I was basically a sports encyclopedia as a kid. You could say the name of any NBA player in the 1990s, and I could tell you where he went to college. I was really proud of myself for knowing that stuff. My family didn’t have cable TV, so most of my sports news came from the New York Post; I would read it religiously every morning before school and see how my favorite teams, the Knicks and the Rangers, did the night before.
On the morning of March 28, 1995, the big story was that the Knicks were hosting the Bulls. I had never seen Michael Jordan play in person, so I asked my dad if we could go to the game. He said he would make a few calls and see what he could do.
As I was heading out the door to catch the school bus, my dad told me we would be going to the game. I always had a difficult time concentrating in school, but knowing I was going to see MJ that night made that day especially challenging. At 1:30 p.m. my dad came and got me out of class; he was waiting in the school parking lot in his blue Chevy Caprice.
A Chevy Caprice is commonly used as an unmarked car by police detectives, which was why my dad bought it. He used it to his full advantage. The drive from our home on Long Island to Madison Square Garden should have taken more than an hour, but when you are riding in an unmarked cop car people tend to get out of the way when they see you behind them. We could do it in 40 minutes.
We never went straight to the Garden, though. We had to stop at his favorite camera store, B&H, to pick up the equipment he would need for the night. Because when we went to sporting events, my dad would carry multiple cameras and lenses. He even wore a vest to hold film. I would carry a notepad, a pen, and a tape recorder.
You see, I didn’t go as a fan. I went as a reporter for Sports Illustrated for Kids, and my dad was my photographer.
So what if the magazine didn’t even have a kid reporter program?
My dad was the one who came up with the cunning ploy. I was getting a monthly subscription to Sports Illustrated for Kids. (Ed.—The magazine has since changed its name to Sports Illustrated Kids and implemented a real kid reporter program.) That's what gave him the idea. He was a world-class schemer. If you got in a fender bender with my dad, he would wear a neck brace for as long as it took your insurance to pay up. As my little league coach, his biggest lesson to me was, “Allow yourself to get hit by the ball; it’s a sure way to get on a base.” He might have fibbed about my age so I could play against younger kids in hockey tournaments.
Was he the world’s best role model? No. But sports was how we bonded. Like so many dads and sons, we went to games together. Unlike most, my dad, being my dad, got us in for free by using his cute son.
The scam was pretty simple. My dad would call a venue ahead of time and talk to whoever was in charge of handling the press. Nowadays, media relations staffs are vigilant. You usually have to apply for a credential using a verified email address. Twenty-five years ago? Not so much.
Dad would let the unsuspecting PR flack know that a reporter from Sports Illustrated for Kids and a photographer would like to cover a particular event. We would not only get into the arena, but we’d have access to the locker rooms, where I would (fake) interview the players, take pictures and get autographs. (Ed.—Please do not try this yourself. It won’t work, and we’ll all get in trouble.)
The first time we ever ran the scam was at a Knicks-vs.-Bucks game during the 1992–93 season. My dad’s instructions were simple: Follow my lead and if anyone asks, say you’re a reporter. I remember telling him, “Yeah, I can do that.” That first game went exactly as planned. I was able to get pictures and autographs with all my favorite Knicks. Seeing how easy it was that first time, we never looked back.
My love for sports and my dad’s love for lying allowed me to interview some of the best athletes in the world, including:
•John Elway, who shook my hand harder than anyone before or since.
•Nancy Kerrigan, who I interviewed as we skated around an ice rink together.
•Mario Lemieux. My dad called the Marriott where he was staying and pretended to be his chauffeur so we would know when he was going to be in the lobby. I then interviewed him in a private banquet hall in the hotel that my dad procured.
•Shaquille O’Neal. After going up to him with a basketball and a card to sign, Shaq said in his deep Shaq voice, “You’re good man, you got two things.”
The ruse allowed me to rub elbows with some top celebrities, too. I met Cindy Crawford, like Pepsi Cindy Crawford, as well as her husband at the time, Richard Gere, who, as Cindy and I were taking a photo, yelled, “Get off my wife.”
Most importantly, I was able to see some incredible games, most notably the Rangers’ 1994 Stanley Cup final series against Vancouver. My dad and I went to Games 1, 5 and 7 without ever purchasing a ticket. I had a seat right on the glass for Game 7, and when it ended my dad and I went into both the Canucks’ and Rangers’ locker rooms. (Needless to say New York’s was a bit more upbeat.) The Cup was being passed around and champagne bottles were popping left and right. I’m pretty sure some of it seeped into my pores.
When the locker room celebration wrapped up, all the players and team personnel headed to the afterparty in a private space in Madison Square Garden. My dad and I followed, but when we arrived at the entrance we were told our press badges didn’t allow us access. A moment later, some guy in passing asked my dad if he could have a roll of film. My dad, always quick to find a solution to our dilemma, said to the guy, “I have a roll of film for you, if you can get my son and I into the after party.” Next thing you know, I’m tracking down Brian Leetch so he could sign my hat. I was 11 years old and the only kid in there.
My dad didn’t stop pushing our good fortune. A few days later, when the Rangers celebrated at Gracie Mansion, the home of then Mayor Rudy Giuliani, we talked our way in. I got my picture taken posing next to the Cup with Mike Keenan. No event was ever too big.
No one raised an eyebrow. We were never asked to see proof of the articles I supposedly wrote, or even asked when they were supposed to come out. No one ever doubted us for a second, which was another lesson from my dad’s unofficial handbook, Teaching Your Kid the Art of Persuasion: People will believe what you tell them—you just have to be confident. We set up a P.O. Box, and people in the NHL and NBA league offices would send us swag.
Over the years, my mom—who had the backbone in the family—would argue with my dad and ask him to stop taking me to games. But my dad marched to the beat of his own drum. I was never able to tell any of my friends about the experiences. Of course, I wanted to brag to everyone, but my father told me it was best to keep it hush-hush.
Even though we ran this scam countless times, my dad was always cautious. One of the rules he set in place was that as soon as we stepped foot in a venue, he was not my father. He always went by an alias; his favorite was Emmanuel Wolf, a combination of his first name and my mother’s maiden name. My dad would coach me; we’d go over the list of interview questions I was going to ask the players. They were the typical things you would expect a kid sports reporter to ask. What’s your favorite food? What’s your favorite song? Any advice? It was short and sweet.
We did this for about four years—until I got too big to be a believable kid reporter. Looking back on it, I know it was wrong, but when you are the age I was, it's hard not to get caught up in the excitement. Like I said, we never came close to getting caught.
Until we almost did.
The afternoon of MJ’s return to the Garden, we arrived early enough to pick up our press passes and take some pictures during shootaround. It was apparent very early on that this night was going to be more difficult to get into the locker room. During shootaround my dad brought to my attention that an actual Sports Illustrated for Kids reporter and photographer were at the game. In all of our times at the Garden we never ran into anyone who actually worked for the magazine. That didn’t slow us down, though. As a matter of fact, my dad made it a point for us to go over to them and say hello, never revealing who we really were. I remember thinking, “That’s it. We are going to jail!”
Before tip-off my father found a seat for me in the fourth row behind the Knicks’ basket. My credential allowed me to sit in the press area, but I usually sat in an open seat. My dad and I never sat together during the games; he would be off with all the other camera guys taking pictures on the floor.
The sold-out MSG crowd was electric that night; celebrities filled the seats. I was sitting near Bill Murray, Diane Sawyer, Tom Brokaw, Phil Donahue and Maury Povich (who easily could’ve blown our cover with a paternity test. He is the father!). We all had our eyes glued to the man wearing 45 for the Bulls. Michael Jordan was about to play the fifth game of his NBA comeback after taking off a season and a half to play baseball. Everyone was hoping for a show. We got one.
After watching MJ’s double-nickel performance, my dad and I rushed to the locker room. As expected, security was tight. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the real Sports Illustrated for Kids guys closing in. Fortunately, my dad had the foresight to always take pictures of the security guards during the games. When we went back to the Garden, he would give them the photos. As a result, he was a familiar face. When we arrived at security, he and I got the go-ahead to come through.
The locker room was a chaotic scene; press filled the tiny hallway just looking for a sound bite from MJ. While trying to figure out our next move, I caught Scottie Pippen on his way out and grabbed a picture and autograph. (Ed.—If you do end up covering a game for SI Kids, or any other journalistic outlet, DO NOT ASK FOR AUTOGRAPHS.) Soon after, a PR person led me and my dad into a private locker room where Jordan was sitting with Phil Jackson and a couple of assistant coaches. My dad, ever so coolly, set up his camera. I on the other hand was shaking. I sat down in the chair next to MJ and was so nervous I could remember only one of my silly questions. With a trembling voice I was barely able to utter, “What’s your favorite food?” Michael answered “steak.” He noticed my Fila sneakers and commented that I needed to get a pair of Nikes. MJ was extremely gracious. It was like meeting a mythical figure. And like that, it was over.
Riding an adrenaline high, my dad and I made our way out of Madison Square Garden. As we left, we walked by the real Sports Illustrated for Kids guys. They were still trying to get through security.
Gary Vider is a standup comedian. You can follow him at @GaryVider on Instagram and Twitter.