At work yesterday, my editor (also a photographer) decided it would be funny to take a shot of me sitting courtside next to a certain person. He e-mailed it to me, calling it a “souvenir” from the game he sent me to cover.
Although I look like the Angry Video Game Nerd in the photo, I’m happy he took it.
On Feb. 7 I had the honor of meeting Yankee legend Bernie Williams, covering his daughter Bea’s basketball game. Bea’s team made the playoffs and I was once again assigned to cover her team yesterday evening. Just being able to shake Bernie’s hand and the fact that he signed an autograph for me was enough of a memory to last me the rest of my life.
But it got even better. More good times. More great memories.
I hit some traffic on the way to the game, but got to Byram Hills High School in Armonk, N.Y. and sat down literally right before the girls tipped off. Bea gained possession of the ball, drove to the hoop on a fast break, and banked in the first basket of the game.
Maybe a minute later, Bernie walked in, and I was the first person he noticed. He smiled at me, reached out to shake my hand, and said,
“Hey! How’s it going? Good to see you again.”
I shook his hand and answered, “Good! Nice to see you again, too.”
Bernie took the seat right next to me. He leaned over to me and said, “This is going to be a tough game for them.” I replied, “Yeah, the playoffs are always tough.” He gave me nod and a look expressing agreement.
I mean, Bernie would know a lot about postseason play. In 12 out of his 16 seasons with the Yankees he was playing in October. He would know about playoff difficulty better than anyone.
Bea’s team fell behind 12-7 late in the first quarter, and the coach called a full timeout. While the teams were in the huddle, Bernie leaned over to me again and kind of tapped me on the shoulder.
“So really, how’ve you been? Everything good?”
I tried to mask my amazement. As I described when I first met him, I felt just like Max Kellerman in “Rocky Balboa.” I grew up watching him belt home runs at Yankee Stadium, and afford me and the rest of the Yankee fans wonderful memories. Now he’s asking me how I’m doing?!
In the words of Kellerman I wanted to scream, “This is unbelievable! I’m a fan, I can’t help it!”
But I couldn’t express it. I had to show him I’m normal person, not just another Yankee fanatic.
Calm, cool, and collectively I answered, “Yep. Everything’s good. I hit a little bit of traffic getting here, but walked in right before tipoff. Bea actually had the first basket of the game, right before you came in.”
Bernie chuckled, and then gazed at his daughter. I could just tell by the look in his eyes how proud he was of her. It’s funny, because I bet when she was younger, watching him patrol centerfield at Yankee Stadium, she had the same, spirited look.
As it happened, Bea’s team rallied from behind to win, 48-46. They were trailing 34-27 after the third quarter and staged a come-from-behind victory, outscoring the other team 21-12 in the fourth. Bea led her team with 19 points, and bucketed three shots from beyond the 3-point arc.
Afterward I caught up with her and interviewed her about her outstanding performance. She was so happy that her team won – not only because she didn’t want her team to be eliminated from playoff contention, but to keep her High School basketball career alive.
Bea is a senior, and it’s never fun to be playing that last game.
I pretty much burst out laughing at what Bea’s mom (and obviously Bernie’s wife) said to me right before I conducted my postgame interview. She got behind her daughter and teased her with a big smile on her face, saying,
“It’s all her mother! She gets everything from me!”
All three of us just started to laugh. I thought it was classic; such a “mom” thing to do and say.
After I was done interviewing Bea, I offered my praise and let her know Bernie looked incredibly honored watching her play.
“Congratulations on the win Bea,” I remarked. “I was sitting next to your dad and he looked very proud.”
She thanked me with an ear-to-ear smile.
I know I said it last time, but I have to say it again: I feel extremely lucky to be doing what I’m doing as far was my job is concerned. Not many die-hard Yankee fans can say they get to go to work and sit next to a Yankee legend – and then get to write about it.
This is just another memory I’ll carry with me forever, and I’ll never forget.
Later on, Mike D’Antoni’s son (who I believe I mentioned before) played in the second game I covered. Obviously his father wasn’t in attendance, as the Knicks and their new phenom Jeremy Lin dropped their game at Madison Square Garden to the New Orleans Hornets, losing 89-84, thus ending their seven-game “Linning” streak.
If you’re wondering, D’Antoni’s son’s team also lost, 53-40, eliminating them from the High School postseason. Mike, Jr. is…well…a junior, however. He still has another year to win a basketball championship.
As for Bea’s team, I hope they keep winning and go all the way to win the Gold Ball in the Section 1, Class A finals. For as nice as the Williams family has been to me the two times I covered her team, she deserves to win.
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.”