I Tried Out to Be a U.S. Open Ball Boy and Saw Dave Chappelle, and All I Got Were These Two Lousy T-Shirts
I hadn’t had a day lined up like this since going to a Maury Povich taping and a Lil B concert on the same Thursday of January 2011. And like both of those events, I had no real idea what I was getting myself into, was excited about the prospect of what the day would bring, and fully realized that so much could go wrong.
The day: U.S. Open Ballperson Tryouts, Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, Queens.
The night: Dave Chappelle, Radio City Music Hall, Manhattan.
The Big Apple, right? What a town.
7:30 a.m.: The alarm rings, because I set it for 7:30 a.m., because I was going to start my day with a very rare run. It’s rare due to the fact that I don’t like running for sport, unless I’m running away from something. At that point, I remembered there’s no joy in chasing a goal, only in fleeing danger. So I go back to sleep.
10:30 a.m.: After snoozing more than 10 times, I wake up. I’d taken advantage of this uncommon opportunity to sleep in, and now I was only an hour from my second home, a tennis court, set to try out to be a U.S. Open ball person (and yes, the correct term is “ball person,” not “ball boy,” get with the times). And now finally out of bed, the first — and maybe most important — decision of the day had to take place. What to wear?
First step: Find clothes that look clean. Upon narrowing the field to “kind of looks clean” and “nah,” it was time to transform into a hooper. If you think “hooper” is a term limited to basketball, you’re probably not a hooper. Because it’s not sport specific, it’s a way of life. Someone that has already won before the game even starts, because they look that good at sports.
This was the goal and it was done. And like a pajama-rich Roger Federer (black shirt, black socks, five different brands visible, no smiles), I walked out the door.
11:30 a.m.: This first part of the day of tryouts wasn’t real, but it was incredibly important. This was the “my website needs content” portion of the day, in which members of the media came with their video crews and filmed one of their coworkers going through a simulation of the actual tryouts, set to happen later in the day. You would go through the same drills and have the same evaluators, and at the end you’d be told if your performance would have earned you a spot. Which is an absurd premise.
As they say, anyone can sing in the shower. But what about when the shower is off? And you’re not naked anymore. But instead, you’re onstage, alone, with onlookers, under the lights, televised, for millions to see. That’s what this afternoon was about. This morning, just a faux–ego stroke.
But I knew participating would be wise. Because I’d at least get a head start on understanding the drills, which meant having an upper hand on anyone showing up in the afternoon for their first ball-person tryouts.
12 p.m.: Those participating in this East Coast Liberal Media Elite farce were split into two, those in blue Polo Ralph Lauren shirts and those in white Polo Ralph Lauren shirts. The white people were the veterans — the current ball humans who were going to explain the drills and then grade us. The blue people were those of us “trying out.” Before we hit the court, however, we listened to the words of Tina Taps (pictured below at right), the U.S. Open director of ball persons.
T-Taps means business. She’s kind, but even in this simulation you can tell this is not a game. This is serious. I loved her, because even in this media tryout, she was intimidating. While she spoke, however, I began to think about my confidence, which up until this point was pretty high. I was feeling good, because I play tennis and was comfortable on a tennis court. But listening to her talk about all that went into being a ball person, it reminded me that I knew nothing about this side of the game. I’d watched them on TV for decades now, but had never really focused on them. Because that’s the point — they’re there, but not there.
She finished and then I got called up in the first group. I was nervous. I suddenly didn’t feel like a hooper anymore.
12:15 p.m.: There are two positions you can try out for, net and back. The net position is the most visible one and the most intuitive — a ball gets hit into the net, you run, pick it up with two hands, and depending on which side of the service line the ball hits, you either return to your original post or run to the other side. But, like all things, it’s not as easy as it looks. Because you have to run very fast. And you can’t bobble the ball. And depending on the situation, you have to do something with that ball. And once you’re done, you can’t forget to stand frozen, with your arms behind your back. Because, again, you’re there but you’re not there.
The back position was simpler, but involved a skill set that not everyone has figured out: how to throw. And with that, how to throw the length of the tennis court so it reaches the person on the other side in one bounce — no exceptions.
I decided to try out for both and my first assignment was net.
12:25 p.m.: I hoped no one could see how hard my heart was beating. All I kept telling myself was Don’t bend over, don’t bend over, don’t let them see you wheeze, just get through this, why did you go out last night, why didn’t you take that run, why are you the way you are, why aren’t you 16 anymore, Nancy Kerrigan Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?
I ran back and forth at that net exactly as I was told for four consecutive minutes — the closest thing I’d done to running suicides in years — and it was not fun. While I think my speed and accuracy and rule-following was appreciated, I think they took note of what was happening to my body once I was done. And then, immediately, it was time to do Part 2: back.
12:35 p.m.: My arm is good enough, but there’s nothing special about it. I don’t look remarkably dynamic when I throw, nor are my mechanics a thing of wonder. It’s just an arm that can throw a ball where it needs to go, the end. And that’s what happened. I couldn’t tell how I was being received by my judges, but at the same time all I could really think about was never wanting to do that net thing again. And whether I should just skip this real tryout and go to Shake Shack.
12:45 p.m.: My tryout is done and I leave the court. My goal was to set an intimidatingly high bar for the rest of the journalists, and I don’t think I did that. Winded and camera crew–less, I sat down and watched the rest of the spectacle. Some were purely for show; others — like my man, local WABC 7 anchor Rob Powers — were playing for keeps.
1:15 p.m.: The media tryouts were wrapping up and people were beginning to file out. I assumed a few were sticking around for the open tryouts, but that was not the case. Before leaving to go find a corner to sit in for a few hours, I asked my evaluator, 10-year ball person veteran Joe Laskowski, to give me my critique.
Not a staged critique for the blogs that one can occasionally be hoodwinked into participating — a real critique.
I needed to know what I did well, what I screwed up, and what I should focus on for 4 p.m., the real tryouts. And Joe Laskowski kept it real. Because Joe Laskowski cares.
1:30 p.m.: Looking for a spot to charge my devices and rest, this scene presented itself:
A line of kids was forming, two hours early, in the summertime, and there weren’t any Jordans involved. This didn’t make any sense. Peaking around the gate, I saw that this line was quite long, suggesting the ones at the front in the lawn chairs had been there for hours. And again — no Jordans. Also, everyone was so young. Troublingly young.
1:45 p.m.: Just realizing I hadn’t eaten all day, I found a restaurant within the gates, an amazing one-stop shop for all things fried. It all looked deliciously bodega, but I knew I had to take care of myself. I wasn’t 15 anymore, like every person gearing up to storm the gates. The days of eating a large order of shrimp fried rice with two egg rolls and an XL sweet tea and then playing three sets were the past. I needed some lettuce. And some protein. And a carb or two. And a Pacific Cooler.
2:15 p.m.: The lunch hit the spot. I felt light. Springy, even. And for some reason, my confidence was back. Nothing suggesting that I would perform exceptionally well on the second go-round had happened, but the false confidence was eking back into my system. So I went inside, sat, and did some work.
3 p.m.: The gates have opened. Hundreds of people have walked by my window in athletic gear and none of them have taken the PSAT. Many are with their parents. One out of 10 has braces. They all look fit. And no one has a mustache.
This was a giant mistake. Why am I here? Walking to the back of my line, my legs that had been still for 90 minutes began to cramp up. I made a slight noise, prompting a few stares. A few rude stares. “No, I’m not a chaperone, I’m competing, you jerk,” I said with my eyes focused on one stupid boy. I wished that he would trip up in front of the girl he had a crush on. I actually looked at him and wished that.
Who were these beasts and why were there 500 of them? I felt like Aunt Viv One in ballet class that day.
As the spirit of Janet Hubert overtook my body, I got focused. The younger you were, the more you got mean-mugged. If you whispered to someone else, I assumed it was about me and I hated you and everyone that knew you.
3:45 p.m.: I reached the table to sign my waiver and got my scorecard that I’d eventually pass off to the veteran ball-person judges. I was no. 398. If that somehow meant 397 people were going to try out ahead of me (and there were very few people behind me), this was going to be a long afternoon.
4 p.m.: Finally getting through the line, I walked over to the court. And there were all my competitors.
Like the Billy Madison that I was, I went to the side with the prospective ball kids, did the long walk of shame up the stairs, passing everyone, and then took a seat in the very back. We sat and watched the veterans play tennis on the main court.
At this moment, it was clear. This was summer camp. Me and these children were the campers and those in the white were our counselors. I’d forgotten the aloofness that goes with being a camp counselor, one of knowing you’re always being watched with adoration, but behaving as if none of the campers exist while you’re doing cool counselor things. I hadn’t been on this side of things since I was 12. It was miserable. Looking around, I tried to find people that were near my age. After a complete scan, I found three people who were certainly older. But they were together. It was like boys night out for them. And then there were all the kids, a group with cliques and rivalries already emerging. And then there was me.
4:30 p.m.: We’re split up and yes, being no. 398 is not a good thing. It essentially guarantees I will watch everyone stumble through their drills and then will be the last person of the day. The good news is that I get to size up everyone. The bad: I’m not getting out of here until 6 p.m. And my plan of intimidation is much more challenging if they’re all gone.
5:15 p.m.: One of the main people running the drills is going from court to court, berating a few kids about not following the directions. It’s amazing. Because these kids can’t handle it. She’s putting the fear of messing up in front of everyone at the U.S. Open in everyone’s mind, and it’s made the entire process more tense. A few kids are noticeably shaken, most likely because when they think about messing up, they aren’t thinking “best GIF ever” (me), they’re thinking humiliation.
5:30 p.m.: Something phenomenal just happened. While long familiar with sports parents — some of the most insufferable people on this Earth — I never thought that would make its way to ball-person competitions. But it has. While I’m sitting on the bleachers, still 30 minutes from my turn, charging my phone through my laptop, a kid runs onto the court and is positioned next to the fence. His father is right on the other side of the fence, saying something to him. Highly intrigued by this new frontier of ball-person coaching, I walk over and stand 10 feet awkwardly behind him. With every throw his son makes, his father has a critique. A loud one.
The kid threw the ball short. His dad: “Really, that’s it?” The kid’s next throw: perfect. His father’s response: “Well, at least you learned from your mistake.”
The kid is not having fun. His dad is having the time of his life. Classic parenting.
5:45 p.m.: Eerily close to my turn, with most of the kids gone, something terrible takes place. I completely lose my competitive edge. Because I begin watching one kid who just can’t throw. It’s just not his thing. And to make matters worse, his mom is taping it with an iPad, as moms do, but there’s not really anything worth taping to document. And then — god bless his terrible little arm — he threw one over the fence. Not the back fence, but the side fence. As this happened, a girl behind me said to a group of kids, “Oh my god, that boy just threw it over the fence.” The kids laughed. And at that moment, I no longer cared about prevailing in this competition on a by any means necessary platform. I just wanted to save this kid. And I wanted to turn to that mean girl and call her ugly. But I didn’t. Because I’m a 27-year-old man. I did, however, put a curse on her.
No one will ever take her to prom. Forever.
That’s what she gets. Oh, and all her once-magical prom powers now go into that boy’s arm. And no one will ever laugh at him again. I did that.
5:55 p.m.: With only one group ahead of me, I watched one of the other courts go through their drills. On the side closest to me stood a boy very small for 14, the minimum age. He tracked down three balls thrown at him, struggled to hold all of them in his hands, and then unleashed the cannon. It was like watching Doug Flutie. His second throw got the attention of T-Taps, who happened to be on his court. “I’ve been waiting for this all day,” T-Taps said, pointing at the boy. It was that Britain’s Got Talent moment when Paul Potts walks out and belts “Nessun Dorma.” We all just watched a kid get discovered. He was now T-Taps’s no. 1 recruit, and every person trying out within earshot knew it.
6 p.m.: Finally. It was time. I’d been here since 11:30 a.m. and now I had 10 minutes to prove myself worthy.
6:10 p.m.: I blacked out. I don’t really remember what happened, but I know I started at net, ended in the back, ran fast, didn’t drop a ball, always had my hands behind my back when they were supposed to be, and threw the ball to the correct person with one bounce every single time. I now know what Kobe felt like when he scored 81. Just untouchable. Out of body. Ball Boy Baryshnikov.
My evaluator gave me a strong smile and said “good job.” Did I read into that? Absolutely. They told us we’d hear the results in early July. I tried to play it cool, but my excitement was palpable. I knew I had some things working against me (my age, that I already have a job, haters, that I was sweating out Chipotle), but there was certainly a chance. The spirit of Janet Hubert truly came through when it mattered.
And so, once out of the line of sight from my evaluators, I found a couch and did exactly what Janet would do.
Standing up five minutes later, I looked at the clock. I had to go, now. Chappelle was in 90 minutes.
7:45 p.m.: And now this was happening:
It was time. The rules were set. If Dave didn’t want me to do these things, I wasn’t going to do them. Hell, I’d snitch on people around me if need be, all in the name of happy Dave.
I went to the show with my friend Matthew. I have many friends who like Chappelle, but it was important to go with someone who knew as much about Chappelle as I did. And someone who I wouldn’t feel awkward around as I geeked out. And someone who wouldn’t judge as I died over the most inappropriate jokes. You can’t laugh about slavery in front of everyone. You really can’t. I promise.
(I’m guessing every time stamp after this, because my phone was dead.)
8 p.m.?: Hot 97’s DJ Cipha Sounds (also the DJ for Chappelle’s Show) was interacting with the crowd to get us ready. At one point, he told all the black people in the crowd to make some noise and then played The Jeffersons’s theme song. He then did the same thing for white people and played “A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton. When he got to Asians, Matt and I assumed he would drop a Chappelle throwback and play Wu-Tang, but he went with “Gangnam Style.” The crowd loved all of this. It seemed like a brash, appropriate way to get people thinking about race. I was all-in.
8:15 p.m.?: The lights lowered before a video intro from James Lipton, vulgarly telling everyone to turn their phones off. And then the opener, comedian Tony Woods. Woods tells 90 percent of his jokes as if he were your drunk uncle. Some of it feels like material from the ninth-billed comedian on ComicView (WOMEN BE SHOPPIN’), but a good deal of it is undeniably funny. There is one awkward point when he tells a long story about Native Americans, which is a less funny version of Chappelle’s long story about Native Americans from For What It’s Worth. But he brings it around at the end, so it’s worth it.
8:45 p.m.?: The lights lower again and everyone gets mentally prepared for Chappelle. The excitement in the room is contagious. Because this is about to be a moment. And then Cipha Sounds introduces the person saying the phrase “MTV’s Guy Code” and I almost punch myself in the face, because I think it’s Vinny from Jersey Shore. But it’s not. It’s Chappelle’s Show’s own Donnell Rawlings, who walks onstage rapping along to French Montana’s “Ain’t Worried About Nothin’.” Even though we all wanted and expected Chappelle, it was a very nice surprise. And he was great, telling a story about slavery and the alphabet that ashamedly brought me to tears. Again, wholly inappropriate, but life happens.
9:05 p.m.?: Cipha Sounds comes back on and plays more music while people take their final drink and bathroom break. He mixed “Ain’t Worried About Nothing” with Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and it was a revelation. But even better than that was when he played “Blood on the Leaves” by Kanye West. It was a surreal moment, going from Rawlings talking about slavery to “Blood on the Leaves” in its entirety to Chappelle, all in New York’s iconic Radio City Music Hall. None of it made any sense, which was beautiful.
9:20 p.m.?: Dave Chappelle walks out onstage.
He’s in a suit smoking a cigarette and is met by a standing ovation from people who probably thought they’d never see him again. It felt like witnessing history, even before he said a word.
11 p.m.?: Just incredible. Everything I wanted. Laughed genuinely and laughed hard, from beginning to end. He said, “Black people live in a broth of mystery,” and I almost fell out of my chair. Similar reactions occurred when he talked about the missing plane. And Donald Sterling. And making Paula Deen his personal chef. And the Klan being cashiers at KFC. And everything regarding his wife and kids.
And while not at same clip of previous stand-up specials, he still occasionally laughs at his own jokes. Which is Chappelle at his best — him saying something, hearing it aloud, and becoming just tickled at how absurd it is.
Walking out of Radio City, I didn’t hear a complaint. Everyone seemed to come in hopeful and leave absolutely satisfied. And on top of it all, we all got a free T-shirt. The back read I was here … Yes, indeed.