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Fantasy league

Aaron Feldman got a front-row seat to a Los Angeles Lakers game. Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

YOU MAY NOW KISS THE BRYANT

By: Aaron Feldman, 34
Photographer, Los Angeles
Dispatched: Suns at Lakers

"AS A SEASONED WEDDING photographer and lifelong hoops fan, I was thrilled and slightly intimidated to shoot my first-ever Lakers game. But once I recovered from my initial awe, I was surprised by how comfortable I felt. Thanks to years of experience shooting weddings, I've learned to capture moments that happen in a flash and can't be redone. I actually welcomed the tension of the live game.

The evening was so full of highlights, it was almost surreal. I passed Kobe in the tunnel (he's not as tall as you'd think), spoke briefly with Jack Nicholson (some
inane conversation about seasonal allergies, but he still sounded cool), chatted up George Lopez (his teeth are whiter than porcelain!) and shot close to a thousand images.

I'd do it again in a heartbeat. It was over way too fast. But at least nobody kissed at the end, which was a nice change of pace for me."


THE ART OF SILENTLY HATING DUKE

By: Jonathan Andrews, 34
Software developer, Timonium, Md.
Dispatched: Duke at North Carolina

"I WOVE THROUGH SCALPERS, scalpees, the CBS pregame set, the accompanying throng of fans, the surly security guards being ignored by those same fans, and the hundreds of college kids waiting in line, and I walked right in. A press pass gets you into a lot of places very quickly. Where it got me was the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill on senior night for the Duke-UNC men's basketball game, with the ACC regular-season championship on the line. Thank you, press pass.

I promised myself that I would stay calm and cool and completely objective. Then I walked down to the media room, the Duke team ran onto the court for warmups, the crowd booed -- and, reflexively, I booed along with them. Promise broken literally 10 seconds into the night. I guess it's not that easy to stop hating Duke.

The conversation in the media room before the game would have been right in place in your favorite sports bar: "The human polls, not RPI, are the best predictor of seed." "The winner of BC-Clemson is in; the loser's gonna be out." I've been known to frequent a sports bar or two, so I jumped in with the press chatter. We talked 96-team Tourney, possible No. 1 seeds, ex-Tar Heel Larry Drew II's hilariously eccentric mother. It was all very relaxed; nobody was working too hard just yet. But the casual banter was punctuated every few minutes by surreal reminders of where I was. I'd suddenly hear the teams hyping themselves up through the walls. Or Coach Sylvia Hatchell of the UNC women's team would walk through the room. It was like one of those bizarre SportsCenter commercials; I half expected Andy Roddick to walk by, bouncing a tennis ball on his racket.

I caught myself whistling the UNC fight song in the bathroom -- strike two against objectivity. And after Dexter Strickland slammed the game-sealing dunk (yeah, yeah, strike three), we moved on to the UNC players' lounge to interview the Carolina players. Teammates relaxed while three or four reporters clustered around each of them. I made a quick circuit around the room -- John Henson's feet are huge! -- and tried to stay out of everyone's way. I ended up talking to a couple of school-age kids in the corner. "We're with P.J.," they told me. That would be incoming freshman and No. 3 shooting guard in his class P.J. Hairston. UNC-Duke is an invaluable recruiting tool.

At the end of the night, I walked onto the empty stadium floor. One of the nets had been cut down, and the place was almost cleared out. UNC radio analyst and former All-America center Eric Montross left just ahead of me.

For him, it was another day on the job. For me, it was, simply, one of the best nights of my life. Thank goodness the right team won."


INSIDE TRACK AT INDY

By: Mark Carpenter, 26
Technical illustrator, Charlotte, N.C.
Dispatched: Indianapolis 500

"WHAT DID MY FULL ESPN pass grant me? Only complete access to one of the greatest finishes in Indy 500 history.

The image of J.R. Hildebrand crashing out of the lead in the final corner will forever be replayed. But I saw far more than that. Walking next to the Pagoda and past Victory Lane, my heart was beating through my chest. And as I cruised the grid, I noticed the celebrities in attendance -- Adrian Grenier, Ashley Judd, Tito Ortiz, Patrick Dempsey. I chatted with McDreamy for a moment, and he told me he was on a plane to race the next day at Lime Rock Park in Lakeville, Conn. Yeah, it totally does not suck to be Patrick Dempsey.

But the coolest part of the day was being able to talk to the drivers. I spoke with Ed Carpenter before the race after he had already conducted a slew of TV interviews. So when I approached him and asked him about his favorite track (Indy, naturally) and corners on the Indy Car schedule, he seemed relieved. After being bombarded by the same questions over and over, for a change he was able to talk racing with a fellow racer -- I race a Mazda in my free time."


HOW TO SURVIVE A RYAN HOWARD ATTACK

By: Barry Labendz, 29
Mortgage consultant, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Dispatched: Mets at Phillies

"THE LAST TIME I WAS IN PHILLY, the Phillies were playing in the World Series, and I was across the street watching Pearl Jam close down the Spectrum -- and hearing all sorts of threats and pleasantries from Phillies fans for wearing a Mets shirt, even though the players on my team had been golfing for the better part of a month. This time, I was undercover at the ballpark with more access than I could handle. And that was a good thing, as being a Mets fan at a Phillies game is like walking into the lions' den -- if those lions were stumbling out of McFadden's Saloon after a couple too many beers and looking for their next orange-and-blue prime rib.

My trip to Philadelphia was a bit safer this time around. A media pass does more than get you unprecedented access to the park and the ballplayers; it guarantees your safety by seating you in the press box for the game. And to some extent the press box was the best part of the trip.

As a lifelong Mets fan, I've read the same beat writers and listened to the same reporters on the radio cover my team; sitting among them afforded me a rare opportunity. I've always wondered which of them were real fans, pained by losing a late-inning lead, as opposed to those for whom it's just a job. (I got my answer, but I'm not about to out anybody.)

In the contest for "place in which outsiders feel the most uncomfortable," the clubhouse runs away with the prize. It didn't take long to figure out that there's a game of chess that goes on between the reporters and ballplayers. Reporters don't want to interrupt a player's pregame preparations, so they wait for a moment in which the player seems free ... and then they approach.

I noticed that Ryan Howard was laughing in every conversation, cracking jokes, completely at ease. So when I saw an opening, I approached. But before I could finish asking if he had a second to talk, I got a death stare that made me glad I still remembered survival tips for a bear attack: Don't show the bear your back and slowly walk away backward. I don't know if that actually works for bears, but it will, in fact, save you from Ryan Howard."


THE END OF THE ZEN

By: David Zonshine, 30
Music executive, Los Angeles
Dispatched: NBA playoffs, Mavericks at Lakers, Game 2

"I WAS A FLY ON THE WALL in the Lakers' locker room at the last home game Phil Jackson will ever coach. I'm sorry, but I need to repeat that one more time: I was a fly on the wall ... IN THE LAKERS LOCKER ROOM ... at the last home game Phil Jackson will ever coach.

The Lakers are the only sports team that matters to me. I plan my days around their games, and my mood is severely affected by the outcome. The fact that I was granted press access to a playoff game was unreal to me. I researched and planned and went into the assignment with a host of well-considered questions. I was given a task. I was going to nail it. But the night turned out to be like winning the lottery and getting kicked in the nuts at the same time.

The access was incredible: I was in the locker room for pregame. I was in the locker room for postgame. I was on the floor during the shootaround. I don't see how a fan can get a better game experience than that without stealing Luke Walton's uniform and sneaking onto the bench with the team.

Unfortunately, what I saw was not pretty. Yes, I was a witness to history. But what I witnessed was Dallas ripping the heart out of the Lakers. This was only Game 2 of the series. It was not the final game of the season. But it might as well have been. The Lakers were 2-for-20 from the three-point line and 11-for-20 from the free throw line, and Ron Artest was ejected and suspended for a pointless flagrant foul with 24.4 seconds remaining in the game.

Standing at the locker room door, I watched as the defending NBA champions slumped off the court to a cacophony of boos from their home crowd. This was not the send-off that a historic coach who led the Lakers to five championships deserved. Jackson, the Zen Master, famed for meditating with his team and teaching his players to harness their minds to gain a competitive edge over their opponent, was ending his career with a dismantled squad.

After the game, team officials cleared the locker room, and we had to wait 15 minutes before reentering. "I think all 13 of our guys have trust issues right now," Andrew Bynum muttered, with his head hung low. That was the quote -- the one that signaled to the world that the Lakers had fallen apart. You probably saw it in the highlights or read it in the paper. But it happened right before my eyes. It might not have been a pretty ending, but I was there."


SMOOTH OPERATOR

By: Justice Gordon, 14
Sophomore, Culver City (Calif.) High School
Dispatched: Liberty at Sparks

"WHEN I WAS YOUNGER, Lisa Leslie signed my basketball, and I bounced it so much I wore away the autograph. So for me, the chance to interview Smooth (that's Lisa's nickname) and some of her former teammates during the 15th anniversary of the WNBA was a big deal -- not because I wanted a new autograph but because I want to play on the Sparks after college. I play on my high school team and hope to play at UConn or USC on my way to the WNBA. Still, on
this night I was a reporter, and I had work to do.

Other reporters were rushing around and waiting to interview the athletes, but I had Smooth's full attention.

The first thing she said was that she liked my orange nail polish. Pretty cool. I asked about her nickname. "Coach Michael Cooper -- he's really big into giving out nicknames -- started calling me that, I think because of the way I carried myself," she said. "I never really got too high or too low."

I interviewed six other players, but time was often cut short. No matter -- I had my time with Smooth. There was time, though, for Candace Parker to hit me on my shoulder, which still kind of hurts, and for me to fall off a chair while interviewing Kyle Massey. I'll be sure to toughen up once it's my turn on the court."


CHECKING SIDNEY CROSBY

By: Annie Cothran, 33
Quality Assurance Analyst, Pittsburgh
Dispatched: NHL playoffs, Lightning at Penguins, Game 2

"WHEN I SAT MYSELF DOWN in the press box, a nice guy named Jerry from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review sat next to me -- and then asked if I covered hockey, because he usually didn't and was hoping I could give him some tips. Boy, did he ask the wrong person. I just said I was really new, which wasn't a lie. I didn't tell him I'd never been in a press box in my life.

But the big surprise came when I turned to discover that Sidney Crosby was sitting a few yards away from me -- talking to the team through a headset. I had no idea some injured players watch games from the same place as the media.

The Pens played poorly, so I had to hold back cheers only for a brief rally in the second. The fans were nuts, though. You really notice how crazy a place gets when you're aware of
your own squeals. As we headed to the elevator for postgame press conferences, Jerry and I chatted about the Penguins' abysmal power play (0-for-7). Since the media were flooding in, I had to squeeze my way into the elevator. I turned around to apologize to the guy whose personal space I'd just invaded. "No big deal," he said.

It was Crosby. So yeah, kind of a big deal."


WHY CAN'T WE ALL JUST JUMP AROUND?

By: Shannon Van Gemert, 33
Commercial Real Estate finance, St. Paul, Minn.
Dispatched: NCAA Basketball Southeast Regional, Wisconsin vs. Butler, New Orleans

"PACK IT UP, pack it in, let me begin ... " Ah yes, the lyrics that make Badgers fans want to stand up and jump around! And so began Game 2 of the Southeast regional semifinals in New Orleans -- and my evening of struggling to maintain a guise of journalistic objectivity.

Now, as those who know me can well attest, I am not your standard "went to school at Madison and catch an occasional Badgers sporting event on TV" fan. I'm a football season-ticket holder who's been to three Rose Bowls, numerous bowl games and a Final Four. I met my husband at a bar after a Badgers football game against Michigan State. We paid tribute to Wisconsin wide receiver Lee Evans on our wedding program. A casual Badgers fan I am not.

So when I was given the opportunity to be a part of ESPN The Magazine's "Fan Army" and fly to New Orleans to watch the Badgers play in the Sweet 16 -- all while ensconced as a member of the media with my "all-access" pass -- well, that was a no-brainer. Bucky in the Big Easy? Sign me up!

Once I had my assignment, all I had to do was follow three simple rules: 1) dress professionally, 2) act professionally, and 3) no cheering in the press box. My husband and I flew down to New Orleans, and the night of the game I was escorted by a senior writer at The Mag to the press area of the arena -- the sports equivalent of a backstage pass. Once there,
I quickly realized a few things: I was glad I obeyed Rule No. 1 and left my Bucky shirt at the hotel.

I could count on one hand the number of female members of the press. And the jaded journalists of the media underworld behave as though they're heading to work for the day -- which,
of course, they are.

We made our way to our seats -- which just happened to be in the second row on the floor -- where directly in front of me were Reggie, Len and Gus about to start the live broadcast of the game. I whipped out my phone and snapped a picture to send to my friends. (Subject line: "Are you kidding me?") In the spirit of Rule No. 2, I shelved the idea of jumping up from my seat and making a cameo appearance on TBS and quietly sat in my chair as I watched Florida and BYU warm up.

After the opening tip, it was soon apparent that following Rule No. 3 wasn't going to be easy. Even though this was a mere appetizer to the Wisconsin-Butler game, I still had to fight the urge to throw my hands in the air when, for the first 13 minutes of the game, Jimmer Fredette failed to make a basket. (Full disclosure: I had BYU making it to the Elite Eight in all of my brackets.) Still, press row was a funeral. And as the Wisconsin players warmed up for the second game, it dawned on me that while I undoubtedly had one of the best seats in the house, this was not going to be the viewing experience I was used to. Many of the Badgers faithful had spent their pregame warmup in a local drinking establishment -- including my husband, who was sitting in the upper deck, off in the corner, frantically waving his arms in the
air trying to get my attention. Just six hours earlier, we'd been strolling down Bourbon Street in our Bucky tees, sipping $10 daiquiris and high-fiving every Badgers fan we came across -- including Jordan Taylor's family. Now I was wearing "business professional" attire, pretending to be impartial about the outcome of the game and, worst of all, 100 percent sober.

And then it happened: "Daaaa -- da, da, daaaaaa." House of Pain was in the house, Badgers nation went nuts and all I could do was sit stoically and smile as a frothy sea of red and white got up and jumped around! Unfortunately, our players were not nearly as energized. The team looked flat. They couldn't buy a shot. They committed more turnovers in the first half than their season average for an entire game.

I was more than relieved when the buzzer finally ended the first half (Butler 33, Badgers 24) and I could head backstage to check things out.

I chatted with a few writers whom I had met earlier in the evening and then happened to notice former Badgers football coach Barry Alvarez hanging out by the food table, eating potato chips by himself. This was my chance. I sauntered over, introduced myself and mentioned that I used to swim for the University of Wisconsin, and Barry and I were off to the conversational races. We ended up chatting the rest of halftime and even walked back to our seats together.

"Let's hope we have something to root for in the second half," he chuckled.

We didn't. The second half started out just like the first, and the game was soon ruling my emotions. It was going on 11:00, I was tired, my husband had already left the stands to drown his sorrows on Bourbon Street -- and I was stuck watching the Badgers fall 20 points down in a press section with all the intensity of an insurance seminar.

And then Jordan Taylor came to life. Basket by basket, Bucky began chipping away at Butler's lead. The Wisconsin fans were on their feet, and suddenly the restriction on cheering that had been easy to adhere to for the first 35 minutes of the game became my worst enemy. With a minute and a half left, the lead was down to four. This was it. I was going to witness one of the greatest Wisconsin comebacks in history; my team was about to reach the Elite Eight. My heart was pounding, and I covered my mouth with my hands, hoping to conceal the excitement I was feeling.

In the end, Bucky's comeback started about a minute too late -- Wisconsin lost 61-54. But the thrill of the last few minutes blocked my disappointment that the season -- and my Cinderella moment as a member of the sports media -- had come to an abrupt end. There would be no celebrating with the team on the floor, no picture with the cheerleaders holding up our index fingers, no upbeat postgame interviews in the team locker room. What was I going to write about now?

I used my credentials to sneak a peek inside the Butler locker room after the game. The Butler players were, as one would expect, happy and more than willing to talk to the press. When the door opened to the Wisconsin locker room, I walked into a much different scene.

I knew the players would be upset, but I was not prepared for the sorrow and disappointment I witnessed. After all, these are grown men, right? Wrong. Actual tears were flowing. It was a stark reminder that these are just kids playing a game they love -- and regardless of whether they would play for Wisconsin next year, move on to the pros or never play elite basketball again, this was the last time that they would all play together.

I hurried to the press conference to hear coach Bo Ryan, Jordan Taylor, Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil. Sports fan or not, interviewing the losing team is not a fun way to end your night. I waited in the corridor as they addressed the media. I had been given this opportunity to represent Badgers fans, and knew I should take advantage of my backstage freedom. But as the guys emerged with their shoulders slouched and towels draped over their heads, even I knew this was not the time to request a photo or strike up a conversation. So I did what I thought was the respectful thing to do: I reached out to each of them and said, "Great season."
As I stood outside the arena at 12:30 a.m. waiting for the hotel shuttle, I tried to collect my thoughts.

I had learned that 18-to-22-year-olds suffer their defeats just like the fans do. I'd learned that being a member of the sports media is exhausting. And most of all, I'd learned that true fans belong in the stands. While I'm beyond grateful for the opportunity I was given, I would much rather watch a Badgers game drowning in a sea of red, displaying my love for Bucky and having the freedom to get out of my seat and jump around."


REAL FAKIES

By: Chris Lee, 23
Website Developer, Monroe Township, N.J.
Dispatched: The Maloof Money Cup, Queens, N.Y.

"YOU KNOW THE OLD SAYING, "It's better in real life"? Well, after two days of watching seasoned skate pros like Lance Mountain, Geoff Rowley and Andrew Reynolds compete at the Maloof Money Cup, I can attest: It actually is.

Growing up, I watched skate videos every day after school and practiced fakie half-cab flips at the local skatepark. So getting to see the world's best behind the scenes was, for me, a total trip. Not surprisingly, when I got the chance to interview Rowley, one of my all-time favorites, I dropped the whole journalist shtick and brought out the fan in me.

Rowley's a 100 percent hard-core street skater, so I took the chance to tell him how much I respect him for bucking the corporations and sticking to his roots. (Howard Cosell I'm not.)
But when I saw that Mark Sanchez was there, I couldn't imagine that the Jets QB had nothing better to do than hang out at a skateboard competition. I walked over to him. 'What are you doing here?" I asked, and peppered him with skate questions. But he was shockingly cool. He grew up on a board; the dude really knows his skateboarding. Turns out he's a real fan. Kind of like me, I guess.'"


WILD CARD

By: Chris Bozzolo, 32
Electronic Trader, New York
Dispatched: UFC 129, Toronto

"I AM AN MMA JUNKIE. Aside from Dana White and maybe a handful of fighters, I doubt many people have been to as many MMA events -- 16 UFC bouts and about 10 smaller shows -- as I have.

So when The Mag asked me if I'd be interested in covering Georges St-Pierre vs. Jake Shields, the biggest UFC event ever, there was no doubt. As many fights as I'd seen, I'd never witnessed one up close like media members do.

Taking full advantage of the credential, I entered the Rogers Centre three hours before the opening bout and took in the massive scale of the production. To accommodate the 55,000 who'd be showing up later (four times the size of a big Vegas event), the UFC had set up enormous HD screens -- as much as 80 feet wide -- all over the arena. I wouldn't need them; I was seated in the heart of the action. I got my closest look ever at veteran fighters like Joe Lauzon, Clay Guida and Sean Sherk as they made their way to their seats. To a man, they were remarkably accessible to their fans. Sherk even ran back to take a picture with a young boy he missed on the way to his seat. I've always said that MMA fighters are the most down-to-earth guys in sports. They proved me right on this night.

When MMA legend Randy Couture came in for what ended up being his final fight, the arena exploded. Even when he was unceremoniously crane-kicked into retirement by Lyoto Machida,
the fans chanted "Randy! Randy!" as he left the Octagon. I was fortunate enough to be seated
right next to the aisle outside the cage as he walked off into the proverbial sunset. I'll never forget how amazing it felt to witness that moment right in front of me.

Finally, it was time for the main event, and St-Pierre, the welterweight champ, entered to an overwhelming ovation. When I looked out into the arena, I was awed by how many of his fans were donning GSP's patented Japanese headband. (I had to keep reminding myself I was in Toronto, not Osaka.) As for the bout, St-Pierre slid past challenger Shields in a decision-win that didn't quite live up to the hype.

Still, overall, the night certainly did. UFC 129 was the greatest card, from top to bottom, I've ever seen. And that is saying a lot."