Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Press Box

Several years ago, I was working on a story on a minor league hockey player. It was fun. I went to a bunch of games and got to interview the player several times as he tried to impress hockey scouts and stay motivated. He never really did, but that wasn't my problem. Along the way I got to hang out with the coaches and ask all the questions you want to ask but don't have time for usually, such as, how do you keep a player motivated who has one foot in the NHL? It was great.

One day I was in the press room just before a game and a guy walked in who was dressed all in black. Black turtleneck with black blazer, black sunglasses, itty bitty black cell phone. The whole bit. I knew right away that he was a former star player in the NHL. He was surrounded by a small posse of much shorter men, all dressed exactly as he was, cell phones included. He carried with him the confidence or arrogance, or perhaps it was just the echo of these things, that heralded his former status. I looked up at him, registered all this, and then looked back down to my notebook to continue writing. This guy, whoever he was or had been, didn't concern me in the least, because he wasn't part of my story.

Then a weird thing happened. The press guy for this minor league team walked over to this player and gushed. He gushed. I listened in because reporters are just dressed up gossips. He said the usual: I'm a huge fan, etc. He listed games and scores and plays. Intricate stuff. And then he got out a piece of paper and asked for an autograph. Or maybe it was a shirt or a hat. I couldn't look. Even the player flinched, but he did it. He signed and listened and nodded, and then he turned away.

I came home and sent a note to my friend, Jack, who is a sportswriter. I told him how embarrassing it was to watch that. What is this guy? A child? Who asks for autographs? 

Jack reiterated a point I've heard many times. No cheering in the press box. A reporter is not a person, and certainly not a fan. A reporter does a job, fulfills a role. And that's it. If you are a reporter, on assignment and you don't have a professional question to ask a sports celebrity, or any other kind, then you say nothing.

That same night, I sat next to that former player, a famous goalie whose name now escapes me, in the press box during the game. (Larry would know his name. He knows every player's name.) We sat next to each other for two hours, but didn't exchange a word or a single glance. The rules protected us both. At the end of the game, I stood to go down to do post-game interviews. The player turned to me and extended his hand. I shook it. We nodded to each other and that was that.

Bear this in mind.

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