by Ben Collins
NOTE: The video of last night with the hecklers can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EvJGghOuFlQ
Martin Bell and Brian Hughes are hunched over the counter of the Heartland Brewery bar, two blocks away from Madison Square Garden, peering up to a closed captioned screen. Stephen A. Smith is “blabbering” about something “painfully inane,” so loudly that you can almost hear it on mute, and the two Brooklyn-born hecklers are resigned to their fate on their favorite day of the year.
Their awaited sequel to a Youtube video mocking Stephen A. Smith’s snacking habits at the 2006 NBA Draft — one that has appeared everywhere from Deadspin.com to references on ESPN’s own Pardon The Interruption – would not take place.
The lines were too long in the morning, they said. They waited — particularly early, even, for this draft — for tickets outside of the Garden ticket office. They were turned away. The thousands who showed up behind him dispersed without protest and they were crushed.
Never had they seen a line so long nor tickets so few. And they’ve been doing this for years. “Over the years, we’ve called Kirk Hinrich a hobbit; we’ve told TJ Ford that he’s undersized for an audience member,” says Hughes. “And then there was the Corsley Edwards incident.”
At the 2002 draft, Bell, Fordham-alumnus Hughes and others were rabidly rooting for former Ram Smush Parker to be drafted in the final picks of the second round. Corsley Edwards was selected with the final pick instead and a group in front of them began taunting them mercilessly. Turns out it was Corsley Edwards family. Whoops.
But this year, it was beyond that. They had to go. People were expecting them.
Plus, they had this idea. And it was a good one.
“There’s this temptation,” says Bell. He pauses. He’s choosing his words wisely to remain poetic despite the consolation prize – a seven-glass rack of beer called the Seasonal Voyage – that he is currently fighting his way through. “There’s this temptation, as with every sequel, to go in the next logical direction because there’s a good amount of people paying attention to us sticking to the spirit of the franchise. We weren’t going to go out and do a Jay Bilas impersonation. That’s not the point.”
They were to intercept players, one by one, through the fan exit and yell at them, scream at them, paparazzi-like, red-carpet-like, Triumph-the-Insult-Comic-Dog-like, Stephen-A.-Smith-like with a miniature Stephen A. sock puppet. It would’ve worked, he thought; would’ve been brilliant. Woulda coulda shoulda.
And then they got a call.
There was one ticket. Martin, the Stephen A. impersonator from last year, would take it. Brian would be the martyr, the good friend, taking one for the team, for the whole Internet, and he’d finagle his way in for the second round through Hell or high water or dirty New York City ticket scalpers. This is what he had to do.
“In terms of our culture of heckling,” Bell prosthelytizes, “I’m merely the Ben Franklin; he’s the George Washington. He’s the purist’s form of heckler. He has sound fundamentals. The John Stockton of heckling, if you will. It’s breaking my heart that he’s not here to see this.”
But no time for sympathy. The Blazers are on the clock. Two drinks left. Bell and Hughes are on the clock. “If you can’t drink any faster,” says Hughes, “I can handle those last two.” We’re all on the clock.
After Bell tries to accumulate a second seat that does not exist from the ticket window, he abandons the idea, files inside and stations himself by the makeshift autograph and high-five area where the players exit to the press conference room. He hovers above the anxious early-teenagers and is far more collected than the adults who are giddy like overgrown children.
He pulls out his “ sock puppet” – it’s just a brown sock with decorated lining, no eyes and an improvised mouth made from the creases of his fingers – and preps his camera. He’s now doing vocal exercises.
“I’m Stephen A. Smith! Everything I say is important!” Louder now. “I’m Stephen A. Smith. Everything I say is important!”
He has missed the big two – Greg Oden and Kevin Durant – but is happy to be inside. He’s waiting for Al Horford and films his intro.
“Quite frankly this is outstanding. I’ma have some cheez doodles,” he says – or screams – in all of Stephen A.’s inflection. Here comes Al Horford.
“You can stop for Stephen A. Smith!” he yells. Horford is looking, smiling. He desperately wants to stop but he has an entourage too strong, too punctual.
“Some people think you’re the best forward since Slava Medvedenko!” Sla-va Med-vehh-dennn-ko. He’s laughing now. They still won’t stop. “Billy Donovan would be ashamed of you right now!”
And he didn’t stop, but he got exactly what he wanted out of his first pick: acceptance.
“I think this is gonna work.”
It’s important to note, too, that it probably wouldn’t work for anyone else. Bell’s Smith impression is perfect, sure, and that wins over the autograph-happy fans waiting for their favorite NBA player to come out. But his trick is to win over every possible hampering force, including the most important: the security guards. He spends each second in between picks schmoozing and coddling to each piece of security, from the stern gentleman who takes pride in his power – “you, sir, sounded very decisive. Those people knew where their seats were and you didn’t even have to convince that guy that he didn’t,” this to an usher who sent a couple in the wrong direction – to an elderly usher who doesn’t much like the NBA. “This is where you kids have your fun, I just try to make sure you guys behave,” says the man in front of the security rope. Bell assures him he’ll be on his best behavior and waits for Mike Conley.
“Mike Conley! This is Stephen A. Smith! Everything I say is important! Won’t you talk to Stephen A.?” He won’t. Conley is cut off by an NBA China reporter who is on the player-side of the rope. “No, Mike Conley! Don’t talk to NBA.Com China guy! Talk to Stephen A.!”
He doesn’t. He also gets a firm warning from someone he assumes is from NBA.Com. “You’re gonna have to stop that when they’re on camera or we’re gonna have to throw you out,” says one of the hundreds of men in a suit.
But the fans of the players are starting to become fans of Bell. It’s becoming clear to the security guards that they can’t throw this guy out, even if they wanted to. Bell is becoming an attraction himself – accepting requests to take pictures with fans and receiving countless amounts of praise. He calls it “viral marketing at the grassroots – capturing them one soul at a time.” And some people already recognize him.
“Are you the Stephen A. Smith guy from last year? The Cheez Doodles guy?” asks Sivan Yacobian from Great Neck, NY. Bell nods. “You’re gonna be so famous tomorrow.”
People are asking to hear “the voice” in between picks. He’s receiving dozens of you’re-the-mans from fans in assorted jerseys. Washington Post reporter and DC Sports Bog writer Dan Steinberg stops to see what all the commotion is about and chats with Bell.
As expected, some, including Steinberg, don’t appreciate the sentiment.
“I don’t find it funny,” says Keith, who won’t give a last name. “This is their moment, the players’, and he’s ruining it for them. I think they should throw him out.”
But the reaction is otherwise overwhelmingly positive. Those who hate Stephen A., like fan Ari Ades, “love” the impression. “Stephen A. is an average Joe except for his voice and his attitude,” he says. “I think he deserves it.”
Even some Smith disciples from his more consistent days at the Philadelphia Inquirer concur. “He had years of great columns. He’s entertaining, with the ‘quite frankly’ bit. He’s able to engage people and you can see it in the ratings, but I respect his writing more than what he says.”
As for sock puppet Stephen A? “It’s pretty good, but if you did that to him, he might kill you.”
The next pick, Corey Brewer, is the first dud of the night. The new Timberwolf puts his head down and immediately walks forward. He doesn’t get the joke.
But Bell wasn’t focused, anyway – seconds before the Brewer pick, the Milwaukee Bucks picked Chinese center Yi Jianlian and he has no idea what to do. Yi doesn’t speak English. If Corey Brewer doesn’t get the joke, this is gonna fly well over Yi Jianlian’s 7-foot-high head.
He tries anyway. “I know your handlers are handling you,” mini-Smith screams, “but you are being drafted in part because you know how to handle yourself.” There are laughs audible everywhere, cutting the tension of an otherwise awkward romp for this clear cultural divide. Yi doesn’t give high fives or show any emotion, he just walks.
But one security guard pulls Bell aside. The guard is fine with the impression, but thinks there were racial undertones to the quip. The normally collected Bell shows a little wear, before calming himself down and talking himself out of it.
He has been rattled by race joke accusations since last year, when fans thought throwing his tone to sound like Stephen A. Smith was racist towards black people.
One small problem with the racism allegation: Martin Bell is black.
“He seemed to think that my repartee is ethnically insensitive,” says Bell. “But I don’t think there’s anything remotely insensitive about anything I said. I try as hard as I can to stay away from that. I walk a very fine line, but I would never cross that.”
Bell is careful with his words because, although he works at “a large New York City lawfirm, let’s leave it at that” by day, he wants to write the next great American novel. It would be a comedy, he says.
“It would be a funny, humorous novel and it would touch on gender, race, happiness. It’s the nature of the Great American Experiment,” he says.
Sounds kind of like tonight.
Now the picks become strategic. He’s a keen manipulator, that’s already been established. And he’s a smart guy altogether: twenty-six-years-old, went to Harvard (really). There has to be a way to get maximize the quality footage. There’s gotta be a way to figure this out.
“With these shots, we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns,” he says. He’s figured it out.
Talk to Brandan Wright, whose name was just announced, but make sure not to get thrown out before Joakim Noah. He’ll be good. No, he’ll be perfect.
Brandan Wright comes and goes to smiles. He’s like Mike Conley: if only he would talk. Bell is doing more vocal excersises. “Noah is our big and strategic pick,” he says.
There are tens of more people in the way for Noah, but thankfully the Florida forward stops for each one. He’s signing autographs, shaking hands; he’s even getting a little touchy with women. He’s got this in the bag.
Pre-teen kids start a “get a haircut” chant to the floppy-haired Noah. Bell replies that Noah is “a gentleman and a scholar” and then starts spewing Marvin Gaye lyrics flowingly, like a free-verse poet at a coffeeshop. He insists he’s never taken acting classes.
Noah comes once and doesn’t notice the sock puppet. Just missed him. Bell realigns and then captures his moment of glory: Noah listens to Sock Puppet Stephen A., winces and then playfully slaps it about its cotton head.
“If you put that on Youtube,” screams Noah, “I’m gonna get killed for that.”
Bell is at-first conflicted, but then realizes it will make Noah’s personality shine — his fan-friendly persona at an all-time high on film. He will post it. Because it was exactly what he was looking for.
Bell finally works his way into his seats for the first time, already located about 50-feet away from the ESPN set. It took them until the second round to get here last year and it’s still the lottery right now. He gets word from Brian that he didn’t make it in and he’s on his way home, so Martin is going to have to go it alone tonight.
Before he commences heckling Stephen A., he wants to make two things clear:
1) He already has his best footage of the night. No amount of direct torment to a broadcaster could top what he just did.
2) He doesn’t hate Stephen A. Smith. He doesn’t love him, but he doesn’t hate him.
“He amuses me,” he says. “I don’t hate the guy, I just think he’s cartoonish. He’s enraptured in his own cartoon. And his own obliviousness to how cartoonish he is just makes it even better.”
Bell entertains the thought that maybe somewhere down the line Smith understood that he’s become so cartoonish that someone can conceivably, realistically make him into a sock puppet but squelched the notion for his career.
“I think he’s aware of it, but I think he has a sufficiently inflated sense of self-importance. I think he has insecurities, just like everybody else, that are creeping up and when he looks in the mirror he says, ‘Everything I say is important!’ and he is fine again.”
But there’s respect for that, in a way, too.
“He’s an interesting metaphor for the engine that drives America,” he says. “He’s trying to accomplish something different by being someone no one else has been before.”
It’s out of that respect that Bell put his camera away when he was instructed to do so by a security guard in the late second round on Thursday. It’s also out of that respect that, in the only time the entire night that Smith responded to Bell en lieu of being overly attentive to his cell phone, Bell didn’t attack. He merely prodded.
“Stephen A., you want some Cheez Doodles?” Smith shaked his head yes. “How many packs?” Smith raises his index finger for one pack. That’s when the dialogue ended.
“Stephen A. has been well-behaved tonight,” said Bell.
So Bell backed off Smith for the rest of the night because hey, maybe Stephen A. Smith is a good guy now? Maybe he’d be the guy who would give up a ticket to see his favorite event of the year? Maybe Stephen A. learned a lesson and there’s a deep philosophical point here.
“Check out Stuart Scott texting!” a fan yelled. Sure enough, Stuart Scott is sprawled across his interview table almost on all fours typing in a text message on his cell phone.
“Oh, this is too good,” says Bell.
He’ll worry about the philosophy of it all later.