These things just don't happen to me. I'm not cool. I'm not buddies with Bob Costas. I don't have gobs of money. And, I have never, ever been to an Olympic event as a spectator. Until last night. Read on:
I rolled into the media entrance for the basketball venue to see Team USA play Germany. I had a ticket and was making my merry way to parts of the venue unknown. I showed my ticket to a nice Chinese volunteer who was seating people. He took one look at it and said to me, "I have a better seat for you."
Get this: he ushered me DOWN THE STAIRS TO SOME COURTSIDE SEATS. Well, the seats were technically in row two, but that's courtside enough for me. I looked at him and asked, "Are you sure about this?"
"Yes. This will be your seat."
So, as I'm sitting there, I got to talking to an American who does Olympic commentary for a number of sports (Basketball included) for, like, 140 networks, including Al Jazeera. He suggested to me that I head to the mixed zone once the game was over. The mixed zone is where all the media congregate to do interviews. The athletes walk what is essentially a cattle chute and our job is to shove microphones in their faces and ask them 50 or 60 times, "HOW ARE YOU FEELING?"
Now, men's basketball is considered very high-demand, so getting into the mixed zone requires new levels of permission way beyond my Olympic credentials.
"Just go with my photographer," he said. "It'll be great. You'll love it."
Off I went to the mixed zone and found myself standing squarely next to an intimidating-looking Chinese man who put me at ease immediately by cracking some jokes after I brilliantly informed him he was "pretty tall". I basically pulled the Michael Phelps of stupid-- telling a tall person that they are, indeed.. tall. As if somehow you're telling them something they didn't already know.. dropped a revelation that never occured to them until that very moment when you decided to spill the beans on that big secret that's alluded them all these years.
Anyway, I told him all about my great seats, about how I hitched my way into the mixed zone on the coat tails of a very nice photographer, about how I knew I lacked my special permission armband but just wanted to say HI to my fellow NBC folks, about how much I am growing to love basketball.. and when my mouth finally stopped moving long enough for me to catch a breath, I noticed people shoving their tickets into his hand for him to autograph.
"Why do they want your signature?"
"I was the first Chinese man to play American basketball. I'm Ma Jian."
"Really? That's awesome!! What are you doing down here in the mixed zone then?"
"I'm sort of managing things here."
Great. Just great, Stricklen. He'd be the ONE person you do not want to tell that you don't belong. He saw my reaction and gave me a knowing smile.
"You're fine. You just wanted to say hi your friends, right?"
The Team USA guys walked by to change before coming back to do interviews. I shouted, "HI NATE!!" to our hometown coach Nate McMillan while waving my arms like I'd been stung by something-- because somehow acting suave just wasn't in the cards for me that day.
And things took yet another wild turn when the guys came back out. Everybody and their mom wants to interview Kobe. Chinese people weep at the sight of him. Last night was no different. And our NBC crew had a preemo spot in the mixed zone... way up front... where you get the athletes when they are fresh and not on their 50th interview.
Only it didn't work out that way. Kobe and LeBron both only went to the back end of the mixed zone. I watched as one of our producers here frantically tried to wheel and deal getting Kobe to come over-- but he wouldn't have any of it. He kept saying he'd done NBC-- which he had...... NBC sports.
We're the news affiliates and basically every single NBC station (200+) in the country was depending on that sound. Sports and news play in different sandboxes and don't share their toys. Our guys were just about outta luck.
And here's where it gets completely awesome. I was just watching all of this unfold when I shoved my hand into my pocket and felt a crisp $100 Chinese bill I'd stuck in there earlier. Without even thinking it through I pulled it out, snapped it in front of Kobe's face and said to him, "I've got the equivalent of $15 American bucks here that says I'll beat you in a race back to that NBC mixed zone spot."
And god bless him.. in a split second he slapped the money out of my hand and took off like a shot.
Kobe is surprisingly fast.
Kobe is able to easily step over the barricade that comes up to my waist.
Kobe RUINED me in that little race.
By the time I got back over there he was waving his arms and taunting me with a chorus of, "I WIN". This, while the spectators in the stands who watched that all happen chanted his name repeatedly.
I smiled and thought to myself, Somehow, sweetheart, I think I won this one.
What an incredible story and a fun fun fun fun fun evening.
I have tape of it from two video cameras that were there-- but I apologize-- I can't air it. It's not technically my footage. So, it will have to be something for my family and friends to watch when I get home.. a memory of the moment I felt a tiny bit more cool than I really am.
But I can share some still shots from that video..
First: Kobe-- far, far ahead of me. The crowd is chanting his name and he's yelling "I WIN"
Kobe talkin' smack..
Me, talkin' smack right back.. Uuuuhhhhh: nuh na na NOT!
Me handing over the autographed money. That's right Kobe.. you can keep it, but I'm gonna make sure you can't spend it!
He appreciates the joke..
And that's all folks.
A HUGE thank you to Kevin.. my still picture mentor and all around great guy.. for getting these moments on tape.
And an even bigger THANK YOU to Craig. If it wasn't for you.. I wouldn't have even showed up at all.