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By Brad Spencer
The blueberry muffin loops over the head of freelance reporter Marty Farmer. It was tossed by Knicks big man Jared Jeffries and its initial target is the head of NBA veteran Mike Bibby, but it falls short. If only Jeffries had used a patented Derrick Rose teardrop shot. The Knicks will fall short as a team tonight as well.
Iman Shumpert is still working diligently to get friends and family tickets for tonight’s game, which tips off in less than two hours. Upon spying two of his hometown sports reporters — the guys who covered him when he was just another teenage student-athlete with lofty dreams at OPRF High School — he flashes a broad smile that outshines the two shimmering diamond studs in his ears. Shumpert is back home though he’s sitting in front of his Knicks locker at the United Center, a few miles east of his parents’ home on Harvey Avenue in Oak Park. Yes, Shumpert has arrived.
It’s a homecoming of sorts for all three of us. I haven’t seen Farmer, a hoops aficionado who writes primarily for Wednesday Journal’s sister paper the Landmark, in person since … well, since when, Farmer?
“Since we covered the OPRF-Fenwick boys basketball game together in 2008, Shump’s senior year.”
Four years have zipped by, and now here we are, listening to the kid — who, despite his talent as a high-school baller, was tentative to take games into his own hands and instead focused on creating opportunities for his teammates — answer our dull and tedious questions. But he’s happy to oblige, even though scrounging for tickets is also a priority.
Bibby leans into our circle, flexes his ridiculously muscular arms and hands Shumpert an envelope of tickets. He retreats and tries to toss another muffin back at Jeffries. It soars wide left of its enormous target. For crying out loud, Bibby, he’s 6-feet-11 and 4 feet from you! (I only think it — I don’t say it.)
After a while, the three of us finally talk ourselves into an awkward pause, but it doesn’t matter, for Shumpert, Farmer and I are now surrounded by other members of the media wanting to get a slice of the local boy. Besides, Jeremy Lin has entered the room and the Asian media has descended.
Being home for Shumpert has meant a mouthful of deep-dish pizza and chatting with old friends and his three brothers. But it’s also a business trip, one that sees the rookie take the court for a little over 17 minutes. He finishes with six points on 3-of-5 shooting from the field, while another famous local boy named Derrick Rose — a product of Simeon High School — has a much more productive night.
“I’ve made it difficult for a lot of people,” says Shumpert when reminded that many friends and family members are torn between rooting for the Knicks and rooting for the Bulls. “It’s tough for me, too, believe me.”
Shumpert’s high school head coach, Al Allen, is out there somewhere, either awaiting the go-ahead on a ticket or about to watch the game on television from his Oak Park condo. He’s seen his former player live in action several times already this season.
“I’m the only one stupid enough to jump on a plane to go see him,” Allen tells me a few days before the game. “I rented a car and drove to Detroit to see him play, too. I’ve seen him play in Philadelphia.”
Allen, who texts Shumpert on a daily basis, is scheduled to see him play the Pacers on March 17. “It’s a wonderful thing seeing someone you once coached for four years compete at this level, a wonderful thing.”
Shumpert borrows my pen to write a name on an envelope full of tickets. It breaks up the awkward pause and the topic is now his burnt orange Adidas. He supplied the entire OPRF High School varsity team with a pair of similar shoes this season. They won 20 games, including their first regional title since Shumpert was a senior.
“I want to do what I can to give back and I’m going to continue …” A trainer has appeared to notify Shumpert that a table is open in back for treatment. Shumpert can’t understand him. “You need to work on your English,” he says playfully. The trainer has a British accent and fires back, “I am English!”
No problem. It’s time to check in on another rookie, the Bulls’ Jimmy Butler, who shares the same agent as Shumpert. Carlos Boozer is sprawled out on the floor of the Bulls locker room. He’s a twisted mesh of muscle, tattoos and headphones. Just two members of the media are in the room and they are speaking German of all things. Butler is sitting in front of his locker next to John Lucas III. The newbie from Marquette, who was picked last in the first round by the Bulls, lobs compliment after compliment out about Shumpert. I’ll give you just one: “He doesn’t back down from any challenge and that’s what I respect the most about him.”
The tip-off goes from the ref’s hands to Joakim Noah’s fingertips to a quick layup by Rose. Two-and-a-half hours later, Los Bulls — translation: The Bulls — defeat Nueva York, 104-99, and the nearly 23,000 people in attendance on Latin Night file out of the United Center.
The date of his birth, 06-26-90, is tattooed across Shumpert’s back. He changes slowly, obviously disappointed by his play and his team’s loss. Out in the hallway, beyond legends of Bulls past, like Scottie Pippen and Charles Oakley, Shumpert’s burgeoning smile reappears when he spots friends standing around his personal assistant Troy Aldridge, himself a former OPRF hoops player and graduate. The whirlwind since the draft has been incredible, says Aldridge, whose folks also still live in Oak Park. Sporting the same diamond stud earrings as his boss, Aldridge reveals his most awe-struck moment while hanging out and working for his lifelong friend.
“It would have to be meeting Carmelo [Anthony].”
Farmer and I don’t buy it. I goad him a bit, and it doesn’t take much, “C’mon Troy, the moment when your knees buckled a little bit and you got a little queasy.”
“OK, it was Kobe, it was Kobe Bryant. I was standing next to him while talking to Spike Lee.”
The return home, the debut at the United Center, concludes for Shumpert. He vanishes into a group of people near the team bus. No doubt on his mind is the fact that Rose, who grew up just a few miles away from Shumpert in Englewood — a stark contrast to Oak Park — scored 32 points to lead the Bulls to victory tonight, even making it seem easy with a couple of mesmerizing dunks and that graceful teardrop shot. And with the recent turbulence rumored among Knicks players and coaches, it makes you wonder if perhaps — maybe just a little bit — Shumpert wishes he had been picked last in the first round last summer.
On the Knicks locker room floor are melting bags of ice, used socks and crumbs from that blueberry muffin.