Arash Markazi
Sunday July 15th, 2007

HOLLYWOOD -- I'm not supposed to be on the eleventh floor of the Mondrian Hotel. At least, I don't think so. I have no business being pampered alongside the likes of LaDainian Tomlinson, Justin Verlander and Vincent Chase himself, Adrian Grenier, yet there my name is on a list right next to theirs.

"Thank you so much for coming," says the sultry blonde, welcoming me and other guests as soon as the elevator doors open. "We're so happy you could make it."

I'm on the exclusive floor of this chic Sunset hotel for the ESPY Style Studio, which is basically a dozen gifting suites where athletes and entertainers are handed a duffle bag and encouraged to go to each room and take as much stuff as their hands and bag can handle. Think of it as a high-end version of trick-or-treat.

I politely turn down the bag, which judging from the look on the surprised woman's face handing them out, is the first time a guest has ever refused one. I suppose it would be the equivalent of a kid shunning a bag of candy corn for a notepad and pencil on Halloween, which seems appropriate as I jot down some notes about the scene.

"I thought you were going to try to blend in today," says my friend Bonnie-Jill Laflin, a real celebrity who gladly takes her soon-to-be-filled bag and hangs it over her right shoulder. "I don't see any other celebrities taking down notes and turning down gift bags."

She's right. My assignment today is to experience what the other half does on the day of an awards show and so far I'm not doing a good job of fitting in.

Less than 10 minutes into my mission and I've already dropped the ball. "Most of the big celebrities came in yesterday," says one of the many attractive females escorting celebrities to the different gifting suites. "This is the third and last day so there's not as much to choose from."

Maybe, but while Ed Hardy and Retribution might not have as much clothes in stock ("Mike Tyson raided all our good stuff yesterday," said one designer), there are still plenty of laser eye procedures being offered by one doctor in what had to be the most random suite on an already chaotic floor.

"I had laser eye surgery two years ago," says New England Revolution goalkeeper Matt Reis, who still takes a certificate just in case. "Maybe I'll stop by for a touch up."

The first thing you pick up on when you walk into these gifting suites is the subtle feeling out process between the celebrity and the representative from each company. The celebrity wants to stuff their bag with as much swag as possible, while the rep wants to make sure they are not dealing with the sports world's version of Kathy Griffin. They want to save their good stuff for the A-Listers. The escorts, as gorgeous as they are, do little to help the athletes' cause.

"This is Justin Ver...Verlander," mumbles his escort, looking at a piece of paper and introducing him at one of the gifting suites. "You play for the Tigers, right?"

"Gosh, c'mon," says Verlander jokingly as he pats her on the back. "Yeah, I play for the Tigers. I just got in last night. It's actually my first time in Los Angeles."

Meanwhile Lisa Guerrero, no doubt a veteran of these gifting suite negotiations, requests the last of a popular Ed Hardy watch, promising to wear it on her microphone hand. "It'll go perfect with my dress," she says. "And everyone will see it when I'm interviewing them."

In a nearby suite transformed into a hair salon, Tomlinson is being told they don't have any more products to give to the NFL's leading rusher. "You came at the tail end, we don't have anything left," says the woman. "But if you give me your card we'll try to ship you something."

Tomlinson says he doesn't have a card, which isn't surprising although it would be interesting if teams gave their players business cards like most companies do with their employees. "I guess I could get some if I wanted them," says Tomlinson. "But I don't think I'd use them."

As I head out of the Mondrian, I bump into Matt Leinart, who didn't roll through the gifting suites but had a friend make the rounds for him instead. "That's the way you got to do it," he says. My education continues.

With a few hours left before the ESPYs, I head to The Shave, a trendy barbershop in Beverly Hills, which is closed to the public today as it has been transformed into the Jordan Brand Parlor for its athletes and invited guests.

As I walk into the brick laced shop, I pass by Ray Allen who recommends the MVP, which is the signature shave. "I could have spent the day in there," he says as he heads back to his hotel to change for the show. "But I got to get ready."

I quickly discover what Allen's talking about as I take a seat on one of the plush leather chairs in the waiting room and look at the menu of treatments, which include manicures, pedicures, hair cuts and shaves. As I go over my options I'm handed a glass of champagne, a plate of cheeseburger sliders and a lovely redhead begins to rub my neck, asking me what I'm in the mood for.

At this point I begin to contemplate skipping the ESPYs altogether and spending the day at The Shave, but I regain my senses after my back rub is complete and take a seat in the barber's chair for a signature shave and haircut.

While the offer of a manicure and pedicure from my red-hot hostess is tempting, it's time for me to start making my way towards the Kodak Theatre for the show.

There are three tickets waiting for me in an envelope at the Renaissance Hotel, which are three more than I had last year when I snuck into the ESPYs and the after party. Luckily for me, The Wordwide Leader has been nice enough to play along this year, allowing me to act like a celebrity for the sake of the assignment, leaving me a ticket to the pre-party, the award show and the post-party.

The pre-party is taking place at The Highlands, the site of last year's infamous after-party where I tried to teach Shaun White how to swallow a plate full of macaroni and cheese. Needless to say, things are a bit tamer as the sun is still beaming down on the outside patio of the club, overlooking the red carpet leading into the Kodak Theatre. A mid-afternoon open bar seems like a good idea in theory but most of the celebrities bypass the event, wisely not wanting to get tipsy before they hit the red carpet and hopefully the stage later in the night.

I decide to do the same even though I don't plan on doing any interviews on the red carpet or accepting any awards. While I was certainly correct about the latter, ESPN 710 in Los Angeles throws me a curve by interviewing me on the red carpet after I pass by Howie Schwab, who is introducing the celebrities and athletes to the fans in sitting in the grandstands.

My first red carpet interview goes better than expected as reporter Beto Duran asks me the first logical question: "What are you doing on the red carpet?" Looking to Duran's left, I see Jalen Rose on the other side of the barricade separating the celebrities from the reporters as he tries to conduct interviews for ESPN.

"I think they mixed up my ticket with Jalen's ticket," I say as Jalen laughs. "He's over there sweating and trying to get interviews and I'm about to walk to my seat and grab a drink."

After giving my first and last interview on the red carpet, I pass by the hundreds of television and print reporters screaming to get the attention of The Rock and Shaquille O'Neal. Things could be worse, I could be Troy Smith. As the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback walks the red carpet hundreds of fans and photographers yell to get his attention. Unfortunately they're yelling for Reggie Bush. Smith finally takes off his glasses, looks at the masses and says, "Troy Smith!"

The noise from the media and fans surrounding the outside Kodak Theatre moves to the background as soon as I walk into the theatre, which pays homage to the Academy Awards, from the backlit glass plaques listing each Best Picture winner on limestone portals leading into the building to framed pictures of some of the show's greatest moments.

This is only the 15th ESPYs, a far cry from the nearly eight decades the Oscars have been around, but guests are quickly reminded of the show's signature moment as they take their seats in the 3,400-seat theatre. A clip from Jim Valvano's memorable "Don't Give Up...Don't Ever Give Up" speech during the 1993 ESPYs is shown and for a moment the underlying good that comes from the show is revealed through all the ridiculous Jimmy Kimmel and LeBron James commercials.

Where else could someone like North Carolina State women's basketball coach Kay Yow get a standing ovation from a star-studded crowd and bring celebrities who knew nothing about her battle with breast cancer to tears as she spoke about having to fly to Fresno for the Sweet 16 this year with an IV in her arm and a nurse by her side?

Where else could Trevor Ringland and Dave Cullen, two men on opposite sides of Northern Ireland's 30-year conflict, be recognized for using basketball to promote peace between Protestant and Catholic children?

Where else could the V Foundation for Cancer Research raise nearly $2 million in donations over a three-day span from events surrounding the show?

I'm sure all that will be overshadowed by Kimmel's biting monologue, James slam dunking his "baby" and then making like Bobby Brown on stage, but they were the only moments that stuck out to me all night.

The rest of the show continued to drag on and will no doubt get edited before it airs. It will be interesting, however, to see how they handle Mary J. Blige mispronouncing LaDainian Tomlinson's name after he won for best male athlete or Katie Walsh flubbing Taryne Mowatt's name after she won for best female athlete and cursing herself afterwards for the error. Note to next year's producers: Find presenters that actually watch sports.

When the show finally wraps up, the crowd heads to the post-party, which is taking place in the Babylon-themed courtyard of the Hollywood and Highland Complex connected to the Kodak Theatre. The outdoor soiree not only features catered food and open bars but live boxing. A ring has been set up in the middle of the courtyard, complete with ring girls and judges.

While most of the crowd stands in line for food and drinks, Colombian welterweight Joel Julio is battling Cornelius Bundrage, a semifinalist during the second season of "The Contender," for a "Wednesday Night Fights" taping. It's an interesting setting for a fight considering few, if any, of the guests are focusing on the action in the ring. Even Mike Tyson is unmoved as he heads for the dessert table.

As the rap lyric goes, after the party it's the hotel lobby, so I leave the ringside action early (and any semblance of celebrity I have accumulated during the day) to meet up with Amanda Champagne at The Standard on Sunset to celebrate our one-year "anniversary" after meeting at the ESPYs last year. When she asks me if this year's event compared favorably to last year I simply reply, "It does now."

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