by Shaun Costello
I was born and raised in New York City, commuted to High School by subway – a real city kid, and dedicated gym rat. When it came to basketball, I rooted for the New York Knickerbockers. After all, they were the city’s team, my team. Over the years I rode the roller coaster of highs and lows that the sometimes magnificent, sometimes dreadful New York Knicks provided for their loyal and befuddled fans. I remembered the names of all of the players and their many coaches – even some of the assistants. This is the plight of kids who grow up as gym rats, and who, once upon a time, thrilled to the peerless ballet performed on the floor of Madison Square Garden by the likes of Willis Reed, Dave Debuscher, Frazier,
Monroe, Lucas, and the rest. You become a hopeless case, who dreams the impossible dream, of your team, the city’s team, returning to its former glory, even though, with passing years, those days of glory had long since faded into the distant past.
During the Eighties, I made a very good living directing television commercials for New York advertising agencies. In early September of 1989 I was handed a story board from Grey Advertising containing their concept for an ambitious television commercial for none other than my beloved New York Knicks. I was beyond thrilled. If my production company was awarded this project, the entire team would be turned over to me for one whole day.
OK, long story short; the agency creatives liked my input, the suits gave the go-ahead, and the job was mine.
Now, this was the 89/90 Knicks – the Patrick Ewing/Charles Oakley/Mark Jackson/Trent Tucker/Kiki Vandeweghe/Gerald Wilkins Knicks. The team that came between the Rick Pitino trap and gun blur of the mid Eighties, and the Pat Riley-led NBA Finalists of the mid Nineties. A good, but not great team, filled with journeyman role players. Of course, how good they were was meaningless to me. All I could think about was that the New York Knickerbockers were going to be mine for a day.
The commercial would be a complicated combination of live action (Knicks players) interacting with recognizable pieces of New York City’s skyline
(Empire State Building, Pan Am, World Trade Center, etc). The players, who would appear to be hundreds of feet tall, would dribble, pass, and dunk their way through Manhattan’s caverns, using the famous buildings as props. I spent seven shooting days carefully photographing the buildings, so that they would match the intended interaction of the players. We would need the largest soundstage in the city, to accommodate the players, who were taller than I ever imagined, and the building cut-outs with which they would interact. Locked-down cameras were set up in position to photograph the cut-outs, which were carefully constructed to exactly match the buildings I had already photographed, and the Knicks personnel, who would appear as giants, doing their thing. The cut-outs would be painted a color that the computer animation system would recognize, hopefully allowing the intended magic to happen. On the studio floor, the action would appear to be basketball players weaving between huge green set pieces, but on the monitors that were set up all over the building, my original footage of the skyscrapers would be sandwiched with the new shots that included the players at work. Patrick Ewing, and his giant
shadow, would appear to be three quarters the size of the World Trade Center. To do this right, the camera set ups had to be absolutely exact, and this would take several days. In order to simulate the action during the complicated set-up, crew members and agency personnel stood in for the players. The problem was, that none of our crew people or art directors was seven feet tall, but this didn’t seem to matter at the time. Once we were convinced that the set-ups were correct, we were ready for the players. The team was in training, preparing for the upcoming season, and we would only have them all together for one long shooting day.
I arrived early the morning of the shoot. Everything had been set up by the time we left the studio the night before so, other than turning on all the lighting, and technical gadgetry that covered the studio floor, not much had to be done. I had assigned a production assistant the important task of taking still production photographs of the director, and former gym rat, interacting with his heroes throughout the day. In addition, I handed him my very own personal basketball, with instructions to get every player to sign it – reasonable perks for a lifetime fan.
Whenever celebrities were involved in a production like this, an unusually large number of hangers-on were sure to show up. Between Grey Advertising, the Madison Square Garden handlers and publicity staff, the production company, and all of the personal management people who represented the individual players, there must have been well over a hundred gawkers, who were there for a free lunch and a glimpse of Charles Oakley’s sneer.
This was in addition to the twenty five crew members who were already busy warming up the production machinery. And, of the approximately 125 people now waiting for their arrival, I was sure that I would be the only one in the building who knew each and every player by name. A lifetime Knicks fan was about to get his due.
Other than Trent Tucker, who lived in Manhattan, and was already sipping a coffee on the studio floor, the team would be bussed down from their training facility in Westchester. After a pleasant Chat with Trent, I was
informed that the team had arrived, and were all upstairs in the dressing rooms. My heroes, here at last. The first player I noticed was Kiki Vandeweghe, who was sitting in a chair in the make-up room, having some pancake applied to his face. I introduced myself, and he cheerfully engulfed my outstretched hand in his own, the largest hand I had ever seen. I felt like a three year-old, shaking hands with an affable gorilla. One by one, I met the players, who seemed happy to get a day off from the rigors of training camp and, this early in the day, were in a playful mood.
Down on the studio floor, the players mingled with crew people, asking questions about the technology involved in this endeavor, looking in camera viewfinders, seemingly happy to be there. The two players who took particular interest were Mark Jackson, and Gerald Wilkins, who asked intelligent questions, and seemed genuinely fascinated by the technology involved in the production.
Jackson, who addressed me as “Chief”, which almost made me swoon, was relentlessly curious about everything we did. He seemed amazed by the artistry, and wanted to know all about the technology we used to achieve it. I introduced him to our chief video engineer, and walked over to the edge of the studio floor, where Patrick Ewing was sitting all by himself. Now, I’m just not used to being in the presence of anyone seven feet tall, and have to admit to being intimidated by his knee being level with my waist. I asked him if he needed anything, and he shrugged and said he was fine. A few minutes later, I noticed my assistant director, a woman considerably more sensitive that I, approach Patrick, who still seemed aloof.
She slid her arm around his sitting shoulder and gave him a half hug, and his face lit up like a Christmas tree. Patrick wasn’t aloof – he was just shy.
At some point Stu Jackson, the newly hired Knick’s coach made a brief appearance. He asked me if everyone was behaving, and left after a few minutes. Actually the players, with the possible exception of Charles Oakley who had on his snarly game face, were a cooperative bunch. As we began the first set-up, it became obvious that something was wrong. When Oakley or Patrick Ewing stood next to our precious cut-outs, the scale was off by a mile. A common practice in prepping a production, we had used crew people as stand-ins when we constructed the sets. The problem, which was now obvious, was that crew people are not seven feet tall, and that none of our carefully constructed building cut-outs would work with the actual players. I had a very expensive disaster on my hands. We told the team to take a break, and had a crash meeting. Everything would have to be at least two feet taller. All the set-ups, that had taken so many long days to achieve, would have to be redone, and in a hurry. The construction crew attacked the task at hand, and we would have to go through the day shooting one set-up while constructing the next; a noisy, distracting process.
Somehow we managed slowly shooting set-up after set-up, the crew becoming exhausted and cranky, but the players, again with the possible exception of Oakley, were real troopers and none of them complained about the time all of this was taking. After ten hours of shooting, and well into overtime, we were ready for the final shot, which would be the whole team, forming a semi-circle, standing along the edge of Madison Square Garden’s cylindrical roof-line, high-fiving each other, and exuding the energy and confidence of a sports franchise ready to kick some butt. The enormous cylinder shaped platform that the players would stand on had been raised a good five feet by the construction crew, while we were shooting the other set-ups. This would be the big shot. The players climbed up on the platform, and I arranged them in an order that made sense in the camera. The choreography of this shot took at least another hour and, by the time everyone was in position, they hardly looked like the high-energy butt kickers I has envisioned, but instead just a bunch of tired guys who wanted to go home. We began shooting and, take after take, the team seemed more and more exhausted. Payroll wise, we were now into ‘Golden Time’, the client was grumpy and becoming nervous, the crew was sleep-walking, my heroes appeared very unheroic, and my ‘big shot’ was just not working. Just about the time I considered killing myself, I heard a familiar voice from up on the platform. “Hey Chief, wait a second”.
It was Mark Jackson, who jumped down from the platform, took me by the arm, and led me off somewhere beyond the earshot of the huge crowd of gawkers who had been watching this disaster in the making. “Look”, he said, “There’s no energy here. It’s late. These guys are beat. You’ve got to wake them up”. I could only nod, grateful for his interest, but almost too tired to respond. “Look Chief, these are performers you’re dealing with here. They need something to respond to. They need a crowd to cheer them on like it’s the last minute of overtime and they’re one point down. They need their fans to get behind them and make some noise”. Of course, he was absolutely right. He saw the situation, found the problem, and came up with the appropriate solution. Mark took his place back up on the platform, and I rallied the troops. I had to turn every crew person, gawker, and corporate freeloader on that studio floor into frenzied, screaming sports fans, rallying their heroes on to victory. I told the exhausted, yet somehow still cooperative players that we would try one more take, while Mark Jackson poked and prodded them into laughing and trash talking. The camera began rolling, and I began screaming at the people on the floor to get behind their team. As the noise level grew louder, the energy level of the players grew as well, until the crowd, who had now gathered close around the platform, was a delirious cacophony of deafening encouragement to twelve tall men who had totally bought into their enthusiasm. Trash was talked, high fives were swapped, someone threw a basketball up to the players and they did mad tricks with it. It was exactly the high energy madness I had envisioned, but was unable to achieve, until Mark Jackson wisely intervened with exactly the right solution. This very expensive disaster, was transformed into an enormous success thanks to a guy who saw a problem, and knew how to fix it.
I can remember thinking at the time, that one day, after his point guard days were over, Mark Jackson would have a long and successful career coaching NBA basketball. He was a natural. A leader of men. A fixer of problems. He walks with a swagger that’s been earned. He would be a brilliant coach. But, although he interviewed well, he was turned down by a series of teams because of his lack of coaching experience. After retiring as a player, Jackson chose the broadcast booth over an Assistant Coach’s seat on the end of the bench, and most teams chose from the pool of Assistant Coach’s to fill their Head Coaching vacancies. I knew Jackson’s manager, Steve Kauffman, and sent him a version of this humble scribbling, which he used in his campaign to find a Head Coaching job for his client. I’m sure that my literary plea on Jackson’s behalf had little to do with the San Francisco Warriors final decision to give Mark Jackson his chance as their Head Coach, but I’m thrilled to have helped.
After his extraordinarily successful first season, there’s little doubt that Mark Jackson is a coach to be watched, something I knew all along. After all, if Mark Jackson could turn my miserable self into a hero, winning an NBA championship is really not so much of a stretch.
© 2012 Shaun Costello
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