Saturday, April 11, 2009

The WNBA Draft Experience, Part I

Subtitle: "Or, How I Defeated Shavonte Zellous"

Okay, you're all dying to hear about how my two days went at the WNBA Draft Event. So I'm here to tell you the whole thing.

I bid money on a two day package to attend the 2009 WNBA Draft. Here's what the package offered:

April 8th

- Player Meet & Greet at the NBA Store on 5th Avenue
- Following the NBA Store event, you will ride with the WNBA Draftees to ESPNZone in New York City. At the ESPNZone you will have dinner (alcohol not included) and the opportunity to participate in a pop-a-shot competition with and against WNBA Draftees.

April 9th

- 2 tickets to the 2009 WNBA Draft presented by adidas at the NBA Studios in New Jersey.
- Be in a photo with the #1 WNBA Draft pick taken the day of the Draft.

To my shock, I won the auction. I was having some misgivings - I would have to provide my own transportation and hotel space - but once you click that button, 'what's done is done'. To my surprise, I managed to win the damned thing. I would have to start making my plans.

My goal - to fly into New York City on Wednesday morning, zoom through two days of entertainment provided by the WNBA, and then return home on a red-eye flight to Atlanta that left LaGuardia at 6:30 am so that I could be back to the office on Friday. My wife outfitted me in the proper finery - the goal was to not look like I had misplaced my "WILL WORK FOR FOOD" sign - and I got on that plane and began the experience of a lifetime.

(* * *)

Wednesday, April 8 2009

I arrived at New York and ended up at the Sheraton New York a little earlier than expected. To top off my confusion, I found myself unable to calculate a 25 percent tip for a $29 cab ride from LaGuardia to the Sheraton. (The toll through the Lincoln Tunnel threw off my calculations.) As a result, I ended up paying the man $40. That cabbie must have thought I was the Prince of Men.

My arrival was a little earlier than expected - my room was not ready. So I stowed my luggage at the Sheraton New York and walked down to one of my favorite haunts back in the days when I actually lived in New York - Midtown Comics at 40th Street in Manhattan. After stealing some reads, I made my way back to the hotel, picked up some McFood, bought some soda for myself at the local Duane Reade and began to prepare myself for the experience.

As it turned out, the NBA Store is exactly two "long blocks" to the east of the Sheraton New York, so I simply walked there. I'll review the NBA Store. If you like clothing related to the NBA, it appears to be a fantastic place. There are all kinds of clothes, accessories and clothing (including replica uniforms) related to the NBA. One feature of the store is a "center court" where one walks down a long circular walkway with the surface of a parquet floor and down to the lower level.

The lower level is where they keep their WNBA stuff. Frankly, there's not much there. There were no replica uniforms of Atlanta Dream, but there were replica unis for other team. Whalen for the Sun, Ford for the Shock, Bird for the Storm...there was generally one replica uniform per represented team. There were some bumper stickers and other knick-knacks. That's it.

In a store, you come face to face with the economic realities of the WNBA. A big store like the NBA Store can only put things on the shelf that they think will sell, and clearly, WNBA merchandice doesn't have the selling power of NBA stuff. However, there's just so much more NBA stuff. The NBA has been around for over 50 years; the WNBA has been around for just ten. Even so, one can buy all kinds of variety of throwback uniform at the NBA Store. If you're an NBA fan, the place is heaven; if you really just care about the WNBA and not about the NBA, there's not much of a point to visit.

(Idea: Someone might be able to run a small store in New York devoted to WNBA merchandise only. They probably wouldn't need a lot of space, but it would probably be more intimate than the crowded NBA Store. They might not be able to sell a lot of it, but the racks would be full.)

At the time, I only had two more goals - to meet RebKell message poster Queenie (known as Rebecca on the Game Notes of Dooooooom blog and to meet Christine, who was my contact for the event. Christine worked for NBA Entertainment and would be shepherding the two of us through these events.

One question you might be asking is, "You're married. Why didn't you take your wife?" First, my wife has only recently found a job as an executive for a concert and event planning company in Atlanta. She had been hired so recently that it probably wasn't the best time to drop everything for two days. Second, there was cost. Third, my wife doesn't care very much about basketball or really, any other sport. (Although she is partial to Roberto Clemente.) It wouldn't have been enjoyable for her, so she sent me off by myself with her blessings.

Finding Queenie wasn't very hard - she was the one wearing the 2009 Final Four T-Shirt. Furthermore, I got to meet her boyfriend, Happycappie25. The two of them were the second and third posters at RebKell that I had ever met - the first was BobScoutingReport. As for Christine, she met us at the appropriate hour, 5 pm.
Queenie asked if Happycappie could attend with the two of us, and Christine was able to swing it. Happycappie would be attending the "meet and greet" with us but would be unable to attend the studio event.

We each received a 2009 WNBA Draft T-shirt. The sizes were the only ones Christine had and I don't think either of us could have worn them. However, the shirts would be put to use in an ingenious way.

The first part of the night was to come down to a sealed-off center court event. The major draft picks were taking place in a pre-event "meet and greet" where they stood around and schmoozed with the elite. As hoi polloi both Queenie and I stood to the side and watched.

But we saw them. Hey, that's Courtney Paris! Hey, that's Kristi Toliver! Hey, that's Lyndra Littles, sitting by herself in a gold-colored sweater like a wallflower. It was a standing room only event and it didn't leave us with much room to move around. I made note of who was there and who was not. As it turned out, there were a couple of players who didn't make it. Renee Montgomery didn't make it - she was probably too busy celebrating her National Championship win with UConn - and I don't think Ashley Walker from California was there, either. Aside from that, the list of potential first round Draft Picks included:

Chante Black, Duke
DeWanna Bonner, Auburn
Marissa Coleman, Maryland
Briann January, Arizona State
Lyndra Littles, Virginia - in the gold sweater
Rashanda McCants, North Carolina
Angel McCoughtry, Louisville
Renee Montgomery, Connecticut - not there
Ashley Paris, Oklahoma
Courtney Paris, Oklahoma - in a sweater that was probably a bit too tight
Kristi Toliver, Maryland
Kia Vaughn, Rutgers
Ashley Walker, California - not there
Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton, Purdue
Shavonte Zellous, Pittsburgh

In the meantime, we were offered all sorts of hors d'oervres, but we didn't partake in any - well, we did try the sesame chicken with peanut butter topping. That was delicious.

It then became time for the actual event to start. Extra bleachers were brought in to accomodate some of the youngest fans. (I suspect some of those youngest fans were the children of event VIPs. Well, 'rank has its privileges'.)

The three of us were seated in a bleacher where the view, unfortunately, was partially obscured by a giant life-sized bobblehead of Allen Iverson (I should be thankful the Yao Ming bobblehead wasn't posted there.) The narrator was Sue Wicks, who spoke about the adventure of signing with the New York Liberty in 1997, where her contract was negotiated on a napkin. She stated that during the process of interviewing with each of the eight teams then in existence, she had always tried to cast doubt as to whether she would be a good fit anywhere except for New York. For example, saying something like "I'm not a Mormon!" to the management of the Utah Jazz. (/joke)

As she spoke, it seemed that Sue Wicks wasn't quite on script. Queenie suggested that she had had a little bit too much red wine. Wicks began to introduce each of the players as if she had been made familiar with their existence only just moments earlier. The faux pas was introducing Rashanda McCants as Chante McCants. True, the names are similiar, but the latter sounds like the shotgun marraige of a "Dookie" and a "Tar Hole".

Angel McCoughtry, as you might have read earlier, missed her cue. While Sue Wicks was starting her seemingly endless introduction, McCoughtry simply wandered up to the semi-circle of chairs and took a seat. This seemed to throw Sue Wicks off even more than usual.

Afterwards, the players were asked some questions. One of them was what players would miss from their playing days. Lyndra Littles volunteered to take that question, saying that she missed the private charter planes she had flown while a member of the Virginia Cavaliers. She spoke of calling her coach and letting her know that. Donna Orender, who was in attendance, mentioned that she too flew on chartered airlines in her WPBL playing days. "Southwest Airlines! My seat has been marked! It's labeled '39-A'!"

Courtney Paris got off a good one liner. She was asked who she'd like to play against. Most of the other players chose the standard players - Lisa Leslie, Sue Bird, etc. - but Paris mentioned Kara Lawson "because we're both point guards", whichi got the biggest laugh of the night.

As this conversation took out, fans were lined up along the spiral walk down to the Center Court, listening in on the fun. When Sue Wicks opined at length about the joys of the Liberty, she got a few shout-outs from the Amen Corner. After the closure of this part of the night, fans were invited down into center court for autographs.

The fans seemed hesitant. Furthermore, I realized that a) we would have had to either break the line or go to the very back of it to get autographs, and b) the first part of the semi-circle of players suddenly had a lot of time on their hands because it would take quite a bit for the fans to get to them. I thought I could kill two birds with one stone by starting at the opposite end of the semi-circle and hopefully finishing before the fans really got started.

My second idea was that I now had a use for my 2009 WNBA Draft shirt. I would have the players sign it and I would have a fully (well, except for Montgomery and Walker) signed T-shirt.

The plan seemed to work. However, there were a few bumps along the way. First, some reporters had "squatted" in the middle of the semi-circle and holding improptu interviews. I suspect that the reporters had simply shown up at the event as press and then decided on their own to get question time with the draftees. I've been told that this is something that is very bad - neither players nor franchise PR offices like it when the media decides to interview a player at a PR event outside of the designated place-and-time. They don't mind players being interviewed per se; they just don't like it when players are unexpectedly interviewed, when some doofus shows up with a tape recorder and starts asking you questions when you, as a player, are trying to sign autographs in a line. Some players were good at this multitasking, others weren't.

Second, the line began to move a bit faster than we expected, so we had to barge our way to the last few players - furthermore, some fans wanted to have converstaions with the players, who seemed a bit nervous and could only make small talk. However, I was successful in getting the T-shirt signed.

Christine patiently waited for us, and we prepared to take the same bus to the ESPN Zone event that the players would take. Actually, it would be players in the back, players' families in the middle and us somewhere near the front, which was fine with us. It was definitely cool - I know that you can't really feel like a player, but you sort of could in a way. Chief of Basketball Operations and Player Relations Renee Brown was on the bus, and she announced to the players that due to time and due to the nature of the event, the players could not stop and sign autographs. Family members had been asked to leave the bus first, so they'd have a chance to form a protective gauntlet so that the players could make their way to the 3rd floor of the ESPN Zone event unaccosted.

Christine waited for us at the ESPN Zone, and we made our way to the third-floor for the Pop-a-Shot Competition. Some other contest winners would be joining teams with WNBA players, and Queenie and I would be joining a team with Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton of Purdue and Shavonte Zellous of Pittsburgh.

Let me tell you something: WNBA players are competitive. One of the players - I don't remember who - complained that her dress top gave her arms no mobility. Rashanda McCants and Lyndra Lyttles were already jumping the gun and taking a few shots before the event began. Not every player was that competitive, but some were.

If you don't know what Pop-a-Shot is, it's an arcade game where you throw basketballs into a fixed hoop, and you try to hit as many shots as possible before time expires. At some point, the backboard moves backwards to a point where "3-point shooting" is simulated.

I haven't even made a field goal even by myself in a good 15 years or so. I certainly hadn't played Pop-a-Shot, not ever. So you can imagine what I was thinking when Rashanda McCants scored 49 Pop-a-Shot points (*) and the machine christened her as some kind of New Record Holder. I just wanted not to embarass myself.

When the whistle blew, I knew it would be number of shots taken that would be the clincher, not quality. I just kept shooting and shooting and shooting. This is the final score the way I remember it:

Wisdom-Hylton: 27 points
Me: 23 points
Queenie: 22 points
Shavonte Zellous: 22 points

Which means that an overweight blogger who hasn't even played basketball competitively outshot Shavonte Zellous. I don't care if Zellous wasn't trying, I'm taking it as a win. I got some swag as a present - a nice bag with the WNBA logo, a WNBA water bottle, some trading cards and some tickets. I had to fill out some papers, so I'm assuming that some swag might be coming by mail.

The next event was dinner. We wouldn't be eating with the draft picks, but Christine treated me, Queenie and Happycappie to dinner. Narrating the dinner event (!!) was Nancy Lieberman herself! She asked the crowd trivia questions. I thought they would be really difficult questions, but they were relatively easy ones if you've followed the WNBA:

"Who is the all-time points leader in WNBA History?" (Answer: Lisa Leslie)
"Who is the only WNBA Player to win Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in the same year?" (Answer: Candace Parker, Sparks)

I got the second one and a cute little girl walked up with my price - an autographed basketball card of Nancy Lieberman, complete with smiley-face written on it. Queenie won one of Tangela Smith, and Happycappie won one of Jennifer Lacy.

The rest of the night, the three of us chatted with Christine about message boards, how we had all met, WNBA rumormongering and gossip, fan experience, etc. I can honestly say that Christine treated us like royalty. I felt really special. Corny to say that, yes I know, but it's the truth.

(The meal, by the way was great. ESPNZone knows how to make a bacon cheeseburger. This might be the Special WNBA Draft Day Auction Winner's Bacon Cheesburger, and not a cheeseburger accessible to the general public, but it was a good cheeseburger. I recommend a visit to the ESPNZone when you're in New York.)

We said our goodbyes and Christine would meet us at the NBA Entertainment Studios the next day in Secaucus. I walked down to Madison Square Garden with Queenie and Happycappie, and they showed us their traditional meeting place - which would be a good place to meet with Queenie before the event. We would walk the distance from Madison Square Garden to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which had a bus that went from Manhattan to a location not that far away from NBA Studios. It was a great end to a very long day...but there was more to come.

And now, what you've been waiting for: THE PICTURES!

You can find the gallery of pictures here: The pictures, from left to right:

Courtney Paris chats up some VIPs.
Our seat behind Allen Iverson.
Draft Day Family and Friends. Briann January is in the blue sweater, front row.
Can you see Sue Wicks?
Chante Black is at the far left end, with someone unknown, then Briann January and Lyndra Littles.
Angel McCoughtry takes the mike. I believe it's Rashanda McCants in the glasses.
The back of WNBA Commissioner Donna Orender.
Briann January at the mike.
Now it's Chante's turn.
The bus to the WNBA Event at ESPN Zone.
See the far-away figure holding the mike? That's Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman.

(*) - Verified by contest winner PattyforPresident over at RebKell. I had her scoring 46.


Scarab said...

Wow...what an experience! You guys had so much fun. Congrats on the winning bid Pet and thanks for sharing your experience.

a founding fan said...

So cool. I was giggling at the Wicks story. Glad you were treated so well. Congratulations!