Our man spent a week getting down and very, very dirty with the behind-the-scenes folks who keep million-dollar athletes and stadiums looking so fresh and clean. So hold your nose and prepare to experience the thrill of victory and the agony of smelly feet.
Part III. The World’s Oldest Ball Boy
Attending the locker room of the New York Knicks
My last dirty job takes me to the mecca of basketball—Madison Square Garden—where I am immediately treated like garbage. But it’s not as bad as that sounds. For this Saturday afternoon game that will have the Knicks battling it out with the Atlanta Hawks, my first task is to ride down the freight elevator in between a couple of Dumpsters to unload Atlanta’s team bus.
I toss a few suitcases on a cart under the watchful eye of Shannon Ribler, visitors’ locker room attendant for the Knicks for the past 16 years, and we head back up to the locker room. “You’re getting off easy. Atlanta travels really light,” he tells me.
Earlier this morning Shannon and his staff of 11 gathered most of the gear from another bus and helped the Hawks’ equipment manager, Zac Walsh, set up the lockers. “We try to provide as much hospitality as we can. We treat them with the same amount of respect we hope our guys will get on the road.”
That hospitality can involve all manner of favors, some higher-maintenance than others. “Hey, the
Lakers have earned the right to be a little high-maintenance,” he says. “But we do whatever teams need.” That can mean anything from arranging tickets for players’ friends to running out for guys such as former Knick Walter McCarty to satisfy his Snickers jones.
Any favorite visitors? “Shaq, hands down,” Shannon says. “He is just fun. My wife came to a game after she had dyed her hair red, and in the middle of the game he turns to me and says, ‘That your wife? I like redheads.’¿”
Soon I find myself standing under the net trying to stop the idiotic smile from spreading across my still partially toothless face. Before I know it, Knicks superstar Amare Stoudemire is looking down at me, motioning for a ball. I bounce-pass it to him. He shoots. I grab the rebound. Sweet! Then another ball smashes me in the face. That one was hurled up by Danilo Gallinari. Before I can say, “Ouch,” balls are flying everywhere. The Knicks have commenced their pregame shoot-around. Two other guys and I position ourselves around the paint and pass the ball to the coaches as they take the players through various drills. The pace is hectic, and balls are constantly bouncing off the top of my head. I quickly learn that when 7'1" center Timofey Mozgov is driving to the hoop, it is in your best interest to step aside. Dude is massive.
Game time. The Hawks are introduced, and my first duty is to pass center Al Horford a ball as he leads the team onto the court. Worried I’ll get overexcited and throw it too hard, I ploop it to him and it barely bounces to the height of his high tops and rolls away. I suck. One of the other guys bounces him a ball, and the shoot-around begins. An air horn blares. The national anthem is sung. The game tips off.
Shannon, his crew, and I are seated on the floor just to the right of the Hawks’ bench. The only way I will be this close to a professional basketball game again is if I get recruited as the Knicks’ sixth man. And judging by that initial pass, I don’t think that’s going to happen. Despite the fact that he’s been doing this for 16 years, Shannon still seems in awe. “This is the greatest job in the world,” he says more than once.
Time-out is called. We dash to the returning Hawks with five towels in hand. The key here is to make the towels available without being all fucking annoying about it. I resist the urge to turn into a version of my grandma trying to get me to eat a third plate of pasta. “Take a towel! Take another! Come on, you deserve it. You’ll catch the death of you sitting in that sweat!”
Time-out ends. We retrieve the now sweaty towels and fold them up. We’ll repeat this process dozens of times, going through about 100 towels tonight.
As the game goes on, we listen to the highly entertaining Josh “J-Smoove” Smith shouting to teammate Mike Bibby, “C’mon, kick his head in, Mike!” We try not to audibly groan as Jamal Crawford bangs in shot after shot. And I’m declared “the oldest ball boy in history” by a security guard. We retrieve warmups from guys being subbed in and hand out heat packs to guys on the bench (the Rangers’ ice just below the Knicks’ floorboards keeps the Garden rather chilly). The only thing I don’t do is man the sweat mop. “Union job,” says Shannon.
The end of the game (99-90 Hawks—damn!) finds us deep in the Hawks’ locker room wearing rubber gloves (thank God) and folding jerseys and warmups. Finally we pack everything up, load it all onto the team bus, and…that’s it. Time to go.
I’m exhausted, elated, and delirious. But as I leave MSG, I step into the heartbreaking reality that it is all over.
No more dashing around, helping the hard-working guys behind the scenes of the greatest athletic leagues in the world. It’s time to go back to watching games from my couch and the nosebleeds like everybody else. Well, at least I can have a beer now.
Did you miss Part 1 and 2? Check out our guy helping the New York Islanders and the Philadelphia Eagles.