|Running with the Matadors|
By Kieran Darcy
CHICAGO -- Sometimes, late at night, when I lay down and close my eyes, Charles Smith comes back to haunt me. It's Game 5 of the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals, and Smith lay-up after Smith lay-up goes awry. I want to cry. It's one of the most painful sporting events in my 25 years of life.
I grew up a diehard Knicks fan. My poster of 'The Dunk,' John Starks slamming the ball home left-handed over Michael Jordan and Horace Grant, was the centerpiece of my college dorm room. I cheered for Derek Harper when he brawled with JoJo English. I cursed MJ when he dropped a double-nickel at the Garden in the fifth game of his comeback. And I still can't stand Phil Jackson, though he's a former Knick himself.
So when my editor suggested I fly to Chicago to try out to be a Bulls Super Fan, I almost lost my lunch.
A decade ago, the Bulls didn't need to resort to this. They had the best player on the planet. They had an on-the-court product that was enough to entertain sellout crowds night after night. And they were putting up championship banners every year.
Oh, how things have changed -- for both the Bulls and my beloved Knicks. The rivalry may no longer be as fierce now, 10 years after Charles Smith botched those lay-ups. But I figured I could still exact some revenge.
The Bulls are spicing things up. Thursday night, they were holding tryouts at the United Center for a new "male performance team" -- 12-to-15 guys over the age of 21 who will sing and dance at select home games this coming season. The advertisement announcing the tryouts said, "The ideal candidate for the to-be-named team is a man who enjoys being the life of the party, proudly displays a wacky sense of humor and rarely, if ever, visits the health club. If you've ever owned the nickname 'Tiny,' 'Moose,' 'Tubby,' 'Lumpy,' or 'Bubba,' this team is for you. If you show your fan loyalty by painting your face and/or chest, using your shirt as a makeshift rally towel, shaving a logo into your head or starting lively chants in the stands, you are the perfect man for the job."
That's not me at all.
But then I read the actual application, which opens by saying: "Have you always dreamed of being on the court during a Bulls game? Do people laugh at you even when you're not trying to be funny? Are health clubs and gyms foreign to you? Are you willing to withstand a little humiliation to support your favorite team? If you answered 'yes' to any of the above questions, the Chicago Bulls want to meet you!"
"Hmmm …" I thought to myself. "I've dreamed of being on the court during a Bulls game … and beating them as a member of the Knicks. I'm clumsy enough that people laugh at me sometimes when I'm not trying to be funny. I do go to the gym a lot, though."
But the last question clinched it for me.
After all, what could be more humiliating than trying out to be a Bulls Super Fan … as a Knicks fan?
The tryouts were scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. I left my hotel at 5; and as I was looking for a taxi I walked by another hotel down the street. The Knickerbocker Hotel. Then, on the way to the United Center, we drove by Oakley Boulevard. I took these to be good omens.
When I arrived at the United Center at 5:30, half-a-dozen fellow contestants had already gathered outside around the statue of Michael Jordan. Most wore several articles of Bulls paraphernalia. I had donned a black fleece jacket and black track pants -- which were smothering in the 80-degree heat. But I wanted to conceal something underneath, for the time being.
Then some Bulls staffers led us up two flights of stairs to a long rectangular sitting room to relax for a few minutes. Several guys immediately bumrushed the water and soft drinks that were set up on the far end. One even exclaimed, "Where's the oxygen tank?"
I figured I'd take this time to size up my competition, get to know them a bit. First, there was Jason Yurechko, also known as 'Hoss,' a rather stocky guy from Northwest Indiana. He wore Bulls horns and a red clown's wig on his head; a black Michael Jordan jersey with his good-luck B.J. Armstrong uni underneath; black and red swirled pants; and black Chuck Taylors. I asked him what his strategy was for the competition. He replied, "I'm gonna get loud and sweaty and real obnoxious. Maybe even show some ass crack, if that's what it takes."
I also talked to Brian J. Athern, who stood out from the bunch because of his lack of Bulls attire. Instead, he chose to dress as Matt Foley, the motivational speaker character that Chris Farley made famous on "Saturday Night Live." He was clad in a green plaid jacket, matching tie, a fully-stocked pocket protector and thick black "Revenge of the Nerds" glasses. He told me he'd been doing the character since Farley died, and even appeared as such in a local car dealership commercial.
I pegged Cory Paige as an early favorite to make the squad. Paige stole the spotlight when he walked in late, wearing a large black wig and a red Michael Jordan jersey so small it served simply as a bra. His protruding belly hung well over his tight white shorts, and his entire body was black on his right side and painted red on his left. When asked why he chose the outfit, Paige said, "I just felt fat and fresh today. Lotta big people here. Gotta be bigger, quicker, and more sexy."
We were all assigned numbers between 1 and 50 (Yours Truly was No. 38), and were soon shuttled next door to a larger room just off the actual United Center arena. There, Kim Tyler, the choreographer for the Bulls cheerleaders, began teaching us the first of two routines we would need to perform during our audition. It was a sequence from the Village People classic, "YMCA." We went over it about a dozen times, shaking our butts from side to side and sashaying our hips back and forth, repeatedly. Several of the guys shouted requests to have a defibrillator handy.
The second number was to be performed to the song "Maniac," from the movie "Flashdance." This one involved a little more freestyle action. I knew I was overmatched early on. I didn't fit their physical prototype. But beyond that, I just couldn't pick up the moves quickly enough.
We got a short break after "learning" the routines. Then we were called back, eight at a time, for a brief interview session. At this point, I finally peeled off my warm-ups -- revealing my blue Knicks T-shirt and matching Knicks uniform shorts. I fancied myself Clark Kent becoming Superman. But I immediately heard a few boos and puzzled remarks from the other seven in my group. "What the hell is this?" one cried. Another yelled, "Hey, he's a Knicks fan, get him outta here!"
Then they peppered us with random questions. Some were asked to do a celebrity impression. The choices were varied -- people imitated everyone from Marlon Brando to Fred Flinstone. Our group even had an actual Elvis impersonator, wearing an Oakland Raiders jersey and a Detroit Tigers hat --he looked even more out of place than I did. I wondered if the Bulls staff would even bother quizzing me. Next thing I knew, I was put on the spot -- a celebrity impression. I racked my brain frantically for a few seconds, then whipped out a decent take on Christopher Walken. It actually elicted big giggles from the judges. I began to allow myself to believe I might have a chance to make this team after all.
To conclude the interview session, we were instructed to touch our toes on the count of three. I confidently snapped down and smacked my sneakers. Then I looked around at all the others, hands dangling around their knees, and realized I might have blown my only chance.
Following our interview, everyone returned to the room to audition their dance moves. When everyone else saw me in my Knick attire, I received a few more comments and quizzical looks. But they weren't nearly as harsh as I thought they would be. And gradually, I began to notice how much camaraderie had developed among all these guys. They were all competing extremely hard against each other; yet when each group of 10 finished a routine and returned to the back of the line, people were slapping each other five and rooting everyone else on. I even got a few high fives, though my dancing certainly hadn't improved much.
The goodwill continued when we were sent back to the waiting room while the staff deliberated. The whole group huddled up, though struggling for air and sweating through their shirts. I overheard one guy say, "Even my ass has a cramp." The group decided to form two lines with a space down the middle, so that those who were selected could run down the line and be congratulated.
But it wasn't over yet. When the staff returned several minutes later, they announced they'd have to make another round of cuts after one final audition. They read out the numbers of the 20 or so that made the final audition. I saw the crestfallen face of Matt Foley when his number was passed by. Then I listened closely, hoping No. 38 would be announced. Had I scored high enough in my interview to make up for my lack of rhythm and coordination?
Alas, No. 38 was never called.
After the final audition, the guys again retreated to the waiting room, to sit on pins and needles. Actually, they all pretty much collapsed, huffing and puffing, into their seats.
The staff returned, first thanking everyone for coming out and urging those who were cut to try again next year. Then Ms. Tyler read out the lucky numbers, and the group cheered as one by one the team was announced. In the end, the Fab 14, including 'Hoss' and Cory Paige, united in the middle of the room, hugs all around.
And the group was told its new name -- the Matadors had been born.
After that, it was down to business. The Matadors will rehearse one night every week. They'll perform at at least six games, beginning in November, and maybe more depending on how popular they become. Plus, five or six will be selected to fly to Los Angeles and appear on Sharon Osbourne's new talk show.
I couldn't leave without finding out where I went wrong. So I went over and asked Ms. Tyler what I need to improve on. "Your personality has to show a lot more," she said. "I like your dry sense of humor, but you need to get more energetic. You need to get a lot more wild."
Scary how someone could read me so well from two hours of dancing to "YMCA" and "Maniac."
I guess I'll just go home and keep working on my moves. Who knows what might happen? New York fans need more entertainment at the Garden than the Knicks provide these days.
Those of us who were cut were offered some lovely parting gifts, including a Bulls hat and yearbook. I politely declined, due to my allegiances. But I must say, I couldn't have met a better bunch of enemy fans.
I'll have much fonder memories of them than of Charles Smith.
Kieran Darcy is an ESPN.com stalwart who weighs substantially less than 300 pounds. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.