Kodak Theater moments at the ESPYs
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

Page 2's "Critical Mass" is a weekly survey of what's happening at the busy intersection of sports and pop culture. Last week, that collision happened in Hollywood at the ESPYs:

Tuesday, July 9
Bunnies, Playmates
ESPY duty calls a reporter to the Playboy Mansion.

  • Hazy Los Angeles morning, the kind where the sky is the color of dirty socks, the kind that makes people outside of L.A. cringe and makes the locals feel at home. I should have gotten more sleep for this gig. I should have taken a pass on the sorry little bag of dried fruit on the plane. And I should never have chosen the Mitsubishi Lancer at the rental car joint ... struggling to keep up on Sunset Boulevard, knowing that my put-put car is the goofy, "you're-not-from-around-here" equivalent of black socks, madras shorts, a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and a camera around my neck. So much for blending in with the beautiful people.

  • Kodak Theater complex, The Highland Center. Swank, high-end shops and the cleanest food court you've ever seen in your life. The Burger King is cool and quiet, not a yammering, pimply faced customer service representative or a smushed ketchup pack in sight. Place almost seems healthy. Lose my appetite.

    Out back, behind the BK and down the stairs, to the credential trailer. They've got two laptops and two digital cameras and two cheerful women cranking out badges. Some guy from E! isn't on the list and they won't let him in to interview David Spade. Then his phone rings -- Rod Steiger died. The E! guy and his crew are out the door.

    I'm thinking four things at once: 1. Rod Steiger was a bad mother. 2. Wonder how many people who will be at the ESPYs tomorrow night know who Rod Steiger is? 3. The E! guy does this kind of thing all the time; I'm all jacked-up to see the show, meet some celebs, do the red carpet thing, but to him this is just another gig. 4. 48 hours from now, there'll be no trace of the trailer, the laptops, the cameras or the two cheerful women. There'll just be some guy in black socks and madras shorts munching on an unusually grease-free Whopper, staring blankly out over an empty delivery dock.

  • Staying at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. They're refurbishing it, but it's still got an old Hollywood feel about it -- Spanish tile floor in the lobby, rooms wrapped tightly around the pool. It's small, and parts of it feel worn-out, but you look out at women sunbathing on the pool deck and it isn't hard to imagine a time when the place was glamorous and exclusive. Then two kids with Super Soakers run across the deck and jump in the water and, just like that, you might as well be at a Super 8 in Kearney, Neb.

  • Waiting for the bus to the Playboy Mansion, Mondrian Hotel, 4 p.m. (Words I never expected to write: "Waiting for the bus to the Playboy Mansion, Mondrian Hotel, 4 p.m.")

    High on the list of jobs I don't want: talent coordinator. You're never, ever relaxed. Someone really famous and important always wants you to do something more or something different. Things do not go according to plan. You're on three cell phones and a walkie-talkie, simultaneously. Young punk reporters like me are in your ear, wondering when they'll get 10 minutes with Tom Brady. And maybe worst of all, there's nothing but a thin velvet rope between you and dozens of genuinely creepy starhounds clamoring for autographs, including that one guy in a Yankees jersey you swear was here this morning, eight hours ago, in that same exact spot, with that same faraway look in his eyes ... and you start to wonder, has he eaten? When was the last time he bathed? Has he shifted his weight from one foot to the other? Has he blinked? Is it possible that he lives in anything other than a dingy, one-bedroom apartment with a "King of Comedy" poster on the wall?

    Kobe and Vanessa Bryant
    At least Kobe Bryant was a gentleman and introduced his wife, Vanessa.

  • At the Playboy Mansion. (Words I never expected to write: "At the Playboy Mansion.") Walk through the gate and order what is easily the most righteous, suited-to-the-occasion gin and tonic of my life.

    First interview is with Hef himself. He and eight of his "girls" are joined at the hip, they move around the grounds like a can-can line. He smiles and answers my questions, but it's Tuesday Night Fight night at the mansion and his eyes are on the ring. It's hard to say what the girls are looking at. They all have big, bright smiles on their faces. On the one hand, I imagine little thought bubbles that float over their heads saying things like, "This is fun," "I love Hef," "Is my hair all right?" and "That boxer is cute." And on the other hand, I figure they're thinking something more along the lines of, "I can't wait to get out of this tight tank top and into something comfortable," "Take a good look boys, because this gig is just a stepping stone for me. Some day I will be absolutely untouchable," and "Men are so simple, just flash a little T-and-A, and you can make them do anything you want."

    Talk to Eddie George and Marshall Faulk by the pool. (Someone should be in the pool, by the way, for my Mansion fantasy to be complete, but instead there's just a big beach ball spinning beneath the waterfall.) I'm asking light, one-off questions about who the sexiest and coolest athletes in the world are. Eddie takes his time with each one, like I'd asked him to choose the menu for his last meal or something. At first I think he's toying with me, but then I think he's just drawing out the moment, basking in the idea that on this day the hardest thing he has to do is run through his mental catalogue of hot athletes and celebrities while kicking it at the Playboy Mansion. He struggles to decide whether Jennifer Lopez or Halle Berry is sexier and eventually decides, in this best of all possible worlds known as Hef's house, that he'll award a dual crown, give them both some love.

    Watch part of the Alex Trujillo-Luis Valenzuela fight with Ving Rhames. (That sentence has so many levels of goosebump cool in it, I'm just going to let it stand.)

    At one moment, I have to choose between interviewing Jimmy Connors and Bruce Jenner. I choose Sugar Ray Leonard.

    Jennifer Capriati
    Jennifer Capriati is relieved that a reporter's tape recorder was working.
    Upset of the day: the food is pretty bad. Chips and melted cheese, very tired looking burgers and greasy popcorn. No one cares, even a little.

    Wide-eyed innocent boy revelation of the day: Boxing in person is nothing like boxing on TV. Leather on skin makes a scary, purposeful thud. Sweat explodes off the face. You can see the ring floor sag and bounce as the fighters move. Both fighters breathe like machines at the start and one of them, Valenzuela, breathes like an emphysemic octagenerian at the end.

    Other sporting events have a temporary, disposable feel about them: in most cases, whatever happens is really only relevant as it's happening, but with boxing, you know that the damage being inflicted is lasting, that the guys will carry it out of the ring with them and into the rest of their lives in the most basic, tangible ways. For that reason, boxing is easily the most disturbing sport I've ever seen live, and for that same reason, it's easily the most captivating. Rhames says it's about spirit and soul, and a half-dozen other clichéd sports ideas, and I believe him.

    The term "rubber-necking" may well have been invented at the Playboy Mansion. Guys' heads are on swivels as Bunnies in bikinis walk by. There are two distinct degrees of interest. The first, in which the guy merely appreciates a beautiful woman, involves a head turn without a break in thought or conversation; it's a subtle thing, barely noticeable. The second, in which the man imagines leaving his wife and quitting his job to run away to a tropical island with a beautiful woman, involves a complete conversation breakdown, a disbelieving shake of the head and an "uh-uh-uh."

    Candid conversation with former U.S. soccer player Erik Wynalda. He tells me soccer should stay small in the States, that it's not ready to go big-time, and that money would only ruin the sport. Like former teammate Cobi Jones, he also blames former head coach Steve Sampson for the United States' pathetic showing in the 1998 World Cup: "We played not to lose when we should have been playing to win."

    One of the Playmates is walking around with a pug dog on a leash. Little guy looks smug. I halfway expect him to talk, or to pinch some girl's butt.

    Buses are loading for the ride back to the hotel. I sneak a peek in the grotto, where a blonde in a half-shirt is telling a very eager young geek with a camcorder about her lost luggage and how this wasn't the outfit she was supposed to wear. He's giving her the that-must-have-been-so-hard-for-you, do-you-think-there's-a-chance-you-and-I-could-hook-up-later earnest eyes and she's staring right through him saying, "It's so hot in here." Felt like I'd stumbled onto a "film" set. Back out of the grotto, dodging peacocks and sneaking by Willie McGinest, looking to get in line for a bus. For reasons that aren't clear, I get hurried, along with several colleagues from ESPN Radio, into a stretch limo. As we're pulling out, I see Fran Drescher and Adam Vinatieri, and a bunch of others who people have at least heard of, still waiting for a ride. Soundtrack in my head: Ice Cube, "Today Was a Good Day."

    Lisa Beamer
    Relatives of Flight 93 heroes, from left, Alice Hoglan, Lyz Glick, Deena Burnett and Lisa Beamer brought some reality to the evening.

  • ESPY Collection party, Mondrian Hotel, 8 p.m. I didn't make the party. I was writing up my afternoon at the Playboy Mansion instead.

    Highlights of my night:

    Gary Payton, dressed in an orange velour sweat suit and orange, patent-leather high tops at the food table in the lounge at the same time I was. He is too cool to approach. I am too flummoxed to eat.

    Working on my friend Ted's laptop, typing up the Playboy experience, looking out over the L.A. skyline while flashbulbs from the party on the floor below light up the night.

    Watching the All-Star Game alone, knowing that trouble is brewing and laughing out loud when Bud Selig calls Bob Brenly and Joe Torre over to his box.

    Answering the question "who won the All-Star Game?" when friends and co-workers make their way back in after the party.

    Calling my wife and daughter to say goodnight.

    My friend Daniel coming in from a late-night run to In 'n' Out, with burgers and fries for everyone. Finally, I eat.


    Wednesday, July 10

  • Lunch with my buddy Matt at Micelli's, an old Italian spot off Hollywood Boulevard. It's hot, we're busy talking, the menu and all its choices leaves us dizzy. The waitress, a sweet woman in her 60s maybe, says, "you need two Caesar salads, then you decide." She's right. We leave lunch and somehow get to talking about Orange Juliuses. Matt spins a long, fairly complicated thesis about how it's maybe the most perfect drink of all time. I can't argue. Right this second, in this heat, it feels like an empirical truth. We amble back to the Highland Center, thirsty, and settle for a smoothie in the ultra-clean food court.

  • Backstage Elevator, Kodak Theater, 4 p.m. Page 2 editor Kevin Jackson and I are greeted by a short, strong young guy in a suit. He's wearing a button on his lapel that I don't recognize. "What's the button for?" I ask innocently. "It means I can kick your butt," he says. I spend the rest of the ride to the fifth floor assuring him that won't be necessary.

    Samuel L. Jackson
    Samuel L. Jackson plays it cool as usual.

  • Red Carpet, Kodak Theater, 4:30 p.m. It's biblical hot now. Tuxes are rotting from the inside out. Chris Connelly's face is seven shades of red. Joan Rivers has a team of agile men and women patting her brow.

    First star sighting: I'm standing next to Ken Howard from the "White Shadow." I'm done. I can go home right now. I'm standing next to coach Reeves. Check please.

    Everything's moving fast. I'm talking to Curt Schilling who, by the way, is one of only three stars on the night (the other two are Kobe Bryant and Wayne Gretzky) to take time out to introduce his wife. Two minutes later, I'm looking up at Paul Pierce, then at Lisa Leslie and then, maybe three minutes later, trying to chase down Serena Williams. Is a star still a star if you never really see them? Are these conversations really taking place if I have to forget them and move on to the next one so quickly?

    Williams, by the way, has the most oh-my-god-I-had-no-idea body of the night. I grant her this title, even though I'm still stung by the fact that she doesn't stop to talk to us.

    I shake Muhammad Ali's hand, at the same moment that Kevin is talking to his hero, Gary Payton. Payton's in a pinstriped leather suit, Kevin is in heaven, and Ali is in a class by himself. What I said earlier, about being ready to go home after Ken Howard? Forget it.

    Bootsy Collins hugs me. I can't remember how or why this happens. I don't care. Bootsy Collins hugs me. Can I put this on my résumé? Will people sense it when they meet me days, weeks and months later? Is the funk a transferable thing? What if I were to pick up a bass right now? Could I suddenly play?

    Interviewing Carl Lewis, asking him what one thing he'd do over again if he had the chance. He has to say the national anthem, right? No. He's clearly blocked it out. He goes with some new-agey thing about how all of his experiences have helped make him who he is or some such crap. I should hum a few bars, but I don't.

    Young women with headphones on all over the carpet. They bring stars to the various media posts for quick interviews. We bribe them, we butter them up, we write poems about them and do dances for their pleasure in order to get the right star corralled our way.

    You know how some people look amazing on television or in the movies and then you happen to see them in person and you're disappointed because they seem smaller, they're complexion is blotchy, they look tired? Henry Simmons, the guy who plays Baldwin on "NYPD Blue" is not one of those people. He looks perfect, carved in stone. I want to die and come back as Henry Simmons.

    Cal Ripken, Jr. is busy talking to CNN. Your intrepid reporter has a lovely conversation with his wife.

    Dennis Quaid looks bored. He won't talk to us.

    Shannon Elizabeth
    Shannon Elizabeth brushes off the snub of being called "Sharon."
    I finish up with David Spade and all of a sudden I'm hit with a bout of paranoia about whether any of my conversations have been recorded well enough to hear. I'm crouching down at the edge of the carpet, trying to listen to a little playback. I hear Spade on the tape calling Schilling a "good ol' boy," breathe a sigh of relief and stand up, nose-to-nose with Jennifer Capriati.

    "Uh, sorry, I was checking my tape...." I feel like an idiot. She doesn't even notice me. That's one of the amazing things about this kind of event, the stars all seem to pick a point on the horizon and lock onto it. They don't make eye contact with anyone until one of the women with the headsets brings them over to someone and introduces them. Then their eyes shift down and lock on for the two or three minutes worth of interview that they're doing, and then shift back up to nothing. It's like watching them come in and out of some self-induced coma.

    It's kind of creepy. You start to think that they've had to adopt this kind of safe distance because of you and your microphone. You begin to realize that, as close as you are, you're nowhere near the real person you're talking to.

    Then you think this -- this guy with a mic and five goofy questions -- isn't the real you either, and you want to somehow bridge the gap, tell them that you know they're being cautious, explain to them that they don't have to be cautious with you, that you're different, if only they'd give you a chance, and then it hits you ... these are stalker thoughts and suddenly your dumb questions and their stock answers feel way better than the alternative and you ask them quickly, thank them for their time, and move on.

    I walk in to the theater lobby with Joe and Marvis Frazier. Joe shakes the hand of every door monitor, security guard and concessions worker. Nice to see. (I wrote about it in the ESPY package last week.)

  • Backstage, Kodak Theater, showtime. Backstage isn't exactly right. We're five floors up in a building attached to the theater, watching the show on closed-circuit television, waiting for celebs to make their way to us after their time on stage.

    The show is anti-climactic, except for the Samuel L. Jackson sports movie skits, which are great, the 9/11 film and the montage memorializing sports folks who died this year. Those always get me. I forget who we've lost -- Harvey Martin, Willie Stargell -- and pictures of them with swelling music in the background make me choke up every time. Maybe I'm strange, maybe I'm a child of the media age, but memorial montages are more emotional for me than the in-the-moment news of someone dying ever is. Same story with great moments montages -- I get excited all over again. Each clip is like a great nostalgic jolt, cranking me up higher.

    The family members who lost husbands and sons in the 9/11 attacks in Pennsylvania come back. There's a strange disconnect between them and what they've been through and the rest of the ESPYs event. It's great and amazing that they're here, but it's hard to know how to place them in all that's going on. You see reporters and photographers who've otherwise been ruthless in going after good quotes and good shots give them room and show them respect.

    Brooke Shields
    Now we'll never know if Brooke Shields has met Jaden Agassi.
    Shannon Elizabeth stands on a makeshift stage in front of a sea of photographers. They shout her name to get her to turn one way or the other. She's patient, bemused, and stunning in a blue dress. One poor mug in the front row didn't get the memo: he keeps calling her "Sharon." She laughs and throws him a bone, turning his way to show off her new, big-as-a-boulder diamond wedding ring.

    Dennis Franz is cool. He treats me like a person. Sam Jackson is incredibly cool. He grants me extra questions and puts his arm around me. Dennis Quaid still looks unhappy and still won't give me time. Brooke Shields is standing by her husband and all I can think to ask is, "Have you met Andre Agassi's new baby?" I decide not to go with that and she walks on by.

    Kevin talks to John Madden about boxing and about how cool Madden thought it was to be on the red carpet tonight right behind Ali. By this time in the night, that kind of scene looks perfectly normal to me.

    The food is good. Much better than at the Playboy Mansion. Fresh fruit, cookies, three kinds of salad.

    I work most of the night with a very kind, very capable talent wrangler named Alegra. She hooks me up with time with almost everybody I ask for and knocks herself out trying to line up some that don't come off. Thanks, Alegra.

    Highlight of the night ... maybe the best, strangest, most heady star-worshipping moment of my life so far: I speak to Wayne Gretzky, Kobe Bryant and Snoop Dogg within a 10-minute span.

    Gretzky has so much smooth coursing through his veins, it's scary. He leans in like what you're asking him actually matters, speaks lovingly of his wife and kids, and off-handedly comes up with the most interesting answers of the night to our sexiest/coolest questions.

    Kobe is gracious. Add that to the list of things you already know about him.

    Wayne Gretzky, Janet Jones
    Oozing with class, Wayne Gretzky shares an ESPY moment with wife, Janet Jones.
    Snoop, just minutes after doing "We Want the Funk" with Bootsy, is hawking the room for autographs for his kids. I ask him what his career highlight is, so far. He talks about working with his funk and R&B elders, about collaborating. In both moments, he makes it about someone else, takes himself out of the spotlight.

  • ESPY postgame, Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, 1 a.m. I need doughnuts. I need sleep. The question is, which do I need more. I'm sitting, barely upright on the bed in my room. Kevin, the hardest-working editor in show business, is typing in interviews and sending off pieces to the folks back in Bristol (the phone line in his room is down), laughing at my doughnut plight all the while. I remember a sign on a door down the hall: "Ice Vending."

    I'm tired, delirious ... I convince myself that this must mean the door behind the sign opens onto an ice machine and a vending machine, a vending machine that will surely have doughnuts or some reasonable facsimile thereof. I hustle down the hall, swing the door open and see ... an ice machine, just an ice machine. I still need doughnuts, but now I know I need sleep more.

    Kevin finishes and heads off to his room. Bleary-eyed congratulations on a job well done all around. I fall on the bed, looking forward to dreaming about sorry little bags of dried fruit on the plane ride home.

    Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column, which will appear every Wednesday on Page 2. You can e-mail him at eneel@cox.net.



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