My Not Very Smooth First NBA Game

Rookies, it’s the first week of the NBA season and I have some advice for you: Popcorn and PowerBars are not a proper pre-game meal.

This is the first week of the new season and it got me thinking back to my first NBA game as a rookie three years ago. More accurately, it got me cringing back.

Let me take you through it. If nothing else, I hope it may help other rookies feel a little more confident when they take the court for the first time.

My first time on an NBA court was a preseason game against the Hawks, in Asheville. My first opportunity to wear a real NBA jersey. We had been in Asheville for nine days for training camp and it all led up to the official start of my career. It was supposed to be a triumphant feeling, my first NBA game: a feeling of I made it to the League. But all I felt, all day, was awkwardness. It was like I forgot how to be on a basketball team even though I’ve been playing all my life. My nerves were going crazy.

Game day began at 10:00 a.m. for a shootaround. But unlike college, the shootaround was short and to the point. We were in and out, and back to the hotel before noon. Then we had about five hours to relax before the bus left for the game. When we returned to the hotel, I was a little hungry and wondering when the team meal was provided. More than anything, I was just excited about the whole pre-game routine. I really wanted to soak it all up. I couldn’t mask my child-like giddiness.

I started asking the guys all kinds of questions. I was going up to guys like Kemba Walker, asking:

“When do you usually nap?”

“So, does the bus leave right at 5 or a little before or after?”

“Hey, when is pre-game meal provided?”

Al Jefferson, one of our veteran guys, came up to me and gave me a look like I had invited myself as the third-wheel on a date. He chuckled: “Sorry rook, you’re on your own!”

In hindsight: Dumb rookie questions.

The thing is, I was still in a college basketball mentality. At Indiana, every step of a game day was planned out for you, to the minute. The team ate meals together, you traveled together, you stretched together, you took the court for warm-ups together, everything. It was all very regimented.

As I was learning, an NBA game day gave you a lot more free time to figure it out on your own.

So I guess I was on my own for lunch. I slinked away to try to find a restaurant near the hotel and all there was nearby was a Subway.

Have you heard of a sad sandwich lunch? You know: the thing where you’re by yourself at a desk eating a cold turkey sub? That was me, on my first day as an NBA player, sitting alone in the hotel room with five hours to kill.

Were the other guys having rib-eye steaks together at a restaurant next door? Probably not, but maybe? I had no idea.

After eating, I tried to nap but I was too excited to get any real sleep. Suddenly it was almost 5 p.m. and the bus was about to leave.

I got out of bed and felt weird … because I was starving. Five hours since that sandwich.

When I got to the gym, I had no clue what the pre-game routine would be like. Obviously, I knew that it would be different from my college routine. In an NBA pre-game, there’s almost two hours before tip-off. One hundred and twenty minutes to “warm up.”

I should have paced myself — but of course, I did the opposite. If there’s a record for the quickest pre-game routine ever, I set the bar that night. I was just moving from one thing to another, nervously, just to fill up the time. I changed clothes quickly and I was the first one out on the court to shoot with an assistant coach. Then I did a 10-minute lift with our strength and conditioning coach to get warmed up and stretched out.

Thirty minutes after arriving to the gym — a full 90 minutes before tip off — I was fully warmed up. There were no other drills or stretches I could think of doing. And I still had an hour to kill before coach gave his talk, which happens at 38 minutes before tip-off.

I was already in a full sweat.

And by this point my stomach was grumbling. I could smell the aroma of hot dogs and fries from the concession stands in the arena.

It felt like the concession stands themselves were mocking me: Nice job, rookie, you don’t even know how to feed yourself properly. Are you sure you’ve done this before?

I returned to the locker room to relax some, but I couldn’t. I kept telling myself I should be doing something. Should I ask the guys more questions? No, no more rookie questions.

The scent of popcorn was wafting into the locker room. But I couldn’t have popcorn as my pre-game meal, that’d be crazy.

I fantasized about sneaking up to the concession stand quickly. I wondered how that scene would go:

“Hi, I’m Cody Zeller, the NBA rookie who forgot to have a pre-game meal. Anyway … I’ll take Combo #4, please.”

I was reaching a breaking point. Popcorn was going to have to suffice. I got up from my locker and walked across the room to load up on a bowl at a popcorn machine outside the locker room.

Then after a few minutes, another bowl.

I was the rookie going back and forth across the locker room to fill up my popcorn bowl.

I looked over at Josh McRoberts and Michael Kidd Gilchrist and they were listening to music on their headphones. So I put in some headphones. But I was so nervous that I would miss any announcements from a coach or trainer that I kept the volume so low that I couldn’t even really hear the music.

When you’re hungry, your mind starts racing. I suddenly became super self-conscious about when exactly to put my jersey on. Do you keep your warm-ups on until after the coach gives his talk or should you be fully suited up when he comes in?

Another popcorn run.

Knowing what I know now, the quality of the locker room popcorn can only be rated as average. It’s good enough, it’s fine, but it’s average. But at that moment, minutes before the game, it was the difference between feeling delirious from hunger and feeling sane. The popcorn that day was movie theater good. It’s never been like that since.

Outside the locker room, I found more food: a table of fruit and some PowerBars. Now we were talking. I must have had six PowerBars. No joke.

Coach gave his talk and it was time to hit the court. The tunnel run was the moment you dreamed about as a kid: running out onto the NBA floor for the first time. But at that moment, I wasn’t imagining anything like that. I was worried about my game shorts. Did I remember to put them on under my breakaways? Was I still wearing my warm-up shorts? I probably checked 20 times. I’m serious. I kept thinking about that dream where you show up at school on the first day … in your underwear.

We went through introductions, coach drew up our first play, and we broke the huddle. In my mind, I did the logical thing and walked to the center circle for the opening tip. But I was the only one who did that. I must have been there for over a minute, just standing at the center circle as the other guys from each team casually strolled around the court and did their thing: wishing each other luck, doing their handshakes, fist-bumping people sitting courtside, and getting a feel for the ball. The new NBA rule is that you have 90 seconds to get to the jump circle after starting lineups are finished. When you watch a game next, keep an eye out for how long most guys take to get their position at center circle.

I was standing at the center circle alone trying to act normal.

Let me get a few toe touches here, I was thinking.

Maybe I’ll clean my shoes … swing my arms some … wow, this is a long minute and a half.

The game started in a surprisingly good way. On the first sequence, I crashed the boards and got a tip dunk. My first NBA basket, within a few seconds. But in the next few minutes, something became clear: the Hawks were calling a lot of plays for the guys I was guarding.

I would hear the Hawks coach say “4 clear” or “4 punch” and even though I didn’t know what those plays meant, I knew. My guy would get the ball and everyone else would clear out. Iso on the rookie. Blood in the water. Exploit the weakness.

At one point I was guarding Paul Millsap. The entire Hawks bench started yelling “barbeque chicken!” over and over. Everyone cleared out and Paul backed into the low post from the elbow. They lobbed it into him and he scored easily.

Barbeque chicken. I heard that a lot that game.

Even my coach could detect my nervousness. At the start of almost every play on offense, I would hear him just start yelling my name. It was like he expected me to mess up before I even made a mistake. It was like your mom yelling from the other room. “Cody, Cody, Cody!”

Maybe the Hawks thought that was the name of our defensive set.

In the years since, people have asked me if I was nervous for my first NBA game. I tell them: I wasn’t nervous about the game itself, I was nervous about everything leading up to it.

It’s my third year now in the NBA and I’ve got my game day routine down. I eat a good pre-game meal. I get a good nap. I’ve timed my pre-game routine so I’m using the full two hours wisely. I don’t hear coach yelling “Cody!” very much anymore. With hundreds of games under my belt, I’ve managed to avoid SportsCenter’s “Not Top Ten” list for checking into the game without the right shorts on.

And I haven’t heard “barbeque chicken” in a long time.