A Jungle Reunion: Inside One Man's Dream to Re-Create a 1996 SI Photo Shoot
- Imagine a family reunion of sports-obsessed drunk uncles. Now add Jim Rome and Sports Illustrated. What you get in the end is one man's dream realized—and a touching stroll down memory lane.
IRVINE, Calif. — Every 15 minutes or so, the security guard came clacking down the marble walkway, striding past plush ferns and even plusher indoor/outdoor furniture. With a walkie-talkie in hand, a mustache on his lip, and a slight fear in his eyes, he tried to figure out who these nearly two dozen men were and why they had chosen the courtyard of his suburban office park, of all places, for their weekday morning boozing.
In truth, the courtyard wasn’t the marauding group’s first stop and the guard wasn’t their first miffed observer. A few hours earlier, a pack of them had burst from a corner room at the Hotel Irvine, rushing past a puzzled housekeeper to the lobby, where their breakfast of doughnuts and brews spread out over multiple tables, and where one fired a cap gun that startled nearby guests.
From there they ascended in a sparkling elevator—well, two sparkling elevators were needed to transport them all—to an immaculately kept law office, where a very friendly receptionist showed them in and tried not to ask too many questions. Shouting and more cap gun shots ensued, but eventually they all stormed out as quickly as they had arrived, allowing the receptionist to retrieve two children she had stashed in a nearby conference room for safekeeping.
And then there was the seasoned radio show producer, an occupation that requires down-to-the-second timing and the ability to quickly resolve endless logistical hurdles, who was rendered nearly speechless by the site of the raiders descending upon his studio. “I have so many questions,” he muttered repeatedly to anyone within earshot.
These men—and they were, to be clear, all men—had been anticipating and preparing diligently for this operation for months. They ranged from teenagers to senior citizens in age. They had been magnetically pulled from as far away as Wisconsin and Oklahoma by the triple promises of a Super Bowl-style year-end competition, a family reunion of sports-obsessed drunk uncles, and a “Jungle” summit with their fearless leader, “Van Smack” himself.
The brainchild behind this whimsical enterprise was a 30-year-old Californian who prefers to be known only as “Leff in Laguna.” Twelve months prior, Leff had been crowned the champion of the “Smack Off,” a much-hyped annual event on The Jim Rome Show, CBS Sports Radio’s long-running and nationally-syndicated sports talk radio show. In the "Smack Off," callers from across the country are pitted against each other in a pseudo-battle rap format in hopes of winning Rome’s approval, taking home a $5,000 cash prize and, most importantly of all, claiming a year’s worth of bragging rights.
Successful Smack Off participants painstakingly script their calls and lean heavily on inside jokes, humorous insults, pop culture references, and decades-old show jargon. To win last year’s competition and fend off his fellow “Clones,” Leff delivered his call from inside a private helicopter that was flying above Rome’s studio. No one else could top that. The problem? Leff wasn’t sure that he could top his 2016 effort either, and he desperately wanted to defend his Smack Off crown. What’s more impressive than a helicopter? A tank? An F-15?
Instead of ramping up the arms race, Leff decided to chase a Holy Grail. In September 1996, Austin Murphy wrote a feature story in Sports Illustrated about the then-31-year-old Rome (aka "Van Smack"), the “Jungle” (his combative show), the “smack” (trash-talk calls) and the “Clones” (his diehard listeners). As part of the story, Sports Illustrated conducted a photo shoot with Rome and numerous Clones posing amid jungle foliage. Over the years, as Rome rose to prominence with talk shows on ESPN and Showtime and cameos in movies like “Space Jam,” the photograph came to symbolize Rome’s early days, when he was still establishing himself in the industry, fighting for better time slots and bigger markets, and conducting “Tour Stops” around the country to build his audience.
For younger listeners like Leff, who first tuned into Rome regularly in 2008, reading Murphy’s story and seeing the photograph was akin to a millennial Lakers fan hearing about Magic Johnson from his father or Jerry West from his grandfather. He resolved to dedicate his 2017 Smack Off entry to this critical moment from the show’s history, figuring that even the acerbic Rome would be moved by the rush of nostalgia and crown him as repeat champion.
Leff proceeded with extreme caution—not unlike Jared Kushner’s back-channel flirtation with Russia—worried that his idea would leak out to his fellow Smack Off competitors and spoil the moment. Slowly but surely, he contacted long-time callers on social media and let them in on the idea. Together, they searched Facebook and phone books to track down original callers and photo shoot participants like Rich in Anaheim Hills, whose phone call to Rome’s show from a maternity ward (while his wife gave birth) had led Murphy’s story. One beloved and long-lost caller, Terence, was especially hard to find, while others were still poking around their favorite Southern California sports bar haunts and racetracks.
Once Leff had lined up the cast, he contacted Rome’s staff, headed by producer Dave Whelan, to give them a heads up that he had an in-studio surprise coming. He then invited—or politely insisted—that Sports Illustrated come along for the ride. “The community of the show has been the best part since Day One,” Leff said. “My number one thing has always been to make the show better. A lot of people enjoy listening to the show and I just try to do my part to make it more entertaining.”
Leff’s band assembled at Hotel Irvine at 7:30 AM on a sunny Friday in July, launching what would become a seven-hour tear. Like Broadway actors, they paced about nervously and pored over their scripts, some of which ran four or five pages. The Smack Off is broadcast live nationwide, and one or two fumbled words during a four or five-minute call can doom a competitor and sully his hard-earned reputation.
First up from the assembled crew was “Benny in Wisco,” a new-school caller like Leff, who unleashed his Wisconsin-themed monologue with six bystanders watching in a hotel room, including one who happened to flush the toilet mere seconds before the call began. Benny brilliantly weaved in cheese references while delivering his rapid-fire thoughts on Michael Phelps’s cupping and LaVar Ball. His call peaked when, in a squeaky-voiced Mike Tyson impersonation, he somehow managed to name-check gouda, brie, swiss, chevre, monterey jack and edam within a single paragraph.
Smack Off calls are technically English, but it’s more accurate to say that they’re Jungle Dialect. To the uninitiated, Benny’s call was mostly unintelligible. To the Clones, who immediately listened back to the call thanks to a cell phone tuned to a delayed internet stream, it was riveting. They giggled and gasped as the dairy diatribe poured over the airwaves, shaking their heads in appreciation and calling out their favorite lines like poetry slam attendees. Benny, meanwhile, still had his game face on, and he fixated on a minor error or two before stepping out to the balcony briefly to clear his head. His partners assured him that his call would fare well in the Smack Off standings.
Once Benny’s call was in the books, the clock started ticking down rapidly to Leff’s centerpiece effort and the group’s stress and excitement levels picked up. Rich Flores, one of the Clones, stepped in as the official wrangler. He directed the group to the Lanza & Smith law office, which was located in the same building as Rome’s studio and which happened to be mostly empty due to summer vacations. Dennis from Fresno—a long-time listener and show historian who had helped Left craft his call over the course of three months—suddenly looked nervous. Leff kept checking his watch, oblivious to one of his beer-toting cohort who belched, “I wouldn’t call myself drunk yet, I could still shoot a mean game of pool,” as the group headed into the office.
Rich did his best to hush the crowd and Leff holed up in a locked office to make his 1,200-word call in privacy. The meat of the call was simple: Refresh the audience’s memory about Murphy’s 1996 article so as to set up the in-studio reunion. But he took appetizer-sized shots at the Chargers for leaving San Diego to play in a soccer stadium, at Bryce Harper for his oily hair, and at Aaron Judge for his gap-toothed smile. Leff also detoured through impersonations of Bo Jackson and “Beavis and Butthead” before playing a voicemail from longtime sports radio host Lee “Hacksaw” Hamilton in another 1996 homage.
Finally, Leff unveiled his secret weapon, Terence, who in turn revealed his not-so-secret weapon, the cap gun. The running joke had been that Terence had fallen off the map for so long that he must be dead. “Legends never die, kid,” Terence bellowed into the phone, before blasting Leff with caps to conclude the call.
Rich appeared from thin air moments after Terence unloaded his clip, spinning his arm rapidly and yelling “go, go, go” as if this was the getaway scene in a bank robbery movie. His urgency made sense once it became clear that the reunion was already unfolding in Rome’s studio.
One by one, well-known callers, many of whom were in the 1996 photo, entered the studio to shake hands with Rome: Trapper, Rich in Anaheim Hills, Silk, Joe from Lemon Grove, Kerwin, Coach Tom, The CEO, Jim Benton and Irie Craig. Kerwin couldn’t resist pointing out the group’s lack of racial diversity. “I’m the only brother on the panel,” he cracked. “I die first in this segment.”
During the next commercial break, Leff achieved his Holy Grail moment, assembling the whole cast of old-schoolers and new-schoolers to re-create the photograph, 21 years after the original. Whelan and Rome’s other staffers eagerly snapped photos and sent out tweets commemorating the occasion. Randall, one of the Clones who had helped Leff contact many of the old-schoolers, wore an Oakland Raiders jersey and a fake mustache in honor of “Raider Mike,” an original caller who couldn’t make it in person. To complete the image, they placed potted plants on Rome’s desk to mimic the foliage. “Careful with the price tags,” one Clone said, in all seriousness, as the reunion wrapped up. “These were expensive. They’re getting returned to the store later.”
Rome, who now boasts more 1.4 million Twitter followers and jetted off to Italy for vacation shortly after the Smack Off was in the books, was clearly moved by the familiar faces and the trip down memory lane. “You can call [Leff] a gimmicky little b---- all you want,” he told his callers, some of whom had protested on social media that the outside-the-box effort was unfair. “I haven’t seen these guys in decades.”
The next 90 minutes were an anxious waiting game as the rest of the Smack Off unfolded. Silk, another original member, found a quiet hallway in the office building, sat on some abandoned cardboard boxes, and settled in to make his call.
The group then descended to the courtyard for cigarettes, beverages, and fresh air, much to the security guard’s chagrin. “No beer here,” the guard said over and over, as the group members politely brushed him off while listening to the rest of the show. Working professionals in business attire walked by as the group, dressed mostly in t-shirts (some customized with Rome show references) and jeans, slumped on couches waiting for Rome to announce the winner. Nearly every man present listened on his own cell phone and the timing of their streams wasn’t perfectly aligned. Funny on-air jokes therefore rippled through these Clones like a wave.
Rome gamely played up the suspense before delivering the seemingly inevitable verdict: Leff was the back-to-back champion, having overcome the “gimmick” charges and having fended off strong challenges from “Mike in Indy,” Yahoo MLB writer Jeff Passan, and Benny, who received a hearty congratulations all around for his fifth-place finish.
Rich pumped his fist at the news of Leff’s win. Dennis and his son Stephen both smiled ear-to-ear. Leff was a picture of pure relief. “There was gimmick stuff, but that’s fun and it’s all about spending time with these guys,” he said. “I still had the best content. Jim said that too. To win, you’ve got to have sports takes, Clone smack, and an element of surprise. That’s what I tried to do.”
Before heading their separate ways and leaving Irvine’s finest security guards, receptionists and radio show producers in peace, the group taped a brief post-show podcast with Rome. Trapper, one of the original callers, told Rome that he was fighting bone cancer and undergoing chemo, and he thanked the host for the “love and the Jungle Karma that keeps me going.” Silk spun yarns about introducing his surfer buddies to Rome’s work in the early-1990s. Irie Craig reminisced about drinking beers with Rome at a bowling alley after the 1996 photo shoot. Rich in Anaheim Hills, who now lives in Oklahoma, told Rome that he “choked up” during a recent call because the host had greeted him so warmly following a 12–year absence.
“We all came up together in our 20s and 30s, man,” Rome told the group. “Look at us all together, 25 years later. We’re all here and this means a hell of a lot to me. It’s a fam. These were really formative years on the way up. I’ve had a pretty good run, better than I ever could have thought. I always believed I had a different approach and I was willing to grind, but you never know. I needed someone to believe in me, and that was you guys.”
Just like that, the 2017 Smack Off was complete. The afternoon was still young and the drinking was bound to continue somewhere else, but the Jungle lights were turning off. “I’m quitting,” a victorious but emotionally exhausted Leff told the group, which found itself tightly packed into an elevator one final time. “I can’t do this anymore.” No one in the car believed him, including himself.