Friday, January 22, 2010

Working In the Madhouse on Madison

Originally written July 2, 2009

At the front of the United Center on Madison Ave in Chicago, there is a statue of Michael Jordan making one of his legendary dunks with the ball palmed in his right hand. It’s a truly remarkable statue, and one that I’m particularly fond of, partially because it reminds me of an Arena that I wound up spending a profound amount of time at during my senior year of college, and partially because the innocent defenders Jordan is dunking over don’t look so much like basketball players as they do hellish demons.

It is peculiar and yet a reasonable metaphor, as it presents Jordan not so much as an athlete but as a god-like figure commanding his kingdom and those beneath him. In a sense, this is exactly what Jordan was. He was the single most dominant basketball player ever. Yes, there are those that would argue for players like Wilt Chamberlain or perhaps more legitimately, Bill Russell. I was not alive to see those legends of the hardcourt, but for my money, his Airness was king. He was a brilliant and unstoppable force while his Bulls took six NBA titles in eight seasons, and while those titles wouldn’t have come without the quality supporting cast around him – players such as Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, Steve Kerr, Luc Longley, B.J. Armstrong, Dennis Rodman – there was no man in the history of the game that you’d rather have on your side with a Championship on the line.

One of my great regrets as a sports fan is that I never saw Jordan play in person. The closest I would come was seeing the building that might not have existed without him. For decades the Bulls and Chicago Blackhawks called the ancient Chicago Stadium home, but in the mid-1990s, the outmoded building was replaced by the sparkling new United Center, or the UC as I would come to call it. Reaching the arena by car is somewhat confusing if you don’t do it every day, and it’s not in the greatest neighborhood in the city, but those issues aside, it is a spectacular place to watch basketball or hockey. It is deceptively large, with capacity reaching well over 22,000 seats, and it is filled with the sports bars and luxury boxes that have come to dot the landscape of the modern basketball or hockey arena.

My first visit came on January 17, 2004, when I noticed in the morning that my torturous Knicks were in town and found two nosebleed seats available on the Bulls’ website. Josh Sherman, a friend of mine from high school that also attended Northwestern was my first thought to try and bully into going to the game with me. Josh, a tortured Knicks fan himself, decided to tag along, but noted that his roommate, Andy, would also be attending the game with his father in courtside seats. Not only could we go to the game, but Andy and his father were also willing to give us a ride.

Josh debated for quite some time whether or not to charge his cell phone and then opted against it, assuming there would be more than enough power in it to last the night. This would be put to the test later on in the evening, but first Andy’s father took us all out to dinner, a particularly generous move on his part considering he had never met me before, and that he seemed rather shocked that Josh and I both loved Latrell Sprewell. After eating we got to the stadium where Josh and I found we were in the very last row of the entire arena, in the corner of the court no less. Our seats were so far away that we were actually in folding chairs rather than typical stationary stadium seating.

Despite the seating arrangements, the view was perfectly fine, as the Knicks pulled out a surprising victory, sending Josh and I home happy amidst a sea of disappointed Chicagoans. Our mood would drop moments later, however, when Josh, after finding that his cell phone had died in the second quarter, found out from Andy that a pair of courtside seats sat empty the entire game and we could have moved down had he only been able to get in contact with us.

Shit happens.

Interestingly, in four more years of living in Chicago, I would only attend one more Bulls game, a group affair with my friend Evan’s softball team, where I spent most of the time dazzled by how easily Houston’s Yao Ming covered the entire court in what couldn’t have been more than five strides. I would have plenty of time with the Blackhawks however, whom I first saw from the top bowl of the stadium on January 13, 2006, as Blake Kluger, with whom I had traveled to St. Louis to see the Mets play the Cardinals four months earlier, my friends Abe Rakov , Pat Dorsey and I took the absurdly long L ride to the UC to see Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins. At the time, the Blackhawks offered student tickets in the last rows of the stadium for just $8. I took this opportunity to break a $100 bill my father had given me for Hanukkah, completing a quest I had set off on to break the large bank note with the smallest purchase possible. Our seats were so high up and the Blackhawks were so bad at the time, that the highlight for me was getting the Chicago Blackhawks Mr. Potato Head giveaway as we walked in.

Little did I know at the time that I would be watching quite a bit of Blackhawks hockey just eight months later, when I applied for and accepted a web internship with the team. I had been faced with a quandary before my senior year of college. Fortunately for my parents and unfortunately for me, I had enough credits from high school to fill out an entire quarter of classes at Northwestern. The upshot of this was that my parents made it abundantly clear to me that if I didn’t want to take a quarter off my senior year, I could pay for the classes myself.

With that, I spent summer applying for internships in sports media in the Chicagoland area and found myself with a few options. That summer I had been toiling away as an intern for NBC Sports and Olympics. Eventually, I settled on a schedule that had me splitting time between working in on-air promotions at a regional sports channel called Comcast SportsNet Chicago, working on the web for the Chicago Blackhawks and working at nights as an editor for the Daily Northwestern.

Despite not taking any classes, burning the candle at both ends – and in the middle – took its toll on me. I would be lying if I didn’t admit to falling asleep at Comcast SportsNet’s offices more than once, something not lost on my superior, who would tell this to his brother, whom I would also wind up working with, some years later. The balancing act would be a tricky one, but one that was entirely worthwhile.

My start with the Blackhawks would be a rocky, however. On my second day on the job, my boss let me go home early only for me to find that my car had a flat tire. I spent three hours in the United Center parking lot on an 80-degree day waiting for AAA to show up and produce absolutely no ability to fix it. Despite that one particularly long afternoon, I would eventually learn a great deal about the sports industry, and having the experience on my resume set me up well for my first two jobs out of college.

Also, it was really, really cool.

You always need to exude an air of professionalism when you’re representing an organization bigger than yourself, in this case a professional sports team. But, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit 21-year-old me felt like a big shot when he got to flash his employee photo ID and go through all the doors with restricted access listed on them. I got to prowl the bowels of the United Center on game nights as I watched and updated from the press box, grabbed viewer questions for the Hawks’ radio commentators to answer during the second intermission and went into the visiting locker room to get quotes after each game. I have fond memories of getting confused, if not nasty looks from Chris Pronger, and holding a tape recorder to Mike Modano, Roberto Luongo, Jacques Lemaire, Barry Trotz and Wayne Gretzky, among others.

The most stressful night for me was when the Mets, trailing 3-2 going into Game 6 of the 2006 NLCS, were trying desperately to hold off the Cardinals in the ninth inning. At the time Billy Wagner was nailing down the save, I was following the tense final moments in a flurry of text messages from my friend Tania in one hand, while my other hand was holding a tape recorder to Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock. Some might argue that my priorities were not in order. They’d probably be right.

Still I came to know the UC like the back of my hand. I shared many awkward elevator rides with players such as Michal Handzus and Martin Havlat, and managed to pull strings where I got prime seats for my roommates and my girlfriend at the time. To this day, I’m still pretty sure she and her roommate were most excited by the fights. In fact, I recall getting them tickets for one game and looking down from the press box at their section during on-ice altercation to find her roommate pumping her fist and cheering enthusiastically.

The interesting thing about working for the Blackhawks was, for me, that despite not caring for them at all before my internship, I developed a fondness for the club despite the fact that, well, they weren't very good. With the aging Bill Wirtz holding the purse strings, the Hawks weren’t competitive and drew a mediocre crowd any night the Red Wings weren’t in town. Wirtz had even prevented home games from being broadcast on TV for fear that it would dissuade Chicagoans from making a trip to the arena. The front office staff was smaller than most and even those who were employed had to forgo luxuries such as bottled water.

Despite those things, I still enjoyed my time there. Even if I missed a few major moments, such as when the Hawks fired head coach Trent Yawney – I was on a plane flight back from New Jersey at the time – I always felt like I had something to do. Most days at the office were followed by a hockey game at night, and whenever there was downtime, the interns always managed to pass it by playing bubble hockey in the back room. Even though I probably shouldn’t have, I walked around the UC with impunity, catching free shows of the circus during lunch time, or walking around the court when Bulls coaches were taking each other on in pickup games.

Of all the experience I gained at the UC, I would say one discussion with General Manager Dale Tallon, set the bar as far as life lessons would go. Tallon was a friendly and astute hockey man. Long a part of the Blackhawks organization as either a television commentator or part of the front office, he would lead the Hawks from perennial cellar dwellers to Cup contenders after I graduated by drafting players like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, and acquiring or signing others such as Patrick Sharp and Cristobal Huet.

I will always remember him fondly as the guy who would playfully jab me in the stomach when we were stuffed into an overcrowded elevator after games on the press level. Most important however, was one day at lunch, when he sat down to eat with all the interns, an unusually common occurrence for someone in such a lofty position. I, as a college senior with little business experience, was washing my dress shirts at my apartment in the washing machine. As well, like most college students, I was prone to bouts of laziness that left my dress shirts with more folds in them than a poker game. On that particular day, Tallon pulled out the seat next to me and grabbed a hold of my sleeve.

“Is this one of those new ‘perma-wrinkle’ shirts?” he asked.

From that day on, my dress shirts have been laundered.

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