By Rob Ryder
When the call came in from Bristol, I gotta say, I was shocked. Shocked! Not that they were pulling the plug, but that they'd waited so long to do it.
See, all year long, I've been flailing away with the very real expectation that any day now, some Big Corporate Kahuna with a thousand responsibilities was going to stumble across my latest column and say, "What the hell is this?!"
And the poor guys who actually hired me would start sputtering about real stories from the trenches, insider info, you know, but they'd end up muttering something about how it seemed like a good idea at the time and can they keep their jobs, please ...?
It was a weird kind of incentive, knowing I could get the hook at any moment. Go for broke, pal. Let 'er rip.
Hey, I jammed in all I could.
And let me make this perfectly clear: ESPN.com has been terrific, right from the beginning, and all the way through. I'd like to feel that we've all acted honorably, and there truly are no hard feelings.
Like a friend reminded me, "They only gave you your own personal sandbox on the biggest sports Web site in the world for the last eight months." Not to mention the money.
They even let me tweak them once in a while for crissakes.
Another friend compared the column to a reality TV show without rules. Then added, "Or a slow motion train wreck."
But it was an honor being on Page 2 with guys like Ralph Wiley (R.I.P.) and Bill Simmons and all the other hot-shot writers. Not to mention the original wild-man writer of all time, Hunter S. Thompson. (Although I guess Homer and James Joyce have a claim to that title.)
Plus, I figured with these guys ranting and raving and cutting it up, I could slip under the radar. Just stroll along Ethernet Avenue, shootin' the breeze and selectively flashing open my overcoat, "Hey, buddy, you interested in a screenplay?"
But what it came down to (and this I understand) was that blurry line between describing the Hollywood process and blatant self-promotion.
With all their other writers, ESPN has rules about this sort of thing. They just weren't being applied to me. Even after shifting over to Page 3, my stuff somehow kept getting posted.
Now, with the end of the column, I'm really not sure how it's all going to turn out. But there definitely is a book in the works. A book based partially on these columns. It starts like this:
Sports will rip your heart out. Dash your hopes, shatter your confidence and leave you bleeding. Sports will offer up just enough victories to make all those defeats truly bitter. It's a world of violence and intimidation. Vitriolic coaches, heartless fans and cynical critics.
Same goes for the movie business.
So what career path did I choose, lame-brain, knucklehead that I am? The path of most resistance. The path of the Hollywood Jock.
Here's the conceit of the book: almost eight months ago, I made a pact with my wife; "Honey, give me one more year. If I don't make a sizable score, I'll walk away from Hollywood for good."
"Promise?" she asked.
"Promise," I said. "One year, that's all I'm asking for."
"OK, one year."
"I love you," I said.
"So does the dog," she answered.
The year began auspiciously when I scored this column. It was a blast having such an immediate audience; it helped keep me writing.
And I almost made it. This is my 33rd column. But now I have to slog out the next 17 weeks in obscurity in order to complete this "year in the life."
God, there's so much more to say.
About "94 Feet," "Zulu Wave" and "Fourth and Long Gone."
I'm gonna miss sharing stories about my pal George. How fiery and emotional he can get. How great it is to work with a guy who cares this deeply.
I remember him calling a few weeks ago as we were researching "Zulu Wave."
"This same phrase keeps popping up on the Internet," he shouted. "Amandla! Awethu! Amandla! Awethu! Imagine millions of powerless people shouting it over and over. Amandla! Awethu! Amandla! Awethu!"
"What's it mean?" I asked.
"The power is ours," George said solemnly.
"Geez," I said.
"Either that or, Does that come with fries?"
George knows better than most that if you can't share a cheap laugh, you'll never make it.
And there are still so many more stories from the past.
Like ... like from 20 years ago.
I remember it like yesterday. I'm hanging around an acting class somewhere down on Melrose. Tawny Kitaen is in it and she's young and sassy and unbelievably sexy, coming right off of "Bachelor Party" as she is.
(Tom Hanks still can't wipe that grin off his face.)
So Tawny's wearing these tight jeans and a sleeveless man's T-shirt that keeps shifting open as she spins and twirls, acting her heart out on that tiny stage -- just so pleased with herself in that endearing, braless manner that'll make a man stupid beyond his years.
After the class is over, I'm hanging around like a dog eyeing a lamb chop, actually following her out onto Melrose as she waits for a ride which clearly isn't gonna show. Finally I gather my courage and offer my services. She looks me up and down, considering, before saying, "Sure."
(And me thinking here, Wow, is there a God or what?) Suddenly a silver Mercedes coupe pulls up; Marcus Allen at the wheel. Tawny squeals and gives me a peck on the cheek and jumps into the Mercedes and off she goes, leaving me alone on the sidewalk.
Leaving my fragile psyche branded with yet another Hollywood lesson: Yes, there is a God. His name is Marcus Allen.
* * * * *
This book-writing stuff just won't be the same. One of the great, unexpected perks of this job was making many new friends out of total strangers. And it's been touching, knowing you were out there, loyally groaning your way though my verbiage, week after week.
I learned a lot from you. From all sides of the political spectrum. I learned about respect and dialogue and commonality.
Look, the media will try to fracture us; that's what juices the ratings. But we're all actually much closer than they'll have us believe.
We care about family, we care about neighbors. We care about jobs and we care about the air we breathe.
We've come a long way in racial relations. (Although our prison system is a total disaster.)
But really, there's a lot to be proud about.
Remember, America has taken on the biggest challenge. You think it's easy to start and sustain a democracy? Hey, let's really make it tough and throw in just about every disparate national, racial, economic, sexual, religious and cultural group you can find under God's sun. But it's working.
And we really have come far when it comes to tolerance.
The other night, I watched "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" with my 12-year-old son. We laughed. We howled. It was no big deal. Can you imagine doing that with your parents when you were a kid?
I also learned how we all share a deep concern for our troops overseas. I'll say it again: Say a prayer for these guys, and let's figure out the best way to get them home.
And for my new friends from other countries, other continents, you remind us that we're all in this together. On a small, crowded planet.
All right, I'm almost out.
But get this, ESPN.com has offered me a freelance gig. Anytime I want, I can pitch them stories for Page 2 or Page 3.
So if you have any ideas, pass 'em along (but let's not get too wacky here, I'm still hanging on by my fingernails).
I've asked my editors to make my email address hot: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Actually, how about everyone just popping me an email? Then I'll have a way of getting in touch about the book and other stuff. (Will this crash my computer?)
I might even start my own blog, who knows? It'll be www.hollywoodjock.com if and when the time comes (but blogs are dangerous animals, right?).
I'll end with this thought:
We turn to sports for escape and for comfort. And out of respect for the game.
But if we really respect the game, we also know when to turn it off. We know when to get back to the task at hand -- saving the world for our kids. For all the kids.
That way, when we turn back to the game, it'll still be there.
We'll see ya around. Ciao. Adieu. Farval. Auf Wiedersen. I'm outta here.
Rob Ryder played basketball at Princeton and works as a screenwriter and sports advisor in Hollywood. He can be reached at email@example.com.