Thursday, February 23, 2012

Going to Court, Final Quarter: And All That Jazz

Barely surviving a head-spinning two-hour forty-five minute stint in the incubating Incredible Hulk costume, our weary wayfarer looks forward to a well-deserved morning off and an evening of NBA’s finest flaunting their phenomenal physical faculties…

After an appearance-packed three days of rampaging, web-slinging and doing the best there is at what he does, Yours Truly, Jeremy and Joe—Hulk, Spider-Man and Wolverine, respectively—were treated with a morning of unfettered bliss… or at least what goes for bliss in the wilds of Utah. My tortuous tour from Hell the day before was nought but a distant memory, with nary a raised eyebrow from Director Alyson for my abrupt walk off the set.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. I was numb; the type of deep exhaustion one usually experiences after a week of working doubles or a triathlon, I imagine. A single night’s sleep, no matter how restful, wasn’t going to come close to rejuvenating the body to its full potential. In fact, it was less an evening of sleep than one of weariness-induced coma. I awoke yoked with the grogginess that comes from strong cold medicine. And from the looks on Jeremy and Joe’s faces, their physical and mental states concurred. A morning off was essential to our being able to perform our final foray as the Marvel Universe triumvirate at the NBA Fan Fest appearance later that afternoon. It was a scant couple of hours, but we looked upon it with dread. Even the carrot of comp tickets to the All-Star Game after that did little to energize us.

Not quite the Spider-Mobile...

Added to the mix was the use of the rental car. Alyson didn’t need it, so once we dropped her off at the Salt Palace, where she would continue monitoring our Dunkin’ Spidey doppelgänger and glad hand any remaining corporate yahoos who hadn’t yet gotten their asses adequately kissed—no rest for the weary—we were free to enjoy the wonders of the area… which wasn’t much. Admittedly, we weren’t exactly prepared to sightsee during our stay in Salt Lake City. None of us had done any research, drawn up a “must-see” list of the environs or purchased a guidebook. And with so little time, there wasn’t inclination to do so.

Three days cooped up inside the basketball facilities, in which we were, in turn, ensconced within character costumes—some more cumbersome than others—and us three amigos were happy to simply be outside breathing fresh air, albeit frosty fresh air. Jeremy—he of the backwoods of Maine—suggested going to a ski resort, having seen signs to such along the highway during our drive from the airport to the hotel after our arrival. Joe and I were complicit. It was either that or… well… it was pretty much that. So we loaded into the vehicle and headed out of the city.

“THIS IS A TRUE STORY. The events depicted in this story took place in Utah in 1993. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”

Late February was just as one would expect in Utah: a panorama of mountains and snow overcast with gray. It was a bit Fargo for my tastes. Growing up in the ’burbs of Boston, I was no stranger to ice and frigid temperatures, but at least civilization was always within spitting distance, or in this case, snowball-throwing distance. Skiing was as foreign to me as jai alai. Sure, there were plenty of trails within a couple of hours of Beantown, but the recreation entails a bit of monetary outlay in which to participate and thus out of reach for those of us born of meager incomes. I was content to be as far away from The Hulk suit as possible. Making snow angels in my birthday suit sounded like Heaven to me. But given the conservative atmosphere of the state, a quick trip to a ski lodge was an ideal secondary diversion.

Yours Truly rubbing up to Utah’s moguls

The journey up the mountainside was no picnic. Navigating the switchbacks along the route wreaked havoc with my internal gyroscope. Had I been driving—as veteran of the group, Jeremy took the wheel—the effects wouldn’t have been as severe, and riding shotgun was certainly better than being in the back. Still, nausea soon set in, and I wondered if I’d reach the resort before vomiting. Wouldn’t that have been funny? On the verge of heat prostration and severe dehydration less than twenty-four hours prior without so much as a puke-burp and here I am the next day about to lose my breakfast over a scenic thirty-minute drive up a mountain. I kept my stomach’s churning to myself. I knew if I could just make it to the top before hurling I’d be fine.

I did, and I was.

I’d love to be able to tell you that cresting the final turn into the ski area was a life-changing experience. The car broke through the cloud cover and the Heavens opened up with the Hallelujah chorus as we emerged into a Winter Wonderland of happy trails and snow bunnies. Nope. Where was the exotic Swiss chalet with the size tens in their magenta ski togs and Nordic wool hats, scurrying to the lift or back inside the lodge to sidle up to the Bunyonesque stone hearth with steaming mugs of spiked cocoa or hard cider? Where was anyone, for that matter? The place was deader than a Student Union during spring break. And the building was about as appealing as a storage shed in a lumber yard. Norm Abram’s New Yankee Workshop held greater allure. Okay, the vistas were pretty enough, but it was no more breathtaking than the Blue Mountains in Massachusetts, up which I hiked as a teen.

Jeremy seemed disappointed as well. Could he have been expecting that same ski-resort scene as depicted in The Pink Panther? Unfortunately, the surroundings hearkened more to the town Annie Wilkes called home in Misery. Still, I felt compelled to record the trip with a couple of photos, which look as depressing now as the place was back then. One good thing did come out of our expedition: We were more than ready to return to the arena and retake our heroic mantels.

Annie Wilkes’s biggest fans

Back at the courts, the Jam Session was winding down, as the Salt Palace prepared for the All-Star Game a few hours hence. Donning the verdigris epidermis of The Hulk again was approached with as much vim as a convict picking up a sledge hammer on his way to the prison yard to break rocks. We were bone weary. Our Von Trapp Family escape up the mountain failing utterly to fill us with the sound of music. Yet, the show must ever go on. We put on our brave faces—literally—and entered the festival for our last go-around. Blessedly, our final tour of duty was short. And, hey, being grumpy was the Hulk’s M.O.

The narrator with sportscaster Fred Hickman

The Jam’s swan song was the big game’s practice session on the main court. Ole green britches was crated and readied for shipment. Strangely, despite the fatigue and sweat, I enjoyed my debut dalliance as the Green behemoth and looked forward to future rampages, though a few months of Web-Swinging would be welcome in the interim. An advantage to portraying The Hulk is that I was finished before my heroic colleagues. And with my all-access Jam Session pass dangling from neck, I took a leisurely stroll to the main court to catch some of the highlights of the practice for the all-star spectacle to follow.

Growing up in Boston and being a sports lover go hand-in-hand. As mentioned in previous posts, my parents had season tickets to the Bruins, and as a product of the 70s and 80s, the Celtics were front and center on my sports radar. Havlicek, Cowens and Jo Jo White led the team to a pair of championships in the former, and Bird, Parish and McHale, arguable the greatest frontline in the history of the game, championed three more in the latter. But by the early 90s, the team was mired in mediocrity: always competitive, yet never exceptional enough to make it past the first round of the play-offs, if making the post season at all. In fact, not a single Celt was in the All-Star line-up in 1993. Still, I loved the sport and followed it religiously at the time.

His Airness

Imagine my reaction when Michael Jordan waltzes toward me soon after his arrival to the Salt Palace. Not since my first encounter with the famous Farrah-Fawcett one-piece bathing suit poster of my youth had I suffered such a lapse in control of my bodily functions. My underwear needed changing, but my NBA geek experience had only just begun. Look, there’s Clyde “The Glide” Drexler; Jordan’s partner in crime, Scottie Pippen; the “Round Mound of Rebound” Charles Barkley. I barely had enough self-control to snap shots with my camera as they paraded by.

“We’ve got magic to do… just for you...
We’ve got miracle plays to play...”

A short time later, as Sir Charles was making his way to the court from the locker room, he was surprised with a birthday cake. It was February 20 and the Phoenix Sun power forward was celebrating his 30th… and I was there! Exciting to watch, the future Hall of Famer and eventual winner of the league’s MVP that year was always a favorite of Yours Truly. He began his career with the Philadelphia 76ers—mentored by the amazing Dr. J. in his final seasons—a well-respected, perennial rival and always tough opponent of my beloved Celtics. Considered short for his position, his physique defied the laws of the sport, which favored the long and lanky. Nearly as famous for his big mouth, the outspoken hardwood antihero never shied from speaking his mind and was as humorous as he was controversial in his commentary. I normally don’t take to the type, but there was something about Sir Charles that captured my attention.

Sir Charles takes the cake

The eventual eleven-time all-star seemed more tolerant than actually appreciative. Perhaps he didn’t like surprises or hated to be reminded of his mortality. Maybe the garish likeness on the cake spawned his less-than-enthusiastic response. More likely, he was simply being Sir Charles. I guess those of us in attendance should be happy he didn’t flip the confection in the air and storm onto the floor. Although, there was the occasional slight lift to the side of his mouth that would indicate a smile. It was a cool moment nonetheless, one I was fortunate enough to shmooze a bystander into capturing with me on my Kodak.

“Quick, take the shot before security pulls me away!”

I spent the remainder of my time watching Jordan and co. warm-up. My All-Access pass would only last up until just before the game began, at which point I would have to take my seat. No prob. I certainly couldn’t complain. But my good fortune had yet to run out. Absent of any Celtic on the roster, the All-Star affair held meager hope of my encountering any player from my home team. Of course, these league showcases oft attract legends from the past, but after spending three-plus days without so much as a whisper of green in my sights—barring that encompassing my body—I’d given up on the prospect. That attitude was about to get a wake-up call.

Nothing but net

As I stood under the basket, at which Jordan was shooting field goals, a familiar figure caught my eye. There, before me, as if in a dream was Celtic legend Kevin McHale. Jordan who? You might Like Mike, but as far as I was concerned, All Hail McHale! Any hope of salvaging my jeans were lost in the moment I espied the thrice NBA champ, twice-awarded Sixth Man of the Year, seven-time all-star, among many other accolades. I blurted something to him about being from Boston—the rest would’ve confused the cast of Quest for Fire—before handing (read: forcing) my camera to the nearest person, emphatically gibbering for them to shoot a picture of us. McHale was gracious and bemused, perhaps sensing I was a bit touched—the drool didn’t help. I guess I’m lucky it wasn’t Larry Bird; I’d have gone into apoplexy.

Watch the drool, kid.

By this point, the game itself was gravy. I joined my fellow thespians and Alyson in our seats three quarters of the way up the first section. They may not have been floor seats—we weren’t exactly Ron Perelman—but excellent ones nonetheless, with a central view of the whole floor and close enough to still make out the individual players. I was impressed by the Salt Palace. For an arena with stadium seating, it was intimate and offered great sight lines. The affair opened with a beautiful arrangement of the “Star-Spangled Banner” sung by my peeps (see “Going to Court, Part III: You Wouldn’t Like Me When I’m Angry”), Boyz II Men; a classy, sophisticated rendition and perfect prelude to the annual basketball celebration.

Hitting the chord

All-Star Games tend to be high on the scoring and low on the defense for several reasons. As a nation, Americans derive more pleasure from offense than defense, even though, as the saying goes, defense wins games. But defense ain’t pretty. You’ll find more people impressed with a center mugging an opponent with a slam dunk than a savvy guard drawing a charge. A steal may earn in a certain degree of bally-hooing, but the resultant alley-oop quickly erases any memory of the defensive gem that caused it. A nail-biting pitcher’s duel in baseball, which ends in a 1–0 score, is less desirable than a blowout. It’s the prime reason soccer—wherein matches rarely score more than a goal or two total—is having such a hard time taking hold in The States.

There’s also a more practical explanation for these seasonal player showcases being such high-scoring events. Understandably, the players and their teams and coaches do not want to get hurt or overextend themselves. There’s a whole second half to the season to which these all-stars must return. An honor it may be, but an invitation to the All-Star cavalcade is a mere fizzle to the conflagration of an NBA title. So it is understandable that athletes would give less than their all to these lavish, vanity affairs and not risk possible injury, which could in turn jeopardize their team’s chance at a title.

Add up these factors and the result is more a street-ball competition of one-upmanship than an actual battle for victory; a spectacle of fancy moves, crazy shots and professional b-ballers screwing around and having fun. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Without the pretense of importance that comes with a win or loss, why not make the game a highlight reel of basketball’s greatest performers? The fans don’t seem to mind—they love it!

Taking my official ’93 Jam Session basketball out for a spin

Despite the seeming anarchy on the court, the players are ever mindful of their host city and endeavor to cede personal glory to its hometown heroes. Regardless of the standings, whether celebrating in the house of one the league’s premiere franchises or bottom dweller, the stars graciously spotlight the town’s own. this was no less true in Salt Lake City. The offensive juggernaut of John Stockton and Karl Malone—one of the greatest tandems in the sport’s history—were featured throughout the game. And it was a doozy, the lead oscillating like a metronome and resulting in overtime. The West finally won by a hefty score of 135 to the East’s 132. When the dust cleared, big man Malone had 28 points and 10 rebounds, while teammate Stockton had 9 points, 6 rebounds and 15 assists, which means he was directly responsible for 30 points! No surprise the Jazz duo were awarded co-MVP.

By the end of the epic confrontation, it was well past seven P.M. Alyson, my fellow actors and I had eaten little, if anything, for lunch and were starving. One nice thing about being on the road with your boss is not having to worry about the per diem. This is the preset traveling expense devoted to meals. When I began my Web-Swinging career, the per diem was $30 a day. That’s the amount the performers were given for breakfast, lunch and dinner, cumulatively. Certainly meager by today’s standards, at the time it was serviceable in areas with a lower cost of living, like Tuscaloosa, Alabama, or Elkton, Maryland; less so for major metropolitan ones, such as Washington, D.C. or Atlanta, Georgia. Working Canada translated to receiving approximately a double stipend as the exchange rate with the U.S. was about two-to-one at the time, but it evened out when factoring in the additional beer you had to drink.

The modest allotment meant us characters were relegated to fast food purveyors, food carts and snacking in lieu of a meal in order to stay within the per diem’s limitations. Woe to those trapped in remote accommodations that offered no dining alternatives to the always pricey hotel restaurant in the area. Hello, Dominos?! Being treated by the sponsor or host was always appreciated. That day’s per diem could then be divvied between two meals instead of three. One could actually experience the rare treat of eating healthily: the nutritious muesli with fresh fruit for breakfast instead of a choice of specials #1–6, which featured “spam, spam, spam, fried eggs and spam—that’s only got a li’l bit ‘o spam innit”—with a selection of side meats. When I hung up my webs a decade later, the per diem had soared to a whopping $40 a day! Rachel Ray, eat your heart out!

I remember when cell phones were as big as a candy machine... Tell that to the kids today, they won’t
believe you...

Still, Joe and Jeremy politely declined Alyson’s offer, preferring instead to spend their final evening in Salt Lake free from under official auspices. Me, I enjoyed my time with Alyson, and no, I was not simply playing Eddie Haskell to her June Cleaver. Alyson was full of interesting war stories from her early days as a showgirl treading the floorboards of Magic Mountain to her event marketing days with Macy’s. Considering what she’d put me through the day prior during the photo shoot with The Hulk, my feelings would have to be genuine.

The eatery du jour was across the street from the Salt Palace. It was quite expansive with various rooms and levels, with a contemporary (read: austere) dĂ©cor. I’m unsure whether it was the restaurant’s closeness to the arena, it’s upscale, upper-echelon conduciveness or the dearth of anything on par in the vicinity, but the place was packed with NBA wags and celebrities. I couldn’t understand it, because the place had all the ambiance of a high school cafeteria. Patrons were seated so close to one another as to be obscene in certain parts of the South and the noise was deafening. Surprisingly, there was a wait—must be the only place open in the state—so Alyson and I took the opportunity to hit the head.

The Men’s and Ladies’ rooms stood abreast one another beneath a staircase—the type with no perpendicular backing to the steps, which was meant to convey modern and accentuate the open floor plan, but truly looks stupid and makes using them a vertiginous nightmare—to one of the upper dining levels. Right angled to them was the entrance to a private room, in which a large party sat at a single table. As I glanced in, my jaw dropped. At the head of the table was then Celtics coach Chris Ford, former Celtics guard who helped lead the team to their first championship of the 80s. Lesser known than colleagues Larry Bird, Robert Parish and the aforementioned Kevin McHale, Ford was no less important; a stalwart defensive master, who is credited with hitting the first three-pointer in the team’s history. He was an unspectacular player whose hustle and work ethic made him a champion… and I loved him!

“Omigod, Alyson… Do you know who that was?” I blurted.

“STEPHEN!!!” Alyson’s shocked response snapped me out of my reverie, and I noticed about a half dozen women staring at me, frozen in various stages of bathroom activities: drying hands, adjusting clothing, touching up makeup… In my excitement, I failed to veer off into the little boys room, instead following Alyson into the Ladies’.

“Uh, sorry,” I stammered before spinning around and exiting, not before careening into a confused pair of females, questioning whether it was they who were walking into the incorrect room.

Fortunately, the rest of the evening proceeded gaff-free. Alyson quite enjoyed herself retelling the blunder to Jeremy and Joe the next morning on the way to the airport. I was just happy to be heading home. I don’t know what could’ve possessed me, barreling into the women’s lavatory without thinking, like a mindless brute. I guess you can take the actor out of The Hulk, but you can’t take The Hulk out of the actor.

Upon Jeremy’s, Joe’s and my return from our ski lodge excursion, this vehicle pulled out in front of us on our way to the Salt Palace.
NOTE: The views expressed by those in the car do not necessarily reflect those of
Heroes In My Closet.

4 comments:

John III said...

Great story! I remember getting per diems. I almost always skipped breakfast and ate fast food for lunch. Ate like a king for dinner!

Vroom! said...

Hi John!

Couldn't NOT have a good breakfast before getting into character, so to speak. Most of the time I'd have a quick bite for lunch, if anything, so I could afford dinner later in the day. Needless to say, I rarely had steak. But a burger's the next best thing... and I mean a real burger not a fast-food one!

Best,
Stephen

John III said...

I'm not sure how I was able to skip breakfast either. I couldn't today. I was in college and working for the Red Cross. Stayed in Florida after hurricane Andrew and got $25 dollars a day to eat on. 1992.

Ben Churchill said...

I don't know how anyone can do it. I've always needed breakfast, or I was worthless the entire day. I know people who don't eat at all until the afternoon. Even on a budget, I would have to eat something, even a granola bar.