In the last Rocky film produced, “Rocky Balboa,” HBO boxing analyst and commentator Max Kellerman becomes overwhelmed with emotion when one of his childhood heroes acknowledges him.
“Rocky Balboa just asked me how I’m doing!” he exclaims, with an ear-to-ear smile. “I grew up watching this guy; I never thought I’d be calling one of his fights! This is unbelievable! I’m a fan, I can’t help it!”
Last night I had that same feeling Kellerman had in the movie.
Although having to do my job as a High School sports reporter, the fan in me came out; the little kid who gets star-struck being in the presence of a hero. The childhood hero in my presence:
Former Yankee centerfielder Bernie Williams.
A few weeks ago I blogged about writing a possible story involving Bernie, being that his daughter Beatriz plays for the Byram Hills High School varsity girls’ basketball team, one of the teams my newspaper covers. My goal was to write a feature story about Bea, getting some quotes from her dad and insight from his perspective.
Think about it: Bernie is famous; one of the greatest players to ever put on the Yankee pinstripes. His family undoubtedly attended many of his games at Yankee Stadium and watched him play. What must he feel like now, on the other end of it watching his daughter play?
My editor thought it would be a unique, original concept for a player profile to put in the paper – that is if we could get the story. I would have to cover one of her games in the hopes he would be there in order to set up an interview of some sort.
Monday night I received an e-mail from my editor, letting me know the Byram girls had a home game Tuesday. The odds of Bernie being in attendance were pretty high, so he gave me the assignment of covering the game. Bea is a senior and yesterday afternoon was her final regular season home game, so naturally I thought I had a good shot to meet Bernie and inquire about the interview.
I was pretty excited. But of course when I got to the game, Bernie was nowhere to be found.
At halftime Bea’s team was trailing by one point, and my editor (who was photographing the game for the paper) came up to me and pointed out that Bernie had arrived, and was sitting near the front of the gym.
“Do you want to maybe go talk to him now?” my editor asked. “I’m sure it’ll be alright. We’ve interviewed him before, and we don’t have to do the interview today. We can just ask about it.”
We made our way over to where Bernie was sitting, and just being so close to him put me in a state of awe. I couldn’t believe I was literally standing inches away from a Yankee legend, when all those years watching him from the grandstands at Yankee Stadium, I felt as if I was lightyears away from him.
My editor showed Bernie some shots of Bea he took on his camera for the paper and then introduced me to him, asking about the story idea. Bernie looked at me and said,
“A story on her? Yes, you can interview me for that. Do you have a card or something where I can reach you?
I didn’t, so I went for the next best thing.
“Can I give you my e-mail address?” I asked.
“Yeah, that’s fine,” he replied.
While I was jotting down my contact information for Bernie, an older gentleman approached him and asked for an autograph. He happily signed for him, and gave the man a smile.
After the gentleman walked away, I handed over my e-mail address to Bernie. Even as I write this, I cannot believe I gave my contact info. to a man I grew up idolizing; a true Yankee warrior. Before I walked away, with a shy look on my face, I asked Bernie for an autograph.
“Sure,” he said with a smile.
I had no baseball for him to sign; not even a baseball card. Technically, I was at work. I didn’t bring anything with me, save for my reporting materials, so I just tore a blank page out of my reporter’s notebook and handed him my pen – the same pen I was using to write down the number of baskets his daughter was scoring in her game. (Just for the record, Bea netted 17 points to lead her team to a 49-39 win!)
Not just because I was thankful for his time, but as an objective reporter, I gave his daughter a polite compliment.
“Bea is a terrific ballplayer,” I remarked.
Bernie gave me a proud look and replied, “Yeah, she works hard.”
He signed my autograph, “To A.J. Best Wishes! Bernie Williams 51”
I reached out my hand in gratitude, and he shook it.
“Thank you so much Bernie, I really appreciate this.”
He nodded at me with a gentle expression and said, “It’s no problem.”
It is times like this I feel blessed in life; blessed to have a job that gives me chances like this. There aren’t many people in the world who get to go to work and run into a recognizable and famous athlete – and incorporate that famous athlete and his family into their work.
In a lot of respects I’m extremely lucky, only because Bea isn’t the only child of a famous sports-related figure I have seen play this year.
The past two weeks I had the pleasure of covering varsity boys’ basketball games featuring Mike D’Antoni, Jr., who is the son of New York Knicks’ Head Coach Mike D’Antoni. Coach D’Antoni didn’t attend either game to watch his son, as the Knicks had games both nights I saw Mike Jr. play.
I guess I take comfort in knowing that even though I’m not on the big stage yet – I’m not writing for ESPN or the YES Network, or even MLB – but at the very least I’m getting a small taste of it, even if it’s at the bottom level.
And days like this that only give me more confidence, as a journalist.
Right now I can really only think of the TV show “Smallville,” which tells the story of a young Clark Kent (the hero who went on to become Superman). Keep in mind, Kent occupied his time as a journalist when not saving the world as the Man of Steel.
There was an episode in which Kent’s friend Chloe gets a job at the Daily Planet newspaper. They gave her an office on the ground floor and a position as a cub reporter, not exactly her dream job. Yet it didn’t matter to her. She was just happy to be there and grateful to be doing what she loves to do.
Chloe’s feelings match so well how I’ve felt this last year and a half, covering High School sports. It may not be the top, but it’s a start and it’s what I love: sports. And Chloe’s words after they gave her the job keep echoing in my mind:
“OK, so it’s actually the basement. But it’s the Daily Planet…The way I look at it, I have no place to go but up, up, and away.”