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Monday, June 30, 2008
Marc Stein on his Time in the Soccer Spotlight


ESPN's Marc Stein was at last Thursday's NBA draft.

But his heart wasn't.

His heart was still in the aftershocks of the emotional earthquake of Wednesday, which was the greatest sporting day of Marc Stein's life.

As part of a charity event, Stein got to suit up and play his favorite sport -- soccer -- with literally the best players in the world.

Over the weekend his heart finally stopped racing long enough to put pen to paper with some thoughts about his experience.

(UPDATE: Check out some new video.) 

I'm truly sorry it's taken so long to hit you with a few (thousand) words about what it was like to play in one of the most amazing playground games New Yorkers will ever see. But I still haven't quite made it all the way back to the real world yet, some five days since Steve Nash and Claudio Reyna let me intrude on all the luminaries who dribbled in from the NBA and footballing worlds for their Showdown In Chinatown.

Before a single ball was kicked last week at Nike Field in Manhattan's Sara D. Roosevelt Park, I had already been treated to more memorable dabbles in participatory journalism than any sports writer has a right to expect in one lifetime.

But spoiled doesn't even begin to describe me any more.

I thought I was rather lucky when 1977 Australian Open champion Roscoe Tanner -- before Tanner's life unraveled in a spiral of jail sentences -- agreed to let me try to return 20 serves on three different surfaces (clay, grass and hard court) for a column in the Los Angeles Daily News.

I hit a much richer lotto years later when the Dallas Sidekicks, one of the signature franchises in the ill-fated Major Indoor Soccer League, signed me to a one-week contract and allowed me dress for two matches for a feature in the Dallas Morning News.

Now?

You can safely assume that there's a new No. 1 in my personal Plimptonian Power Rankings.

Thierry Henry, Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman wearing the yellow of Team Nash with a trio of Phoenix Suns on one side. Baron Davis, Jason Kidd and the interloper from ESPN.com trying to blend in on the other side with all of the soccer guys from Team Reyna.

At least I wasn't alone in my awe.

"Thierry Henry came down to Chrystie Street," Nash said after scoring twice in a 9-4 spectacle so unique that fans invaded the pitch for autographs, pictures and shoulder-rubbing with the stars from two worlds before and after the match. "I still can't believe it."

The moment moved Henry, too.

"Great, great atmosphere," he said. "It was pretty different than what I'm used to, but we had great fun."

Here's your first-person highlights package from an unforgettable play day on the eve of the NBA Draft ...

The big trade: Jermaine O'Neal to the Raptors? Richard Jefferson to the Bucks? The late-night blockbuster that forced O.J. Mayo and Kevin Love to swap draft hats?

Not on this scorecard.

The transaction that changed my world last week was the pre-match tap on the shoulder informing me that I had just been transferred from Team Nash to Team Reyna -- no fee involved -- to fill the spot vacated by a late pullout named Joakim Noah.

The strange part?

Fresh off his rookie season with the Bulls, Noah wasn't even one of the original recruits for the game but called Nash to volunteer and said he was dying to play after reading about the match in the New York Post.

The next curveball: All set to start at my natural position wide on the left -- yeah, right -- I lost that privilege and was banished to the bench when MLS veteran and former Venezuelan national teamer Giovanni Savarese turned up unexpectedly before kickoff. At least I handled it like a pro, wiping away the tears before anyone could see them.

The solace: Later that night, Fowler gave me a long, consoling lecture about how tough it is to come on as a sub and pick up the pace of the play, even at the purportedly casual level of a charity match like this. Fowler being pretty much my favorite player ever, I naturally believed every word.

The other late arrival: I have to confess that at first I had no idea who the young man was. He was obviously going to be playing, with a shiny pair of adidas boots slung over his shoulder, but he frankly looked like a teen-ager who had sneaked into the hotel bar where all the big names had gathered to collect their uniforms for the match.

Nash then explained that it was just Salomon Kalou from Chelsea.

Oh.

Turns out that Kalou had just arrived in the States after playing in a World Cup qualifier for the Ivory Coast against Botswana in South Africa over the weekend and heard about the Nashfest on his way to New York for vacation.

He had to buy those boots because he didn't pack any, but Kalou insisted on playing even though he hadn't been off the plane for more than a couple of hours.

Premiership footballers falling out of the sky. That's the sort of fairy tale this thing was.

The lineups: The match was played with nine per side on less-than-fullsize pitch made of artificial turf that realistically was meant for eight-a-side at most.

TEAM NASH Starting IX: Maurizio Bacci (acclaimed fashion photographer), Leandro Barbosa (Phoenix Suns), Raja Bell (Phoenix Suns), Robbie Fowler (Liverpool legend), Thierry Henry (FC Barcelona and France), Steve McManaman (Liverpool legend), Steve Nash (Phoenix Suns), Simone Sandri (NBA TV) and goalkeeper Davide Di Malta (friend of the program)

Substitutes: Venanzio Ciampa (event co-organizer) and Rob Jones (Liverpool legend who couldn't play due to injury)

TEAM REYNA Starting IX: Jozy Altidore (Villareal of Spain and U.S. national team), Gregg Berhalter (Germany's 1860 Munich and United States), Baron Davis (Golden State Warriors), Salomon Kalou (Chelsea and Ivory Coast), Jason Kidd (Dallas Mavericks), Alessandro Nivola (veteran film actor whose credits include the Goal! football movies), Claudio Reyna (New York Red Bulls and longtime U.S. captain), Giovanni Savarese (MLS and Venezuelan national team alumnus) and Mike Quarino (Red Bulls employee and former collegiate keeper) in goal.

Substitutes: Juan Pablo Angel (Red Bulls striker who couldn't play due to injury) and Marc Stein (ESPN.com)

Referee: Alberto Giordano (former MLS referee)

The scene: Hopefully by now you've seen some of the pictures. There are lots of good ones all over the Internet illustrating the lengths that people were willing to go to for a glimpse of a game in a steel cage on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that had nowhere for spectators to sit.

Lang Whitaker of SLAM magazine likened the hordes of people ringed around the caged playground to the famous picture of Dr. J at Rucker Park back in the day.

I don't know if this gathering could match how big that Rucker crowd was, but I'm convinced there were at least 2,500 people angling for a view. Basically folks stood on (cars, park fixtures, each other) or hung from (fences, light posts, trees) anything they could find.

And that was the real story.

Most of the participants agreed that the game's standard was better and more competitive than expected -- "It was nice because everyone out there could play a little bit," McManaman said -- but no one could quite believe how big and passionate the audience was, even though admission was free-of-charge.

"It was just like we dreamed it would be," Nash said, describing how he and Reyna intentionally refused to make details of the match public until the game was less than a week away in part to test how quickly word would sp
read.

"We almost shut that park down."

Said one veteran journalist in attendance who has been closely covering American soccer for years: "This game generated more excitement than any MLS event that I've ever been to."

The star man: On TV, Henry looks NBA lanky. I've seen him in person at two separate NBA Finals cheering on Allen Iverson (2001) and then countryman and close friend Tony Parker (2007) and came away both years shocked by how much smaller he seemed in real life.

But now I'm totally confused after spending a little time in his vicinity on a football pitch. You always hear that word Jordanesque ... that's the kind of presence Henry has. He looms over all.

Plus, everyone wants to be near him. Women, men, you name it.

He's no giant, true, but he's ridiculously strong, maybe even right there with Baron.

You just can't get the ball off him. He's also still faster with the ball at his feet than 99 percent of the world's population running without one, even at nearly 31.

I had to laugh at myself after trying to chase him down once. I actually had a conversation with myself as I was running, telling myself that it would be unwise to stick a foot in and wind up as the idiot who trips Titi Henry from behind and causes some sort of catastrophe.

The funny part is that the mere thought presupposes that I was close enough to make any kind of contact with his legs.

I obviously never got that close.

I didn't get to shake the man's hand afterward, either, thanks to Pitch Invasion No. 2, but I wish I could have thanked him personally. His mere presence helped take Nash's idea from amazing to an all-timer.

Best of all, Henry was there with the clear intent to entertain the masses. Teasing defenders with his dribbling, taunting them with his juggling, scaring everyone at the park with the missiles flying off his right foot ... TH showed us the whole range of his street ball repertoire.

The man of the people: It wasn't Nash or Kalou or even Henry ... and it wasn't close.

Accounting for everything I just said about Henry's Jordanesque display, Baron Davis was the clear fan favorite.

It didn't matter that Baron had never played soccer in his life. He wowed the crowd with his exuberance, attire and flair for the dramatic.

He played in a Dodgers hat with the LA insignia upside down, sported glasses with thick black rims that wouldn't have looked out of place on celebrity spectator Judah Friedlander from 30 Rock and played in white Reebok Pumps from the Dee Brown era ... white with a lot of orange in them.

He also got himself all the way to the far post early on for an easy tap-in goal, dispossessed his buddy Henry at least once -- turns out they've been pals ever since meeting at Parker's wedding -- and could have been sent off three times for two intentional hand balls resulting in penalty kicks and a playful WWE three-count pin of Fowler after a foul.

Yet it probably didn't hurt BD's popularity that there seemed to be numerous hoop fans in attendance, well aware that he had the right to opt of his contract and become a free agent Tuesday.

"Every time I turned around," Baron said with a laugh, "it was, 'Come to the Knicks!'"

The big surprise: Another slam dunk. It was J-Kidd in a runaway.

I had it way wrong in my preview story when I suggested that Kidd, like Baron, didn't have a soccer background.

"That was my first sport," Kidd informed me when he got to town.

You could tell, too. Just like Nash, who has so often credited his soccer upbringing with helping him see the game better on hardwood, Kidd's famed court vision transferred easily onto the turf. The game's first goal came from a slide-rule, cross-field pass from Kidd to Kalou and Kidd was later denied a goal of his own only by the crossbar.

In short, my Dallas neighbor represented the Southwest Division worlds better than I did.

The huge angle that the media crush missed: Fowler is one of the greatest natural-born finishers this game has ever seen and is referred to by Liverpool supporters to this day, without a hint of apology or restraint, as God.

McManaman was Fowler's run-all-day setup man, blessed with pace and an eye for the killer pass and still ranks as England's most successful individual export after leaving Liverpool in 1999 and winning the Champions League twice with Real Madrid.

But it's rare that you bring up one without mentioning the other. They're that close as mates and were that deadly as a tag team for much of the 1990s, so telepathically good together that I couldn't resist adopting them as favorites long before they ever both wound up at my beloved Manchester City in 2003.

Their split nearly 10 years ago was akin to Nash leaving Dirk Nowitzki behind in Dallas to sign with Phoenix in the summer of 2004. Fowler and McManaman were then almost never healthy at the same time in their City days to even have a chance to try to click in sky blue like they did at Anfield.

That made Wednesday's reunion even more historic, with both showing up sharp: Fowler with three well-taken goals and McManaman involved in at least five of Team Nash's nine.

Neither Growler nor Macca could even remember the last time they played together when I asked, but post-match research revealed that they were last in the same team on March, 7, 2005. City lost 1-nil at home to Bolton that day in what proved to be McManaman's final match as a pro as well as the finale for Blues manager Kevin Keegan, who resigned shortly after the defeat. Keegan had lured both of them to City after coaching Fowler and McManaman in his stint as England's national team coach.

The self-analysis: Thanks to ESPNsoccernet's Jen Chang and TrueHoop's Henry Abbott, you've been subjected to enough coverage of my, uh, exploits. So I'll try to keep it brief.

As a professional self-loather, I've naturally second-guessed everything. I've been torturing myself with what-ifs after a better-than-expected shot with my weaker right foot forced Di Malta to make a good save and mostly lamenting the fact that adrenaline could not carry me past the lethal combination of nerves and a lack of fitness as I'd hoped.

That said ... I have to thank Reyna, Berhalter and Altidore for trying to bring me into the game by repeatedly sending the ball my way.

I likewise have to argue that the free header I choked was not as easy as the media is making it out to be. I haven't seen the replay yet -- so I'm not totally sure I've got it right when I say it was Reyna who crossed the ball perfectly into the penalty area and landed it right on my considerable dome -- but don't forget that the goals we were using are not regulation-sized and don't offer much to aim at.

Or the fact that I've always been hopeless in the air and always will be.

As I've already shared with TrueHoop, Nash is vowing to bring my miss up every time I see him from now on. He also helpfully explained how he knew the header had no chance once he saw that I was trying to glance it into the far corner instead of trying to head it low behind the keeper.

"Too much sweat on your face," Nash said. "It just skidded right off."

Cheers.

Truth is, though, that I will eventually learn to live with my choke because it was a header. A headed goal, easy or not, would have been a miracle on par with the fact that apparently none of the fence- and tree-climbing fans got hurt and that there was no serious crowd trouble with so many people
(and so few police officers and security types) in such a small area.

Had I missed a sitter the usual way, with my trusty left foot, I'd have been filing this story from therapy.

In short, I can only repeat what I've been saying since Wednesday. Just being out there was a Luckiest Man On The Face Of The Earth experience.

Or as ESPN.com editor extraordinaire Matty Wong relayed to me later: "From where I was standing, you definitely got the most 'I wish I was that guy' comments."

The best journalist on the pitch: It was always going to be the great Simone Sandri, who played professionally for two clubs in his native Italy before becoming an NBA expert. But he deserves special mention not only for his efficient play in midfield -- and losing out on what looked to be a certain goal in the second half when he was curiously ruled offside in a game that was being played with no offside rule -- but for his work in putting this match together with Nash.

You should have seen Sandri at the NBA Finals, cornering anyone he saw from the football world to invite them to participate. That includes my man Avram Grant, formerly Kalou's manager at Chelsea, as well as Darren Bent from Nash's beloved Tottenham, when Bent unexpectedly showed up in L.A. to do some TV work at the Finals for Channel 5 in England.

The goals: My biggest regret -- besides the header I'll never live down and the fact that I probably should have considered trying to get in passable shape before this extravaganza -- is that I didn't take better notes.

But I can't lie. I was enjoying it all too much to do much reporting. I suppose I could have tapped some observations into my BlackBerry during my time on the bench in the first half, but it was far more enticing to sit with the injured Juan Pablo Angel and pretend that we were just two strikers with the same gig, both waiting to be thrown in to change the game.

The good news is that so many reporters and bloggers were there to chronicle everything I've left out in what's already a way-too-long opus. The best roundup of the goals that I've seen can be found here.

The best goal: Nash. Last kick of the game. Figures.

Standing inside his own half, McManaman lobbed a long ball downfield that rose almost as high as a Ray Guy punt.

Nash chested it down with his back to goal, swiveled and volleyed it in with his left foot before the ball hit the ground.

Which reminds me again how laughable it is that Nash is often considered unathletic in NBA terms. Doesn't playing more than one sport at a ridiculously high level equate to a high degree of athleticism?

The media: Links to more of the best match coverage of the event follow. First, from the blogosphere:

And from mainstream media:

The video: There is lots of amateur footage on YouTube already, but here are two links to more traditional electronic coverage.

The charity: The post-match auction at the Replay store in SoHo raised roughly $20,000 for the respective foundations run by Nash and Reyna.

The future: Behind the scenes, Nash and Reyna are already talking about it. One example: Reyna immediately began dropping hints about luring Henry's Barcelona teammate Lionel Messi to next summer's installment.

The guys know they could move their event into a proper stadium and attract a huge crowd. One more example: As soon as Vlade Divac heard about the game, he reached out to Nash to propose a European version at a major venue.

But Nash and Reyna are likewise tempted to keep it in the playground to preserve an atmosphere that The Offside Rules blog so aptly described as a "FIFA Street [video game] come to life."

File that and any other challenge that came up in the staging of The Showdown In Chinatown in the Great Problem To Have Dept.

Marc Stein is senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.