Tuesday, October 05, 2004

City still Reeling from Rodman's No-Show

(Originally UN-published February 1st, 2004)

"We communicated to our fans and to the press that we had a commitment from Dennis Rodman and the Long Beach Jam that he was going to be here. He elected not to come. We don't control Dennis Rodman."
-Jim Clark, owner of the Kansas City Knights, after a sellout crowd was duped by the Knights' marketing effort (Kansas City Star).

4,800 Kansas Citians ventured into the freezing cold on Friday, January 30th to fill the bleachers of Hale Arena. Their mission was simple: catch Dennis Rodman in what will likely be his farewell tour as a professional basketball player. The gates were jam packed. People were squashed up against one another trying to get inside the gymnasium and, simultaneously, escape the icy chills outside. The Kansas City Knights organization and their ticket takers were obviously unprepared and unfamiliar with such crowds. They could not get people inside quick enough. The fervor in the lobby outside the arena only added to the build-up. People had dusted off their old Rodman jerseys and were wearing them as if the Chicago Bulls were still in the middle of their championship days that ended almost six years ago.

On Thursday, a Knights representative informed me via telephone that tickets for the game were selling like hotcakes, and a sellout was definitely on their radar. The man confirmed to me that: “Dennis Rodman will be here, they (the Long Beach Jam) just arrived in town today.” At the time I didn’t notice that he made no mention, let alone confirmation, of the “Worm” taking the court. The Knights had been advertising the game all week as if it was the second coming. This wasn’t being billed as the Long Beach Jam versus the Kansas City Knights, this was Kansas City’s chance to see a 42-year-old man make one last, desperate attempt to climb back into a league that he had played himself out of four years ago. Such an event transcends sports entertainment.

The Kansas City Star appeared to seal the deal: an article previewing the game that frequently alluded to the fact that Rodman was going to be at the game. Between the week long advertising campaign, the Kansas City Star article, and the word of the Knights representative the day before, everything seemed to be running smoothly for Rodman’s arrival. There was an unusual buzz in the parking lots for a sub zero night in January. When I got into the building it was as if entering the place to be on this night in town. It was a party atmosphere in the lobby of Hale Arena. People were crowding the ticket window still trying to get last minute seats. The place was filled with kids and pre-high school teenagers that had convinced their parents to drag them out to a relatively unappealing section of town, in the dead of winter, and pay for tickets, parking, and concessions.

This was the only chance most of these kids were ever going to have to see a Dennis Rodman-like superstar come to town. I thought back to when the Chicago Bulls traveled to Lawrence in 1997, and a measly preseason game against the Seattle Supersonics filled Allen Field house to the rafters like it was the NBA Finals. People in Kansas City love basketball, even if they have to commute to Lawrence (Can we please stop calling the Jayhawks a “collegiate” team? ).

Everything seemed to be falling into place. If Rodman was not going to be on hand the Knights would have surely used one of their numerous opportunities to inform the fans. The deception continued up to the ticket gate. Fans made their way into the seating area and found their assigned seat. Then, what seemed like the voice of God beckoned over the public address: “Dennis Rodman will not be here…….” That’s all the fans needed. Everything else that followed seemed irrelevant.

The word of God it wasn’t. It was Knights owner Jim Clark on the PA system announcing that Rodman wasn’t in town. The fans initially stayed quiet. Maybe they weren’t as disgusted, or maybe they were still just too numb still from the frigid walk from the parking lot. Either way, the news did not draw a loud, emotional reaction. The majority of the fans remained quite, polite, and tried to enjoy the game. The lack of Dennis Rodman meant the crowd could now do one of two things: turn back toward the ice and wind, or watch a group of basketball players that most had never heard of. Naturally, the crowd, still reeling from the shock of being duped, was in no mood to turn around and venture back into the freezing temperatures and darkness of the ‘bottoms.”

What followed was a peculiar mix of sloppy basketball and entertainment-related activities that left much to be desired. Even during the game, rap music blared over the speakers. Each song contained a clever use of editing techniques to supposedly make the songs “clean” for the consumption of children in the audience. A Rodman look alike contest was held that basically encouraged children to reach back into the country’s rich tradition of performers sporting black face to entertain the predominately all-white crowd. There were great consolation prizes at the door, such as a Rodman poster handed out to us by the always classy female representatives from Hooters. These were also the same lovely ladies placing “I love Hooters” stickers on everyone, people of all ages, as they entered the arena. Oh, but the Rodman-less fun didn’t stop there. The game itself was also a barrel of laughs.

Thank goodness for the depressing weather outside, which was enough to keep the near capacity crowd inside Hale for the duration of the game. I hope the Knights aren’t naïve enough to believe that people were staying to watch a display of basketball greatness that included three air balled free throws by Knights center Paul Shirley. The “exciting ABA action” (as Mr. Clark would say) didn’t stop there as Knights forward Derek Grimm resorted to tackling a Long Beach player to prevent a lay-up. For further comedic relief, fans were treated to the sight of two Knights players colliding in mid-air as they attempted to both snag the ball in mid air to complete an alley-oop. Funny, but I was lead to believe the circus wasn’t coming to town for another couple week. Maybe the Monster truck rally being held simultaneously next door at Kemper Arena was somehow rubbing off on the players.

The first place Long Beach Jam won the game 113-105, as the Knights dropped their third straight game. But make no mistake about it: the Knights players only lost the game, while the Knights organization may have lost many potential, future customers.

What were the Knights thinking? The approach they chose ensured them of cashing in on the “Rodmania” currently engulfing the ABA. I realize that the Knights would have lost out on some much needed revenue by being up front with the public. However, I can’t help but feel the organization has slightly discredited itself in the long run. That is, if they intend to be around for the long haul. Judging by the total stoppage of play in league last year, the ABA does not appear to be in the position to build long term report within the community. In the highly competitive sports entertainment industry, they’re living day-to-day looking for the next quick fix to save the league, which was floundering before it even got off the ground in 2000. This only translates into more Rodman-esque debacles as they search for the next available dollar to stay afloat in their cut-throat industry. The reality is that live entertainment cannot afford such sacrifices to cultivate a relationship within the community.

The Kansas City Star did a yeoman’s job on Saturday morning of relaying the official (Knight’s) version of what happened Friday night, especially the peachy atmosphere that continued in Hale Arena sans Rodman. David Boyce, the author of the article, seemed all too willing to let the Knights have a free pass on this one. Maybe Mr. Boyce was genuinely under the impression that kids dragged their parents out to Hale Arena to watch Paul Shirley’s parade of air balls from the free throw stripe.

What the Knights must do now is accept the consequences of their gaff and expect a backlash that manifests itself in the form of microscopic crowds filling the oversized storage garage that is known as Hale Arena for the remainder of the season. The night could go a long way in sealing the Knights coffin in Kansas City. The free exposure to their product they gained was the absolute worst way in which this could have occurred. Any talking PR head can tell you this.

The Knights had countless opportunities and means to prepare the fans for this scenario. It was well known in ABA circles that Rodman was nursing injuries and had been missing games for the better part of two weeks prior to his no show in Kansas City. Those kids must feel like they were just “punk’ed” at the expense of Rodman, the Knights Organization, and the ABA itself. The only question now is whether or not the whole episode was being taped by Ashton Kutcher to be shown at a later date on MTV. I truly hope the Knights can rebound from this blunder, yet they seem to truly underestimate what transpired. There are far too many entertainment choices at are disposal to keep giving the Knights second chances.

With a new season on the horizon, we'll see if they've learned their lesson from this debacle.


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