Got a chance to check out an extremely savvy PR move disguised as a Houston Rockets open practice today. The team opened Toyota Center for an afternoon practice/scrimmage event that included a "Chalk Talk" session with a team rep, a team scrimmage (the players were divided into red and white teams) an autograph session and a Q&A with a player after the game.
The initial media bulletins said the event was open to the first 1,000 fans, but when I showed up, a Rockets rep told me there were 3,400 Rockets faithful watching the practice on the court. Indeed, with the stadium announcer and all the people screaming "T-Mac! T-Mac! T-Mac!", it sounded like a real game.
The Rockets players look like they're ready to ball. John Lucas III (you may have heard of his dad) sprints the court well. It's easy to see how new Greek import Vassilis Spanoulis was able to dust the U.S. team recently. And it seems like T-Mac's back is ok. (For now.) Yao Ming's off rehabbing his toe, but his sub, the wiley veteran bigman/finger-wagger Dikembe Mutumbo looks to be in fine form. Team White handed it to Team Red, 25-14.
I watched the game from the second level, and enjoyed the cheapest lunch I've ever had at a sporting event. For four bucks, I got two hot dogs, some nachos and a drink. Considering the rib sandwich at the Toyota Center is $11, this was quite the bargain.
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Afterwards, fans crowded the exits to high-five players. Juwan Howard pumped up the crowd while T-Mac high-fived little kids. Other players, such as fan favorite Scott Padgett, held free-throw clinics on the court. Dollar sodas and hot dogs? Autographs? A brilliant marketing move. Memorable moments:
The stadium announcer's first calling of guard Kelenna Azubuike's number. A lady next to me asked, "Did he just say 'Can I Have Your Booty?"
Newbie shooter Steve Novak, in quite the Kodak moment, helping a two-foot toddler dunk.
Newly acquired forward Shane Battier, during an on-the-court Q&A session, chirping about how "wonderful" Houstonians are -- as nearly all of them stand, turn and stream out of the stands into the parking lots. — Steven Devadanam