Friday, February 3, 2012

Going to Court, Part II: Dunkin’ Treasure

After successfully fitting into the brand-spankin’ new Hulk costume, our intrepid hero is off to Salt Lake City, Utah, for a gig at the NBA Jam Session, a b-ball-centric fan fair leading up to the All-Star Game. Accompanying him on this epic adventure are Spider-Man and Wolverine… and Marvel Personal Appearance Department Director, Alyson… gulp!…

What none of the actors realized until we got to the Salt Palace—home of the Utah Jazz and venue of the NBA Jam Session—was that weeks prior to the event Personal Appearance Nabob Alyson was hard at work preparing the infiltration of another Spider-Man to our ranks upon arrival! This was no clone—that saga was more than a year off. No, this web-slinging dopplegänger would have powers unlike any of the Spideys in the Marvel offices, talents that would be showcased for all to see at the basketball bender, i.e. court skillz.

That’s right. Marvel was hiring their own Spider-Jordan to dribble, shoot, and most importantly, slam dunk during the basketball Bacchanalia’s daily dunkin’ displays. Paradigms of pectoral pulchritude we heroes may be, each with the athleticism of the above-average Joe, but none of us in-house Webheads were on par with professionals. Sure, I played b-ball—badly—in the cages of New York City. Hell, I was even on a championship team when I was eleven—someone had to get water for the others—but I had about as much elevation as a Buick. Larry Bird would laugh at my vertical leap. Thus, a ringer need be found.

To accomplish this goal, Alyson contacted a local talent agency in Salt Lake City. I know what you, my Ever-Faithful and Canny Bloglodytes are thinking: Why enlist a middle-man? Call up the local colleges yourself. There’ll be possibilities aplenty from which to choose. Ah, but collegiates taking a paying basketball-related job while in the hallowed halls of academia would be in violation of NCAA rules, which could result in suspension, losing one’s scholarship, disqualification from the NBA Draft and/or dismissal. Fortunately, the agency had a bead on the next best thing: post-graduates; those hardwood heroes falling shy of the pros.

But not just any former basketball superstar would do. There were certain criteria beyond the facility to dribble, shoot and dunk that the candidates would have to meet, if they were to be considered for the role of Web-Swinger ringer. First, they’d have to fit the costume. Six-foot-two would be ideal; six-three, tight; six-four would be stretching it (pun intended). Plus, the prospective performers had to look good in the red-and-blue. Spidey’s signature togs appear differently on everyone. It all depends on where the webs fall on an individual’s musculature.

Ambassadorial aptitude was secondary, since the eventual selection would not be interacting directly with the fans. They’d be performing as part of a dunking display, switching roles with Jeremy, who’d appear before and after the show to meet and greet the fans in person. Of course, total a-holes were out of consideration. But Alyson left the personality decisions in the hands of the agency. She’d still have ultimate say from a triumvirate of finalists, which she’d choose before arrival.

To that end, weeks prior to the gig, Alyson shipped the agency a passel of retired Spider-Man threads. Photographs were taken of a bevy of b-boys—who fit the Webhead-thespian criteria—outfitted in the iconic regalia. Said pix were then Fedexed—email was a few years off—to Alyson for consideration. She chose her three favorite candidates before leaving the Big Apple and auditioned the finalists when we touched down in Salt Lake City. All this done under the noses of her hero elite without any of us the wiser.

“God, I hope I get it.
I hope I get it.
How many Spideys does she need?”

Oh, to be a fly on the wall of the family sports center where Alyson put the prospective Dunkin’ Spideys through their paces. An awesome display of the three Web-sketeers dribbling, passing shooting and slamming on the court; a clone pick-up game, as it were, or Web-Swinging version of Three-Card Monte with the victim trying to select the true Spider-Man once they’ve stopped moving. Of course, anyone who’s seen the Broadway production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark with its multiple Web-Slingers musical numbers might find observing the audition as more “Been there; done that,” and less “Wow, totally cool!” but back in 1993, there was no precedent.

We met Sam, the eventual winner of the Slammin’ Spidey Sweepstakes at the Salt Palace on the sidelines of a basketball court—perhaps a practice one the Jazz used—in another part of the facility. Jeremy, Joe and I had just finished moving our hero togs into one of this “B” court’s locker rooms and meandered onto the floor when Alyson approached with Sam in tow. He was approximately six-foot-four and had a body type that was more “Round Mound of Rebound” Charles Barkley than Clyde “The Glide” Drexler, though his manner was conversely more quiet, yet affable. We wished him luck and told him how much we were looking forward to seeing him dunk the ball as Spidey.

“Round Mound of Rebound” Charles Barkley vs. Clyde “The Glide” Drexler

That first day was spent acclimating ourselves to the areas we’d be plying our trade, i.e. meeting and greeting our adorees. The Jam Session would take place within the environs of the Salt Palace. Various basketball exhibitions, like the slam dunk contest, were scheduled throughout the day at the B court. A long corridor led to an open area where an assortment of appropriately-themed activities were set up. It was an indoor carnival as if run by the NBA, including hawker stands by the likes of Converse and Champion, selling everything from sneakers to hoodies. The main court, the one on which the Jazz played their home games was off this area. Major competitions, such as the old-timers’ and rookies’ games took place there, culminating in the All-Star Game, the finale to the whole week-long megillah.

We also had time to watch Sam familiarize himself with wearing the costume while working the hardwood. I envied not the onus of our Dunkin’ Double. As the worldwide idol of millions, whose alter ego was fabled to have the proportional strength and agility of a spider, he’d be expected to perform à la Michael Jordan, accomplishing the most amazing maneuvers, a veritable Bboy b-baller. It was a difficult task alone, never mind while wearing the signature webs of your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

Hey, who moved the net?!!

For those of you new to the wonders of Heroes in My Closet, let me take a moment to catch you up on the visibility of those donning the red-and-blue: It sucks! A milky haze constantly veiled the wearer’s vision, which not only caused a decrease in clarity—duh!—but also severely curtailed one’s depth perception. The actor’s peripherals were also impeded, but used to be worse before the suit design was updated to reflect the marked increase in the whites of the Web-Spinner’s eyes (see “My, What Big Eyes You Have”), due to the overwhelming popularity of artist Todd McFarlane’s interpretation of the character. But for the purposes of our Dunkin’ Double, difficulty in accurately judging the precise location of the basket was a major hurdle to overcome in order to perform successfully.

Moving our way down to the hands, imagine trying to palm—grip and maneuver without gravity forcing from one’s grip—a basketball while wearing silk gloves. Granted, the Spider-Man costume wasn’t made of spun silk—wouldn’t that be apropos?!—but the effect was similar. Unlike rubber or leather, the fabric was slick, offering no grip to the user. Dribbling and passing would be trickier, but dunking without palming…? it wasn’t essential, but inability to do so made the act far more challenging.

Plus, there was the issue of Spidey’s powers, those being the ability to adhere to any surface. He wouldn’t necessarily have to palm the basketball; it would stick naturally via his superhuman talents. So the b-ball slipping from his grasp, whether it be while dunking or dribbling or passing was not an option.

Okay, thus far, we’ve basically poked the eyes and broken the fingers of our Dunkin’ Double. Why not go for the triple threat? Let’s hobble our poor hero, too! The soles of the Spidey costumes were not but slender leather pads, approximately the same size as Dr. Scholl’s inserts, only the padding was thicker and looser; less firm. Simple ambulatory function caused the performer’s feet to slide. Anything more athletic than that risked serious ankle injury.

I’m hardly an expert, but I’m confident in stating that good foot traction is a plus when dunking. I won’t say it’s essential, because there are plenty of players whose height and/or jumping prowess makes them able to slam dunk a basketball from a standstill under the hoop. But for the more height-challenged, like guards who are typically several inches shorter than their teammates—usually around the same height as our victim… er, hero—it is nigh impossible to make the move without building up some speed and launching toward the net.

Up, up and away...!

Taking these problems in turn, the only solution to improving a performer’s visibility and depth-perception while wearing the Spidey suit was tried-and-true practice, i.e. there was no ready fix. The costume was what it was. Neither time nor funds were available to play with the eye construction, i.e. test different substances in lieu of the mesh used in the current design’s occipital region to find a better alternative. Sam had to simply acclimate himself to his new perception on the court as Spider-Man, which meant trial and error.

Stickum was the answer to the grip problem. It’s the same stuff wide receivers use in football to make their hands sticky so as to better catch the ball, especially in bad weather. One negative side effect to employing the gummy substance, however, was that dirt adhered just as readily to the surface to which it was applied. Dust from the ball quickly transferred to one’s hands, creating a layer that reduced the efficacy of the Stickum, resulting in its further implementation, which attracted more dirt, increasing the need for additional Stickum, and so on and so forth.

“Excuse me while I touch the sky...”

Fortunately, the stuff comes in an easy-to-use spray can. And worked wonders for the first dozen minutes or so after application. Sam could actually hold his arm out, palm down, and the ball would remain affixed to his hand, defying gravity, as if by magic… or spider powers! Sam must have gone though a couple of cases by the finish of his stint as the Webbed Wonder. And by week’s end, Spidey’s paws had stained to burnt sienna, similar to a skid mark on one’s tightie whities after an unfortunate fart with extras.

As for Sam’s traction risks, again, there was no way of altering the red-and-blue. He’d need sneakers. Yeah, I know, Spider-Man would never wear shoes of any type. After all, they’d inhibit the use of his powers to stick to walls, which the thin fabric of the costume does not. His excuse, or rather Jeremy’s for it would be he who would have to answer the clamoring questions of the hoi polloi once Sam’s duty was done, was that A) he wasn’t expecting a visit from any of his nemeses, so wouldn’t need the use of his powers to walk up walls, and B) he was getting into the festivities and wanted to show-off his own cool, personally-styled sneaks—Jordan has his, after all. To that end, Alyson decided to get Sam some. One problem: he was a size 14!

The call went out to Beverly, Marvel Personal Appearance Department costume maven, to scour Manhattan for red-canvas Converse All-Stars. Checking the internet was not an option; it didn't exist yet! The desired sneaks—Chuck Taylors—were relatively inexpensive and, more importantly, could be sketched upon. As long as Beverly could locate a pair and overnight them to Utah, Alyson could break out the Sharpies and channel her inner Michaelangelo to cover them in webbing before Sam’s debut.

In the meantime, Sam donned his own sneakers over the costume, so he could at least start practicing—daylight was a-wastin’! Nice shoes they might have been, but they were predominately black and stuck out, like a fuchsia bowtie on Batman, diminishing the cachet of the iconic red-and-blue. It became immediately apparent that custom-treads were no longer just a nifty idea; they were crucial.

Jeremy help Sam with Spidey pointers; explaining certain characteristic moves and poses that he should strive to emulate betwixt dunks. I had my own opinions—hard as that is to believe—but kept out of the conversations—harder as that is to believe! It would only confuse Sam to have gotten differing views on how to perform as the Web-Spinner. Luckily the suit, combined with the natural moves and crouched stance of a basketball player, did most of the work. He looked great—aside from the footwear—and was soon getting the knack of dunking the ball within the webbing.

Of course, there was the issue of Sam’s body size. As aforementioned, Spidey’s togs best fit a personage of no more than six-foot-three. Sam was literally bursting at the seams, including an unfortunate area just above the gluteus maximus that would have fans wondering if our erstwhile Web-Slinger was a plumber in his off-time!

Spider-Man’s dreams of being a plumber
were well behind him!

This weakness in the tensile strength of the suit’s stitches could have been a lot more embarrassing had it manifested after the doors to the Jam Session had opened to the public. As it was the day before, Sam had to suffer only the good-natured ribbing from the members of the NBA’s dunking exhibition team, which amounted to nothing more than the humorous tête à tête of a “Your mama’s so fat…” contest. As long as the costume was repaired before the next day’s inaugural start of the festival, the public would be none the wiser. That unfortunate task would also fall upon Alyson’s shoulders, and with the beating Sam’s ensemble was taking on the court, she’d be pulling a lot of late hours as Betsy Ross.

America runs on dunking

As for accommodating Sam’s size 14 flippers… Try as she might, Beverly could not find a New York City purveyor who carried that size in stock. She called Alyson in tears explaining her predicament. To her credit, Alyson was not one to get upset over “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” The woman came from Macy’s where she worked on organizing the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade, an event of Brobdignagian proportions, fraught with speed bumps throughout its 364 days—their one day off a year was Thanksgiving—of preparation. You’d have to be Zen-like in your approach to the daily tribulations of the job or you’d soon be fitted with a white coat and dragged to the nuthouse.

So the greatest city in the country, known for its thousands of street-ball courts, couldn’t produce a size 14 Converse All-Star. What to do… The answer was pretty much a no-brainer, one of those “Wow, I could’ve had a V8” moments for Alyson. She spoke with the guys running the Converse booth at the show—duh! Lo and behold, they had the shoe… only not in red! One sleepless night—during which she painstakingly colored and copied the pedal webbing pattern of the suit—and several red and black Sharpies later, Alyson presented Sam with a pair of custom Chuck Taylors perfect for even the most discerning Web-Swinger.

Here they are: the infamous custom Spider-Man sneakers, nearly twenty years later.

Alyson got Stan Lee’s autograph on one of his East Coast visits. Needless to say, he wanted his own pair!

It wasn’t long before Sam, proudly donning a pair of sneakers worthy of a winning Project Runway challenge, was showing off some hardwood heroics alongside his envious peers. Dunkin’ Spidey was ready to go!

Air Spideys!

NEXT: Hulky Goes a Courtin’…


John III said...

What has Mary Jane been feeding Peter??

Vik said...

I don't think I've ever seen a pair of Converse last for more than three years, let alone twenty. Kudos to Alyson for making and preserving an interesting piece of real-world Spider-Man history!

... I think I'm gonna go ahead and color a pair of my own, now.

Ben Churchill said...

That's a pretty clever way of working around not finding what you want. I'm also amazed they still exist...