The below excerpt is from writer and comedian Tom Scharpling’s new memoir, It Never Ends: A Memoir With Nice Memories!, which is now available via Abrams Press.
With my radio show now a distant memory, I channeled my energies into launching my career. I wanted to write but I also needed to save money to get married and buy a house. So I pinched every penny by still living at home and working at a music store in suburban New Jersey.
Now when I say I was working at a music store, I’m not talking about a record store. This wasn’t me living out some sort of High Fidelity fantasy, recommending obscure records to people desperately chasing indie cred. It wasn’t my opportunity to dole out empiric thumbs up/thumbs down verdicts over the potential purchases some sweaty kid would nervously bring to the register.
No, I was working at a sheet music store — a huge difference.
The store was called World of Music in Summit, New Jersey. If you’re unfamiliar with Summit, it is a midsize suburban town filled with rich people from around the world who want to live in a house while remaining a short train ride from Wall Street.
If Summit had a flag it would depict an ascot-wearing rich guy getting mad at a gas station attendant for taking too long. Summit was flush with money, so providing an artistic foundation for these young Richie Riches was a given. I know it’s hard to believe, but there was literally nothing cool about this job. I spent half my day catering to defeated eighty-year-old piano teachers in the market for entry-level instruction books and the other half renting starter violins to children who had absolutely no interest in music.
There’s a special kind of magic in the air when you’re working at a place where everybody kinda knows the whole endeavor is a crock. The students aren’t remotely interested in learning trombone; they go through the motions only because their parents will buy them a new helicopter if they graduate seventh grade. The teachers know that 98 percent of their students will quit after a few lessons, yet they plow forward, courageously biting their cheek so as not to fall asleep while their charges stumble through a seasick rendition of “Heart and Soul.”
The parents were in the same boat. Renting a clarinet was the same as buying a lottery ticket; maybe your kid was a secret prodigy just waiting to bloom, and maybe they would land a music scholarship at a good college so you can hold on to even more of your dirty ill-gotten Wall Street money.
We would rent instruments in September, with the contract coming due nine months later. Just like a little talent baby! Most of my June was spent phoning renters to remind them that the rental period on their instrument had expired. I would get back a confused “Flute? We don’t — oh, that’s right! I think it’s still in the trunk of the car.” A couple of days later they would pull up in front of the store and hand back the unplayed flute, looking away not unlike a pervert returning a defective Fleshlight to their local porn establishment.
Aside from witnessing the never-ending death of unborn dreams, the job was pretty great. The owner of the store was Jim, a funny and likable guy who could best be described as an “Italian Kenny Rogers–type.” Maybe it was the years of dealing with pseudo-talents at the store while disguising his talent as a seriously great piano player. Jim carried a hatred for the rich blowhards who frequented the store and he refused to subscribe to the maxim that “the customer is always right.” He ran the store with a philosophy more along the lines of “The customer isn’t always right. The customer is actually wrong most of the time. The customer is a mutant. Smile at the customer, take the money from the customer, and make fun of the customer the second they leave the store.”
I remember Jim getting pushed to the brink of sanity by a particularly cheap guitar teacher. This guy would float around the store for hours staring at songbooks but never spending any money. (This was right before the internet completely demolished everything. At this point in history you actually had to go to a store to learn how to play a song!) The guy was clearly burning an empty afternoon and his constant presence was driving Jim crazy.
Jim would plant himself behind the counter and just stare at the guy as he attempted to memorize the chord changes to a Jimmy Buffett song, burning holes into the back of his unknowing head. This went on forever. Then finally the guitar teacher stopped staring at sheet music and headed to the front register so he could stare at the guitar picks. After a few minutes he fished two picks from the display and set them on the counter.
Jim looked down at the picks, then looked up at the guitar teacher. “This is all you’re gonna buy today?” he asked.
The teacher snidely said, “Yup.”
Working retail is hard. I come from generations of counter jockeys. I’ve done it for huge stretches of my life and I assume I will wear a vest at some chain store before I die. Working retail feels like rolling a boulder up a hill over and over, except the boulder can talk and is complaining about why the sheet music for “My Heart Will Go On” is so expensive. The boulder sometimes asks you if they can just take the sheet music to the library and photocopy it. You reach a point where you just can’t take it anymore, and it’s always the little things that break you. These two measly guitar picks were the straws that broke Jim’s back.
“You know what? You’re a cheapskate,” Jim said, staring him directly in the face. The teacher was taken aback but quickly matched Jim’s tone.
“This is all I need today. Something wrong with that?” he said indignantly. Jim just looked at him. “You come in here for hours and this is all you buy? Just take the fucking picks and get out.”
“You know you’re not the only place that sells sheet music,” the teacher said as he threw a dollar bill on the counter and headed toward the door.
Jim said, “You’ve got short arms and deep pockets!” (one of the classic old-timey insults that still has some juice in my opinion) as the teacher walked away. Jim gathered himself and yelled, “NOW GET! THE! FUCK! OUUUUT!” to the teacher’s back as he left, never to return.
Jim assumed the role of a wizened uncle in my life, and dispensed tons of practical advice to me throughout our time together. There were two things Jim said to me during my years of working for him that I have never forgotten. At the end of one workday we were unpacking boxes of instructional books and Jim asked how my writing was going.
I told him about how I had six ideas for six different projects and I was struggling with having too many amazing ideas. I just didn’t know what to do with the burden of my massive talent. At this point in my life I was working round the clock. My goal was to be some kind of writer, but I needed the safety net of the retail job to pay bills and to save up for a house. This meant that I would work full-time at the store, then head home and eat dinner, only to sit back down around 10:00 p.m. to write until I fell asleep.
Jim interrupted me and said, “Ideas are cheap, and if you just talk about what you’re gonna do, you’ll never do it. The only thing that matters are the things you finish, so just pick one thing and finish it.” This advice has resonated with me through so many parts of my life and has kept me on a productive artistic path. He revealed the difference between the talkers and the doers. When you talk over and over about whatever creative endeavor you’re going to accomplish to anyone who will listen, your brain processes this as if you have actually accomplished your goal. And once your brain is satisfied, you lose the passion and drive to actually do what you wanted to, because you already felt the satisfaction of accomplishment by flapping your gums about it. (How do I know all this brain stuff to be true? I studied brain stuff at the community college!) You can’t talk about the thing — you gotta do the thing. Simple but true.
The other piece of wisdom Jim imparted to me took place a day before Christmas. We had been working together a handful of years by this point and would exchange presents on Christmas Eve. December 24 was always a magical day at the store, because every single customer had to buy something. The last-minute shoppers were hours away from Christmas morning, which meant they had zero leverage. Half the customers were panicked deadbeat dads buying drum sets at full price because the store was gonna close in two hours. It was paradise. Jim always gave me a sizable bonus at the end of the day, so I wanted to reciprocate his generosity. I asked him what he wanted for Christmas. I figured he would ask for a nice bottle of booze or something along those lines.
Jim thought for a few seconds and then said, “What I’d really like is a pile of porn magazines.” I wasn’t sure if he was serious. “Yeah, it’s what I want, so get me that.” So a yuletide tradition began that year: Every Christmas Eve I would walk over to the local newsstand and grab a copy of literally every stroke mag from the top shelf. After we locked up for the day I would drop a grocery bag in front of him. He would tear it open and flip through his Christmas bounty with a smile. It was a look of innocence, not unlike a child unwrapping a bicycle-shaped present underneath the tree. Except this was a grown man flipping through the latest issue of Nugget, staring at all the pretty naked ladies.
However much I enjoyed working for Jim, managing at a music store just wasn’t the career I wanted. I wanted to write for a living. I knew I wasn’t where I was supposed to be, but I was having a hard time making a move. I suppose it’s in my upbringing; I come from a pretty cautious family that lives as if everything could end tomorrow. So while my actions can be moronically risky in some ways, I can also box myself in from making transitions that are long overdue.
The final shove I needed came one night at an NYC comedy show. By this point I was hanging out with creative friends who had burgeoning writing and directing careers. Every Monday night, I would go to Luna Lounge in lower Manhattan to watch a comedy show called Eating It. This was a showcase for comedians like Dave Chappelle, Sarah Silverman, and Todd Barry to try out new material on an NYC audience that could roll with just about anything.
A pre-WTF Marc Maron was the de facto weekly anchor of the show. Sometimes he was hilarious; sometimes he was furious or despondent, which can also be hilarious; in its own way. But he was always exciting. Being in the audience was thrilling, one of the rare times that I knew I was witnessing something that wouldn’t last forever. This was also the show where a comedian named Nick Di Paolo decided to make fun of me for sitting in the audience with a heavy winter jacket. “Look at that coat,” he said derisively. Stupid me, wearing a coat in February! I guess I should’ve opted for the cheap leather jacket he was sporting, as if he was on his way back from an audition for a Lords of Flatbush reboot.
One Monday night I was sitting in the audience with my friend and occasional writing partner Joe Ventura. Joe is one of the funniest people I know and we worked well together, both of us striving to escape our suburban Jersey roots. He had just gotten a job writing promo commercials for MTV, which meant he was on set working with all sorts of talented people. He saw his ideas actually get filmed, which sounded thrilling. I was very happy for him, but I was also very unhappy for myself.
Maron was onstage recounting a story that happened to him earlier that day. In the course of his story — I can’t remember what it was about — he tried to convey the gulf between one person he considered legitimate and another he marked as a no-talent fraud. To this day I still cannot believe it, but Marc literally said, “The difference between these two guys is like the difference between working at MTV and working at a music store.” The audience laughed. I just shrunk into my seat like the loser I was. At that point Marc had no idea that I was drawing air on the planet, so it wasn’t aimed at me specifically, but somehow he summed up my existence with one offhand joke. If he had been hired and coached to write a joke that would reduce me to a pile of defeated goo, he would’ve fallen short of this bullseye.
The sting of the joke was a blessing in disguise, because now I had something to prove. I was determined to become a writer. But like so many other things, you have to take the leap. I couldn’t have a safety net. So in classic Tom fashion I did what I was supposed to do, but a couple of years later than I should’ve done it. I told Jim I was going to quit World of Music to become a full-time writer. He understood and even gave me a huge farewell bonus that helped sustain me for months after leaving the job. You’re one of the all time greats, Jim!
And with that I was officially a writer! I was also officially without a weekly paycheck, so it was time to bust some ass. I took literally any writing job I could get my mitts on. By this time I was a staff writer for Slam, a cool basketball magazine that I had loved from its debut issue. I wrote their editor an impassioned letter begging them to let me write for them. If I remember correctly I offered to come to the office and empty their garbage cans if it would help get me an assignment.
They countered by hiring me to write a 150-word article on Jim McIlvaine, an NBA journeyman who was famous for two things: He blocked Michael Jordan’s shot once and signed a contract with the Seattle Sonics that was so ridiculously huge that Sonics All-Star Shawn Kemp more or less refused to play for the team unless they overpaid him as well.
It didn’t matter to me that McIlvaine was a stiff. I had my shot and I wasn’t going to blow it. I don’t think I ever worked on something as hard as I worked on that McIlvaine article. I toiled for ages, making sure each of the 150 words was perfectly arranged. Swiss watchmakers don’t craft their watches as delicately as I crafted this article. I handed it in and waited. After a few days Anna Gebbie — my point person at the magazine and one of the humans I will always be indebted to for keeping me employed for those lean years — was like, “Great job trying to make this stiff look compelling. How about giving us two hundred fifty words on Vitaly Potapenko?”
Before long they were tossing all sorts of assignments my way and I took them all. Anna paid me a compliment that I never forgot. I was talking to her about how hard I worked on each piece and she said something to the effect of “That’s why we like you. You can write, but you’re the most low-maintenance person we’ve got on staff.” Low maintenance. I wore that compliment like Nick Di Paolo wore his cheap leather jacket that night he made fun of my winter coat. Seriously, what did he have against staying warm?!
Since I didn’t have to work conventional office hours to write for the basketball magazine, I slowly adopted a schedule that could best be described as “troublesome.” I would write deep into the night, stopping only when my brain literally shut me down, then sleeping until midmorning when I would start all over. My body clock had nothing in common with those of normal people. I did the work until the work was done, and little did I know that when you’re a freelancer the work is NEVER done. My circumstances upgraded from “troublesome” to “severely disconcerting” when I began incorporating matinee screenings of literally any movie playing at the multiplex near my house into my routine.
The true low point of this era — actually any era, not just for me but for humanity as a whole — would be an otherwise unassuming June morning in 2001. I got up a hair before 10:00 a.m. I rubbed the sleep from my tired eyes, rolled out of bed, and quickly threw on some clothes. Within five minutes I was in my car driving to the movie theater.
I parked and sleepily wandered through the lobby. I stepped up to the counter and said these five fateful words:
“One for The Animal, please.”
If you can’t remember, The Animal was Rob Schneider’s follow-up to Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, a movie in which Rob received organ transplants from a variety of animals and found himself assuming different traits of the beasts. If the details elude you, it’s probably because you didn’t feel strangely compelled to see every comedy ever made in an effort to “know the marketplace” like I did at the time. I wanted to write movies and for some reason figured this was the way to get prepared for the day my number was called. But what could I have learned from The Animal? Don’t include a scene in your screenplay that features Rob Schneider throwing his own feces? (I’m assuming that happened, either in the movie or just on the set between takes.)
Those truly were simpler times, the years before America had felt the horrors of 9/11, a time when hardworking folks would turn to Rob Schneider to blow off some steam after a long day in the salt mines. Rob’s co-star for The Animal was Colleen Haskell, who is better known as Colleen from the first season of Survivor, and this movie more or less ended her thespian endeavors.
Did I buy something from the concession stand at 10:00 a.m.? The probability is high; most likely a Diet Coke and a bag of Peanut M&M’s. While I might not recall the specifics, we can safely assume I ate some sort of garbage for breakfast at a movie theater concession stand. I entered the theater and sat down to watch the 10:15 showing of The Animal. Eighty-four minutes later I went back to my car, drove home, walked through my front door, and ONLY THEN DID I BRUSH MY FUCKING TEETH AND TAKE A SHOWER.
I told you it was a low point!
But my life wasn’t all Peanut M&M’s and morning movies; I was taking any job that came my way. If there was a potential writing assignment, the call generally went like this:
EDITOR: Hey, Tom. I was wondering if you’d be interested in writing about —
EDITOR: I didn’t say what I was —
TOM: Fine, I’ll take less money.
EDITOR: I’m not sure you understand what —
TOM: You need it written by tonight? Yeah, I can make that happen.
EDITOR: Tom, you can have a couple of weeks to write the article, and —
TOM [rooting through wallet]: Look, I can pay you a hundred dollars. But not a penny more. [Beat] Okay, one fifty is the highest I can go!
Joe moved on from MTV and I took over for him, writing promo spots for a variety of projects. Perhaps you’ve thrilled to the MTV Movie Awards campaign featuring Jimmy Fallon and Kirsten Dunst hosting a sleepover? That was ALL ME. Or maybe you’ve watched the commercials for an MTV-produced film called 200 Cigarettes that starred the only actor associated with the movie who would do promos, a young man by the name of Dave Chappelle? Wait, you don’t remember that?!
Meanwhile the editorial crew at Slam magazine defected from the self-proclaimed “In Your FACE Basketball Magazine” to run Inside Stuff and Hoop, a pair of NBA-sanctioned mags. The jobs became a little more whitewashed — the celebration of players the old guard considered “thugs” was kept to a league-ordained minimum and tattoos were often airbrushed into oblivion — but two magazines meant twice as much work. And I took everything they would shovel my way.
I covered all sorts of events, like the inaugural NBA Fashion Show, a completely normal and non-stupid event featuring NBA players walking the runway and celebrities like Tatyana Ali modeling a dress made entirely out of basketball cards. I was quite the investigative reporter back then, asking Carmen Electra questions like “Did you grow up a basketball fan?” or pressing Ice Cube to answer questions like “Did you grow up a basketball fan?” It was pretty dumb but also very fun, no complaints from me.
One time I flew to Orlando to cover the then-young duo of future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce and future slumlord Antoine Walker as they read to children at Universal Studios. I was supposed to ask them questions like “Do you like reading books?” and “What book are you reading right now?” (I made an executive decision not to ask them “Did you grow up a basketball fan?”) The job was completely harmless stuff, a piece of cake waiting to be eaten.
The only hair on said cake was that the Celtics — the team Pierce and Walker played for — were on the verge of missing the playoffs. They were playing the Orlando Magic later that evening and more or less had to win to keep their postseason hopes alive. I arrived at the arena where the Celtics were participating in a midmorning practice session. I could hear their coach Rick Pitino screaming at the team through a very heavy steel door. I couldn’t make out what he was saying but it was loud and extremely angry. Not exactly the kind of thing that sets a good mood for a fun interview.
Pierce and Walker eventually climbed into a limousine with me and an NBA publicity person. The tandem were in an incredibly sour mood, almost as if they had just been yelled at for an hour by their coach.
I made a great impression on them, sitting in the back of the limousine, sweat streaming down my face as if someone had poured a bucket of water over my head, shakily holding my mini-cassette recorder as I attempted to ask them about reading. The two players ignored me completely, instead zeroing in on the NBA flack. “You put Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash on the cover of the magazines but you don’t do anything with us,” Pierce lashed out.
The NBA rep countered with a brutally cold retort, telling them, “Maybe if you guys would make the playoffs, the league would promote you more.”
Complete silence as the two players stared icily out the window, ignoring everyone in the car, most especially the dumb sweaty dude who wouldn’t stop asking them about books. If I close my eyes I can recall the feeling in the back of that limousine: The punishingly bright Florida sun reducing my eyes to squinting slits combined with the tension in the car made me queasy. Eventually Walker quietly told me that he liked books about finance and Paul Pierce begrudgingly said he was reading a book about learning Spanish.
We arrived at Universal Studios and the two players were guided into a Dr. Seuss area where a bunch of kids were sitting in the broiling Orlando sun waiting to have a book read to them. Funny thing: When a bunch of people were watching and filming, Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker suddenly got nicer!
They cheerfully read from The Sneetches and the kids had a great time. Antoine Walker even put one of those insanely tall Cat in the Hat hats on his head. I watched them charm the pants off everyone as I tried to furtively wring the sweat out of my shirt. And to his credit, a still–Cat in the Hatted Antoine Walker thanked me for writing the article. So he’s all right in my book. I take back the slumlord thing, Antoine! Paul Pierce and I never got square, so he’s still on my shit list.
Another exciting moment was when I attended Knicks training camp to get some random quotes from players that would be peppered through the magazine. Barn burners like “We hope we can win it all this year” or “Ultimately it’s a team game.” There was a buzz in the air that Michael Jordan was planning to un-retire and return to the NBA, so Anna called me with an enticing proposition: I would be paid fifty dollars for every quote I could get about Michael Jordan possibly coming out of retirement. I saw dollar signs as I drove up to the town of Purchase, New York, ready to build my retirement fund one quote at a time.
The event was clogged with beat reporters from all the New York sports pages. They would surround any player who stepped off the court, throwing out question after question. The player would generally field a handful of queries before escaping to the locker room. I was intimidated by this scene, and for whatever reason — most likely a combination of sheer terror and embarrassment — could not manage to shout out, “Howard Eisley, how do you feel about the news that Michael Jordan might be coming out of retirement?” I saw my golden parachute fading into the distance, but then I spotted my meal ticket sitting at the far end of the gymnasium. Leaning against the back wall was Spike Lee. He was alone. Not talking on the phone, not even reading a newspaper. He was literally just leaning on the wall and watching the players get interviewed.
This was what I had been waiting for: an opportunity to land a quote from a guy who literally directed Michael Jordan in his classic Nike commercials! Spike is a true legend. He is America’s Jean-Luc Godard, a towering and versatile figure whose work remains underappreciated. I was a huge fan. I steeled myself and started walking toward him. The practice facility was composed of two basketball courts laid out next to each other. I cannot overstate how far away he was from me. And it was just me and Spike. Nobody else was around. And he watched me the entire time, never moving a muscle.
Finally I stepped up to him, five feet away as I opened my mouth.
“Excuse me —”
Spike cut me off. “I’m not working today, man.” And with that he turned and looked away from me.
I walked away, unsure of what had just happened. He had three solid minutes to tell me he wasn’t working today, but he let me walk the entire length of two basketball courts before telling me. I stood stunned by the insanity of the moment and staggered out of the practice facility back to my car, my brain still spinning. A battery of questions sprouted in my mind: He wasn’t working today? Yeah, I had figured he wasn’t working since he wasn’t directing a movie. And I know he was laughing to himself as soon as I started walking away. He had to have known what he did to me.
But any trace of anger fell away as I realized that Spike Lee had just pulled a major league troll job on me, one so meaninglessly and epically shitty that I actually respected it. If Andy Kaufman had done something like that while wearing a wrestling unitard, we’d all be celebrating his genius. So if Spike Lee ever reads this, I tip my hat to you, sir. I legitimately admire what you did to me that day. It was beautiful in its own bizarre way, and I am proud to have been a part of it. Oh, and in BlacKkKlansman, why didn’t the main guy when he got on the phone with the Klansman just say he had a cold to explain why his voice sounded different? These details matter, Spike! But first things first: kudos on the top-notch burn.
One of the best parts of writing for basketball magazines was the thrill of going to games. The teams feed the writers beforehand, they sit in amazing seats to watch the game, they get a solid dessert spread during halftime, and at the end of the night they go into the locker room and talk to the athletes before knocking out their articles.
I gave serious consideration to pursuing a career in sportswriting. I felt like I was at a crossroads; if I wanted to make this my life, I had to make a full commitment. It could’ve been a sweet path to pursue but I got scared off the pursuit one night at a New Jersey Nets game. The contest I was covering was a real battle, the score going back and forth all night until it ended in a tie. I had a few minutes to run to the men’s room before overtime began, and I ran into Fred Kerber, the beat guy for the New York Post. He was taking a leak at a urinal. I was the only other person in the bathroom. He turned to me and said, “Overtime, can you believe this shit?” in the most defeated tone, like we were workers at a urine-tasting factory being summoned back to our posts for an extra shift.
This guy was lucky enough to be paid to sit in great seats and write about the sport we all loved, and yet here he was, living in hell. I loved basketball too much to risk becoming a younger version of him. (I saved all my illogical resentment and petty scorekeeping for television writing.)
I redoubled my focus on getting a non-sportswriting job, but I kept taking basketball assignments until the day I got hired to write on Monk. I’m glad I kept at it, because covering the NBA for the magazines I wrote for was fun and ridiculous. When I look back at my basketball writing days, I feel like Rutger Hauer at the end of Blade Runner: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. I interrupted coach Jack Ramsay’s dinner by calling too early for an interview. I watched Stephon Marbury strip naked and take a bath with his son while I asked him about his sneaker line. All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”
The absolute highlight of this stretch of my life took place sometime in 2002 before I landed my first television writing job for the series Monk. Anna Gebbie called me and asked the greatest question I have and ever will get asked: “Would you be interested in writing about Papa Roach playing a basketball game against some people who won a contest?” These are the perverse moments in life where you know you’re going to be a part of something so colossally dumb that a wave of giddiness washes over you. These are the special moments and if you feel one on the horizon, run toward it with every ounce of energy in your soul. And that is precisely what I did.
“Yes, I would like to write about Papa Roach playing basketball,” I replied. “I would like that very much.”
For anyone who doesn’t remember, Papa Roach was a wildly popular nu metal–ish band circa 2001. Their biggest hit was “Last Resort”; it’s one of those early millennium heavy rap-rock songs with a massive chorus. The video for the song is very much of the era, a style best described as “band plays in front of a swarm of excited kids and lots of people give the finger.” Not exactly my cup of tea but it’s not bad if you’re into that kinda thing. Look, it’s hard enough to find things you love in this miserable world and if you love Papa Roach I’m not going to take that away from you (says the person who attacks Billy Joel every chance he gets).
The event went as follows: The makers of Jim Beam — a bourbon that I had last drank from a bottle stolen from my friend’s parents’ liquor cabinet around the age of fourteen — held a contest in which the winner would bring three of their friends to New York City to play full-court basketball against the four dudes in Papa Roach. Now I know what you’re asking yourself: “Tom, you said the contest winner could bring three friends. And there are four members of Papa Roach: Dave Buckner, Jerry Horton, Jacoby Shaddix, and Tobin Esperance. So how could they play a proper game of five-on-five basketball with only four players per side?!”
The promotions people at Jim Beam are waaaaay ahead of you, friend. Because they remedied the situation by adding a member of the Harlem Globetrotters to each team. Now you’ve got five-on-five roundball the way James Naismith envisioned it back in 1891: four out-of-shape winners of a bourbon contest squaring off against four out-of-shape nu metal dudes, with two members of America’s leading comedy basketball troupe thrown in to balance everything out.
The festivities were held on the outdoor basketball courts at Chelsea Piers, a mammoth sports complex next to the Hudson River. I arrived and was immediately intercepted by a Jim Beam representative who excitedly slapped a laminated security pass that read “Throw Down the Rock” in my hand. I wasn’t really sure why I needed the lammy, since nobody was attending this event outside of Jim Beam’s media team. No spectators, no gawkers. It was actually quite an accomplishment, considering how popular Papa Roach was at the time; they had sold millions of albums and were fixtures on MTV. But for anyone who might’ve caught a glimpse of them at Chelsea Piers that day, they were just a quartet of bozos hooping it up in uniforms that read “JIM BEAM” in huge letters across their chests.
The media flack bombarded me with questions, almost all of them revolving around how many times I was going to mention Jim Beam in my article. I had to bite my tongue because the cold reality of the situation was I would be plugging Jim Beam exactly zero times. I was writing this article for a children’s basketball magazine; if I couldn’t write about Allen Iverson’s tattoos, there was no chance in hell I would be encouraging the youth of America to start drinking bourbon. But I returned vague answers and dopey nods her way as I slid the laminate over my head.
The game was the shitshow it was always destined to be. Both teams were abysmal and nobody could make a basket. The two Globetrotters did their best to set up their teammates, serving up passes for layups that missed the rim and kicking the ball out for jumpers that soared high over the backboard. I’m sure the Globetrotters wanted nothing more than to take over the game so we could all go home but they were obligated to feed bounce passes to the bassist in Papa Roach so he could brick yet another four-footer.
This went on forever, the slow creep of futility spreading over the event like a blanket. The common truth shared between everyone was the same: I don’t want to be here. The guys in Papa Roach would most definitely rather have been acting like the rock stars they truly were at that point instead of running up and down a basketball court. The contest winners were probably wondering when they would be able to check out the M&M’s store in Times Square and “get to visit 9/11” instead of playing a sport they had no business playing. And as far as the two Harlem Globetrotters went, this was far beneath the station of guys whose games involved buckets of confetti and basketballs attached to elastic strings.
At some point, the game ended. Who won? I don’t have a fucking clue but now it was time for me to interview the guys from Papa Roach. I was led into a catering tent. There was food everywhere. I recall a surprising amount of shrimp. And there sat the four members of Papa Roach, completely exhausted from their basketball adventure, helping themselves to the spread. There is no better combination than sweat and shrimp, and Papa Roach was living proof.
I asked them some more of my trademark dumb questions and quickly realized they had zero interest in basketball. When I asked if he had played before, Dave Buckner rubbed his ample stomach and said, “Do I look like I could play basketball, man?” I asked Jacoby why they decided to participate in this event. He looked at me and said, “Jim Beam, dude!”
I had everything I needed for my article.
But the day was far from over. While the members of Papa Roach had fulfilled their contractual obligation and driven back to California in a tractor trailer filled with cash and Jim Beam, the contest winners weren’t off the hook. We headed over to Madison Square Garden, where New York Knicks legend Walt “Clyde” Frazier would lead them through a series of basketball drills on the Knicks’ home court.
Walt stood on the very floor on which he’d led the Knicks to a pair of NBA championships, but now he was attempting to dole out tips to a quartet of nonathletes who had already played a full game of basketball a couple of hours earlier before loading up on catered food and booze. They sluggishly attempted to dribble the ball between a row of cones and make simple layups but the seafood had taken its toll and the shots just weren’t dropping.
One bright spot took place at the end of the day. After the drills concluded I went onto the court and dribbled a basketball around for a bit, then hoisted a three-pointer. I missed it badly because I also suck at basketball. I jacked up another shot and missed again. But I would not be denied. After about five shots, one finally ripped the net. I had shot a three-pointer on the court where some of my favorite players had also played! But there were no cheers. I looked around, but the stands were empty. Complete silence. A magical moment just for myself.
But if that building could’ve talked that day, our conversation would’ve gone something like this:
“Congratulations on making a three-pointer, Tom. You are now a part of the legend of Madison Square Garden.”
“Thank you, Madison Square Garden.”
“You can call me MSG. Oh, and remember when you saw the Scorpions here?”
“Yeah, that was a good show. Bon Jovi opened.”
“I forgot about that! That was right before they blew up. Hey, that was the first time you ever saw anyone do coke, right?”
“It was! A couple of dudes one row in front of me. They just poured it out on a tour program. Why did you bring that up, MSG?”
“Because you are standing right where you stood that night. Think about that. Fifteen years ago you watched some metal dummies doing sloppy lines at a Scorpions show. And a couple of years earlier, this was where you stood when that security guard snuck you onto the floor for the Billy Joel show.”
“Wow, that’s right. I never made the connection until now.”
“You were a spectator then but now you’re draining three pointers in the same spot. Who knows what will bring you back onto this floor fifteen years from now?”
“Who knows? Life is funny that way, MSG.”
“It sure is, Tom. It sure is. Now get out of here before you barf your shrimp-filled stomach on me.”
Excerpted from It Never Ends by Tom Scharpling Copyright © 2021 Abrams Press. Reprinted by permission by Abrams Press.