Brandon Jennings lived in Italy, and had a pair of soccer cleats custom made for him as a gift from his shoe company. Those two facts tell us nothing real about his soccer skills, but nevertheless I entered the Sara D. Roosevelt Park, just south of Manhattan's Houston Street, expecting him to know a thing or two about soccer.
Wednesday was one of the greatest days in U.S. soccer history, and just maybe Jennings was going to write the next chapter, at the third annual New York Showdown in Chinatown to benefit Steve Nash's charity.
I found a spot on the end line, near the goal, and lucked into Jennings spending lots of time a couple of yards in front of me, largely uncovered, lurking. He was thinking what I was thinking: Let's score some goals.
There was a lot of talent on the field. Italian international Giuseppe Rossi plays with Villareal of Spain and barely missed making Italy's World Cup team. Claudio Reyna was once U.S. national team captain. Simone Motta (AC Novara, Serie B, Italy), Youri Djorkaeff (Ex-France national team), John Hall (New York Red Bulls), Danleigh Borman (Red Bulls), Sinisa Ubiparipovic (Red Bulls) all play, or have recently played, professionally. Then there's a mess of soccer lifers, like Nash, Mike Quarino (M.L.S. expansion franchise Philadelphia Union front office), the actor Anthony LaPaglia who plays a mean keeper, as well as Richie Williams (N.Y. Red Bulls coach), Simone Sandri (La Gazzetta dello Sport) and Nash's friend Francesco Santoro.
ESPN's own Marc Stein is unabashed in his adoration of the game, has been playing for decades. He has a nice soft touch with the ball and accounts for countless selfless team-oriented moments. For instance, he assisted on a nice Raja Bell goal in the second half. But he still had to endure ribbing from Nash, who wasted no time pointing out that Stein has scored zero goals in three Showdowns. "Maybe," Stein remembers Nash teasing him, "you'll score in your fifth one." (And while Stein didn't suffer a pure "nutmeg," where an offensive player dribbles through a defender's legs, but a ball did pass between his feet, which counted as a nutmeg on my first grade team.)
Through all those soccer standouts, the task for NBA players Jared Dudley, Nate Robinson, Tony Parker, Raja Bell and Jennings was to try to keep up.
Jennings' teammates found him around the goal early, only it quickly became clear he was no soccer player -- he lacked that soft touch that's part of precision ball control. Soccer is a very difficult game if you can't trap the ball. His teammates found him less as the game wore on.
He did manage to club home a couple of goals, thanks to being in the right place at the right time. But his most memorable play was a touch that floated the ball nicely over the entire defense including the keeper, and directly on its way into the goal. There was nothing else to do. But it was a charity game. The whole point is fun! He needed his crowd-pleasing moment, so he caught up to the ball just before it found home, and struck it once more in the name of panache... And somehow put it high over the crossbar. Groans.
At halftime I asked Jared Dudley who had been the most disappointing of all the NBA players on the field. He quickly named Jennings, pointing out his many blown opportunities right in front of the goal. As the second half started, Dudley would eat his words ... blowing several amazing chances of his own, before finally converting a goal and then scaling the fence that surrounded the field, in celebration.
After the game Raja Bell and Marc Stein both declared Dudley and Jennings tied for last place among the NBA players on the field. Jennings spent a portion of the second half actually sitting down in a chair on the baseline, so it is no wonder that Dudley protested being lumped into the same category. Jennings would have been a great person to talk to about the situation, but he was protected by Tony Parker's private security guard at halftime, and disappeared quickly as soon as the game was over.
Meanwhile, the title that I was hoping Jennings would steal -- NBA player who's surprising good at soccer -- was no contest in favor of the amazing Nate Robinson. Part of his greatness was his relentless motor, which showed after the game when he said he had "never been more tired" and felt "like I just worked out seven hours." He seemed to have been playing his entire life, though he insisted before, during and after the game that he had literally never played one soccer game before.
If true, this was one of the great athletic performances of all time. If not, well, it was still as fun as any charity event I can remember.
While I did a decidedly mediocre job of shooting this video, it was edited together wonderfully by the excellent Bryan Gold. It also features the still photography of Kyle Gustafson. Huge thanks to both.