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Diamondbacks players embrace basketball fandom amid NBA Finals

Diamondbacks pitcher Taijuan Walker is not only a big Los Angeles Lakers fan but he was a basketball standout at Yucaipa High School in California. In this 2010 game against Rialto's Carter High, he had five dunks. (Photo courtesy Bob Otto)

PHOENIX — One of the seemingly out-of-place items inside the Arizona Diamondbacks clubhouse is a miniature basketball hoop nestled between two black couches. A three-tiered, fully-stocked metal rack of mini basketballs is rarely far away.

On a recent homestand, infielder Nick Ahmed and pitcher Patrick Corbin competed in a quick game of P-I-G. At one point, Corbin’s scoop shot up and over from behind the backboard was matched by Ahmed to avoid a letter.

Before a 6-1 Diamondbacks victory and series sweep over the Miami Marlins on Sunday, relief pitcher T.J. McFarland and bullpen catcher Mark Reed faced off in a mock 3-point shootout.

Prior to another home game, outfielder Steven Souza Jr. fired away from long range, but the ceiling interfered with the arc on his jumper three times in a row. That prompted relief pitcher Andrew Chafin to chide Souza, laughing and yelling from his locker, “Make an adjustment!”

Though they’re all professional baseball players, this group of Diamondbacks possesses an evident level of fandom for the game of basketball and the NBA. The showdown between LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers and the All-Star-stocked Golden State Warriors that has the Cavs in a 0-3 series hole has entered the clubhouse as a topic of discussion.  

“I mean, we have a basketball hoop in the locker room, so that kind of says a lot,” Diamondbacks infielder Deven Marrero said. “I’m a huge, huge basketball fan.”

Marrero, who was traded to the Diamondbacks from the Boston Red Sox in March, said he would regularly attend Celtics games when he lived in Boston. His primary basketball allegiance, however, is with the Miami Heat.

“These past 10 years have been exciting for the NBA. There’s a lot of great players,” Marrero said.

The NBA’s social media presence has continued to grow in popularity, and, according to a February article by A.J. Katz in AdWeek, the average NBA viewership across national broadcasts was up 17 percent from the 2016-17 season.

Marrero said he and teammate Jarrod Dyson had a conversation in the clubhouse about the NBA Finals showdown between James (a four-time Most Valuable Player) and two-time MVP Stephen Curry.

“I’m not a big NBA fan, I just like watching greatness,” Dyson said. “This is the only time I watch basketball is in the Finals.”

Dyson credited the longevity and durability James has displayed during his Hall of Fame NBA career.

“Him being on the court that many minutes, playing for that long without many injuries, it’s impressive,” he said.

Diamondbacks starting pitcher Taijuan Walker, who is expected to miss the entire 2018 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, has tweeted a few times about the competition during the first two NBA Finals games.

He played basketball in high school.

“I’ve watched basketball for a while,” Walker said. “I grew up a Laker fan … big Kobe guy, so it’s a little tough for me to watch just because the Lakers haven’t been very good.”

Walker said that there are a lot of guys in the clubhouse who watch the NBA. Some have allegiances to their favorite teams, like Marrero with the Heat. Others just watch the league because they enjoy basketball.

But even as the NBA postseason winds to a close — Walker predicts the Warriors will win the championship in five games — it’s safe to say the light-hearted, basketball-related competitions in the Diamondbacks clubhouse will live on throughout the summer.