“I just had a crazy thing happen to me…”

The email Jeff had received was cryptic, and as we stood in line for security, we wondered what the hell we’d gotten ourselves into. The PR email had sparse details (theme: video games || location: Webster Hall || time: 7pm), and incredibly strict requirements: we had to RSVP with a name and email address. We would be required to present valid ID at the venue, and our email addresses would be cross referenced. No late entry. Absolutely no cameras would be allowed in the venue, not even on the 0.3 megapixel camera on my phone. (Hey, that was a big deal in 2004! Oh, yeah, this was 2004.)

The security line was moving at a rate inspired by the TSA. We were on 11th Street flanked by flood lights shooting up into the sky, which is a confident way of promoting a secret event. Finally at the first checkpoint our email address and valid ID were both compared to what they had on their list. We had to sign paperwork. It was here we learned that Best Buy was involved in the evening.

I’m a big nerd, so this made me happy.

There was a long wait for the second checkpoint: a metal detector and a vigorous pat-down by a man twice my size. The line continued to crawl into Webster Hall.

“This better be worth it.”

“If not, we 180 and head out,” I agreed. I was meeting friends after, anyway.

Guests were let into the building in clumps, so Jeff and I entered with three other people. We stepped up to an incredibly gorgeous woman seated behind a collapsible table. She was handing out raffle tickets. “Tonight’s party is celebrating a new video game called Fight Night Round 2,” she explained. “These raffle tickets will be used at the end of the night to pick 16 people who will battle in the game for a prize. You are encouraged to give a donation to Best Buy’s charity, but it isn’t required.” Jeff grabbed his ticket before the others. I waited for everyone to get theirs before snagging one.

The main room in Webster Hall (there are a few) is up a lengthy set of stairs. We started the climb and TV cameras appeared, as if out of nowhere, pointed at us with the obligatory flood lights. Jeff and I fought the glare, focusing on not falling. Right foot, left foot. Again, as if out of nowhere, a few people flanked us for the climb. One was an attractive lady dressed in black. Next to her was a guy who wore a tracksuit and a giant necklace that bounced lights back at the camera. The diamond/platinum pendant was the size of a healthy terrier. I didn’t recognize either of these people, but the cameras were sure set on procuring footage of our climbing expedition.

When we reached the top floor, the woman and Mr. Casual Necklace peeled off with the cameras and Jeff and I were left studying a very odd room. If Willy Wonka made electronics, this would be his factory. About a dozen flat-panel TV’s were scattered around the room, hoisted up on stands so they rested eye-level. Beneath each one was a PlayStation 2 video game system. The room was surrounded by long bars plastered with Red Bull and POM logos. This factory’s oompa loompas were giant, leggy models with trays loaded with the sponsor beverages. There were lots of them and they were all too cognizant of the cameras crowding the room, especially the camera hooked onto a crane that continually soared over the space.

On the far wall was a large TV projection running footage of the boxing game. Then, and I don’t know how it took me this long to notice, but, in front of the screen, right there, was an entire boxing ring. To access it, you had to walk up metal stairs and slip between the ropes, a la De La Hoya.

Boxing ring in the room.

Yeah. There was a boxing ring in this room. And countless models. And TV cameras. Holy balls. What was this?

Jeff and I slipped through the crowd to a TV screen across the room, close to the boxing ring. We stepped up to a station where two women were trying out the game, fumbling with the remotes, their characters not boxing very well. Jeff started conversation with them, as he was comfortable doing. He might have wanted a number. I wanted a video game remote.

I had never played the original Fight Night game, but I sure as hell wanted to play the sequel, even if it was a game build 6 months before its release date. It could have bugs and glitches. I didn’t care. I was a huge gamer. This would have been a treat.

A sign under the TV encouraged people keep their playing time to 10 minutes, but these game-blockers giggled and laughed at their performance for well over thirty minutes, never evolving their skills to even put a combination together. I resorted to people watching, which proved very entertaining. The leggy models pushing POM and Red Bull were eclipsed by a game programmer/designer who was, sadly, convinced he was a rock star. Bill Gates knows he’s not Bono. Woz knows he’s not Bruce Springsteen. This guy? He was dressed in a bright red suit with cowboy boots, massive sunglasses, a colorful scarf and huge hat. He approached… well… any women he saw. “Hey. Yeah. I wrote this game. Well, I was one of the writers. Over 50,000 lines of code are mine. You actually won’t even believe how much progress we’ll make before the game hits the streets. Miiiiiiiiiiles ahead. You won’t believe it.” He barely let the women reject him before he was off to find his next target. Programmer McJagger took a pass on the ladies in front of us who were still blocking access to the game. Secretly, I hoped his moves would pull them from the controls. They didn’t bite.

I wanted to play this game, but the room was only getting more crowded and there were lines behind every TV.

Crowded room.

I gave it a few more minutes, but my patience was up. A boxing ring, leggy waitresses, a delusional programmer, and a video game tease can only entertain so long. Jeff and I checked in to assure ourselves that we were as bored as we thought we were. We grabbed our things, ready to head out.

As if choreographed, activity started in the boxing ring as we crossed the room to exit. Cameras spun, lights kicked in and Programmer McJagger slipped between the ropes like a lizard. As if this was an HBO PPV boxing event, a microphone sailed down from the ceiling. Programmer McJagger looked at home on the mic, explaining how many lines of code had gone into the game (including how much was his) and how the game was nothing compared to what the final build would be. He waited for applause that didn’t come. We weren’t impressed the first time we heard it.

Programmer McJagger accepted his rejection and introduced Kendra, someone I’d never heard of, but someone I had, apparently, walked up stairs with. The woman who had been next to us stepped into the ring and took the mic. She thanked Best Buy and EA Sports. Then, she, incredibly, introduced our host for the evening: Donald Trump.

Could this be?

Was I at the Apprentice?

I continued to ask this as I watched Donald J. Trump, himself, walk up the metal stairs and awkwardly step into the boxing ring. Holy moly. Trump had always been a big name around NYC. He was easy to identify with his hair and suit, even before the Apprentice. Donald grabbed the mic asking, “How is Kendra doing?”

Apprentice finalist Kendra and Donald.

Everything fell in place right then and there. The stage, the cameras, the secrecy. I’d watched the first two seasons of the Apprentice and knew they ended with huge events. Could this be? Was I at a filming of the Apprentice finale? Was Kendra a finalist? The second season’s finale had recently aired, and since this was pre-social media, no one even knew they were filming a third season.

Could this be?

I was at the Apprentice finale? I was at the Apprentice finale.

Trump was very natural in front of the large crowd. He also thanks Best Buy and EA Sports, mentioning that he was excited for this fundraising opportunity.

Jeff and I put down our stuff. This had gotten interesting.

Then Trump introduced Fabolous, someone I’d never heard of but had, apparently, walked up the stairs with.

Fabolous.

Fabolous stepped into the ring, the Terrier-sized necklace dancing in the light.

Fabolous spoke in an unintelligible mumble. I thought I picked out about how proud he was to be involved in the game’s development and how he, himself, was an unlockable character. I don’t know how that was a perk to buying the game. The only musicians I’d want to be able to unlock on a boxing game are Elton John, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Julio Iglesias and John de Guzmán.

Kendra was back in the ring. “It’s time for the tournament,” she announced! “Can Donald Trump get back up here and pick out 16 raffle tickets out of this bag? Let’s get this bracket going!”

Back in the ring, Trump called out the number for the first ticket. There was a pocket of applause. The winner was told to come to the producer’s table to sign in. He called a second. More applause. A third. Fourth. Fifth. Sixth. Seventh. Eight. I had my ticket in my hand, checking it against the winners, as I slowly put my bag on my shoulder to head out. Ninth. Tenth. Each had the pocket of applause, then a finalist moved up to the boxing ring to talk. Eleventh. Twelfth. Thirteenth. Forteeth. This was it… I was slowly walking across the room, almost at the top of the stairs to head out. Fifteenth. Pocket of applause. The winner made his way to the boxing ring. Sixteenth. That was it. I started down the stairs, but there was no pocket of applause. Donald repeated the number. I came back up the stairs. He asked again. No reply.

He shrugged and pulled out another ticket. I checked my ticket over and over again, because he was calling my number.

Whoa. This time the pocket of applause was just Jeff and me.

I was in.

Holy moly.

I b-lined it to the producers’ table before Trump gave up on me. I cruised through a massive pile of release forms, then I was given a bib with a number on it, as if I was a marathon runner. I was also assigned a “coach,” a professional gamer who would teach me the ropes. I’d never heard of a professional gamer, but the event managed to corral 16 of them into the venue. My coach had never played this particular boxing game, either, but together we clunked along through the controls in a quick tutorial.

[Side note: I played a lot of Nintendo, Dreamcast and XBOX, but never Playstation so the controller was unfamiliar to me. I had a lot to learn.]

Because we were playing an early build of Fight Night Round 2, there were only two boxers to choose from: Roy Jones Jr and Buster Lewis. Matches were three rounds, scored like a real boxing match, so the winner of each round got 10 points and the loser usually got 9, unless he was knocked down and, therefore, earned fewer points. I settled in with Roy Jones, Jr, a light heavyweight. I didn’t even think to use the larger, more powerful boxer Buster Lewis.

Donald rang a bell to get us going.

DING DING DING

My first match was against a father of two who hadn’t played a video game outside of Minesweeper. It wasn’t news that I swept the floor with him (the judges in the game had it at 30 to 24), but it was news that we were a featured game of the round. Spotlights were on us and our fight was broadcast on the big screen on the far wall. Programmer McJagger was in the ring, announcing our fight into the microphone, his voice blaring through the room. He kept calling out my bib number as I pounded my challenger.

As if that wasn’t enough, I was back to back with Donald Trump, himself, as he tried out the game. Yeah. We bumped backs. In fact, during the match, a cameraman was continually hitting me on the head with the ass of his camera, trying to catch footage of the Donald at the controls.

Donald playing. I was right behind him.

Between the commentator, the spotlights, feeling Donald’s head on my back, feeling the butt of the camera knocking my head… it was surreal. At my side, Jeff was cheering me on.

Just like that, I was on to the quarter finals. My next match was not broadcast to the room (no more matches were because TV got their footage). I was finally getting comfortable with the controls, and it turned out to be easier to play if I wasn’t sharing body heat with The Donald (who had left for the evening because TV got their footage) and head space with the butt of a camera. In this second match, I started figuring out combos and how to dodge. My solid win went relatively unnoticed, but it meant I was in the final four! Boom. Just like that. Final four! My coach was so proud.

What we gamers looked like.

Instead of small talk with my coach between matches, we took controls in our hands and practiced.

It was at this point that our hostess Kendra stepped up to the ring and announced the prize for this little tournament. The winner was going to get a $5,000 gift card to Best Buy. The crowd had significantly thinned, so there weren’t that many people left to cheer for the best prize ever created by humankind. I certainly cheered like a maniac.

The semi-finals weren’t much more of a challenge (the game’s judges scored it 30–26 for me), and the next thing I knew I was in the finals.

Wait, what? I was onto the finals? What was happening?

I was pulled over by producers and had to sign additional paperwork. Apparently, while the playoffs were simple games around the room’s many screens, the finals went all out: I had to put on an Everlast boxing robe, and, step into the ring to play. Spotlights zipped around the room. Music played.

We entered like boxers before a title fight. Our “coaches” following us as if they were our trainers. Once in the ring, our names were announced over the loudspeakers, and people cheered. (My last name, as usual, was butchered beyond recognition.) We stood behind Kendra as she discussed the charity foundation and Best Buy. Cameras were all over the place. The crane was swooping around us. It was kinda crazy.

I had a quick conversation with my competitor while she spoke. I can’t remember his name, but I will dub him Marlon. He was a young black kid.

“You ever play the first Fight Night,” I asked him.

“Yeah. I love that game.” He said quietly with a large smile on his face. I liked him already.

“I had no idea what this event was.”

Marlon smiled at me.

“You knew?”

“I’ve been practicing.”

We laughed as Kendra talked.

“Five grand is nice, eh? What will you do if you win?”

He pointed to three guys in the front of crowd. “You see those guys? I owe them money, so it’s going to them.”

I laughed, but with one look, Marlon told me he was serious. “If I win, they are going shopping tomorrow.”

“Fuck, man,” I said. ”Do you need the money bad? I’ll throw the fight.”

“Nah, it’s cool,” he said.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah.”

Over the microphone Kendra asked us to take seats on stools that were no taller than 12 inches. It was like taking a dump, and we were relatively close to the giant screen, so everything looked distorted and my butt hurt instantly. The controller was feeling a bit more comfortable in my hands. I picked Roy Jones, Jr., as I’d done with every fight, but he picked Buster Lewis.

The fight started.

I was IN the ring for the finals. (With shorter hair and fewer pounds than I have now.)

I must say that I owned him. I was knocking him silly, landing crazy combinations. But, my punches weren’t knocking him down like in previous bouts. Towards the middle of the first round, he finally connected with a basic cross, and my view wobbled. The screen went blurry and I had to fight to get control of Roy Jones again. The crowd was cheering.

This was when I realized I was fighting a light heavyweight against a heavyweight. I had been picking the wrong guy all night, and now it was going to make a difference.

Another strange thing was happening. Marlon’s “loan agents” were cheering very, very hard for every hit Marlon got in. That built momentum, and the crowd picked their favorite. The crowd might have thinned, but you wouldn’t know it from how loud they were cheering for Marlon. In fact, when I went on a barrage of punches that barely rocked the heavyweight, I was booed. Booed! I couldn’t believe it. “C’mon guys,” I muttered as I looked back at them.

The rhythm continued in the second round: I beat the crap out of him, his character brushed it off, I’d dodge tens of punches, but he’d sneak one in and my character would get week in the knees and the crowd would go nuts. Kendra grabbed the mic in the second round and yelled, “Let’s hear it for Marlon!” The crowd cheered as if they were hooligans at the Euro Cup finals. Then she said, “Let’s hear it for John!” There was silence, with a single lone voice of my friend Jeff saying, “Go Johnny.”

My friend Jeff with his cowboy hat on.

It went to the end of the third round, and now it was up to the digital judges. I was furious I’d picked the wrong fighter all night. I was frustrated the crowd had turned on me.

Hell, I wanted that $5k.

But so did the guys Marlon owed money to.

It took a second for the game to judge the fight. I was player 1.

The scores.

Marlon won. Done deal. The crowd went wild and I blushed, squatting on my tiny three-legged stool. That was a roller coaster. I don’t know how an athlete could compete in away from his/her home turf.

The night was wrapping up. We stood next to Kendra in the ring, my Everlast robe looking silly on me. My coach said he was proud as he stood behind me. Marlon was super happy. The guys waiting for the money were more happy. There was some fanfare, with cameras everywhere and search lights going around the room. Kendra was on the mic. She handed Marlon an oversized check and an envelope with a Best Buy logo on it.

Shoot. There goes my $5,000. I didn’t even know about it two hours ago, and now I felt like I lost a limb. Marlon clutched the envelope and oversized check tight.

Kendra turned her attention to me. She said something like, “Second place isn’t bad, John. You played well!” Then she pulled out another envelope and handed it to me. “And for second place you get a $3,000 gift card to Best Buy.”

Well, hell. My goodness.

We took off our robes and headed out with the rest of the crowd. I walked out with my one fan, Jeff. He said, “I should have taken your raffle ticket!”

I looked at him, “You think you could beat me on that game?”

We stepped out of Webster Hall. The search lights were gone. TV had gotten what it needed.

So had I.

I walked to my next event. I stepped into the friend-of-a-friend’s apartment with the gift card in my bag. “You’re late!” my friend said. “You should have called.”

“I didn’t have my phone on me.”

“Why not?”

“I wasn’t allowed to. See, I just had a crazy thing happen to me…”