HOUSTON — On the night before I hopped a plane to Texas for the NBA’s annual All-Star Weekend, L.A. Times columnist J.A. Adande e-mailed me just to say, “Have fun at the black Super Bowl.”
And that’s when I thought two things:
1) Perfect. That’s the perfect description of why I love NBA All-Star Weekend. It’s the black Super Bowl. How could you possibly predict what could happen at the black Super Bowl?
2) Damn, why didn’t I think of that phrase first?
Without further ado, some awards for the 2006 Black Super Bowl, which delivered the goods (as always):
The Phil Connors Award for “City that I can’t seem to escape”
In the past four years, I made four separate trips to Houston and spent a total of 24 days here. And you know why I did it? For you, the reader. I covered the Galleryfurniture.com Bowl, the Super Bowl, baseball’s All-Star Game, and now, the NBA All-Star Game. And you know what? That’s too much freaking time to spend in Houston. My editors just bleeped me, I don’t care. Maybe Houston doesn’t suck any more or less than 20 other major cities, and maybe the people are friendly and likable, but the fact remains, you would never come here for any reason, other than these three:
(1) For work.
(2) To gain weight.
(3) To get shot.
You just wouldn’t. And yet, dating back to the Super Bowl XXXVIII in February 2004, three of the last eight major sporting events were held in Houston. Does this make any sense? There are 30 to 35 American cities that could host the Super Bowl and/or either of the All-Star Games … and yet Houston pulled off the Ultimate Pro Sports Trifecta in a 24-month span, despite the fact that it’s a sprawling city with traffic and safety problems (the three intangibles you always want to avoid for major sporting events). Here’s what really frightens me: I have spent so much time here, I actually know my way around. Can I have this information removed from my brain? Is there a pill I can take?
• All-Star Game coverage
• Scoop Jackson: The Little General
• Simmons: One-on-one with David Stern
Anyway, I have the following announcement to make: I am never, ever, ever setting foot in Houston again. I don’t care if the Red Sox play the Astros in the World Series. I don’t care if the Celtics play the Rockets in the NBA Finals. I don’t care if my daughter gets engaged to an astronaut and has to have a quickie wedding in Houston hours before he gets launched to Saturn. I’m never coming back to Houston. Twenty-four days were enough. No offense.
The Frozen Envelope Award for “Biggest scandal directly involving the Knicks”
You know how you’re guaranteed an Oscar if you lose or gain a ton of weight or play a special needs character? Well, if you’re short or female, your odds of winning a dunk contest increase exponentially. For instance, Nate Robinson won Saturday’s contest even though it took him roughly 75 times to complete two of his dunks. This went well beyond “It’s time for the Birdman to fly” territory, or even feel-good “Costner in ‘Tin Cup'” territory; Nate’s complete disregard for the fans was almost overwhelming. I mean, we were sitting there for like 10 minutes watching him try dunks with a 2.5-percent probability of succeeding. I don’t know how it played on TV, but in person? Excruciating.
Of course, when Nate ended up winning over the far superior Andre Iguodala, that’s when it surpassed the Wilkins-Jordan contest in ’87 as the all-time Dunk Contest Travesty That Will Never Be Topped. Nobody even had the energy to boo because Nate had already ruined our collective will to live; we ended up hightailing like people fleeing a murder scene. Even more tragically, the grisly ending overshadowed two of the greatest dunks ever — Robinson’s scaling Spud Webb (he was available), and Iguodala’s incredible other-side-of-the-backboard dunk, which was, unequivocally, the best dunk I’ve ever seen in person. (It nearly caused a riot — for a second, I thought the players on hand were going to charge the floor, almost like a delirious college hoops crowd after a buzzer-beating basket.) No matter how contrived the dunk contest is, or how fixed it is, few in-person sports moments compare with someone’s bringing the house down in a dunk contest. That still ranks right up there.
(And while we’re here, kudos to the NBA for figuring out how to get stars such as Nash, LeBron, Wade, Kobe and Nowitzki involved on Saturday night, as well as how to move the night along much more efficiently. Sure, they refuse to try H-O-R-S-E, the High Dunk or Half-Court Shot Contest, and they continue to shove the WNBA players down our throats … but at least we weren’t there for four hours, and at least it felt like there was some star power there, even if the ending made us feel like we were walking out of a snuff film. Still, a decent night all around.)
The Brick Tamland Award for “Hottest party that didn’t involve somebody’s pants”
Apparently, Nike’s Brand Jordan party on Friday was phenomenal: Tons of Jordan-related memorabilia available for auction, major celebs, MJ and Charles Oakley, small guest list … sounded like a winner all the way around. Ten times more successful than Puma’s “Chris Andersen Intervention” party. On the other hand, I would have missed ESPN’s party, which Snoop Dogg ignited with an hour-long performance that left everyone downright delighted. Did you ever notice that we’re working on about 14 years of Snoop, and his Cool Meter hasn’t dipped even one iota? How is that possible? It’s like someone scoring 30 points a game for 14 straight seasons. And have you noticed that he’s looked exactly the same over that entire time? He’s like the Tony La Russa of rap.
(One other award here for “Best conversation”: While Snoop was performing to a mostly black crowd of raucous fans in Houston, we were trying to figure out what the exact racial, social and musical opposite of that moment would have been … finally narrowing it down to either a Bryan Adams concert in Edmonton, Canada, or a Bon Jovi concert in Hackensack, N.J.)
Best random celebrity moment of the weekend
At Baron Davis’ and Paul Pierce’s Eight-Ball Challenge (held at Jillian’s on Thursday night), my friend Rich and I were hanging out on a not-so-crowded cigar patio to smoke stogies and ensure bad breath for the rest of the night. So we’re hanging out, it’s mellow, we’re talking about NBA stuff … and suddenly, Oakley saunters through the doorway, followed by a human tornado of people, with Michael Jordan and his posse at the epicenter.
Well, here’s what happens when MJ enters a room: Everything stops. It feels like a movie scene. And no matter how you felt about the party in the time leading up to The Moment, the party moves from (fill in the grade) to a solid A-plus. It’s as though MJ’s presence validates the entire party, no matter how bad it was. Anyway, MJ walks in, glances around, puffs on his cigar for a few seconds, then trades barbs with Oak while pretending there aren’t 25 people packed around him, snapping pictures with their cell phone cameras. Ninety seconds later, they had enough. Time for a new room. And just like that, they were gone. As Rich said later, it was like a “gust of wind.” MJ was the gust, everyone else was the twigs, leaves and branches flying around. Suddenly, the patio was mellow again.
(Note: I don’t get fazed by celebrities anymore. Really, I don’t. But when MJ enters a room, it’s a moment, and nobody can tell me differently. By the way, we’re not done with him yet.)
The John Shaft Award
This goes to Oakley. One of the networks needs to have a “Coolest guy on the planet” contest because Oakley would absolutely win. You know those “Road House” scenes in which Swayze just stands in the bar, surveying the scene with a thin smile on his face, barely moving a fingernail and meanwhile, 10 drunk guys are brawling a few feet away from him? That’s what Oakley is like. You could hire some extras to play gang members at one of these parties, then have them fire blanks at each other 10 feet from Oakley and I’m not even sure he would flinch. The great thing about him: He served as MJ’s enforcer in Chicago, and now they’re both retired … and from what I could tell, he’s still Jordan’s enforcer. Could there be a greater tribute in life to someone’s kickassability than Michael Jordan himself deciding, “You know what? I need to make sure he’s still on my side. I don’t care if we’re in our 40s.”
Personally, I think Oak could do more. Why couldn’t he become the next great action hero? He’s got the looks, the size, the swagger … at the very least, he could mumble through his lines and become the black Steven Seagal. For God’s sake, everyone in the league is still afraid of him, personified by the one-sided Tyrone Hill/Oakley and Jeff McInnis/Oakley feuds, as well as the famous story of Oak slapping Barkley hard across the face during a ’99 lockout players-only meeting, which became his signature “Here’s why you don’t mess with Oakley” moment.
Anyway, on Thursday night, I asked one relatively famous current player who knows him, “What makes Oakley more intimidating than everyone else?”
His answer: “There’s a lotta tough guys in the league, but Oak don’t give a f—.”
Well, then. Should there be reality TV cameras following Oak around at all times? Sure, I think so. But what do I know? By the way, we’re not done with him yet, either.
The Whitney Houston/Marvin Gaye Award for “Best performance of the national anthem”
To Destiny’s Child, who rocked the house in Houston … and that’s saying something, because you won’t find a bigger collection of corporate stiffs at any sporting event. Why even go if you just plan on sitting there like a corpse? What’s the point? The ambience at the All-Star Game could best be described as eerie. Always the most disappointing part of the weekend. Not sure how you fix this other than by pumping low levels of pot smoke from the ceiling to loosen everyone up.
Most Disappointing Moment
Stephen A. Smith showed up at Friday night’s ESPN party, forcing me to watch him out of the corner of my eye for two hours so I could overhear him order a drink. Alas, he never did. But I think it would have gone something like this:
— Bartender: What can I get you?
— Smith: WHAT KIND OF BEERS DO YOU HAVE IN BOTTLES?
— Bartender: Bud Light, Miller Light, Bud, Heineken.
— Smith: I’M GONNA HAVE A BUD LIGHT PLEASE!
The Tray of Lukewarm Chili Award for “This weekend’s overwhelming reason why you should never go into sportswriting”
Our media hotel (the JW Marriott) was located in the Galleria section of Houston, which would have been fine except it was a $25 cab ride to any place we needed to go (the Convention Center, the players’ hotel, the Toyota Center or any party at night). Well, that seemed ludicrous and shortsighted. So I did some sniffing around. Apparently, basketball reporters push to stay at Marriotts so they can get the Reward Points, even if it’s an improbable location that hinders their ability to network, see things, do things, do some networking, write more frequently and basically try hard at their jobs. They would rather spend that extra three hours a weekend in a shuttle or a smelly cab. Gotta get those Reward Points.
(Note: Because of this, I had to leave my room at 11 every morning to head downtown thinking, “All right, I’m out for the next 16 hours, don’t spill anything on my shirt, don’t lose anything …” On Friday night, I ran out of batteries on my cell phone at 10 p.m., which nearly caused me to commit a homicide. On the bright side, I’m 14 more Marriott stays away from being able to afford a free night and save upwards of $139, which could go toward replacing the $200 I spent on cabs this weekend. So that’s good news.)
Best Potential Story That Could Have Saved “ESPN Hollywood”
On Friday afternoon, Sony invited me and a few other writers to hang out with LeBron as he played NBA ’06 on a PlayStation 2, even giving me the chance to play against him. Of course, because we were in Houston and the guy with the PlayStation consoles got caught in traffic for an hour, we ended up watching LeBron play on a PSP for 30 minutes while he halfheartedly answered questions, finally getting up to leave, saying, “Bron Bron has other priorities,” before they reminded him that he had to give us 10 more minutes. That was awkward.
With that, he took a seat and loosened up; I actually ended up liking him, although he definitely seems a little full of himself. (Can you blame him?) We learned that he’s a “Madden” guy, that he beats up on everyone on the Cavs, that he owns three different iPods, that he “can’t go nowhere without my iPod and my cell phone chargers,” that he still thinks Detroit and San Antonio are the teams to beat, that he thinks the Cavs can play with anyone and that the toughest guys in the league for him to guard are Paul Pierce and Kobe.
Well, you know me — I wasn’t satisfied with any of these answers. So when someone asked him what other sports he watched, LeBron mentioned that he liked tennis, leading me to make the obligatory “men’s or women’s?” joke. This was followed by LeBron’s making the obligatory frown and saying, “Women’s … I don’t like men,” and confessing that Maria Sharapova was his favorite player. I joked that he should go after her because they would be America’s new power couple, which was followed by LeBron’s nodding and saying — in all seriousness — “That day might present itself.”
(Honestly? LeBron seemed more motivated about landing Sharapova than taking the Cavs to the Finals. And who can blame him? He’s now my favorite non-Celtic. I’m that easy.)
The Members Only Jacket Award for “Strangest fashion trend”
To the cell phone that wraps around the ear. I had never seen it before. MJ had one. Which means there’s about a 100 percent chance that this could catch on.
The J.A. Adande Award for “Things that can only happen at the black Super Bowl”
(1) On Saturday night, my friends and I were huddled outside the Convention Center, waiting for some guy named Pnutt to bring us seven passes to the Players Association party. Needless to say, Pnutt let us down and we never got into the party, leading me to add a new rule to my “Rules In Life” book: “Never trust a guy named Pnutt.” But while we were waiting in the freezing cold, with various D-level groupies and backup posse members, the immortal Maciej Lampe showed up, somehow cut the line, then was able to get four of his friends in. Leading to two inevitable questions:
(A) “Maciej Lampe’s posse is getting into this thing and we’re not?”
(B) “Maciej Lampe has a posse?!”
(As it turned out, we didn’t miss much: Just an overcrowded party with blaring hip-hop music, giant NBA players towering over everyone else and ovulating women dressed like hookers. In other words, it was like every other NBA All-Star party, except the Commissioner’s Party (which should bill itself as “The whitest event of the weekend, hands down!”). Reviews for the Players Association party ranged from “way too crowded, way too loud” to “I just wanted to get out of there, take off my clothes and burn them.” In retrospect, I’m glad we missed it.)
(2) While I was drinking with my buddy Sully (who works in the NBA) and some other friends at the Four Seasons bar on Saturday afternoon, a nice man named Worldwide Wes noticed Sully and sent us a round of drinks. That led to Sully’s explaining that Worldwide Wes is the NBA’s version of the Wolf in “Pulp Fiction,” then proudly showing off the entry “Worldwide Wes” in his blackberry. You have to love the NBA.
(3) On Friday afternoon, Kobe and Iverson crossed paths in the Houston Hilton and did the handshake/hug thing, followed by Iverson looking Kobe in the eye and gushing, “You a bad motha—-a!” with a big smile on his face. Either A.I. thoroughly enjoyed the 81-point game, or he was just making conversation. Hard to tell.
(4) During the rookie-sophomore game at the Toyota Center, people were playing shells in one of the men’s rooms.
(5) At that aforementioned Players Association party, Rashard Lewis was trying to get a 30-person posse inside and was told he had too many people, leading to his snapping to the security guards, “I’m from Houston, motha—-a, I got 30 and they comin’ in.” That was followed by two of his boys lifting one of the gates, then the 30-person posse skipping the line and heading in. Needless to say, nobody stopped them.
(Which raises the question: Why wouldn’t NBA.com run streaming video of the entrance at the Players Association party, just so we could all enjoy these moments with Andre Aldridge, Peter Vescey and Frank Isola supplying commentary?)
Dumbest Rule That They Refuse to Change for Major Sporting Events
All right, if you’re a major city with a complex like Houston, and you’re trying to get everyone to like you, would it be too much to ask to relax the drinking rules for special events? Really, you can’t change last call from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. with 60,000 people ready to party and spend money until the wee hours?
For instance, ESPN threw an exclusive late-night “chicken and waffles” party on Friday night at the Icon, which would have been fine, except for one thing: Nobody could drink! I don’t care that I was 20 feet away from Terrell Owens as he dismantled a plate of chicken and waffles (which is true, by the way) … who wants to watch a bunch of drunk people stuff their face and slowly sober up until 5 in the morning? When we were leaving, as we looked at the crush of people waiting to get in, our friend Teddy cracked, “Little do these people know that they’re waiting in line to get into Bickford’s.”
The Red Bull Award for “Most underrated invention”
To those plastic thingies that go around your neck and hold tickets, media passes and party passes. I love those things. Isn’t there a way to incorporate them into real life without looking like a weirdo? Couldn’t someone start the trend of walking around with money and IDs stuffed in these things? I nominate Charles Oakley.
The 3-Ball Award for “Worst decision of the weekend”
To the NBA for not figuring out a way to sneak Jason Kidd into the All-Star Game. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: These games are only as good as the point guards. If you make sure guys like Kidd and Nash are on the floor as much as possible, then everyone’s running, everyone’s getting easy baskets and it’s a real basketball game. Remove that element and here’s what you have: Guys firing up 25-footers because they don’t have a Plan B; dozens of botched alley-oops (we might have set the record Sunday night); errant passes hitting fans in the face … it’s excruciating to watch. Kidd and Nash should be guaranteed 35-40 minutes in every All-Star Game until they retire. Let’s make it a rule. Please. I’m begging you.
Some other highlights and lowlights from the All Star Game:
• Sitting two rows ahead of Joe Dumars, I was praying for Flip Saunders to accidentally put Dwyane Wade in with the four Pistons, just to see the expression on Joe D’s face. Didn’t happen.
• Yao Ming barely edged out Pau Gasol for the Jamaal Magloire Memorial “Worst guy on the floor who clearly didn’t belong, even though his stats weren’t bad” award.
• Kobe trying to prove that he wasn’t selfish by passing up open shots and looking to rack up assists, almost to the detriment of his team. Meanwhile, someone whose passing skills were once compared to Magic Johnson (LeBron) hogged the ball for four straight quarters, ignored wide-open teammates multiple times, took at least 10 horrible shots … and ended up winning the MVP. Good times.
• Paul Pierce getting to play with the four Detroit guys and relishing every second of it … you know he was out there thinking, “This is just like playing with Brian Scalabrine, Raef LaFrentz, Michael Olowokandi and Orien Greene, only the exact opposite!”
• The final 10 seconds of a two-point game finished with an airball, a turnover and then a game-ending missed dunk that bounced to midcourt. Just about sums up the night.
The New Order Award for “Biggest regret”
On Saturday night, we were drinking at the Four Seasons and found ourselves 20 feet from a table with Steve Kerr and Suns CEO Jerry Colangelo (who’s in charge of the 2008 Olympic Team). I wanted $50 a person from everyone at my table to go over to Colangelo, introduce myself and then try to seriously make the case that Scalabrine should be the 12th man on the Olympic Team — he’s a good locker room guy, he works hard, we could always use a white guy, the closer 3-point line is perfect for him, and so on — and see how long I could keep going and pretend to be dead serious before either (A) they started ignoring me, or (B) they asked me to leave. But my friends refused to chip in more than $5 a person. So I passed. Now? I wish I had done it.
The Kyle Korver Award for “Most memorable posse”
With apologies to Diddy, MJ, Shaq and Maciej, I’m going with Snoop — we saw him before Sunday’s game in the club section behind Section 118, flanked by four hostile looking bodyguards who must have weighed a combined 1,100 pounds. Put it this way: You don’t want to approach Snoop for an autograph. Or a picture. Or a piece of gum. Or anything. In fact, it’s not really a good idea to look at Snoop or acknowledge him in any way, unless you want to die.
Which made the following moment so great …
A high school kid and his cute girlfriend wanted to take a picture with Snoop. So the kid approached one of Snoop’s bodyguards, asked politely for a picture and was greeted by stony silence. Then, the kid turned around and showed the bodyguard his football jacket, which said “CLEMENS” on the back, as if the bodyguard was supposed to be impressed. That’s when the bodyguard gave him the “All right, I’m going to kill you in five seconds, get the hell away from me” look. And the kid walked away, but not before telling his girlfriend, “If my dad was here, I would have been able to get a picture with Snoop.”
So now we start looking at the kid … and damned if he doesn’t look like a younger, meatier Roger Clemens … and then we realized …
(Wait, this deserves its own award!)
The Spaulding Smails Award for “Worst performance by a family member in a group setting”
… that this had to be one of Roger Clemens’ kids!
Just to be clear: I never make fun of anyone high school-and-under in this column. That’s just one of my ground rules. Even when I wrote a running diary of the Spelling Bee four years ago, I avoided any cheap shots. But I’m going to make an exception here for three reasons: First, this kid was likely directly related to Roger Clemens; second, his dad has probably made $200 million in his career; and third, his girlfriend was very, very cute. To recap, he’s young, rich and has a good-looking girlfriend. I think this makes him fair game. I might be wrong. Frankly, I don’t care.
Anyway, Sully and I are still reeling from this Son of Clemens thing when we notice that Gabrielle Union is standing about 5 feet from us — and let the record show that she’s jaw-droppingly attractive in person — as various people are coming up and taking pictures with her. At the Super Bowl, Gabrielle would be considered a run-of-the-mill celeb. At the black Super Bowl? She’s like a cross between Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston. And as she’s graciously posing with people, we see Clemens’ kid inching toward her like he has never seen a celebrity in person before, with Sully finally making the “Caddyshack” parallel with the obligatory, “Fifty bucks says the Clemens kid goes in for a picture” joke.
Now we’re excited. And Kid Clemens keeps inching closer and glancing back at his hot girlfriend for support, and she keeps egging him on, and we’re in disbelief that someone who’s directly related to the greatest pitcher of the past 50 years could want a picture with Gabrielle Union this badly. (Hasn’t he seen hundreds of celebs through his dad?) Finally, he tapped her on the shoulder, took a picture with her on his cell phone camera, and he didn’t even have to show her the back of his football jacket to get it. That was followed by Kid Clemens happily leaving with his hot girlfriend as Sully and I grimaced in disbelief. Sully put it best: “I don’t even want Clemens to come back to Boston anymore.”
(Note: I never wanted him to come back. But you knew that already.)
The Sheryl Crow Award for “Person, place or arena that could look good or not good depending on the light”
To the Toyota Center, which had many pluses (tons of food options, very spacious, cool scoreboard, stylish lighting for the games, center bars, spacious food areas for the club seat holders) and two major downsides:
(1) It’s in Houston.
(2) Walking around the generic concourse feels just like walking around an airport terminal. You keep waiting for someone to say over a loudspeaker, “There’s been a gate change, the flight to Austin will now be out of Gate 42B.”
(My overall grade: B-plus. Second-best NBA arena that I’ve seen, other than the Staples Center, only the food options are vastly superior.)
The “Rocky IV” Trading Cards Award for “Best collectible gimmick”
To Topps for coming up with NBA poker chips, selling like hot cakes at five-to-a-pack for $5 in the collectibles section of the NBA Jam Session. It seems like they’re still working out the kinks with this idea — for instance, you can’t purchase an entire set — but there’s some serious potential here. Could you put a price on somebody calling a $5 ante, following by you deciding whether to raise with a $25 Larry Bird chip or two $5 chips of Pierce and KG … or just throw in five $1 chips of Milt Palacio, Darko Milicic, Mario Kasun, Walter McCarty and Jose Calderon? These are the decisions I want to make when I’m playing poker.
Applying the “How much would you pay game?” — I think I would spend $250 for a complete set of NBA poker chips. Doesn’t that sound 10 times more fun than trading cards? What do you do with trading cards, anyway? What purpose do they serve?
(That reminds me …)
The Colonel James/Eddie Adams Award for “Best conversation”
Joe Forte’s Topps Pristine rookie card was selling for $15 at one of the collectible tables, leading to the following exchange:
—Me (incredulous): Why is that Forte card selling for $15?
—Guy behind the table: It’s a refractor card … very hard to get.
—Me: So what?
—Guy: Well, that’s the 2002 Topps Pristine set, and it’s a refractor card, so …
—Me: Yeah, but it’s Joe Forte!
—Guy (confused): Well …
—Me: He’s been out of the league for four years!
—Guy: It’s still a very tough card to get, it’s still worth something.
—Me: No offense, but the only way that card is going to be worth something in 20 years if Joe Forte kills someone.
—Guy (after a beat): Well, we’ll see I guess.
(Did the “We’ll see I guess” mean “We’ll see if it’s still worth something,” or “We’ll see if he kills somebody”? I’d like to think he meant the latter.)
Best Joke That I Heard More Than Once This Weekend
Some variation of this one: “Did you hear that Anucha Browne Sanders wanted to settle with the Knicks for $2 million, but Isiah countered with $50 million over six years?
Worst Performance of the Weekend That Didn’t Involve a Member of the Clemens Family
To Luther Head, the hometown kid who single-handedly killed my “Rookies +9.5” wager on Friday night by missing roughly 45 shots, capped off by my predicting in the final minute that he would finish me off, followed by his driving layup for the cover with 35 seconds left in which the ball actually got jammed between the rim and the backboard. Needless to say, the Sophomores beat the Rookies by 10. I’m not making this up.
Best Random Celebrity Moment Ever
So I’m leaving Jam Session on Saturday afternoon when Sully gives me the “Come to the Four Seasons, we’re hanging out in the hotel bar drinking Bloody Marys” phone call. Well, I can’t turn down that offer. Not ever. Within 10 minutes, I’m sitting right there with them. And we’re hanging out and talking hoops, debating whether to stay for a second drink, when none other than Charles Oakley saunters into the bar with three lady friends, eventually settling at the table right next to us. As soon as Oakley orders a round of shots for his table, as well as a martini for himself, we decide to order a second round of drinks for ourselves. I mean, where else can you drink 5 feet away from the real-life Shaft?
Twenty minutes later? MJ shows up with two friends and stops the room cold. (That’s right, two brushes with MJ in 36 hours.) At first, it seems like he’s just saying hello, but then we realize he’s sitting down. Eventually, they move him into the inside booth, then block him with chairs on both sides so nobody can bother him. (I like to call this the Chair Armada, since it’s the exact same strategy that guys use in strip joints when they don’t want to be continually approached by below-average strippers trying to pull the “Maybe if I sit right on his lap, he’ll feel bad for me and get a lap dance” routine. The Chair Armada never fails.) When Oakley ordered more drinks, we ended up ordering food and drinks for our table. For all we knew, we were staying all afternoon.
(And we did: Our bar bill ended up being like $400. Back to the story.)
Things kept rolling along. People kept walking over to say hello to MJ, pay tribute to him, kiss his ring … it’s almost like he’s the real-life Michael Corleone (with Oakley as his Luca Brasi). At one point, his longtime agent David Falk sat about 30 feet away, waiting for an invite, finally giving up and coming over to say hello. (Falk asked MJ, “How late did you stay out last night?” followed by MJ casually saying “7:30,” as we nodded admiringly.) And the drinks kept coming and coming and, occasionally, Oakley would get up and saunter around just to stretch his legs and look cool as I made comments like, “I wish you could rent Oak for parties.” At one point, he was thinking about ordering food, stood up, looked over at all of us eating, noticed Rich’s cheeseburger, asked if it was a cheeseburger, asked if it was good, kept glancing at it, kept glancing at it … and I swear, we were all waiting for Oak to say the words, “Oak wants your cheeseburger, and he wants it now.” But he didn’t. He ended up ordering one himself. Too bad.
Well, two hours pass. Everyone finishes eating. The cigars come out. And I’m sitting there saying, “There’s no way that the cards aren’t coming out soon. It’s impossible. MJ has never sat this long in one place without the cards coming out.”
While we were waiting for that moment, just to make a strange afternoon stranger, I walked over to Elgin Baylor’s table and talked about the Clips with him for 10 minutes (we’re getting along these days — that’s a whole other story). And when I returned, the cards emerged, just as I predicted — they started playing a game called “Bid Wist,” a form of spades that’s popular among NBA players, with Oakley and MJ teaming up against two of their friends. We got to see MJ’s legendary competitive streak in action. He was trash-talking nonstop, snickering sarcastically, cackling with every good card, badgering his opponents to the point that I actually thought one of them would start crying. This wasn’t Corporate MJ, the one you and I know. This was Urban MJ, the one that comes out for the black Super Bowl. We never get to see this one.
And I’m sitting there dying. For one thing, I love cards and have a gambling problem. Also, what would be a greater story than Sully and me getting winners against Oak and MJ? Sure, there wasn’t a chance in hell, but it was fun to imagine. Meanwhile, the day kept getting stranger and stranger. Around 6, Shaquille O’Neal showed up with his posse, wearing a four-piece suit that caused MJ to joke, “I’m glad you’re living up to the responsibility of the dress code.” A little bit later, Bucks assistant Lester Conner showed up wearing a red sweatshirt with a giant Jordan logo on it …. when do you run into someone when you’re randomly wearing their clothes? And MJ kept getting louder and louder, and he and Oakley were cleaning up, and we’re all watching them while pretending not to watch, and then suddenly …
MJ’s wife shows up.
Everyone makes room for her. She sneaks in and sits down right next to him. And poor MJ looks like somebody who took a no-hitter into the ninth, then gave up a triple off the left-field wall. The trash-talking stops. He slumps in his seat like a little kid. The cigar goes out. No more hangin’ with the boys. Time to be a husband again. Watching the whole thing unfold, I lean over to Sully just to say, “Look at that, he’s just like us.”
And he was. Just your average guy getting derailed by his wife. For once in my life, I didn’t want to be like Mike.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine, and his Sports Guy’s World site is updated every day, Monday through Friday. His new book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.