All-Access Pass: By Monica Paull

I never thought I would say this, but I found myself sitting front and center at a Lakers’ game surrounded by men, none of whom were cheering, drinking beer, or even harder to imagine, watching the Lakers’ girls in all of their half-naked glory bounce up and down. How is that possible, you might ask? I was sitting in the press box as a fully credentialed ESPN reporter for their Fan Issue.

I love sporting events. I’ve been to surf contests, snowboarding contests, supercross, motocross, baseball and even NASCAR races. Ever since I was young, I could go to a game and know nothing about the team, and end up emotionally attached to the outcome by the time it was over. My favorite however, remains basketball. My love for the game was ignited when, as most men suspect, I used to attend games with my ex-boyfriend who had sweet season tickets. I attended the first game as a gesture and because I could count on some nachos and a beer. However, as the season went on, I learned about the players, where they were from, how hard they worked to make the NBA. Sitting alongside the other season ticket holders, I commented one night that, “watching the Suns is like watching a well-choreographed ballet.” Please note that this was before they traded Marion for Shaq. Oh man, talk about the kiss of death. To be a woman at a sporting event, you can get lumped into one of two categories: Bored girlfriend or pro ho. But as time went on, I found myself yelling out loud when someone would score, or worse, miss. Attendees on either side of me usually left with bruises on their arms from me punching them during the more turbulent moments in a game.

I distinctly remember attending a charity bbq in Arizona with some friends and while all the girls sat around sipping their Pina Colada’s and Chablis, I ducked into the den with the guys to watch the Suns game. Soon enough, I realized I was a fan.

Now, I learned early on that my mind had no capacity to retain facts and figures without a tremendous amount of effort. And even then, it was in one ear and out the other. So, when talk of sports came up, as it often does in a room full of guys, my ears would perk up yet my commentary was often lacking. My position as a fan was on occasion called into question. So, I couldn’t help but wonder, what really makes a true fan? Is it their vast knowledge of the sport, and the team that they pledge their allegiance to, or their passion for the game? And, can a woman really have any credibility as a sports fan? I was about to find out. As a fully credentialed reporter for ESPN, naturally. Did I mention that already?

There are some things you might not have guessed about being a reporter. You can go anywhere you want. I was allowed to walk right onto the floor. This was a moment that I didn’t take for granted. The girl in me knew that I had to stop, pause and really soak it in. The guy in me couldn’t wait to get to get to my seat to have a beer. I strolled past the usual cast of characters who were sitting courtside, you know, Maria Shriver, Diane Lane, some guy from the show Entourage, and of course, Jack. I felt like I was the member of a very elite club as I sauntered past everyone else in the “cheap seats,” credential waving in the wind. My life had suddenly become more exciting, more adventurous, somehow, more meaningful.

My mouth finally stopped watering when I arrived at the press box. Dudes. Lots of them, all staring at me with a look in their eye that might suggest I was crashing their party. Most of them look like people you might find playing video poker, a game of chess, or buying a frozen dinner at the market. And doing so with an extremely apathetic air about them. Short, tall, bald, hairy, you name it. They all looked different, but had two things in common: a very ambivalent expression on their face, and none of them were enjoying a nice cold beer. I suspected at that moment that I might not be cut out for the life of a reporter.

Now, having worked for a surf company, I’ve been behind the scenes at a million surf events and seen the abs of every pro. Having worked in fashion, I’ve even seen celebrities and models naked. Nothing could have prepared me for going into the Lakers’ locker room that night. I’m pretty sure I was less nervous the night I lost my virginity. All of the poise and professionalism I’d worked to cultivate as an executive went right out the window as I entered that den of testosterone. And it didn’t help that my very first sight was an extremely large, extremely muscular and extremely naked Lamar Odem. What was I doing here? My face turned bright red, and I know this because someone pointed it out to me. A big smile broke out on my face, and it wasn’t a warm confident, “I’m okay with this because this is totally normal,” smile. It was an “oh my God, Lamar Odem is naked in front of me and I’m so nervous I think I’m going to barf” smile. Standing around him in the “scrum” was a mass of about 20 reporters, who all patiently watched him dress, much like someone waiting for their food to finish cooking in the microwave. If I had to use one word to describe the expression on their face, it would be “eh.” I was fascinated by how everyone seemed immune to this pink elephant in the room, pardon the somewhat appropriate pun, if you know what I mean. And, knowing that they were all waiting to talk to him, he took his sweet time, putting one foot inside of his pant leg, then the other. He even moisturized. That’s right, he moisturized. And, when it came time to “interview” him, and I do use that term loosely, the only question I could spit out was “Mr. Odem, do you think a true fan is defined by knowledge of statistics or a passion for the game.”

I held my breath and awaited a sour expression and smart as comment, but I’ll be damned if he didn’t say, “passion, absolutely.” I was victorious! My response, you might be wondering, was “nice answer.” That will go in my “lamest thing ever said” file, which is overflowing. Nonetheless, I did it, my first question had been asked and my confidence was slightly boosted. I decided to head over to the Suns locker room and who was standing there, to my relief, a fully clothed Steve Nash. He was nice enough to ask me if I needed anything, and when posed with the same question, he had the same kind answer. “Passion and a love for the sport is what makes a fan, the details come later.” More questions flowed after that, I knew he loved soccer and was able to actually interview him about his role as a fan. Afterward, I felt higher than a kite. This was someone that I had watched act as a true leader and team player on the court, I’d yelled for him, jumped up and down for him, felt sad for him when he lost, and he was enthusiastic, and above all, genuinely kind. He made me proud to be a basketball fan, and I felt fully qualified at that point to classify myself as such.

A few weeks later, I “covered” a Kings hockey game. That was a wee bit different. First of all, at the Lakers’ game, I was going as a fully credentialed reporter. Nobody from the organization knew that I was really a fan working undercover. Because I had a photographer with me at the hockey game, the guys from the NHL were on to me. They had been alerted in advance that we would be there, and that I was a “fan.” This gave the experience a less professional feel, and more of a Make-a-Wish Foundation quality.

Nobody in the media room could figure out why I had a photographer following me around, taking photos of me getting a cup of coffee, for example. At the Lakers game, I felt the need to remain very professional and calm, this time I decided I was going to be the fan that I was, and freak out that I was allowed in all of the places that most people weren’t. We went in to the rink when it was totally empty, I was so excited, I jumped up and down. We went underground and found the Zamboni’s. I climbed all over them and secretly enjoyed the thrill of possibly getting caught. Kings ATV – I sat on it. Press box, I spun around in the office chairs as they tested the bad techno music on the sound system, laughing hysterically.

And finally, when the game was about to start, and I was about to enter the arena where everyone else sits, when it occurred to me that I could watch the game from anywhere that I wanted. So, I went to the tunnel and watched the refs skate out. Then I ran over to watch the players filter out of the locker room and onto the ice. I learned a valuable lesson at the last game though: Being a true fan means that you feel nervous for the team when the national anthem plays; when the gloves come off, you want justice to be served, and if given the choice, don’t watch it from the press box if you want to have fun. As appreciative as I was to have had the chance to live out my dream of being a reporter, a fan in the stands is where I’d like to stay.

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