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.