Monthly Archives: March 2012

Tales From Gator Nation

In the spirit of March Madness, I thought I’d share an anecdote that dates back to my college days at the world’s greatest sports school. Obviously I am talking about the University of Florida.

Since everyone has got an opinion/prediction on March hoops and a bracket (or 10) to show for it, I’ve decided to forgo the small talk and focus on the man who essentially jumpstarted my career in the sports industry: Mr. Billy Donovan. Yes, that’s the same Billy D. who coaches the Gators basketball squad. See, it all comes full circle.

So as the endearing Rose Nyland of the 1980s smash hit Golden Girls would say, ‘this reminds of something that happened back in St. Olaf Gainesville.’ Back in my junior year of college, I was the lifestyles editor of the now-defunct “Gator Times” newspaper. Even though I was a total Miami Heat nut – and had the shiny polyester snap button jacket to prove it – I left the sports section editing to my colleague Garin (who now happens to be a PR guy over at the Cleveland Cavs). But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t trying to finagle a way to write a “lifestyles” story with that sports twist the whole darn time!

Then my moment arrived. I may have been wearing pajamas at the time (literally), but my moment had arrived. I had just gotten back to Gainesville after making the five-hour trek from South Florida. When I arrived “home,” which consisted of 50 girls living in a sorority house with like 3 showers, I was surprised to find Billy Donovan (and a whole bunch of sorority chicks) hosting his weekly radio show live right from the house’s living room (which we called the “great room” for some reason I’ll never understand). Apparently, I did not get the memo that this was the result of my sorority winning some sports competition of which I was unaware.

I came in the house, took one look at what was going down and the good ole light bulb went off. This was my time to shine. I ran upstairs to grab my notebook, and came back to the living room all fired up to write about this hard-hitting news. I could see the gripping headline in my head: “Head Coach Billy Donovan Hosts Radio Show Live From Sorority House.” It was going to be epic! I took notes feverishly and when the show ended and the girls dispersed, it was time to make my move.

‘Excuse me, Coach Donovan…excuse me, coach. Can I just ask you a few…’ This wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought. Was he ignoring me on purpose? Was he freaked out by the pajama-wearing student-reporter? I would soon find out that the answer to both questions was no. He simply didn’t hear me beckoning him. Apologies if I built that up, only to let you down.

I resorted to tapping him like a 5-year-old who is trying to get their Mother off the phone until he caught on. I had his attention and I was not going to mess this up. I told him that I was writing an article for the Gator Times and asked if he could give me five minutes to talk to him about this “event.” He couldn’t have been more amenable.

We chatted about life, love and loss – I mean basketball – and he told me that he was impressed with my basketball knowledge. I knew a thing or two about hoops after watching Heat games on TV in a super obsessive fashion, so it was pretty cool to impress the big man on campus with my random facts. For example, did you know NBA veteran Bimbo Coles’ real name is Vernell? No? Neither did Coach. Stuff like that.

Coach and I got to talking about my future career, and I told him it was my dream to work in the Miami Heat’s front office. He mentioned that he knew a bunch of folks, including Pat Riley, and would be happy to send them a letter of recommendation on my behalf. Was he serious?! This just went from awesome to unreal. After about 30 minutes of chitchat, he said he’d have that letter ready for me to pick up in his office the next day. OMG.

I wasn’t sure if this was for real, so I played it cool, i.e. told every friend, family member and stranger about this interaction. As directed, I headed over to the Sports Information Office and asked for Coach’s executive assistant, Tracy Pfaff. What a gem that Tracy Pfaff is. As soon as she heard the first syllable of recommendation letter – that would be rec – she was on it. She whipped out this full-page letter of rec, Gator letterhead and all, and presented it to me like it was my diploma. Actually I think it would end up being more valuable than a diploma. She also nonchalantly mentioned that Coach had asked her to send it directly to his contacts at the Miami Heat. Wow! This guy is no joke!

I went home super fired up and can specifically recall sitting on a campus sidewalk telling my mom the play-by-play. I was pretty much convinced that the Heat would come calling promptly, and everyone was all like, “Now Talia, this stuff takes time. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Be patient.” If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s putting all my eggs in one basket. Good thing I was right and they were wrong. About one week later, I received the call of a lifetime – the call asking me to come in and interview for an unpaid internship with the team. I would have been equally as excited if they said I had to pay them for this internship (although that would have been odd), but I knew in my gut that this was my big break. I got the internship, which lead to a full-time position post-graduation, which led me to where I am in the sports world today. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Stay with me.

I always have wanted to share this story for a few reasons:

  1. I want Coach to know the impact he had on my career and how much I appreciate the efforts he made on my behalf. He didn’t have to go out on a limb for me, and for that, I am eternally grateful.
  2. Billy Donovan is a class act that genuinely cares about the future of UF students. And his own players throughout the years, like Udonis Haslem and Matt Bonner, certainly share in this sentiment. No wonder Billy D. is the longest tenured coach in the SEC, and his basketball coaching skills and consistently winning records probably have something to do with that too.
  3. It still amazes me the impact that one letter/gesture can have on a person’s future. And that wouldn’t have happened without taking advantage of that opportunity in my sorority house and having the gumption to harass Coach until he paid attention to me. Sometimes those random acts of assertiveness truly pay off.

And while I have no recollection if I even ever wrote/published that article, the experience was headlined by an assist I’ll never forget.

Thank you, Coach Donovan! And GO GATORS!

The Good Word With…Sam Perkins

Q: We are just passed the All-Star break. Thoughts on the season thus far?
It’s hard to say where teams will be at the end of the regular season. Everyone is playing on cruise control right now, with games almost every night.

As far as surprise teams, it’s still somewhat the Spurs I believe. Indiana is also surprising, they are the ones under the radar. Minnesota is promising, but it’s tough because that’s a team that doesn’t get a lot of publicity…they’re not the Knicks. Now when it comes to Philly, last year the team wasn’t really together. But, with the young team they have now, in addition to Iguodala, they all seem to be on the same page. That turnout is surprising – they went from in the cellar to near the top of their conference.

Jeremy Lin, that’s a whole other story. From coming out of nowhere to getting people fired up and making up slang and nicknames for him, he has changed the dynamics on and off the court. All of the attention has gravitated toward him, and he’s all over the news. He’s not the prototype we are used to, like Deron Williams, CP3, Rondo, but you have to guard him like you would anybody else.

But I think that if he weren’t in New York, Linsanity probably wouldn’t have happened. If he played in Houston or Sacramento, it would be a story and that would be it. But because it’s happening in New York, he’s in the center of things and all the headlines. I’m sure it will die down.

Q: Your alma mater UNC is having quite a season. What’s your prediction on how March Madness will go for them?
I honestly don’t think they will fare well. I think they need shooters. They get blown out, they have lapses in the last seconds. They are up and down. Look at Xavier, Kentucky, these other teams are so hungry – they come out with conviction. I’ll definitely watch UNC play this month, but it seems they have so much inconsistency that it will be hard to put things together.

Q: Which current NBA player reminds you of a young Sam Perkins?
The closest guy would probably be like a Chris Bosh for a few reasons. He’s left-handed, and he’s not necessarily the guy that gets the pub, but he’s a team player and goes out there and plays hard. I think that’s a fair assessment.

Q: You have really evolved into a global ambassador of the game of basketball. Any particularly interesting trips lately?
I recently went with Dikembe to assist him in Sudan, the home of Manute Bol. We were there to talk about NBA ideas and see if we could develop a rapport or even try to continue what Manute was trying to do in his homeland when he was alive. The people there talk about what he was trying to do for his people, and his relatives are trying to fulfill his dreams and further his quest to help the people of Sudan.

In parts of Africa, the NBA already has implemented some programs, and they were interested to see if Sudan was a possible consideration for NBA programming like Basketball Without Borders. There were a lot of meetings, of course, but we also did some camps with boys and girls. A lot of the locals were taken aback by the idea of women playing basketball – many feel they should be home doing the domestic stuff. But these females were young, and they could play. Sudan is a well known soccer country, but we are encouraging them to try to get behind basketball.

Dikembe and I have been friends because of our Association with the NBA, and we travel in the same circle of people and have been on trips together before. But this was more about he and I trying to collaborate and get ideas to send back to the NBA. It was a really good trip.

Q: And what else do you have going on these days?
A lot of people don’t really know, but I am an assistant coach with the D-League’s Texas Legends in Frisco, Texas. I’m doing a little player development, trying to help the young guys in the Developmental League play at a consistently high level. I never thought I’d be coaching. I’ve had a taste of management, player development, and of course playing, but I never thought I’d coach.

Now I can see why you have to invest so much time as a coach. You have to pay close attention to it; you can’t help but go home with it. I’ve learned a lot from our head coach Del Harris. It’s challenging in the D-League because we have like 35 players coming through the door at any given time, and you have to deal with the highs and lows of players getting cut. The door is swinging a lot…it’s a lot for a coach to take in.

I’m also on the Board for the Special Olympics, which I’m very involved with. There are a lot of things keeping me busy, especially raising my twin girls. I am trying to get them in the right mode for applying to colleges and am making sure they are doing well in the academic world.

A 17-year NBA veteran and lethal three-point shooter, Sam Perkins, also known as “Big Smooth,” remains an NBA fan favorite. Selected fourth overall by the Dallas Mavericks in the 1984 NBA Draft, the 6’9” power forward/center enjoyed a successful NBA career with teams including the Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, Seattle Sonics and Indiana Pacers. In addition to making NBA All-Rookie First Team and recording the only 30-20 game in Mavericks history, Perkins was the co-captain of the gold-medal winning 1984 U.S. Olympic basketball team. A college standout and graduate from the University of North Carolina and member of the 1982 NCAA Champion North Carolina Tar Heels, he was named to the ACC’s 50th Anniversary men’s basketball team as one of the 50 greatest players in Atlantic Coast Conference history.  

DJ Irie: To Know Him Is To Love Him

DJ Irie…Whatta Man (thank you, Salt ‘N’ Pepa).                   

Practically bursting at the seams with energy, DJ Irie, or as I fondly call him, “Deej,” is one of the greatest guys out there. With his larger-than-life personality, contagious enthusiasm and endearing charm, this guy is no ordinary DJ (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

*Reader’s note: It suddenly dawned on me that I might sound one adjective away from a restraining order. Just so we’re clear, Deej has been a friend of mine for over a decade, and I shall brag about him as much as I please. Additionally, I am not a paid DJ Irie endorser, nor involved in a love affair with him.

Moving on.

As the official DJ of Carnival Cruise Lines and the Miami HEAT (yup, that was him celebrating the 2006 NBA Championship in the locker room popping bottles), Deej has developed into an international brand name that is one hot commodity.  

He’s not a businessman. He’s a business, man! (thank you, Jay-Z). Too much?

In addition to working closely with Jamie Foxx and DJing a ton of high-profile events for celebs like Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Bosh, you can find him on the tables at NBA All-Star Weekend, VH1 Pepsi Super Bowl Fan Jam and the MTV VMAs, just for starters. In-between gigs and firing up the crowd at HEAT home games, Deej is a world traveler, bringing his trademark act to just about every continent under the sun. It’s a matter of time before Antarctica comes a-knockin’.

You’d think that with all these late nights – which obviously come with the job – the man would be utilizing daylight hours for minor things like sleep, maybe laundry, maybe routine doctor’s visits. But no, he’s a mainstay DJ on Miami’s WEDR 99Jamz, and did I mention he’s built a thriving entertainment consulting firm, Artist Related? No wait; did I mention his latest venture is joining Pucci’s Pizza as a partner?  And since he’s got so much free time on his hands, Deej has developed Spin’iversity, an at-sea DJ academy, with Carnival. Google it.

Believe it or not, I haven’t even gotten to the core of why I think this guy is the best thing to come out of Miami since Crockett and Tubbs. His resume and talent speaks for itself, but it’s the person who Deej is that impresses me and those who know him the most. He’s got an inherent magnetic way about him and an incredible ability to make those around him feel good. It’s just who he is.

It was no surprise to me a number of years back when I learned that Deej had added “philanthropist” to his repertoire. For several years now, he has hosted Irie Weekend, a highly anticipated and star-studded weekend of events, which benefited Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Miami.

More recently, he launched the Irie Foundation, his very own non-profit that works to support the health and social needs of South Florida kids. Even so, he still plans to work with other charitable groups he admires, including The Special Olympics, Udonis Haslem Foundation, Overtown Youth Center, Alonzo Mourning Charities, Wade’s World Foundation, Odessa Chambers Foundation, Ronnie Brown Foundation, The United Way, Jason Taylor Foundation, and numerous groups benefiting Hurricane Katrina victims.

Just a few weeks ago during NBA All-Star Weekend, Deej hosted Jocktails, a special event to benefit his Foundation, which racked up $6Gs. Not too shabby for a few hours in Orlando.

You’d think that after all of the global media attention and flourishing success, some of the cha-ching would have gone to his head. Nope. Deej is the same gracious and happy-go-lucky (not in an annoying, cheesy way) guy he was when I met him many years ago. He still flashes that signature, megawatt smile about a hundred times a day, and makes sure to “take care of his people” whenever possible. The best part? It’s all genuine. Deej is one legit dude.

You know those people you are particularly happy and proud to see do well in the world? Well, Deej is one of those people for me.

And something tells me I’m not the only one.

(This is probably a good time to reread the above reader’s note).