Sunday, April 12, 2009

The WNBA Draft Experience, Part II

It was time for someone to follow Tamera Young.

Subtitle: "Or, You're in Nancy Lieberman's Backdrop"

Thursday, April 9

I should have realized there was trouble when I got back to the hotel room. Frankly, I was exhausted. My muscles ached all over, and I've been exercising almost every day for the last month. Clearly, whatever exercising I was doing wasn't meeting the goal of living in New York. Furthermore, I was wearing a brand new gray pair of Converse All-Stars....

...and when I looked at my feet, they were blistered. Badly. Walking was very painful, but I was willing to walk through a bed of glass to get to where I was going. Which is good, because I foolishly did not pack an extra pair of shoes. I was just going to have to tough it out.

I agreed to meet Queenie at Madison Square Garden the day before. Queenie and Happycappie meet at the Madison Square Garden to watch New York Liberty games and I realized that this was where the New York Liberty played. There were large posters indicating that the MSG management were rather proud of their Liberty.

After meeting Queenie, we both walked the seven or eight blocks to the Port Authority Bus Terminal where we would take a bus bringing us to Secaucus, New Jersey, home of the NBA Entertainment Studios. Actually, it was a former home of the studios. The understanding from Christine is that the NBA moved their day-to-day studio operations to Atlanta but the Secaucus studios were still used for special events. We began the walk from MSG to the Port Authority at 12 pm. The event was at 3 pm, but we wanted to get there early. According to Queenie, traffic from New York to New Jersey could be treacherous.

We got on the bus and rode to our destination - rather easily, in fact. Atypically, there was no traffic. We were there rather quickly, and we sort of figured out where our Harmon Avenue destination was.

The NBA Entertainment Studios is in a non-descript brown building, probably for good reasons. It's no secret that the NBA building is there - how could you hide something like that? - but it deliberately doesn't draw traffic to itself, lest there be an ever-expanding line of rubberneckers hoping to see Lebron James saunter in. Credentialing was to take place at 1:15 pm and it seems that we arrived exactly at 1:15.

Christine came down to meet us and showed us around the building while we waited for the VIP reception area to open at 1:30 pm or so. About the building - the inner offices are virtually bedecked with NBA paraphernelia. It seems like it was brought into the building by the truckload. Old wooden posters extolling the Zollner Pistons could be seen, with corn-fed, crew-cutted young ballplayers, all white and all midwestern. This was not just old school. This was ancient history. One could get a sense of the history of the NBA just by walking from the end of one hallway to the end of the other.

The reception area was a VIP schmoozing area, and even though we appeared to pass a few players in the hallways, the VIPs in the area were player family members. You knew who you were talking to, because the name tags gave it away. (Read Queenie's write-up at Game Notes of Doom.) The food was definitely great - they had a great steak wrap and ziti - but the place was standing room only. The three of us - me, Queenie, and Christine - ate quickly lest we deny some family member a place to sit.

We would just sit there and watch and identify family members. There were a couple of other VIPs in the room. Queenie recognized C. Vivian Stringer, pointing her out with the words, "I'd recognize that butterfly clip anywhere." The other VIP working the room like an old-line politician was the President of the WNBA herself, Donna Orender.

I asked Christine if it were possible to get a picture with the President. And Christine, true to how well she had treated us the day before, made it happen. I was arm's length away from the President, while she a) schmoozed with a family, and b) addressed one of her children at the same time. (Her son was dressed in a business suit looking sharp.) He had a tiny bit of ziti sauce on his suit and he said, "I don't know how I got that there". The President replied, "Yeah, it was that invisible ghost that follows you around that put that there," and then she grabbed a napkin or something to clean it off. It was so strange watching the President shift effortlessly from businesswoman to mother and then right back again.

I finally got my picture with Donna Orender. I told her "I'm hoping that someday there will be a WPBL throwback game."

Her response, "So do I!" I think she expects to play in it.

The room began to empty out. As we learned, the family members were being guided to the studio to sit at the tables and to serve as a backdrop for the live event. As non-family members, our status was in the air. Our hope was that we could watch the first and second rounds in the VIP room and then get down to the studio for maybe the third round. However, a studio official showed up and told us that yes, we would be allowed to watch the event in the studio itself.

Queenie and I were given seats in the very back row in the very left hand corner. The tables where the players and player families sat were up front. The rest of the place was packed with friends of the players and families. To our far left sitting at a raised podium were Carolyn Peck, Nancy Lieberman, and someone else who I unfortunately forget.

We were sitting right next to the divide between the studio sitting and the actual mechanical part of the studio, which was behind the curtain. Only six or eight feet away from us stood Rebecca Lobo. She was too busy to pay any of us any attention, flipping her notecards and notes and getting perpetually-up-to-the-minute instructions from the figures behind the curtain.

The draft soon started, and President Orender announced the first draft pick - Angel McCoughtry of Louisville to the Atlanta Dream. The same pattern followed for the rest of the major draft picks:

a) player stands up, is embraced by family,
b) friends come to embrace the player,
c) the player walks up to President Orender - they shake hands,
d) the player is presented with a team jersey with the number "09" signifying the draft year,
e) the player walks towards Rebecca Lobo for an interview...which usually never came due to time restraints, and

...f) the player walks toward our section of the studio to disappear behind the curtain and leave the studio. Which means that the last faces in the audience that the player saw were our faces. We were too cowed to say "congratuations" to Angel McCoughtry, but we recovered and definitely said "congratulations" to each of the remaining players, and 90 percent of the time we got a "thank you" back.

About four picks in, Christine came and let me know that it was time for me to get my picture taken with Angel McCoughtry - each of us could choose either to a) take our picture with all of the draft picks as a group, or b) choose an individual picture with one named draft pick. I chose a picture with the #1 Atlanta draft pick and Queenie chose a picture with the #1 New York draft pick.

Getting out of that cramped area where I was sitting required some contortion. Queenie was nice enough to take pictures for me while I was gone. I walked back to a small photographic studio and we all had to Hurry Up And Wait for Angel McCoughtry. Christine walked me around the offices again, and by the time we got back Angel was there. She was working things out with the photographer, and then had her picture taken by a bigwig. (Rank has its privileges.)

Finally, it was time for my picture. I told McCoughtry I was from Atlanta and we looked forward to seeing her. I will simply say that Angel "cleans up" very nicely when she's out of uniform and leave it at that. As we snapped our pics - I'll get them in the mail - Angel said something to the effect of "I hope that you'll be attending some games in Atlanta." Oh, definitely!

Christine then led me back to the studio, but every time I thought I could climb (literally) back into my seat, the studio worker said, "no, not yet". Finally, it was "Go! Hurry, hurry!" - but a man my size can do nothing easy. As I settled in, a WNBA exec said, "You're in Nancy Lieberman's backdrop." Every time the studio went to a closeup of Nancy, I was directly in her background. The last thing America needed to see was some poor fool struggling to take his seat in the background while Nancy was yakking about some draft intricacy.

Unfortunately, when Queenie was taken back to get her picture taken with Kia Vaughn, I couldn't return the favor of taking pictures - her camera might have been some object from an alien universe the way I treated it, and I was afraid that I'd break it trying to pry it open. We watched the second and third rounds of the draft which went much more quickly, as Renee Brown took over for Donna Orender at the podium and the teams had less time to choose their picks. (By that time, the quality players were gone and they were picking off lists.) Candace Byngham of Louisville became the unofficial "Ms. Irrelevant" by being chosen with the very last pick of the 2009 WNBA Draft.

An interesting aside: as players got chosen, they would depart the studio. Their family members would also depart the studio during the commercials. This meant that as the draft progressed, the audience began to thin out considerably. Therefore, to keep the ambiance of a present audience, staffers at the NBA Entertainment Studios were pressed into the job of seat-warmers. They definitely did a good job.

The only thing left to do after Byngham was chosen was to plan our escape - we didn't need to hear any more commentary, and it was just a matter of exiting the studio.

And that was when I had my last brush with women's basketball greatness. It turns out that Geno Auriemma, the head coach of the University of Connecticut, was also present. He was there to see Renee Montgomery be drafted, and he must have decided to leave around the same time as we did. So I was basically walking shoulder to shoulder with Geno Auriemma, trying not to go goo-goo eyed as I exchanged glances in his direction as he was frequently stopped by staffers/fans/friendly that wanted to congratulate him or palaver with him.

(I also never realized that he is a man small in physical stature. For God's sake, keep it a secret between you and me.)

Christine, Queenie and I got back on the bus. The bus back was a lot slower than the bus to the studios - we hit that infamous New York traffic and then some. It certainly game me the time to reflect on all of the awesomeness I had experienced a few hours before.

(* * *)

That's it, except for the PICTURES which are in the link at the end of the post. I want to thank Christine, a senior manager at NBA Entertainment and shepherded us through all of the activities. I also want to thank Queenie and Happycappie for accepting my invitation - I couldn't have had friendlier companions and I felt right at home with them.

And now...the pictures:

Proof positive that I was there.
Sitting in the VIP room.
The seat form inside the studio.
Angel gets drafted!
Angel waits to talk to Rebecca Lobo.
Marissa Coleman is in the black and white print.
Now it's Kristi Toliver's turn!
A better example of how big the studio was.
January meets Lobo.
Okay, now here's Courtney Paris.
Shavonte Zellous gets drafted by the Detroit Shock.
Ashley Walker's moment in the sun.
Can you guess who these three are?
For some reason, near the back of the studio was this rack of basketballs.

1 comment:

afoundingfan said...

As you know by now that was Pam Ward (my buddy from my radio days) on the podium with Carolyn and Nancy.

Fun reading, thanks for posting. It's been awhile and tonight I was finally able to "check in"...lots of reading to do!