Pushing slowly on the pedals of a stationary bike, Samuel Dalembert’s eyes widened, the looked to the far corners of the Cousins Center as he searched for the right words.
"The Matrix." Slow motion. The Zone.
He relived a game in which he found himself in a rebounding zone, watching the arc of a shot and knowing where it would carom before it did, positioning his body where opponents weren’t. The opposing coach ventured onto the court, shouting for his players to box him out – even two at a time – yet he was able to move around then with ease.
"I could track the ball and the angles before it happened," he said. "The other guys would get so mad. Their coach is screaming to box out. They couldn’t do it."
He spread his hands as if he were about to pull down a missed shot, saying he felt he could get 40 rebounds if he were left to play the entire game. He felt it on offense, too – like the time he scored 27 points against the Golden State Warriors two years ago, or in productive first halves during his time in Philadelphia.
Then there was The Zone he fell into on Feb. 6 in Denver. Dalembert scored 35 points in just 27 minutes, making his first nine shots from the field and 10 of 11 in the first half.
"You could see the action before it happened, can see where the ball is falling before it happened," he said. "It was effortless to me, to tell the truth. It was like an understanding, to be precise, knowing what’s going to happen and understanding where to be at the same time."
The Zone. It’s an elusive place, even for professional athletes. It’s an impossible feeling to create consciously and even harder to hold on to once it materializes. It’s one of the few times where even a winded player feels like he has to stay out on the court, because sitting would let it slip through his fingers like dandelion wisps.
"I’ve had it for like a quarter or 12 minutes I feel like that, then I go to the bench or something happens and I lose it," Luc Mbah a Moute said wistfully. "I haven’t had it for like 30 minutes or a long period of time."
As difficult as it is to experience, it’s harder to describe. Language does it no justice.
When Brandon Jennings dropped 55 points in three quarters against the Warriors in 2009, all he could say was "I just started getting in the groove."
Able to reflect on it, Jennings called it something different a year later – free play.
Groove. Zone. Matrix. Free play. Whatever it is, it’s special, fleeting, and something to remember. Bucks rookie Doron Lamb remembers his moment clearly – Dec. 28, 2010 against Winthrop. The then-Kentucky freshman lit it up, hitting 11 of 12 shots from the field (7 of 8 from the 3-point line) in scoring 32 points.
"Every shot I took I thought was going on," he said, a smile creeping across his face. "I didn’t even know it. I hit my first couple shots in a row and I just felt it."
That type of zone a shooter experiences is a bit different than what Dalembert had going that night in Denver, according to Mike Dunleavy. Dalembert did his work from the rim out to around 12 feet whereas a perimeter player is working from the mid-range out to the 3-point line.
"It’s apples and oranges," Dunleavy said.
That said, the veteran swingman struggled to pinpoint a specific night where he truly felt the magic.
"There have been some 8 for 9s and games like that," he said. "You’re talking about an 11 for 15 or 11 for 13, stuff like that. A lot has to be going right."
Ersan Ilyasova agreed. During his 29-point, 25-rebound performance against the New Jersey Nets last December, he missed 12 shots – but nevertheless felt like he was operating in that unique space every player searches for.
"Even when somebody shot it and I kind of was in the right spot and the ball just found me in the spot and I got a lot of offensive rebounds," Ilyasova said. "Sometimes you kind of get a moment. You can’t put yourself in the zone. You have to be motivated and focused on the game."
While a player may find himself playing in The Zone – it’s largely up to his teammates to keep him in it. Lamb said Brevin Knight made a concerted effort to keep feeding him that night against Winthrop.
"Sometimes you feel it like every shot will go in for you, and that’s why the teammates have to find that guy," Ilyasova said. "That’s part of a good team, finding the right guy in the right spot at the right time."
On those magical nights, a player does find himself in the right place at the right time, and it’s something they remember forever. It can’t be forecasted or created, and it can definitely disappear without warning. The Zone – a basketball player’s most elusive playing partner.
Having seen it come and go in the past, and now having felt it for an entire night, Dalembert knows this. He smiled.
"It wasn’t that (in the past), he said. "That right there, that was a blessing."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.