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Monday, April 26, 2004
Hangin' with Kenny

By Jim Caple
Page 2

In an attempt to attend four major sporting events in one day, the second Kenny Mayne 4Play Tour did everything but wear rainbow wigs and hold up John 3:16 signs.

Over the course of a dozen hours, Kenny, producer Tom McCollum, cameraman Marc Desy and I covered more than 1,000 miles by plane, helicopter, limo and water taxi (the trains will have to wait until next year). We visited four cities in three states, and though we did not leave the United States, we did eat at the International House of Pancakes. We didn't caddy for a golfer or work a NASCAR pit, but we pretty much covered the rest. Kenny sat in on the NFL Draft, made it to the parquet court at a Boston Celtics playoff game, smoothed the ice at a Tampa Bay Lightning playoff game and hung out in the bullpen during a Florida Marlins game.

Kenny Mayne

Kenny fell one sport shy of completing his 4Play last year (he arrived hours after the Canucks game ended in Vancouver) but by sticking to the East Coast, he pulled it off this year with room to spare. In fact, we had enough time left over by the end that we could have truly fulfilled the complete experience of major-league sport in America by flying up to Atlanta and getting a lap dance at the Gold Room.

But what the heck. There's always next year.

New York, NFL Draft, Madison Square Garden

The day starts at 11 a.m. with the fourth round of the NFL Draft.

While Kenny prepares to begin the 4Play by personally handing the New York Giants' draft card to the league officials, I walk over to examine the framed Pat Tillman jersey the NFL has hung beside the main stage at Madison Square Garden. In addition to this restrained tribute to the fallen soldier, league and team officials also wear ribbons with Tillman's name and number.

Tillman, of course, didn't want to be singled out for his service and refused all interviews as a Ranger. As far as he was concerned, he was no different from any other soldier even if he had passed up a contract worth more than $3 million. He understood better than most that everyone fighting in the Middle East is making a sacrifice and his was no greater just because of his fame and salary.

With his death last week in Afghanistan, however, he became special by putting a face to all the fallen soldiers whose flag-draped coffins the government doesn't want us to see. A war which has required no sacrifice from anyone outside the soldiers and their families finally hit a little closer to home.

While the NFL quite appropriately honors Tillman, it should also consider 18-year-old Kyle Crowley and the many other teenagers -- younger than Maurice Clarett -- who are among more than 700 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq during the past year. Yet the NFL still stubbornly maintains that Clarett is too young to play in its league, a stance relinquished long ago by every other sport. The league obviously does so simply to protect the cost-free farm system that is college football, yet it claims it does so out of safety concerns.

Enough already. If you are old enough to play every other sport professionally, and more importantly, if you are old enough to die for your country, you are old enough to play pro football.

Boston, Celtics-Pacers playoff game, Fleet Center.

A limo ride, a hop in a helicopter, a chartered jet to Logan airport and a water taxi across Boston harbor brings us to the Fleet Center for the NBA playoffs.

I've been to most of the storied stadiums in pro and college sports but the one I most regret missing is Boston Garden, one of the very few NBA arenas that had real character (as well as many rats). Even though the Celtics preserved the famous parquet floor, the current arena is antiseptic and impersonal. Maybe it would seem more welcoming if it wasn't named after a bank.

I'm sorry, sir. We've turned down your loan application for season tickets. But you may use our handy ATMs on your way to the concession stand.

It's been almost two decades since the last Celtics' championship and it feels longer as we walk in. There are empty seats throughout the arena and the Red Sox game is playing on the monitors by the concession stands. Although the Celtics are leading, the ovations for Kenny as he walks along the court are almost as loud as those for the team.

Kenny's deal here is to hold the ball for the Celtics' mascot, Lucky, so he can grab it just before jumping on the mini-trampoline for a monster dunk. Kenny adds a twist to the handoff with a behind-the-back lob but Lucky can't handle the pass and he misses the jam. There are many boos until Lucky grabs the ball from Kenny en route to a spectacular somersault slam that draws a huge cheer.

Mascot trampoline slams are a prerequisite of all NBA teams these days, though I can't help but think they weren't necessary at the old Garden in the days of Russell, Havlicek, Bird, Parish and McHale.

Tampa, Lightning-Canadiens playoff game.

A three-hour flight takes us from Boston to Tampa, and as we drive from the airport to the game, we pass a burnt-out building of mangled steel and rubble near Legends Field. I can only assume that George Steinbrenner has exploded.

I mean, really, when is George going to go nuts? After losing their third consecutive game to the Red Sox -- and sixth of seven games in the past week -- the Yankees are three games under .500 despite a $190 million payroll. What is the point of having the Yankees play so poorly if George doesn't fire somebody? He could at least blame the team's record on Derek Jeter's nightlife.

We arrive at the St. Pete Times Forum (you could win a lot of bets asking people if they could name the Lightning's home ice) around 6:15 with Tampa Bay leading 3-1 and just over eight minutes remaining in the third period. The Lightning holds on to win the game, and afterward, Kenny gets to fulfill the dream of every North American by sitting behind the wheel of the Zamboni machine and taking it for a spin on the ice. This isn't quite as special as cruising down California's Highway 1 in a 1956 Corvette with your right arm around Kate Beckinsale, but it's close.

There is just something incredibly appealing about the Zamboni and Ryan Welty knows better than most -- he's the Zamboni driver for the Lightning. When he tells people what he does for a living, he says, "Everyone goes, 'Oh my God! You're a Zamboni driver! That's the greatest!' That's a pretty cool feeling. Sometimes I'll think that I don't want to do it anymore, that I'll do one last season and then someone will say that and I'll realize what a great job it is. I get free beers in the bars. People recognize me. There are groupies."

He was joking about the groupies. I think.

A Zamboni tops out at 9.5 miles per hour, which doesn't sound like much until you consider that it is driven on ice, has no brake and is about the size of a luxury suite. If it was just a little larger, clumsier, less fuel efficient and cost $56,000, pro athletes and rich men going through mid-life crisis undoubtedly would buy it instead of the Hummers and Cadillac Escalades filling the Lightning player parking lot and blocking our exit.

Our driver skillfully drives us through the postgame traffic, and on our way to the airport, we stop for a takeout order from IHOP, which, I am happy to say, refrained from renaming itself the National House of Pancakes during last year's Freedom Fries nonsense.

Miami, Atlanta-Marlins night game

When did championship rings start looking like heavyweight championship belts?

I ask this because as we stand in the Marlins' clubhouse, a team executive is wearing a 2003 World Series ring that is so large Suge Knight would consider it too garish. It has 228 diamonds, weighs a quarter-pound and literally covers two fingers. It looks like the world's only set of diamond-encrusted brass knuckles.

Kenny dresses into a Marlins uniform to sit in the Florida bullpen but he loses an impassioned appeal to warm up on the bullpen mound. In a tone as dry as the inside of the Metrodome, he informs reliever Chad Fox, "You probably don't realize that I threw a no-hitter against Braxton Brothers Paint when I was in sixth grade."

To no avail. Fox simply makes Kenny carry the pink carryall bag out to the bullpen as required in his role as the team's newest rookie. But he looks good doing it.

After the game, Josh Beckett douses Kenny with champagne to celebrate the end of a successful day, spraying him until he winces in pain. It's not as pleasant as you think, is it? Beckett asks. "We were wearing goggles and stuff to protect ourselves."

Maybe, but it is the taste and symbol of victory. We have completed the tour successfully and covered many miles, and now it is time to sleep.

The only problem is Kenny smells so strongly of champagne I'm sure our limo will be pulled over by every trooper in Dade County on our ride home.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com