The Spaniard's Bar Mitzvah
Ethan Sherwood Strauss is writer and editor at Salon.com. He's been sitting on this for a year now.
This was written one year ago, immediately after I got home from the 2009 NBA Draft. The NBA had assigned me as evening escort to the No. 5 pick, a strictly non-sexual job despite its euphemistic ring. My duty was to whisk Ricky Rubio from the draft couch and through the media gauntlet. I began this task immediately after the Timberwolves selected Johnny Flynn.
A possibly shaken Rubio greets me.
“Hi, nice to eh, meet you.”
We both have weak handshakes. I instruct him to follow me past a horde of Madison Square Garden hooligans.
The MSG crowd is hooting, throwing drunken energy at the Spaniard. They appear threatening but the shouting is complimentary. I had attended Steve Nash’s charity soccer game the day before. A beaming Chris Bosh got draped in ceaseless “Play for the Knicks!” entreaties. The chants carried a streak of desperation steeped in a sense of entitlement. We need you and it must happen because we want it and because we’re us.
“We NEED you, Ricky! Please, come to New York! You HAVE to play for the Knicks!”
(This is the most important moment of his life? It looks like a fucking zombie movie.)
I lead Rubio through the theater lobby as the creepy adoration follows. Ricky has been drafted by a non-Knicks team—and he’s getting away. Fans grope and grab like horny, depraved barflies. Young girls scream in Rubio’s face. All I can see are arms and faces. All I can hear is animalistic bleating. It could be projection but Ricky looks frightened and young. I’ve read a lot about how an 18-year-old LeBron looked beyond his years. Rubio makes me feel old, and I’m 23.
The security guards disintegrate upon our arrival in the media area. Rubio and I file into the secure bowels of the Garden, accompanied by his translator.There are cameras flashing and the space-to-person ratio is miniscule. There are no drunken shouters, but the effect is just as disorienting. It’s a bit like someone set up a strobe light in a cramped subway station. I shuttle el Rubio and el translator from media box to media box, leading to the “Live Shot area” clusterfuck. CBS, ABC, and NBC are the can’t-miss booths, but all are sort of mandatory. In between, anemic media entities try to beg their way into boothless peasant interviews. It’s a good day for human dignity
“They drafted ANOTHER point guard!” Rubio exclaims in disbelief. He speaks little English and rarely talks, even to his translator. But I hear this refrain throughout the night.
“They drafted ANOTHER point guard? Why?” Rubio’s grappling with where his life is heading as mics are shoved against his jaw. As I push Rubio through the Live Shot Area, his dissatisfaction becomes obvious. He looks tired, gaunt. Especially when you contrast his mood with that of Hasheem Thabeet, who bounds across the room and gives me a hug. Everyone’s getting a piece of Thabeet, even the nervous kid with the sweaty suit. I try to cheer Rubio up.
“I hear people in the Midwest are very nice!”
Another NBA worker chimes in.
“I’m from the Midwest…I’m nice!”
Rubio smiles shyly, but doesn’t seem convinced. His rebuttal trumps all.
“I hear eets, eh, very cold.”
Athletes by reputation, are not interesting people.There are obvious attributions for the blandness.Yes, they are hoisted on a conveyer belt during their formative years.Yes, they are taught sports in place of books. But interactions with the press condition athletes to be lame.The same fucking questions.The same fucking answers.What could be more numbing to the personality than engaging in thousands of ersatz conversations? It would be better if the athletes were supposed to volley questions, but we’ll never know.
And it's one thing to understand that a press junket process is repetitive, but it’s another to participate. My participation is peripheral, thank God. We’re at interview six and Rubio is wilting. He keeps prodding his translator to ask when the session will end. I keep apologetically forcing Ricky Rubio through more bullshit.
“Just a few more…just a few more, please.”
We slog forward, walking into a hallway. Johnny Flynn is seated, crying into his cell phone.
"We did it! We...did it!"
Flynn has reached an elated state that I can only dream of, or drug-induce. A dyspeptic Rubio walks right past his new teammate.
New Knick pick Jordan Hill arrives. Hill is alone for the moment, holding a Knicks jersey that’s been dragging along the floor all evening. Since I’m wearing a headset, and therefore must have psychic powers, Hill inquires about whom the Phoenix Suns drafted.
“Um, well, I don’t know.”
(Dude, you’re holding a Blackberry.)
I stare at his feet, and dumbly compliment Jordan’s fancy gator shoes.
“Those are…um, awesome shoes…man.”
My voice trembles and I forget to add “No homo,” as required for proper NYC colloquial complimentary parlance. Hill nervously smiles and laughs.
We trudge down to the “phone room.” This is not a booth, but an isolated, actual room, replete with catered food. There are a few tables with land line phones. Lottery picks are merrily calling their new teams. Griffin, Thabeet, Harden, every high pick is there to use Auerbach-era technology. The only other people in the spot are the exhausted looking escorts and some scattered NBA workers. And Rubio’s translator is there. And he’s getting royally pissed off.
I hadn’t properly explained the phone room’s purpose, perhaps because it made so little sense to me. Why is it perfunctory for players to call their teams on landlines in a controlled setting? I knew players use the room to call teams, but why is it mandatory? And why is Blake Griffin shaking everyone’s hand like he’s the union rep? These questions exist.
When the agitated translator announces that Ricky has to leave, I nervously bounce the idea off the czars of the room. They won’t have it.Translator fails to see why the poor kid can’t just exit and see his family. There’s cursing, threatening, pleading, demanding, and Ricky sits off in the corner, staring glumly. As I helplessly observe the crisis, a fellow escort swoops in. She’s pretty, self-assured, and, most importantly, she speaks soothing, flawless Spanish—and she knows the translator. This woman cuts the right wire on the ticking bomb, as I cover my face. Translator agrees to the phone call, the arbitrary goal will be reached.
Ricky picks a chocolate chip cookie off the catering table. He nibbles at it, and laughs when I notice. He offers me one, but I decline. There’s more waiting, as Ricky watches a TV screen tuned to the draft. Rubio jumps up as though startled.
Ricky looks forlorn. Is he depressed to see a fellow international headed to what was supposed to be his team? Is it envy? Or is Rubio wondering what his career in Sacramento would have been like with Casspi, another kid from across the Atlantic, there with him to restore the team to decency?
It’s time for Ricky to make the phone call. We all hunch over at the table as he dials. The timid kid looks in my general direction as the conversation unfolds. Rubio damns with feint praise.
“I hear Al Jay-fer-sohn es um…guuudeee…”
There are long pauses.
“My buyout? I don’t know…eet eez very compleecated.”
For the sake of propriety, Rubio is trying. His cadence betrays any attempt. He’s not a bullshit artist; he’s a teen unhappily coping with fate-altering forces. The kid can’t fake enthusiasm for the process any more than I could happily sell cars.The Wolves are likely using him as a trade chip, but I’m sure the other end of the phone call is shouted faux enthusiasm for the great mutual future on the horizon. American basketball executives can BS better than scared 18-year-old Spanish kids.
It’s human, which is jarring. I’m used to reading rumors about these kinds of conversations, often described as a series of “talks,” (As in “talks went badly”). I’m not used to an insulted kid politely asserting leverage. I’m not used to seeing NBA politics, practiced on the fly. Rubio’s incensed translator keeps repeating, “Why can’t his agent talk to the team?”
My adrenaline is wearing off. I lead him back to the draft stage for photo ops, where Rubio’s family swarms him. Given nothing to do, I make awkward small talk with Toronto’s newly minted swingman, DeMar DeRozan. DeMar wants to know about the Suns. I plead ignorance again.
“Sometimes, when you’re in the middle of it… it’s hard to understand anything.”
DeMar smiles at my profundity attempt.
I say my goodbyes to Ricky’s people and sneak off for phone room snacks. Other exhausted youngish NBA workers are in there munching away on stale deli food. The one incongruity is the presence of an amped-up Terrence Williams, the new Nets wing. Terrance has already built up a rep for weird. ESPN’s draft expert Chad Ford once wrote that, “Talking to Terrence Williams was like talking to a 12 year old.”
Through my headset, I hear Terrence had been AWOL much of the evening. Williams sets eyes on a TV replaying his selection. He suddenly dances around the room, eventually bouncing towards the table where I sit.
“Hi, I’m Terrence, what’s your name? Do you live in New York? Well I play for the NEW JERSEY NETS!”
He points to his Nets hat, and hops high in the air. Williams leaps away as though jumping is his primary mode of conveyance.