanked me.
Maybe it's generational. Hubie Brown is 79 years old. I'm 53. I've seen him on television a lot and I remember when he coached the Grizzlies, turning them from a laughing stock to a playoff contending team.
I was really stoked I was able to see Brown. I shot photographs of him and smiled like a child. Why, I almost broke into applause when he walked up.