I got the call at 12:40pm on Sunday. It was my cousin Tessa, who I hadn’t seen in years. She was looking for her brother Justin, who had spent the night at my house.
“Is Justin there?”
“No, Tessa, he left about 10 minutes ago to head down to meet you, with parking and everything, he should be at your hotel in about 15 minutes.”
“Damn. I’ve been trying to reach him since yesterday, and I just checked my messages and got his message that he was staying with you. Do you like basketball?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I like basketball!” I was trying not to sound too enthusiastic. Tessa was staying in the St. Francis Westin Hotel as a guest of the NBA, Justin was on his way to meet her to sit courtside at the NBA All Star game. I’d been preparing to test my new disc golf rain gear out against one of the nastiest storms to hit the Bay Area in years when the phone rang. Now I was holding my breath.
“Well, it turns out I have an extra ticket for the game. You want to come?”
And like that, I was on my way to the All Star Game.
As I walked into the lobby of the St. Francis I could tell that I was quite suddenly immersed in an “event.” Security guards hustled to and fro. There were checkpoints waiting around every corner. There was nothing but beautiful people, every direction I looked in. As I rounded the corner towards the elevators I spotted a group of young boys with pens and basketballs, waiting for their opportunity to capture a small piece of their heroes. The atmosphere was loud, busy, and hurried. Everyone was on their way to the game. So was I. For once in my life, I was in.
I smiled and got on an elevator going up. I didn’t bother to check the directions in my pocket, and headed straight to room 708. No answer on the door. The woman cleaning 709 informed me that she’d just finished up with 708, and they were long gone. For just a moment I panicked, the sensation of inclusion rapidly fading. I gathered my wits about me, and in a flash of brilliance decided to consult the directions. Aha! Room 703, I’d closed the loops on the 3 in my memory. A single knock on the door, and suddenly I was in again.
The last time I saw Tessa she was 9 years old. Now she was 16, with all of the hip and swagger of a teenager who is confident and comfortable with life; and a backstage pass to the NBA All Star weekend to boot. Tessa and her friend Nadia co-founded ClubActive –a service club at their high school-and applied to NBA TeamUp for a grant to help fund their efforts. They wound up getting more than just a $2,000 grant: they wound up getting back-stage passes, ring-side seats, and first-class treatment for the entire NBA All Star Weekend.
As Tessa donned her NBA All Star 2000 sweatshirt and slung her NBA All Star bag over her shoulder she started telling me about all of the things and people she’d seen over the weekend. She sat next to Vince Carter’s parents during the Slam Dunk competition. She met Magic at a party on Friday night. She laughed, and said that her 15 minutes were rapidly expiring, but that she was having the time of her life.
In the lobby I smiled as Rebecca Lobos walked by. She was taller in person than I ever imagined, but not as beautiful as she looks on T.V.
In the van on the way over the Bay Bridge, Tessa and Michal told us all about the weekend they were having. Michal complained of how corporate the whole All Star weekend had been so far. How the NBA was driving regular fans out with the high price of tickets and the vast numbers of tickets reserved for suits. “When Vince Carter slammed that first dunk home yesterday, hardly anyone stood up and cheered,” she said. In my head I admired the work that NBC had done with the microphones to beef up the sound of the crowd.
Tessa told me that the ticket she had for me was a last-minute addition, and that I was sitting by myself, “way up top.” As our van driver wound his way through the crowd of people trying to make their way through the rain to the coliseum I noted that even the shitty seats for the NBA All Star game cost $150.00. As I jumped one puddle and jogged three paces to the awning of the VIP entrance to the Oakland Coliseum I jibed myself for wearing my rain gear. There are no turnstiles at the VIP entrance, just nice carpets to wipe your feet off on. As we made our way to the elevators I couldn’t help but notice Magic Johnson talking to some VIP staff behind a satin rope. I wanted to shake his hand and tell him I infinitely respected all of the work he’s done to educate the athletic world to the realities of AIDS. Short, white, and wearing corderoy pants, I suddenly felt very much the outsider again.
Tessa, Justin and I split up, and I headed for my seat: Section 217 Row 6 Seat 1. Upper deck. I wasn’t going to complain. After all, if it wasn’t for Tessa, at that very moment I would have been out in the rain with Tolstoy, playing disc golf. I headed for the bathroom, then bought a Sprite and a hot dog. As I was heading through the tunnel back to my seat I spotted Coolio heading through the tunnel ahead of me. I acted calm, and gave him the most subtle eyebrow raise and head-nod in my repertoire. It seemed to do the trick, as he subtly flexed his left eyebrow and headed up the stairs. Not only was I in, I thought to myself, but I was in with Coolio!
As Coolio walked up the stairs to his seat, a youth on the aisle held out his hand for a shake. Coolio smoothly gave him five and headed down my row of seats. The kid grinned ear to ear and made sure his friend had a)Just seen what happened, and b)Completely recognized who that was. His witness firmly in his back pocket, the kid went back to grinning like a madman.
I gave Coolio and his two-man posse the casual once-over as one of his homies jumped on his cell and began harranging who I assumed must be Coolio’s assistant or agent or somethan’. “Look up towards the motherfucking roof,” he said. “OK, now look towards the…where you sittin’? Oh, fuck. OK, I’m standing up now(he was). Yeah. Right. 217. Fucking nosebleed. Well git your ass up here and help us out then.” He hung up and sat down. Throughout it, Coolio looked too cool to be bothered. He unzipped his leather All-Star jacket and propped his brand-new contruction boots up on the seat in front of him.
I sipped my Sprite and tried to focus on the game down on the floor. A few minutes later an incredibly beautiful young black woman, dressed very well and smelling wonderfully, squeezed her way past me apologetically. “Here are your tickets to the after party,” she said to Coolio and the boyz as she handed over a plastic baggie. “I’ll see you guys there.”
As she turned to make her way out Coolio spoke up, “How about some better seats?”
“I’ll see what I can do,” she cooed as she ducked around the corner and down the tunnel.
Ha! It suddenly dawned on me: Coolio was fucked, just like me. He knew He had friends down at floor level, and yet he was stuck in the rafters with me. I repressed a giggle, and made sure not to look his way as I began making up my own versions of rap songs:
“1, 2, 3, 4, Coolio’s stuck up far from the floor
Can’t even really see the damn referee…”
“Come along and sit up by the Rafters
High, high, up in the sky, if you hop the rail you fall and die…”
The game was wonderful to watch, the ideal NBA game to see in person. With nothing riding on the line, and no real game-plan in place, the “best athletes in the world” were free to showboat with everything they had. The game was like an endless highlight reel –even the misses were amazing. Stuart Scott and Kenny Maine spent the afternoon in the back of my head, calling plays in real-time. When Shaq grabbed a rebound and raced the length of the floor to finish with a slam, I found myself chanting, “He! Could! Go! All! The! Way!”
At half time we were treated to the vocal stylings of 90 Degrees, Mary J. Blige, some woman who’s name I forget, and L.L. Cool J. I have to give props to David Stern and the NBA: they have created an entertainment extravaganza. As the huge satin curtains fell to the floor to reveal 90 Degrees I was struck by the beauty and execution of the opening to the show. By the time the curtains hit the ground, however, I was wishing that each one of the singers would somehow achieve 1,000 degrees in a pyrotechnic fireworks of spontaneous combustion.
No such luck. But they did only sing one song, which I remain eternally thankful for. In the realm of halftime shows, there is never room for more than one quick number.
Mary J. Blige was amazing. That’s all I’m gonna say. Oh, that, and I almost cried.
The next woman was, frankly, non descript. I couldn’t tell you how she Was dressed (but Mary J. had on this incredibly colorful pant/jacket/hat combination that enabled me to spot her for the rest of the game), what type of music she sang (I remember thinking “country western? really? no!) or what kind of hairstyle she had. But I do remember that she ended her number standing triumphantly, surrounded by all of the NBA All Star Dancers in various poses bending over, on their knees, or lying on the floor, and I thought to myself, “God, I’d fuck each and every one of them. Even the men!”
She exited the stage, and me and the rest of the crowd got pumped up for L.L. As he hit the floor and encouraged everyone to get up on their feet, I casually declined. I didn’t want Coolio thinking I was frontin’ on him, after all. As L.L. barked into his microphone, ranting about peace and fly honies on his jock, I marvelled at how big L.L. has gotten since he first came on the scene. I remember when L.L. was a 130-pound stick, ranting about how loud he liked his radio. Now he looks to be all of 230 pounds, the vast majority of it muscle. Over 16 years, L.L.’s been on the scene. What staying power.
I couldn’t help but wonder what Coolio thought of L.L. and the spectacle; if he felt any jealousy, trapped on the upper deck with a career in limbo while L.L. flirted with all of the dancers on the floor. As the fireworks exploded, showering the floor with sparks and the confetti rained down from the ceiling I stole a glance at Coolio, to see how he was reacting. Feet keeping time up on the chair in front of him, shoulders firmly pressed back in his chair, Coolio was taking in the spectacle like the rest of us: eyes wide open, and mouth partially agape.
Wanting to blend, I took his lead and directed my attention to the floor.