LOS ANGELES -- "Patterson!" coach Mark Ellis hollers at me. "Get in the game!" I'm not remotely Irish, Ellis isn't a coach, and said game is about to take place on a movie set, but frankly, I'm thrilled.
Besides, if my game didn't win them over, I was fully prepared to check into a rehab facility. Thankfully, this ad hoc attempt to up my star quotient won't be necessary. A decade after a minor spat over playing time squashed my hoop dream -- OK, I quit when my JV coach cut me -- I'm finally getting the call to play with the big boys. Or at least a rapper, a stoner and a flabby comedian.
Sure, sounds like a sweet deal. But cinematic playing careers, like ABA life, are rife with disses.
Upon arrival, a PA leads me to my very own star trailer, which he says is "just like Will's." (Weird, they stock Ferrell's trailer with mops, a bucket of goo and four urinals.) There, I find my wardrobe: flatfooted adidas and an authentic Squires leotard, er, uniform, with requisite tight shorts. Clearly, costume designer Susan Matheson hates healthy feet, and my ability to produce offspring.
I don't have a first name, or any lines for that matter -- they might've missed my scintillating performance in "Little Red Riding Hood: A 3rd Grade Play" (I rocked as The Tree) -- but according to my jersey back, I'd be playing "Patterson." Who, I'm guessing, is not a one-name hard-court legend.
A little makeup, some chops and a 'stache and Sam Alipour is tailor made for the 70s.
After a lunch break -- when I dined on tacos, but mostly my 'stache (Yummy!) -- I finally take the court, joining 100 bored fans, referee/clergyman Father Pat (Matt Walsh), cig-smoking, liquor-sapping radio men (Will Arnett and Andrew Daly), and dozens of red-white-and-blue orbs -- specially designed by Spalding. These are details Alterman gleaned from a childhood spent at ABA-era Spurs games, loads of tape review and consults with league historian Arthur Hundhausen and ABAers Artis Gilmore, James Silas and George Gervin, who cameo. "We're celebrating that time and place, not just poking fun at it," the director says. "It's a comedy, but the game should feel authentic." This might explain why I was cast to play for Dr. J's old squad. "No," he quickly clarifies, "that was a mistake on our part."
Also a mistake: all of this silly stretching. Harrelson feels me. The White Man Who Once Jumped, who says he signed because "I wanted to be a part of the top two basketball comedies of all time," is tossing trick shots from behind the backboard -- and drilling them. "Woody is better than all of us combined," notes Outkast's Andre Benjamin (he plays cocky 2-guard Clarence Withers).
Benjamin never played organized hoops growing up in Atlanta, so the Grammy winner is leaning on his unwieldy afro: "It makes me look like I can play. And ladies dig the hair, man." Interesting. Of all the things I could've done to score chicks, I didn't realize looking like a hungover porn star was one. As a professional of the highest standards, I test this theory with my Squires cheerleaders, who seem eager.
"Ladies, looking dynamite!"
"What other movies have you been in?" inquires one.
"Um, none. I'm a reporter."
She rolls her eyes. A few others turn away. Damn this hair!
My mop failed me, but surely my solid jumper will not. Unfortunately, I spent most of the 30-minute shootaround doling out change to Ferrell -- who lettered in hoops at University High (Irvine, Calif.), and has a sweet hook shot -- and actual semipros like Tyler Murphy (USC), Mike Westphal (Pepperdine) and Peter Cornell (Loyola Marymount). They're among the film's two-dozen special ability extras, chosen from 5,000 applicants with serious skills, and "they've been in the trenches with us for months," Ellis says, "so you shouldn't expect any breaks, reporter guy."
Sam Alipour may be ready for his closeup, but make no mistake this is Jackie Moon's show.
Next, up: layup lines, where I learn that (A) they do in fact call traveling during pregame drills and (B) 5-foot-9 reporters should not line up with tall people. "That's funny," Ellis tells Alterman. "Look at Will at 6-foot-3, and Sam at you know, his height." At this point, I'd much prefer he call me "Patterson."
So far, not good. I need to strategize. During a break at our directors chairs, each emblazoned with our names -- though mine was misspelled ("Woody," I think it read) -- Ferrell sets me straight: "It's not about whether your shot goes in. It's about looking athletic and being flamboyant like those ABA guys." He looks me over. "At least you have the shorts."
But he's right. Playing in the NBA's shadow, the upstart league had to be loud and colorful. (Jackie Moon's promotions include corn dog night -- though he had no corn dogs -- and a wrestling match with a bear, based on a Pacers halftime event in April 1975.)
So in the final drill, the three-man weave, I too resolve to self-promote: I take the midcourt position, toss a behind-the-back to Ferrell, then weave behind him like an angry floating fig leaf, ready to receive the rock from Murphy for -- dunno, I'm feeling risqué -- a reverse layup. Instead, Ferrell cuts me out of the equation: He nods to Murphy, then tosses a moon ball that Murphy flushes with one-hand. Ouch.
From "White Men Can't Jump" to "Kingpin", Woody brings a serious sports movie resume to the set.
After a few more weaves, I still don't know if I made the cut. Ferrell offers encouragement: "I wouldn't worry about it. You're an excellent dribbler." And then: ecstasy! Literally, I think. An extra in the stands offers me a strange pill (God, I love Hollywood). I'm guessing it's not Nuprin.
Finally, Coach Ellis calls my number! First, I'll rehearse the Squires/Tropics scene. His assistant, Brendan Kirsch (Ball State), who designs the plays, instructs to me to dish to the right wing before setting a pick on Benjamin in the left block. Simple enough. When Ellis yells "Action!" I pound, pass, then set the hardest pick the ABA had ever seen on absolutely no one. Benjamin skates by.
Take two: This time, I speed it up and we graduate to the next stage. A Ferrell swat leads to a fast break that goes awry when Harrelson's bounce pass drills Benjamin in the gonads. (Yes, the gonads were treated roughly in the ABA, and Will Ferrell movies.) My responsibility is to disregard the first rule of defense -- stop the ball -- which shouldn't be a problem for me, then gather the loose rock and toss it ahead for a layup on the other end. The result: Flawless execution by all, including Patterson. Though Coach Ellis did have one minor note: Sam! Backpedal! Stay low! Palms out! Blah, blah!
At the end of the day, Sam found his niche -- on the bench.
This much is clear: compared to Ellis, Jazz taskmaster Jerry Sloan is a drunken circus clown. "White Men had more spontaneity," Harrelson said. "Here the game play is more choreographed, which is understandable. There's 10 guys. But a little chaos is pretty cool. There's energy in chaos." Woody tends to talk about abstract things like energy, but he's messing with my energy because he talks very sloooowly. (On a totally unrelated note: Woody once toured America in a hemp oil-fueled bus. Just sayin'.)
In subsequent runs, I pass, pick and defend with textbook technique -- and learn that it is indeed possible to airball a pass -- but moments away from shooting, Ellis and Alterman huddle. Then: "Patterson, take a seat." Ellis, the man who once turned Freddie Prinze Jr. into an MLB prospect for "Summer Catch," gives me the hook. Twelve hours in, I head to the Squires' bench to become a blink-and-you'll-miss-me extra. My replacement, former Texas Tech point guard Jason Martin, graciously pats my head. "I hear 'One Tree Hill' is looking for extras," he says. "They always have high school hoops scenes." Jerk.
Around midnight, I'm "acting" on the bench, miserable, praying sweat won't shrink my shorts into a thong, listening to my scrub teammates blab about the pros and cons of playing in Europe, when Far out! I have a first name! I'd been so consumed with being a baller, I hadn't noticed the roster on a rickety scoreboard above the stands: "Nat Paterson," it reads. Sure, they misspelled my last name, but the Squires once butchered Larry Brown's too (Broun, his jersey once read). Shoot, I'd do a somersault if I weren't concerned it would rupture my testes.
Back on the bench, but a star, finally.
Sam Alipour is based in Los Angeles. His Media Blitz column appears in ESPN The Magazine and regularly on Page 2. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.