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Tuesday, December 16, 2003
Would you pick Ainge over MJ?

By Rob Ryder
Special to Page 2

So my friend Nigel pawned this Professional Bowlers Association commercial off on me. He'd been called to do a Nike spot up in Sacramento with LeBron and had to catch a 10 a.m. flight, so I said I'd cover for him. An easy 500 bucks. A piece of cake.

It's some streetballers going three-on-three in a park. But with a bowling ball. No dribbling here. They're supposed to run a little play -- pass and screen away for a teammate who curls into the paint, catches the bowling ball and then flings it up and through a glass backboard, which explodes into smithereens.

I haven't read the script, but the gist of it is: Look, bowlers are athletes, too. Or some crap like that. Not that it matters. The whole issue of what constitutes an athlete only exists because sports editors need to fill space. It can occasionally make for some lively conversation, though.

Michael Jordan
Hold on now -- has there ever been a better athlete than Michael Jordan?
Here's one I'd never heard. I was hanging out on the set with my friend and mentor, Ron Shelton (director of "White Men Can't Jump"). It went something like this: Someone said, "Michael Jordan is the greatest athlete in the world."

Ron immediately fired up. "That's bulls$%&!!!," he growled. (With Shelton, it isn't worth discussing if you can't growl about it.) "Michael Jordan is an amazing physical specimen who advanced one game to its highest level. But no way he's the best athlete in the world."

"Who is, then?" someone asked.

"Why not Danny Ainge?"

"Danny Ainge? Danny Ainge!!???"

"You mean Danny Ainge the whiner?"

"That Danny Ainge?"

"Yeah," said Ron. "For starters, Danny Ainge has two NBA rings as a member of the Celtics. He shot almost 50 percent from the floor."

"What'd Jordan shoot?"

"About the same," said Ron.

"So you're sayin' Ainge was good as Michael?" someone foolishly inquired.

"Did I say that!? I didn't say that!" yelled Ron.

"Bob Cousy only shot 37 percent," I threw in to deflect the heat.

"And they say players today can't shoot," someone added.

"Look," said Ron. "We're talking greatest athlete, not basketball player. Athlete. And before the Celtics, Danny Ainge actually played Major League Baseball. Three years with the Blue Jays. Something Jordan didn't come close to."

"Yeah, but Ainge couldn't hit, either."

"It's a matter of degree," barked Ron. "Ainge was 10 times the baseball player that Michael Jordan was. And last -- he's a scratch golfer. Do you know how tough that is?"

I didn't know (having sworn off golf years earlier as just one more unnecessary pursuit that was bound to make me crazy), but I knew we were gonna find out. Shelton, you'll remember, directed "Tin Cup" and is a fine golfer, himself.

"How tough?" someone asked.

"Ask Michael Jordan," answered Ron.

Danny Ainge
You could actually make an argument that Danny Ainge was a better athlete than MJ.
The PBA shoot is at a little pocket park in Burbank, just up from the Disney lot. Nigel's strolling across the court, talking into his cell phone (is he never?). The director and crew are off on a tennis court, shooting a sequence where a player tries to serve a bowling ball. It's really stupid, but it's a commercial and you know before you hit the remote you're gonna wait and see what happens. So in that sense, it's gonna work better than 95 percent of the commercials out there.

Nigel nods hello and pulls out a couple of pages of storyboards for the basketball sequence. They're crude, shot-by-shot drawings of how the scene will unfold. Shot: player No. 1 with bowling ball at top of key, being defended. Shot: player passing ball. Shot: player No. 2 catching the ball and falling on his ass. Like that.

On the back, Nigel has scribbled out a plausible play that gets all the players to their spots for the last shot, where Player No. 3 throws the bowling ball through the glass backboard. (And the last time you saw glass backboards in a city park was when??? Not that it matters. It's a commercial.)

The players start to straggle in.

"Where'd you find these guys?" I ask Nigel.

"Two of them are actors. They got cast. The other four, you know ... here and there."

Two young white men come through the gate, one about 5-foot-7, five days' growth, Italian-looking; the other, tall and fair like Keith Van Horn but even softer. Then four black men -- tattooed, muscled -- show up on the court with that slow walk that says they're at home.

"Lemme guess who's who," I say to Nigel, and we both laugh.

Nigel introduces me, and the short white guy immediately pulls me off to the side.

"Look, I'm not really a basketball player, but ..."

"It's cool," I say. "It's a commercial. We're playing with a bowling ball."

"Yeah, yeah, okay," he says. "I did play some football."

They all played some football.

Nigel checks his cell for the time. "I gotta go catch a plane."

I pull the players together. "All right, let's take a look at this."

We rough out the scene; and right away, I can tell that one of the authentic black players (the biggest, meanest guy, of course) doesn't like taking direction. Oh, man. Why do people take jobs like this if they don't like being told what to do? Maybe it's a coach he once had. Maybe he's just hung-over. Maybe it's a racial thing -- with all the headlines about Rush, Strom and Rasheed, the possibility does exist.

But most likely, it's that NBA syndrome. Every good basketball player I've met is certain he belongs in the NBA. And when you find yourself in some crappy park in Burbank in the hot sun working as an extra in a commercial instead, it can make you a little surly. This guy is surly. Maybe I'll tell him Danny Ainge is a better athlete than Michael Jordan.

But suddenly, I've got a bigger problem. It's some scruffy looking guy walking up from the tennis courts.

"Where's Nigel?" he asks.

Uh oh. Luckily, I'd had a moment to watch the tennis sequence and figure out that this was the director. You can be on some sets for an hour before you figure out who's directing the thing. The Assistant Director is usually the guy barking all the orders. Then there are always all sorts of people hanging out acting important: producers, associate producers, co-producers, executive producers, line producers. And most of them are dressed like they're still in college, so it's hard to tell who's who.

Some guys you know right away -- like Joe Pitka, who's directed some of the great Nike commercials. I've never had the pleasure, but I hear he can be a real jerk. A screamer. And probably proud of it. I'll have to ask Nigel sometime, although Nigel is too politic to go around telling stories out of school.

Anyway, this young, scruffy-looking director comes walking up asking for Nigel; and I realize the producer hasn't told him I'm replacing Nigel for the day. Is he a screamer? I'm about to find out.

NEXT: Smart moves, explosives and Sean Connery.

Rob Ryder played basketball at Princeton and works as a screenwriter and sports advisor in Hollywood. He can be reached at robryder@sbcglobal.net.