Sid and Anne Marie Lord sat on a bench inside the Ida Lee Recreation Center on Wednesday afternoon, silently staring at the group of basketball players who were walking in and out of the gym. Sid, 8, and Anne Marie, 6, did not know who most of them were, but the children knew there was something special about the athletes. Why else would their father, Sidney, pick them up from school and bring them directly to the Leesburg center, armed with basketballs and markers?
"We're here to watch the NBA basketball players," explained Sid. "And to try to get their autographs."
Twenty-six of the 29 NBA first-round draft picks, including all of the lottery picks, were at Ida Lee for a photo shoot with four trading card companies. The players had spent the weekend at Lansdowne Resort, taking part in the NBA's rookie orientation program.
The orientation program is "just about us rookies getting back together," said former Maryland star Steve Francis, the No. 2 pick in the draft. "Some of the veterans and people involved in the NBA give us some insights to help us in the future. It really helps us out."
This is the third year that Ida Lee has hosted the photo shoots for the NBA rookies. While the center does not publicize the event, people inevitably find out and gather outside the gym. The recreation center remains open to the public throughout the day, which leads to interesting encounters.
Shortly after 2 p.m., a line of preschool-age swimmers marched past the gym, giggling and talking and completely oblivious to the tall, dark-haired man standing to their left, wearing a Minnesota Timberwolves uniform. It was Wally Szczerbiak, the sixth pick in the draft.
But when Christina Alejandro, 18, stepped inside the center at 2:20, her jaw dropped and her eyes grew wide at the sight of the players milling outside the gym.
"I've never been to an NBA game," Alejandro said. "When I saw the basketball players, I was so excited because I never thought I'd see them this close in my life. I was going to go swim, but I'm going to stay right here [on a bench outside the gym] instead. I want to reach out and touch one of them."
"The kids really get into it, and that's the nice aspect about this," Ida Lee manager Bill King said. "It's nice to see the players respond, how they give away trading cards or towels. Security was real tight earlier, but as the day goes on, it loosens up."
Alek Radojevic, a 7-foot-3 center with the Toronto Raptors, handed out boxes of basketball cards to the youngest children lined up along the security barrier, too scared to ask for an autograph. The Washington Wizards' top draft pick, Richard Hamilton, posed for photographs. Atlanta Hawks guard Jason Terry greeted each autograph request with a smile and, "How do you spell your name?"
Timing is everything. Ten minutes after walking into the recreation center, Walt Houseknecht, a senior forward on the Loudoun County High School basketball team, had the one autograph he really wanted--Szczerbiak's--scrawled on a piece of notebook paper.
On the other hand, Jake Wells, a sophomore at Loudoun Valley High School, spent three hours trying to collect the autographs of the four Duke players who were first-round draft picks (No. 1 pick Elton Brand, Trajan Langdon, Corey Maggette and William Avery) on the same sheet of paper.
But not everyone was after autographs. Marcus Meyer, a Loudoun County High School junior, wanted a sandwich. And a Gatorade. And a towel. And a shirt. "I don't go for autographs," Meyer said. "I just go for shirts."
When the 1998 rookie class visited Ida Lee in January 1999 (the late date was because of the lockout), Meyer said he procured an NBA basketball from Mike Bibby, a large athletic bag from Tyronn Lue and autographs from Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter.
This year, Meyer ended up with even more stuff. The key? "I'm not afraid to ask," Meyer said. So Meyer asked Utah's Quincy Lewis for a bottle of water. Done. He asked Los Angeles Lakers forward Devean George to toss him a sub. Done (it was roast beef). Szczerbiak gave him a bottle of Gatorade; Indiana's Vonteego Cummings threw bags of chips to Meyer and his friends.
By the time Meyer was finished, he had managed to collect three towels (Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers), one L.A. Clippers sweat shirt (from Lamar Odom), a black T-shirt that said "NBA/NBPA Rookie Program" across the chest (from Cummings), a box of basketball cards and an NBA basketball.
Wells ended up with a Cleveland Cavaliers sweat shirt, courtesy of Andre Miller. "I told him that it's getting a little cold now, and I don't got a lot to wear," Wells said. Miller signed the sweat shirt, "Stay cool Jake." When Sid and Anne Marie finally left Ida Lee after two hours, their basketballs were covered with signatures. One meant more than the others to Sid, who named the family's golden retriever puppy "Duke" after his favorite team ("I didn't want to root for my dad's team--[North] Carolina," Sid said).
Trajan Langdon was the last player to sign Sid's ball. As Langdon handed the ball back to Sid, the boy said something that made the former Duke star smile.
"I told Trajan that now that I got his autograph, I can leave," Sid said as he walked out of the Ida Lee recreation center, smiling and clutching his basketball. "He said, 'Thank you.' "
CAPTION: Anne Marie Lord, 6, displays autographed ball. NBA rookie Leon Smith is behind her.
CAPTION: Jake Wells, above left, makes a move to get an autograph from Houston Rockets rookie Steve Francis while Jeremy West, center, and Jordan West take in the sights. Below, Darren Guensch, left, and Marcus Meyer compare items they got from NBA rookies at the Ida Lee Recreation Center.