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TORONTO -- It was somewhere around the eighth or ninth autograph signing when Elton Brand ditched the NBA.
Before a throng of the Toronto International Film Festival's finest paparazzi, film students and star seekers -- who spear stars with microphones and flash copies of celeb rags with pens in tow -- the All-Star isn't seeing any trading cards or Clippers hats.
"I usually sign 'Elton Brand #42,'" Brand says while scribbling on some collegiate dude's white paper. "Tonight, I'm signing 'Elton Brand -- Movie Producer.'"
Smart move, because here at the prestigious festival de cinema -- where Brand just sat alongside critics and studio suits at the world premiere of "Rescue Dawn," a Vietnam-era POW flick produced by Brand and starring Christian Bale of "Batman Begins" -- the locals are having trouble identifying the Clippers All-Star.
"We're in Toronto with movie fans," Brand says as he walks down the red carpet. "So they probably think I play hockey."
"Are you a hockey player?" inquires a camera-toting young woman -- because, you know, the NHL is filled with 6-foot-8 black hockey players.
Check out video of Elton Brand at the Toronto Film Festival, plus scenes from "Rescue Dawn."
But Brand isn't fazed, and why would he be? As the easygoing big man flashes his ever present toothy one amidst the glaring lights and flashing bulbs, it's clear that this mid-September evening is the punctuation on the Summer of Brand.
According to anonymous sources in the airline industry, Brand is now the world record holder for frequent flyer miles accumulated during a single summer. After a Western Conference semifinals appearance, Brand spent the following three months traveling to China and Japan for Team USA and, just yesterday, to New York for a pal's wedding.
Which brings us back to Toronto. So what has an exhausted Brand got himself into? Like the snootier Cannes and chill Sundance festivals, the two-week Toronto International Film Festival unveils top-tier flicks (more than 300) -- what insiders call the fall '06 Oscar crop -- and hosts hordes of filmmakers, buyers, sellers, watchers and celebs. Brad Pitt, Russell Crowe, Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn are here, along with controversy (see "Death of a President," the fictional account of W's assassination) and lunacy (see the "Borat" premiere, at which Sir Ali G arrived in a woman-drawn cart.)
With the circus in town, some locals are fighting back. Hours earlier, Yonge Street was seized by something called a Jesus Parade, where marchers tied up traffic while reminding the jackals of the way of the Son, often to tunes. Their play lists? The Asian and white followers chose drums and French hymns, respectively, while the black congregation awesomely bounced to the hip-hop gospel of Kirk Franklin's "Stomp." (If Tom Cruise had an infectious anthem such as this, we'd all be auditing our thetans and following that furry rugrat Shia into an intergalactic slugfest with Xenu. And we'd take Elton Brand with us.)
Yes, Torontonians are loony for their festival, and I'm on guard. Hopefully, Brand is too.
His evening starts with a "Dawn" preparty hosted by Premiere magazine at W Studio, where Persian carpets line the walls, Wyclef performs a sound-check and "Rescue Dawn" co-star Jeremy Davies ("Saving Private Ryan") eagerly anticipates Brand's arrival.
"I don't know anything about the Clippers," Davies says. "Gosh, is that hockey? I like chess "
The proceedings liven when the big fella arrives, and though his springtime quest for a championship ring fell short, Brand is flashing finger bling of a cooler, different sort. In July, he married Shahara Simmons, a Duke alum, and now Mrs. Brand has her man's back as he makes the rounds and poses for photos (smoothly sliding his fun juice deep inside his palm) before yukking it up with Bale.
"Nice to see you again, my friend," says the gentlemanly Brit to the Clip, who spent two weeks on the Thailand set last fall. "Congratulations with all you've done with the Clippers."
"It's funny to see all of the celebs turn out for the Clippers now," Bale continues. "A bit nauseating, no?"
Brand laughs, and clearly appreciates Bale's interest. He's been trying to turn the Brit -- who starts shooting the next "Batman" installment in winter '07 -- onto basketball for some time now.
"Christian and his wife are big soccer fans," Brand says. "And billiards. Can you believe that? But I'm getting them into basketball."
Yeah, when Tony Parker dunks, says Bale.
"Your sports loves get established early in life, so for me it's soccer," Bale explains, adding that he catches the Clips via telly -- sorta. "To be honest, even with soccer, I like playing more than watching it. All I'm thinking is, 'Why am I doing sitting in this chair? Why am I drinking this beer and, you know, having my arse getting fatter every minute? Why aren't I up there doing it?'"
"Elton is damn nice and astonishingly chill," adds Bale, who isn't surprised by the baller's interest in the film biz. "Movies are so idiosyncratic, you get unusual characters. You don't go to school, get a degree, and make movies. Everybody can make movies and that keeps it like a roller coaster."
So Bale is a fan, and an envious one at that.
"It's unbelievable that he's been able to achieve the success he has," Bale said. "And he's younger than me, so that makes me jealous beyond belief. Hats off to him."
Soon, the gang is off to the premiere screening. I hitch a ride with Brand because he's my subject and I'm a professional -- and not at all because he's rolling in a jet-black stretch limo. Besides, his ride isn't exactly a rolling discotheque. No Dramas or Turtles here, just the wife and some business types, so the baller talks shop.
Brand's Gibraltar Entertainment, which he co-owns with partner Steve Marlton, has a bevy of film and TV projects in development, including the comedy flick "Bad in Bed" and "Stranded," a thriller about a killer targeting a woman stuck in a car teetering on the edge of a cliff (Matt Dillon and Brittany Murphy are in talks to star).
Then there's the flagship project, "Rescue Dawn." From acclaimed German director Werner Herzog ("Grizzly Man"), "Rescue Dawn" is the true story of Dieter Dengler (Bale), an American fighter pilot shot down behind enemy lines on his virginal flight and held at a Viet Cong prison camp.
A gritty, fact-based film with an award-winning director and a young star in a mold-breaking role means there's Oscar buzz (Entertainment Weekly would later say the film "led the charge" in generating "serious Academy Award talk") and if the film is named Best Picture, guess who takes home a gold statuette?
But the production wasn't all layups. Herzog is by all accounts a surly chap who employs unconventional methods to get what he needs (like, say, filming in dangerous jungles with venomous reptiles).
"Oh man, you don't sign up for a Werner Herzog movie without thinking it's going to be difficult," Bale said earlier. "I was expecting him to pull a gun on me at any second.
"He is a very unique character, inspiring, infuriating at times. There were so many strong personalities involved that there was a lot of clash and trouble."
Marlton is, like Brand, a showbiz newbie, and the no-nonsense former club owner often locked horns with Herzog.
After playing on Team USA's bronze-medal World Championship squad this summer, Elton Brand has some ideas for improvement -- including playing more zone defense.
• Brand on Team USA experience
"Let's put it this way: If I didn't clash with Werner, you'd be watching a three-hour movie," Marlton says. ("Dawn" clocks in at two hours).
There was also a hiccup with financing. Brand and Marlton's initial $2 million investment ballooned when outside money bowed out of the production, marooning crew members in Thailand until more cash was infused. Litigation followed and one lawsuit, aimed directly at Gibraltar, was settled out of court.
"That was cleared up a while ago, and we've moved on," Brand says, admitting that his genial persona is not par for the showbiz course. "In this business, people say you have to be more of a shark. I just need to do stand-up business. I'll work hard and be honest, an honest businessman, however it works."
Brand isn't second-guessing his side job and he discounts the too-much, too-soon notion.
"The advice from my business advisers was to start earlier," he says. "When you're still playing, you can network and meet people. The movie biz is definitely tough. So I wouldn't advise any young athletes to get into it unless you have some credible partners and you know what you're doing."
Evidence points to Brand knowing just that. He reads scripts, wields terms like docs and dailies and, before signing onto "Dawn," did his homework by rifling through Herzog's catalogue.
"We watched seven of his movies in two days," Brand says.
Brand is the first filmmaker to arrive at Ryerson Theater but he gamely tackles the red carpet's parasites, who are clearly in awe of this large figure.
"I play basketball in L.A.," he tells one baffled reporter. "No, not the Lakers."
"I'm just a lowly producer," he informs another. "You want to talk to the real stars."
On cue, Bale arrives and the crowd goes nuts. Think Staples Center after a buzzer-beating turnaround from Brand who, in this fictional scenario, is donning a cape and metallic cup. With the paparazzi distracted, Brand pauses for some perspective.
"It's an honor to be here because the films you've seen here have gone down as some of the greatest of all time," Brand says, and recent history backs him up. "Dawn" is screening in the Masters Program, which sports films from celebrated auteurs like Ang Lee, who last year brought "Brokeback Mountain" here.
"The reason I entered the film biz was to tell a great story," Brand says. "You're not going to change the world, but I'm passionate about the art of it."
Besides, it ain't like getting throttled by KG.
"My full-time job is a little harder," he says. "You gotta take elbows to the face sometimes. Here I can just put on a suit and watch Christian act."
Finally, Brand takes his seat and when the lights dim, the Lion roars. The Lion, of course, is the MGM icon. As if the "Dawn" family didn't have enough to celebrate, MGM acquired the film's North American distribution rights in a pre-emptive bid the night before. Marlton was having dinner at Morton's when he got the call.
"I tipped the maitre d' $50 to bring me the faxed contract," says Marlton, who's clearly picking up the game. "I signed it right there and we had our studio."
(MGM is expected to release the movie Dec. 1 in Los Angeles and New York for an Oscar qualifying run, with wider release in February.)
After the screening, Herzog, Bale and Davies participate in a Q&A session. The director tells the audience, including Dengler's widow and son, that Dieter, who passed away five years earlier, "embodied everything I love about America: Courage, frontier spirit, loyalty, and joy of life. I think he would have liked this evening here with you."
(And how was the flick? I'll leave the reviews to the snoots, except to say this: I rubbed my seat ragged, squirming and slumping before rising, along with the audience, in a standing O for a surprisingly uplifting war flick with a wildly unconventional performance by Bale. So yeah, the movie works, and Brand agrees: "Better than 'Scarface,' better than 'Citizen Kane.'")
A limo ride later, the filmmakers reconvene outside Amber, a Yorkville bar, for the after party. It's a circus and therein lays the rub: Dozens of beautiful people wielding hefty bribes (and breasts) can't get in. Now this is not a problem for Brand. This is, however, a problem for our video crew.
"No cameras inside," says the stone-cold fox of a door girl. Of course, as a fun-loving Angelino, I'm highly capable of dealing with all door scourge, so I wield my irresistible charms. This is met with a look that might read: "You, good sir, are a dork."
But Brand has our back: After he whispers sweet nothings in her ear, we're in. With apologies to Frankie Muniz, Brand is clearly Clipper Nation's top Hollywood grease man.
"There's some perks, especially in L.A.," Brand agrees. "The producing line goes a long way."
Once inside the club, we pull a "Goodfellas" fast break past a second velvet rope, into a tight hallway, past the kitchen, up a stairwell, and onto an exclusive high-talent patio. Brand is making Ray Liotta look like A.C. Green.
Inside the VIP party within the party, where land and air are at a premium, the celebration reaches its pinnacle. For the "Dawn" crew, there are smiles and hugs all around -- even between Marlton and Herzog -- suggesting that a successful premiere can heal wounds and bruised egos, if not livers. Bale, Davies and Herzog commandeer a Batcave in the corner, where Marlton plays the former club owner, brandishing bottles of Grey Goose and repeatedly filling this reporter's glass (with ice; only ice).
Surveying his surroundings, Marlton is clearly pleased.
"I would like to think Elton and I are faring pretty well," he says. "First time out of the block and we got a major film, and a major studio behind us 100 percent, putting up all the money for distribution, and we're taking it worldwide. That's unheard of in this industry."
For much of the night, Brand braves the club alone to sing along with the common people, graciously obliging all photo/autograph requests. He doesn't oblige the ladies, who swarm him like the Suns' undersized frontcourt, but shoot 0 percent from the field.
(This, of course, is a good thing for an eligible lout like me. Suffice it to say, if you're willing to strap on knee pads and go all Mark Madsen on the loose balls, then playing second fiddle to a married baller at a club crawling with beautiful women is your own personal Shangri-La.)
The local recruiters aren't faring well, either. "You gotta come play for the Raptors!" pleads one beer-toting slouch.
Then there are the Hollywood hyenas. Business cards are passed, tequila shots offered, and job opportunities sought. One fella, an actor from Brooklyn, is surveying the ESPN crew with blood in his eyes.
"It's my reality show," Brand cracks, gamely toying with the starry-eyed go-getter. "They never leave me alone."
"Dude, you must let me host your show," Brooklyn pleads, before sliding his card.
"Everyone wants to be a star," laughs the Clip.
At 2 a.m., Brand is content. He takes Shahara's hand and leads her outside to their waiting limo.
"It's good having your own camera crew at a club," Brand admits. "You can definitely get some nice hotties out of that."
Well aware he's within earshot of his new bride, Brand laughs before enveloping Shahara in his arms.
"I'm proud of Elton all around," Mrs. Brand says. "He's an amazing person and I'm proud to be his wife, his best friend. Team USA, the movie, the [upcoming] season. Everything he does, I'm behind him."
There's some talk of other shindigs, including Pitt's "Babel" after party and a Dan Aykroyd thing (probably much cooler than it sounds), but Brand is finito -- and he isn't hitting up his locally based Team USA cohort, either.
"I spent six weeks with Chris Bosh," he says. "I ain't trying to call him.
"I'm feeling tired. The rest of the summer I'll shut down and focus on b-ball. I've had a busy summer."
Brand's summer is capped by a final, clearly inebriated sycophant.
"You're Patrick Ewing, right? You were amazing, dude."
Surprisingly, Brand doesn't freak out or kick in the guy's shins. No, he politely signs one final autograph.
This time, it reads: Elton Brand #42.
Elsewhere at the nexus of sports and entertainment
PLEASE SHAUN, DON'T HURT 'EM
On Sunday, watch as Betsy Rogers, a single mother of a 13-member family, gets new digs on "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" (ABC, 7 p.m.). Helping to renovate the rundown, two-bedroom North Pole, Alaska, pad? Big-hearted Seahawks Matt Hasselbeck, Lofa Tatupu and Shaun Alexander. Here's hoping the Madden-cursed MVP installed Betsy's dishwasher and not, say, her water heater.
BEN BROUSSARD IS DEFINITELY NOT HAVING MARITAL PROBLEMS
Mariners first baseman Ben Broussard says his trade to Seattle from Cleveland -- and playing guitar along with Richie Sexson and Raul Ibanez on the team plane -- has reinvigorated him. He's written nine songs for a new album and his Pearl Jam-ish sounds from his previous self-titled work have a new lease on life thanks to local radio and TV, where his music has aired on "The Real World" and "Dog the Bounty Hunter." Next up, a track for an Army commercial.
And catch his tune "Hold on to Me" about a struggling couple ("Not me and my wife," says Broussard), during an episode of "South of Nowhere" on the N network, on Sept. 29. Nice, but Broussard isn't getting excited. "I don't like to give the impression that I'm focusing too much on music because if you have a bad game, it gives people ammo," says Broussard, who's nevertheless hitting .308 in September. "Besides, some of my new teammates don't like my music. They tell me to play at home."
KG'S AURA IS DOPE Rashad McCants writes messages on his sneaks and tends to speak his mind (famously comparing his UNC experience to "prison"). Now, the Timberwolves soph is putting it all together for a poetry book he hopes to have completed by midseason. Says McCants, "There's freedom on paper, with no limitation about who or what you can talk about." But if this first entry -- an ode to KG from Day 1 with the Wolves -- is any indication, Kevin McHale can rest easy. Peep his words:
he came to me with open arms, like a hawk embracing his young,
and he fed me food out his mouth but I was starving for knowledge.
the type of knowledge that can't be fed by hand or voice, but by heart.
so when he spoke he touched my soul, and my soul would smack me if I didn't listen
the words he spoke weren't for the ears to hear.
because his words were real, it's hard to hear the truth when lies are so loud.
I put my earphones on so I can hear nothing and see everything.
lies could never steal my attention when he
The eyes never lie. and when he spoke he wore no glasses.
he wanted me to see the truth, which was? that everyone wears glasses to protect lies,
truth? glasses? lies?
sounds like earth, sounds like humans, sounds like America.
but if that's so where is he from? not from here, he has no glasses!
there was an aura, a light, a truth, about him.
special? never. different? maybe. human? impossible. so I asked him one question to expect one answer
when you walk and talk and teach how come everyone can stare at your light, your aura, your truth?
because we are the same.
Sam Alipour is based in Los Angeles. His Media Blitz column appears in ESPN The Magazine and regularly on Page 2. You can sound off at Sam.Alipour@gmail.com.