I was watching the Chicago Blackhawks play the Los Angeles Kings in the western Stanley Cup final round when, in the second period, the television camera panned to Tom Cruise, sitting alone in a rink-side seat. “Tom Cruise is a big Kings fan,” the announcer said.
Celebrities at sporting events is by now a tradition of fairly long standing. Johnny Carson used to turn up in the stands at Wimbledon. Jack Nicholson has been in a front-row seat at Lakers basketball games for as long as I can remember. Dyan Cannon is another regular at Lakers games. Spike Lee and Woody Allen seem to attend most Knicks games, Lee usually in Knicks hats and shirts. Billy Crystal, I note, is often in the stands at the L. A. Clippers’ games. I recently saw Justin Bieber—why does a man at my stage of life even have to know that name?—sitting, bedizened in golden necklace, bracelet, three-pound wristwatch, and baseball cap worn deliberately askew, at a Miami Heat game.
Chicago, the city of my birth, upbringing, and planned burial, has no such celebrities attending any of its sports games regularly. The reason is that Chicago has no thunderingly big-name show-biz celebrities living in the city. Just now, with the city’s exorbitant murder rate and busted public-school system, this is a less-than-serious problem. Apparently, though, the Chicago Bulls public relations team have felt the want of having a celebrity of some kind, any kind, in the stands for its home games. Or so I concluded when, nearly a decade ago, Gene Siskel, then part of the television movie-reviewing team of Siskel and Ebert, invited me to attend a Chicago Bulls game with him.
As celebrities go, Gene Siskel was small beer, but he was on television regularly, and the only road to serious celebrity in our day, apart from a successful movie career or a scandalous political one, is to be on television with some frequency. The columnist George Will one night took me to a Chicago Cubs game. We watched the game from a skybox, which we shared with the managing partner of the Atlanta Braves and his daughter. After the game was over, and we made our way out of Wrigley Field, every 10 or 20 yards someone would call out, “Hey, it’s George Will!” “Yo, George, loved the column about Bush.” “Keep it up, George, stick it to ’em, baby.”
I asked George if this was due to television. He replied that he liked to think it had something to do with his column and books; but my guess is that, for the most part, fame of this kind had come about because he was a regular on a Sunday morning television show, This Week with George Stephanopoulos.
As for Gene Siskel, I had never met him, and I rarely read him. I did, a time or two, watch Siskel & Ebert & the Movies on our local PBS station, though without the exhilaration brought on by eureka-like enlightenment. Our connection was through a friend named Maury Rosenfield, who did know Siskel and had gotten into a discussion with him about Robert Redford’s 1994 movie Quiz Show. Maury had mentioned that I thought there were anti-Semitic touches in the movie—chiefly in John Turturro’s part as Herbie Stempel, the crude Jewish character whom Ralph Fiennes’s Charles Van Doren defeats and replaces as the main attraction on the television quiz show Twenty One. Siskel claimed that he had a powerful radar when it came to spotting anti-Semitism in the movies, and he saw none in Redford’s movie. He was sufficiently worked up about this to ask Maury Rosenfield for my phone number so that he could argue the point with me directly.
When Siskel called, we had a polite disagreement on the subject, with no winner emerging. Toward the end of our conversation, Siskel asked me if I were a sports fan. When I said that I was, he told me he had excellent tickets to the Chicago Bulls games, and if I were interested, he would like to take me to a game.
“Sure,” I said, “that would great.”
The night I met Siskel in front of his impressive apartment building across from Lincoln Park, he told me that we would be joined for the game by the journalist Alex Kotlowitz and a man named Jeff Jacobs, who was Oprah Winfrey’s business manager. We were to meet both of them at Harpo Studios, Oprah’s headquarters in the West Loop.
We weren’t in Siskel’s car 10 minutes when he told me how lucky he was to have his job, and all the money that television syndication brought in. His first connection with the movies came through the novelist John Hersey, who was his housemaster at Yale and who lined him up with a job at the Chicago Tribune. At the Trib, he was asked what he wanted to do, and he said he wanted to write about movies. This was before movies became the great subject of the college-educated middle class and movie critics became mini-stars, their opinions on everyone’s tongue. (Soon enough, the passionate interest in movies waned, to be followed and eclipsed by discussions about restaurants.)
Siskel’s good luck, he told me, had made him wary. Both his parents had died in their early 50s, and he would soon be turning 50 himself. He had young children. He feared the imminence of his own death. And die he did, five years later, of a brain tumor, at 53.
“I’ve got great seats,” he said. He told me that the Chicago Bulls management wanted him to have front-row seats for their games. He had to pay for the tickets, though, and at $125 a seat, with four tickets for every home game, the tab for the season was $20,500—not an easy check to write, he allowed. He was, however, able to sell off many of the tickets to well-to-do friends.
At Harpo, we were met by Kotlowitz, Jacobs, and Oprah. Without makeup, Oprah Winfrey looked as any 40-ish black woman at the end of a hard day at the office might look. Instead of catching a bus for an apartment in South Shore, however, she would be stepping into a limo headed for a swank Michigan Avenue duplex. She joked cordially about our boys’ night out, and about basketball itself being, she guessed, “a guy thing.”
We drove up Madison Avenue to the United Center arena. Siskel’s seats were in the front row, across the floor from the players’ benches. Waitresses took our drink orders. This was the 1993-94 season, a dreary time for the Bulls, the year that Michael Jordan retired from basketball in the hope of starting a baseball career. That night the Bulls were playing a characterless New Jersey Nets team, to which they lost by 18 points. Was I on television, photographed along with Chicago’s not-very-impressive celebrity, a middle-brow if nationally recognized movie critic? I have no notion, and a little less interest.
Afterwards, in the parking lot, Siskel picked up his car phone—cell phones were not yet in regular use—to make a restaurant reservation: “Hello,” he said into the phone, “this is Gene Siskel, and I’m calling to reserve a table for 4, roughly 20 minutes from now.”
(His opening comment—“This is Gene Siskel”—reminded me of a story about Ira Gershwin and his wife and another couple who, early on a Saturday night, were contemplating dinner at Sardi’s. “I don’t think we can get a table there on such short notice,” Gershwin said, “but let me try,” and off he went to make the call. He came back to report that it was no-go, no tables were available. The husband of the other couple said he would like to try his luck at it, and went into the other room to make the call. “Yes,” he said, “it’s fine. Sardi’s, at eight p.m., table for four, center of the room. No trouble whatsoever.” How did he manage to do that, everyone wanted to know. “Simple,” the man said, “I just told them I was Ira Gershwin.”)
At the restaurant, as I paused over an enticing dish of linguini and clam sauce, Gene Siskel said, “Now that I have all of us together, I’d like to talk a little about where black-Jewish relations are heading.” I inwardly groaned: In a world where tact did not matter, I would have lifted my dish and glass of wine and moved to another table. Instead, I sat through a conversation that seem to put lead on my fork.
Siskel drove Alex Kotlowitz and Jeff Jacobs back to Harpo, where their cars were parked, and then drove me back to his apartment, where my car was. I thanked him for dinner and for the ticket to the game. We shook hands, and agreed that we hoped to meet again, but never did. On the way home, I decided I preferred seats much higher off the floor.
Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is the author, with Frederic Raphael, of Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet.