NEW YORK—There was an uneasiness despite the festive atmosphere, a subtle tinge of doubt and disjunction to it all. You could sense their apprehension: a bit lost, a bit confused. The random arrivals of a pre-car accident Manute Bol (God bless him) and a pre-nothing Shawn Bradley certainly didn’t help. Yet as the cameras turned on and tape began to roll, the 2004 NBA Draft unfolded at Madison Square Garden just like always.
But the great city of New York was collectively left hanging.
No, not as to who would be picked first. That would be all too easy, a veritable coin-flip mystery between Emeka Okafor and Dwight Howard already played out by the thousands of sabermetric algorithms, coefficient quantifications and physical improbability arbitrage flooding the internet with pre-draft scrutiny.
Okay, maybe I made all those terms up, but there were a lot of pre-draft articles, mock drafts and analyses, and I think ESPN’s Chad Ford wrote all of them. And, in truth, the actual draft, by this time, was old hat. There was a far more gripping question at hand.
“Who do we mock now?”
New York, see, is a place where former Knicks general manager Scott Layden served as the primary target for so many years. It was easy. Too easy, maybe. “Fire Layden” was bound to be heard at an NBA Draft as sure as the sun rises in the morning. The Knicks could have somehow redrafted the second comings of Wills Reed, Clyde Frazier, Bill Bradley, Earl Monroe and company during Layden’s tenure but it wouldn’t have mattered. The mockery was a draft-day rite, although this year, Layden was very explicably gone. (Occasionally, in fact, my friends and I do nothing but think about how the Knicks passed up native St. John’s product Ron Artest for Frenchman Frederic Weis, who not only never made it to American shores but proceeded to be dunked over by Vince Carter in the Olympics. I’m not sure if I can stress this enough. Frederic Weis is over seven feet all, purportedly. Vince Carter physically dunked over him. Over him. Over him. Over him. But I digress.)
The point is that in a poetic turn of events, Knicks fans at long last got what they wished for and Scott Layden was no longer GM. He was gone. Some people in 2004 actually seemed to begin the “FIRE LAYDEN” chant and then suddenly stop, stunned. Others obnoxiously continued anyway. Those others were my friends.
But not even Bol and Bradley’s combined 15 feet of sheer, gangly humanity could fill the void for the rest of us, it seemed. I considered chanting “Rufio, Rufio” a la the movie Hook but that plan foolishly fell by the wayside. There was the always good “TIMMERMANS” chant (see Part One of this NBA Draft diary) to fall back on, but that was too obscure for anyone else to get. We were at a loss, and the quiet was disheartening.
But like a shining beacon of hope, and fitting the requisite criteria of being at least tangentially involved with the NBA Draft, possibly incompetent and alive—tight rules, really—a man stepped up to save us all from our collective funk: Tom Tolbert.
The first time I ever saw Tolbert on television, I honestly thought he was former center Matt Geiger. At least, a slightly more svelte, self-confident, even amiable Matt Geiger who puzzlingly got a job as an ESPN/ABC analyst. None of that bewilderment was erased, notably, when I found that it was in fact Tom Tolbert.
Regardless, it didn’t take long for the Garden to smell blood. Even as the lottery picks were being called, people focused their attention acutely on Tolbert, who had done nothing wrong on this night. His reputation, unfortunately, preceded him. He is pretty well-known by NBA fans in general as a brashly self-assured commentator who seemingly lacks the commentating chops. Arguably, he is Steven A. Smith, except white, not entertaining, and without the ability to angrily strike the fear of God into your heart. And so they pounced.
The slow melody of “TOLBERT…TOLBERT” droned on from the back rows, building and building in mellifluous synchronization until its climax in the draft’s second round. Everyone, feeling the void left by Layden, joined in. As the “VIP” section—a vast area surrounding the stage—began to empty out, leaving only various foreign draft picks and hardcore VIPs, the people from the Section 300’s of MSG filed in as if the third-class passengers had overtaken the deck of the Titanic. And in a beautifully coordinated scheme, the ESPN crew—Mike Tirico, Jay Bilas, Smith and Tolbert—was attacked on three fronts.
Directly in front of them, and I mean literally 20 or so feet in front of them, now sat a row of 10 or so kids from my high school and former Associate Sports Chair Martin S. Bell ’03 with a couple of his friends. (My friends and I soon joined up with them.) Behind us was a group of drunken, casually dressed fans. And to our left was a group of drunken, well-dressed fans, all cooperating towards the lone goal of terrorizing Tom Tolbert. It was the kind of diversity a college only dreams of.
Highlights included the always effective “TOLBERT SUCKS,” and the divisive yet very hard to chant “MIKETIRICOHATESTOLBERT,” but the opportunity for intimate mockery was unquestionably the greatest of them all. Everyone knew that Tom Tolbert could hear virtually all of what was muttered, and the Regis High School kids each held up a sheet of paper spelling “TOLBERT” and kept the previous chant going. The look of frustration and confusion on Tolbert’s face from several yards away was priceless.
But that wasn’t enough. The aforementioned Martin S. Bell stood up and pointed directly at Tolbert, and then back at the Wheel of Fortune-esque “TOLBERT” spelled out in front of him. “YOU’RE FIRED, TOLBERT,” he yelled, giving him a thumbs-down. “YOU’RE FIRED.” We roared with laughter.
Tom Tolbert, understandably, was confused and angry. He lifted up his arms and mouthed, “Who are you?” and began an exchange which eventually ended in Martin flexing and saying, “THE GUNS BE THIS BIG, TOLBERT. THE GUNS BE THIS BIG.” A nearby Stuart Scott was confused, but was by all accounts macking it with a production assistant, so he didn’t really care.
Ultimately, the Regis kids ended up spelling out “SORRY” in letters and begged Tolbert to look up at them again. Meanwhile, the guys to our left had somehow gotten kicked out, and the guys behind us were chanting “TOLBERT FARTED.” It was everything I had dreamed of.
To paraphrase one of Chris Farley’s better bits on “Saturday Night Live,” in which he goes on Weekend Update and recalls fond memories of being a baseball streaker, “To me, the NBA isn’t about the score, or who drafts who…it’s about going to the Garden on a Thursday night, drinking a few beers and mocking, wild and free. Until the security guards come and beat the holy beejeezus out of me.”
Scott Layden, one likes to think in times like this, would have been proud.
—Staff writer Pablo S. Torre can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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