The following article was written by a professional stunt journalist. Duplicating any of the silliness mentioned in whole or in part of this article should be considered highly dangerous, and is strongly and litigiously discouraged.
When I heard the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Women's Final Four basketball tournament, "Arch Madness" was coming to my home town of St. Louis, Mo., I felt the need to infiltrate it, and do a first class Hunter S. Thompsonesque hatchet job on the whole charade. March Madness for Chicks? I don't think so! If somebody didn't stand up, or in my case, go undercover and stop this clear and present threat to good sports on T.V., we'd be left with more and more saboteurs vying for the beer-belly market share, like figure skating, gymnastics, and Championship Ballroom Dancing, ugh.
Knowing full well that my writing talent would not land me a gig with any pub with a circulation large enough to pass muster with the NCAA's ultra-stringent credential requirements, I knew I'd have to play school-yard rules...keep bugging Moxie Editor, Emily Hancock to give me the assignment, and hope the NCAA PR chick wasn't an avid reader. I mean telling the truth about love, sex, dildos, lesbians and dommes is admirable in my book...downright necessary when you consider the hack literary has-beens and never-will-bes, who make their living scamming sex addicts in the pages of Penthouse, Playboy, and Hustler.
When my plan worked, I found myself taking the three-block walk from my downtown high-rise to the Marriott, and claiming my placard for the NCAA Women's Final Four basketball tournament in St. Louis, Mo.
Stuffing a transportation pass and a fabricated press I.D. into a plastic sleeve, I put a camera in one hand, held a cell phone up to my ear with the other, rudely bumped my way past the courtside gatekeeper, and moved recklessly toward the press tables where I was bounced from one spot to another by the journalistic elite, finally settling on a decent seat in the second row where I quickly stopped the polite bludgeoning I was taking by jumping up on my chair, pulling out my antique, fully-manual Canon TX, and firing shot after shot of an empty practice session court.
Once in my chair, things went smoothly, as I first scanned the crowd with my telephoto looking for knockout blondes without boyfriends; then took my best shot at the fat-calfed chicks from Purdue and Southwest Missouri State thumping up and down the court in their hightops and baggy pants, actually hoping anything resembling a cat fight would break out. There were a couple of wicked hatchet jobs, which broke up a fast break or two, but it was evident that the breast-wrenching, tit-biting scenes I dreamed about back at the hotel, were never going to make it out of the pages of Swank and into the NCAA, at least not until Vince McMahon buys his way onto the executive board.
At the end of the first game, without really thinking about it too much, I joined ranks with the mainstream press and began walking swift and shit-faced between the maze of media tables, through the blue curtain and down the tunnel toward the locker rooms.
As I worked my 6-3 frame back and forth among the crowd, which was continually being told to "stay up against the walls" and "make a path please," my personality jockeyed as well—from ruthless reporter to vehemently compassionate as I imagined a devastated Jackie Stiles not only dejected, heart broken, or even sobbing, but also gagging hard on years of sucking it up, gritting it out and putting in the hours for mom, dad, and the team.
After about ten minutes of rebellion at the gate, I made a crucial mistake—getting too close to the reality behind a little girl from rural Missouri being crowned princess of women's college basketball, and then being dethroned by a gauntlet of bloated sports reporters belching out criticism like the remnants of Mexican Surprize, or whatever the hell they were serving at the free media buffet that evening. In those split seconds between her march across the hall, from the locker room to the interview room, I saw someone else's life flash before my eyes...literally. Just as I raised my camera up to start shooting, the pretty, petite girl's bright red and tear-burned face seemed to explode with a burst of white light that would steal her anguished soul and fence it off to every American who was willing to fork out 50 cents for it. At that moment, I suddenly had to come to grips with the fact that my natural ability to string words together might have a purpose.
"GOD DAMN IT!" My eyes started tearing up, I got what I think middle-aged women call a hot flash, and my trusty TX started trembling uncontrollably in my sweaty hands. I didn't know whether to shoot or drop my camera and start throwing wild punches in every direction until every last disgruntled superstar wannabe was lying on the ground writhing in shared pain with no opportunity to bark out questions about being unable to bring home the big one, or reasons for choking in the semi-finals.
I didn't know basketball at this level, but I did know that beautiful sound of fifty basketballs pinging in the warm Spring air on a Friday afternoon before the contest starts, where the sons of alcoholic fathers, single mothers, the half-armed kid, and me growing up were truly equal and free with no sidelines, no referees, scouts, agents, or brand managers. I know being alone, too, just above freezing at nine at night, in the gravel driveway under a spot light on the side of the garage, thinking that the only way to meet a beautiful girl who has a thing for lanky and stanky is if she sees you in a better light—a brighter light glaring down on you, affirming you as an MVP at center court.
What if Jackie felt that way, thinking that the only way anyone would ever really love her would be when she made it here, under all these lights, in front of all these cameras and all these fans. Did she ever compose poetic lines between the seams of a basketball and toss it over and over at the goal until she believed those lines would come true? Would she tell me?
Hell no, I thought. So I pulled the bill of my Late Night with David Letterman cap down low over my swollen eyes, and headed for a swanky free-food, open-bar soiree the night before the final game.
After entering the huge ornate glass doors of the architecturally impressive Missouri Historical Museum in Forest Park almost an hour into the event, it didn't take long for a Paxil craving to kick in as the expanding crowd began breaking up into cliques. So I asked for a free Bud Light (bottle, no glass) and tried to find the museum theater, where the Duke v. Maryland men's semi was promised. I headed down a flight of artsy, industrial-type stairs to the foyer, where a substantial crowd of VIPs, young reporters, and lesbian coaches started to groove to the sounds of MO Town something or other—St. Louis' signature entertainment offering.
Feeling the need to emotionally compensate for my total lack of social skills, I found an oak paneled wall to lean against and do some serious drinking and gawking, trying to figure out who was gay and who wasn't. Within minutes, I sifted through the chino-oxford-loafer-wearing sure things, and locked onto a tall, beautiful brunette, who had me guessing for the better part of an hour. She had the slacks and loafers thing going, but threw everyone a curve with a low-cut knit top stretched just right over what appeared to be perfectly shaped breasts. At 6-3, I wasn't really surprised by her occasional glances in my direction. There was a basketball tournament and Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) convention in town, so tall guys, no matter how disfigured, were a hot commodity. But she was standing next to a blonde—proportionately equal, with short curly hair and a worn, hard-looking face, and that, along with a gut full of Bud, had my alcohol-soaked brain swimming.
"Damn, should I go over there and shoot her a bunch of lies about being this close to landing an anchor's job at ESPN, or just stay put and fantasize about that blonde working her over back at the hotel?" I wondered. It was an entertaining mind-game that kept the doo-wopping from driving me crazy, but unfortunately, it also took my mind off the marble floor, and the ever so slight slippage my leather-soled shoes were experiencing. The result was a hard butt-flop, a la First Grade. I scrambled to my feet, and headed for the shuttle, which took me back to my apartment, where I hid out until Sunday—the night of the big championship game between Purdue and Notre Dame.
By game time, I felt like I owned the arena, strutting to what had become my home away from home for four days—fourth table from courtside, where I'd become buddies with Scott Fitzgerald, sports editor of the St. Louis Suburban Journals, some guy from the St. Louis Sentinal, and another guy who never let his eyes wander from the court or his score sheet the whole tournament—a perfect example of the stereotypical sports nut I really have no problem with. It's the goofs in shirts and ties continually walking the aisles hitting on media babes, and pretending to wave at good friends in the luxury boxes that get on my nerves.
What's worse, however, is a tournament volunteer who decides to enforce the rules during the last minutes of what was becoming an almost interesting game. Tied 66-66, I felt his nacho laden fingertips politely grip me just below the neck. "I'm sorry, fella. We can't let you take photographs from the press gallery. You have to be on the floor in a designated area, if you want to shoot."
Taking a huge bite of orange sherbet, and a swig of NCAA-Women's-Final-Four-sponsor Pepsi, to freeze my nerves, I calmly countered: "WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU TALKIN' ABOUT? I SHOT FROM HERE THROUGH BOTH GAMES FRIDAY NIGHT!!! AND THE BETTER PART OF THIS ONE!
"I didn't make the rules, sir. But I gotta enforce 'em."
With time and good photo ops slipping away with every tiny ball of spit we were volleying, I put the camera down. Seemingly satisfied with his little Branch Davidian siege, the volunteer proceeded down to the end zone where a more urgent dilemma was brewing: a horde of bulkier photogs, who were suiting up with utility vests that looked like flak jackets and securing telephoto lenses the size of six-inch naval guns.
This meant that the game was coming down to the wire, the Irish would win this year's championship on two free throws with just five seconds left, and hometown girl Niele Ivey would be crowned the new princess of women's college basketball.
With that my new focus, I stayed long enough to snap the trophy celebration, then headed to the Adam's Mark Hotel, where a Sear's-sponsored public party was gearing up. The promenade level was about half full with well-dressed alums, the band, the cheerleaders, and I also noticed, what had become the usual smattering of lesbians socializing one more time, downstairs, before departing from the WBCA convention in the morning.
With no real first-hand quotes of any consequence from players or coaches, the luck of the Irish came to me at the very back of the meeting hall where I spotted Ivey's mom and dad.
I’d been told that Mr. Ivey worked for Pepsi bottling, which made it hard to understand how he could afford to send five kids to private Catholic schools. I only spent about five minutes with him, but he appeared to be a hard-working guy who might shoot a game of pool or bet on a horse race now and again. I liked his black derby hat and classy gold jewelry, which reminded me of the cats I used to see in the pool hall as a kid with my dad and sometimes my grandpa., who sported white leather shoes and driving big Cadillacs with chrome spoked wheels. Back in the day, the thought of Dr. J skying for a dunk was cool, but just like today, so was the notion of rolling slow and straight-faced in a huge sedan with Shaft...maybe a switchblade above his visor, or a .38 tucked between the seats. This was a guy I knew I could talk to. Not like the polished liars, who've been through many a media-relations seminar.
"Naw, I never played," he said when I asked him about basketball. "Her mother was quite an athlete when she was young, though." After some talk about the WNBA, the two were whisked to the stage for the team arrival, which left just one more piece of unfinished business—the autograph mongers, stupidly drawing attention to themselves by dribbling basketballs out in the hallway.
"Hey! You guys gettin' any autographs?" I asked with a dumb smile.
"Not yet," one said, looking at my media credential, which brandished a small reproduction of the cover of Moxie’s issue on The Body. "Where d' you think the team'll come in?"
"They’re gonna come up through the service entrance, through those curtains behind the stage, make a speech or two, and then back out the same way. You're not gonna get anywhere near them. They're big time now... and you gotta be big time professional or big time crazy to get access." With that, I stuffed a half-full beer into my shirt pocket, secured my camera bag tightly over one shoulder, and bolted past two security guards blocking one of the 12-foot-high entrances, and began high stepping over beer bottles and glass tumblers, like a Green Beret stomping through a rice patty, rapid firing my TX at any two-fisted drunkard who looked like he didn't want his picture taken (for professional reasons I'm sure). Intoxicated on $4.25-a-bottle beer and mob frenzy, I waded through the crowd long after running out of film, mindlessly misfiring shot after shot at beautiful blond co-eds in monogrammed sweatshirts with cute green shamrocks painted on their cheeks, and statuesque women in business suits, probably the wives of school administrators or alumni lawyers. That was until hotel 5-0 nabbed me, and politely accused me of trespassing, before showing me to the door.
The next morning was grim, like it always is following a once-in-a-lifetime assignment: cabs blasting through the early morning traffic, rushing the beautiful people back to the airport; city crews scrubbing the blood, booze and broken glass off city streets and sidewalks; and me frantically scanning the early morning news programs and on-line news sites to see if I had it right.
"Upset over their 68-66 loss from Notre Dame in the NCAA Women's Championship game, over 1,000 scholars at the prestigious Purdue University desecrated their halls of higher learning with bonfires, Malatov cocktails, and broken windows until police finally quelled the crowd with tear gas and random beatings."
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