By Mark Lamport-Stokes
INDIAN WELLS, California (Reuters) - A long-time fan of the National Basketball Association (NBA), Novak Djokovic had the time of his life in Los Angeles last weekend while getting up close and personal with the 16-time NBA champion Lakers.
A day after the Serbian world number one clinched a fourth Dubai Championships title in five years multiple time zones away from the United States, he flew into Los Angeles where he rubbed shoulders with All-Stars Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard.
Djokovic was invited to shoot some baskets before the Lakers hosted the Atlanta Hawks at the Staples Center on Sunday, draining a three-pointer before he watched an NBA game courtside for the very first time.
"It was great," Djokovic beamed as he spoke to reporters at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on Friday while preparing for the BNP Paribas Open. "I met Kobe, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash.
"They're great athletes and great personalities, all of them. I was really surprised that they liked tennis.
"From a professional athlete's perspective, to see other big and successful athletes from just close by, moving, sweating and just fighting their way through to the game was incredible. It was a really great experience."
Australian Open champion Djokovic, the top seed at Indian Wells after making a perfect 13-0 start to this year, spoke at length with Bryant in the Lakers locker room about the importance of flexibility in top-level sport.
"He was joking about his age, but I think he's more fit than ever, really," the Serb said of the 34-year-old shooting guard, a five-time NBA champion.
"He's being flexible and he's been stretching. I met him in the locker room before the match, and so we talked about the importance of flexibility and being ready."
Djokovic was taken aback when he heard that muscular center Howard, a six-time All-Star and three-time defensive player of the year, had been a promising tennis player as a youngster.
"Dwight was describing to me how much he was playing tennis and how he won a tournament when he was in eighth grade because his teachers made him play tennis for the first time and he discovered that talent," the Serb said.
"So maybe with those shoulders he can have a big serve. Maybe he can break the record," Djokovic grinned. "Who knows? With the right technique..."
The Lakers ended up beating the Hawks 99-98 on Sunday.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Nick Mulvenney)