Rearview mirror: Keeping Elton Brand updated at ESPN Zone

Heart of it all

So today is the first day in at least a decade that ESPN Zone in Times Square is shuttered, in addition to five others. I’m not particularly going to miss it – I don’t eat hamburgers, particularly 12 dollar ones – though it will be strange to pass through Times Square and not see it. I’m sure it’ll just be replaced by some other enormous theme restaurant or something.

I had a few experiences at these tourist traps, notably being harassed during a 2002 Duke-Maryland game in Washington, DC. But I do have one favorite moment when I think of ESPN Zone, which I’ve alluded to briefly, and it shows just how different things are a decade later.

Disney tried to make ESPN Zone into an “it” place, staging radio shows there and such, and for a while I think the novelty of it made it a reasonably desirable location. As time went on and the economy went to hell, the luster faded somewhat.

But back in 2000, the summer before my senior year at Duke, it was still a hot location. My friends and I were all working internships in the City, and we’d go there once in a while for chicken fingers or whatever. It was probably the only place in the City that somehow honored my shoddily created fake ID and would serve me a beer, so that was a plus.

When the NBA Draft rolled around at the end of June, we all decided to go to ESPN Zone and root for personal favorite Chris Carrawell to get drafted. We had to wait a while; he eventually was taken by the Spurs at No. 41 and didn’t make the team.

But the night itself was a good time; we commandeered a prime table early in front of some enormous TV in the main room downstairs, and had a pretty decent group of maybe 10 people. They had arcade games upstairs we could mess around with while we waited an eternity for Carrawell to get picked.

Then things got random. Right after the fourth pick, when the Bulls picked Marcus Fizer, Elton Brand – fresh off sharing NBA Rookie of the Year with Steve Francis – rolled in with his crew.

Now I knew Elton pretty well at the time, so a few of us went over there to say hello. Elton asked us if the Bulls had picked yet, and asked who they picked. When I told him it was Fizer, he got this bewildered look on his face and said, “Marcus Fizer? Why’d they pick him? They already have me!”

We didn’t really know what to say. It was a good question. Not only did they play the same position, but Elton seemed like the sort of player you build around, a 20-10 player for years to come with a soft touch around the hoop. And Fizer was unskilled and ticketed for Europe from the start. To watch Brand now, weakened by shoulder and Achilles injuries, it belies just what a problem he was back in the early part of this decade.

Sure enough, after another year in Chicago – in which he again put up 20-10 – he was traded to the Clippers for straight-from-high-school center and habitual bust Tyson Chandler. Why the Bulls gave up on Elton so soon was beyond me. He averaged close to 25 points in 2006 and very nearly made the Clippers a legitimate threat for a title.

Now, obviously this was sort of a bucket list thing, telling a legitimate NBA star who his team just drafted. But what stands out to me about it is that it’ll never happen again.

Ten years later, everyone has phones that are essentially handheld computers that you can get the Internet on, check e-mail, get Twitter updates and all that.

But back then? A phone was just a phone. I mean, I didn’t even learn how to send or receive a text message until a couple years later. Before I’m branded a complete Luddite, according to Wikipedia, 17 billion texts were sent in 2000, about three for each person in the world’s population. By 2001, it had ballooned to 250 billion. And it was 500 billion by 2004, which constitutes 100 sent by each person in the world.

It was also a time when a big-time NBA star wanted to spend time in the same place we did, and had the freedom to do that. With the nature of celebrity now, I think it’d be pretty rare to see an NBA Rookie of the Year walk into a place like that and start playing arcade games. I think celebrities now keep themselves sheltered in higher society establishments, when truth be told, a decent amount of them probably would rather play arcade games — as I saw first-hand with Kevin Durant a few months ago.

So I won’t be nostalgic for ESPN Zone in particular; the food was overpriced relative to its quality, and it was teeming with tourists.

But it’s weird to think about how progress has changed the way people get information. Gone is the time when a guy like Elton Brand had to ask a group of former classmates who his team just drafted.

I’m not saying things aren’t better now technologically in a lot of regards. I just think it’s a little sad that something like that will never happen again.

Unless, of course, some NBA player’s phone battery dies.



  1. Those are great points made about the attention celebrities receive and about the prevalence of text messaging….and that was just 2000. Fizer is a blast from the past — couldn't the Bulls have said “No way” to any prime player whose #2-seeded team was upset by a #15? Wasn't that Hampton and Iowa State?

    • Thanks for the feedback — that was actually the year after Fizer left for the NBA, but he might as well have been there. That team had Jamaal Tinsley, which is all you need to know about Tinsley. And they were coached by the immortal Larry Eustachy of fraternity party fame.

  2. Thanks for the feedback — that was actually the year after Fizer left for the NBA, but he might as well have been there. That team had Jamaal Tinsley, which is all you need to know about Tinsley. And they were coached by the immortal Larry Eustachy of fraternity party fame.

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