The Sports Guy Before ESPN: A 2000 Bill Simmons Column Is UnearthedS

It's a curious quirk of the internet that almost nothing survives of Bill Simmons's pre-ESPN work. The formative years of one of the country's most successful sports writers are lost forever, all because AOL Digital City preserved nothing. But even then the "Boston Sports Guy" had fans devoted enough to save some material for future generations. At SonsOfTheSportsGuy.com, a message board devoted to all things Simmons, one reader dug up an old 3.5" floppy disk with a column from September of 2000. He posted it, and we're reprinting it here.

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THE E! TRUE HOLLYWOOD STORY (bostonsportsguy.com, 9-7-2000)

What do SG, The Jericho Mile and ESPN's new game show have in common? Read on...

In the penultimate scene of the The Jericho Mile — one of the six or seven greatest sports movies of all-time — convicted murderer Rain Murphy finds out that the Olympic Committee won't allow him to run in the 1980 Olympic Trials. It doesn't matter that Murphy qualified for the Trials with the best one-mile time all year. It doesn't matter that his new coach believes that Murphy is "the greatest natural runner I've ever seen." All that matters is Murphy's record; the Committee doesn't want a convicted murderer potentially representing the United States. That's the bottom line. Just another case of The Man keeping someone down.

So Murphy gets boned over. When they finally hold the Trials without him, he overhears the results on a transistor radio (Frank Davies won the mile) and immediately heads outside to run his own race in the prison yard. And as Murphy sprints in circles, each lap faster than the last, the other inmates catch on and surround the track, cheering him on — inspiring him, imploring him — and Murphy crosses the finish line and glances at his stopwatch, finally lifting his arms up by his sides in Christ-like fashion. One of the other inmates grabs the stopwatch and looks at it — "He beat the time! He beat Davies!" And Murphy grabs the stopwatch back and hurls it over the wall, where it shatters into a million pieces.

F*** The Man. End of movie. Chills galore.

*****

So what does this have to do with me? Well, I'll tell you...

About five weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a reader who was trying out for ESPN's new sports game show, "Two Minute Drill." I didn't think much of it until I received an e-mail from another reader who was trying out. At that point, I knew three things about "Drill":

—1. Inexplicably, unbelievably, there has never been a good sports game show. When you think about it, the ideal TV audience is composed of men between the ages of 18 and 35 — we love buying beer and cars, we're more likely to change our minds about a product than anyone else, we're always willing to make rash, indefensible purchases, and so on — and a strong percentage of that group loves a) sports and b) wasting time. What's a better waste of time than watching a sports game show?

—2. "Drill" was created by the same producers of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Very promising sign.

—3. Assuming that everyone involved in "Drill" possesses an IQ above the Pedro Guerrero Line, it would have to be better than that "Sports Geniuses" show on Fox, a show SO stupid and SO moronic that Matt Vasgergian's agent should be thrown in prison just for suggesting that gig to him.

(Which reminds me, there's bad, there's reprehensible, and then there's Lisa Guerrero. Somebody needs to set her up on a blind date with OJ. I'm serious.)

Anyway, I was officially intrigued. If some of my readers were trying out for Two Minute Drill," why couldn't I throw my hat in the ring? Hell, I'm the ringleader of SG Nation! Would Tyler Dirden have stood by idly while the rest of the Fight Club appeared on a new fighting game show? Of course not! Throw in the fact that I could win some cash and possibly get some exposure for the BSG website and this was a no-brainer.

I immediately went to work, finding the link on ESPN's web site where you could send in an "application" for the "Drill" (it was buried on the "Contests" section of their web site) and sending them a funny (well, I thought it was funny) e-mail with all my credentials. Astoundingly, the phone rang one hour later. They wanted me to come to New York and take "The Test." It happened that fast.

*****

Before we get to Part Two of this saga, you need to know one thing about me: as far as sports trivia goes, I'm Pedro. It's that simple. I throw in the mid-90's, I have four pitches and I throw all of them for strikes. I was born for this type of game show. It's like that scene in Jaws when Richard Dreyfuss is describing the Great White Shark to the Amity Mayor and says, "This is a killing machine. All this animal does is swim and eat. That's it. It's a miracle of evolution."

Well, that's me. As far as sports trivia goes, I'm a killing machine. Consider the following things:

* Growing up, I was an only child who read copious amounts about sports. I'm not bragging, it's just a fact. When my parents wanted to occupy me for an hour, they tossed me either a sports section, a sports magazine or a sports book. My life revolved around sports as a kid — playing, watching, collecting, reading, everything. Hey, I'm not proud of it. That's just the way it is.

* For whatever reason, my brain possesses the startling capacity to remember dumb, trivial things. And it's not just limited to games/players/events from the sports world, it extends to television and movies as well. I couldn't name six Senators in the United States right now, yet I could tell you who played Arnold's buddy on "Diff'rent Strokes" (Shavar Ross) and what the Celtics' record was at the Garden during the '86 season (47-1; they also won two games in Hartford). I remember everything. I even remember phone numbers — I dial them once and I can remember them for the rest of my life. I'm the King of Knowing Dumb Things.

(I have no idea why, either. As Chris Walken said in the "Trivial Psychic" skit on Saturday Night Live, "I didn't ask for these powers...")

* When you think about it, I'm in my absolute "sports trivia" prime right now. I'm 30 years old. My brain will never function better than it does now. If anything happened from 1975-2000, I undoubtedly remember it, so I hold a distinct advantage over anyone younger than me. Yeah, I have my weak points — college football and golf — but sneaking a basketball question by me is like trying to sneak a fastball by Nomar. Not gonna happen. And yeah, some people might know more in a certain area — with the exception of basketball — but I sincerely doubt that anyone could offer a better overall package. And when you consider the fact that my profession revolves around sports and I spend every morning digesting a countless number of newspapers and magazines online... well, I'm the shark in Jaws. Period.

So it's with that mindset that I traveled to New York at the beginning of last month to qualify for the show. I am Jaws... I am Jaws... I am Jaws...

*****

On August 3rd, I found myself standing in the lobby of some East Side building with about 30 other guys, all of whom looked like either Newman from "Seinfeld," Bababooey from the "Howard Stern Show" or Mickey Morandini (an instant confidence boost - I apparently came from the highest phylum in the lobby). After filling out some paperwork, we were sheperded into another room to sit at a long wooden table, where we filled out an actual 20-question, fill-in-the-blank test about sports. Swear to God. I felt like Shoeless Joe walking onto Ray Kinsella's baseball field for the first time. A test about sports? Is this heaven?

Personal note: I love talking "innate ability" tests. Always have. Back in high school, I was the kid who took the SATs three times even though I didn't have to. I'm weird that way. Sometimes I wish I was an NFL player just so I could break the record for the Wonderlic test. Needless to say, I aced the "Drill" test and nailed 17 of the 20 questions; of the ones I didn't know, one was about the WNBA (I thought about protesting the WNBA's involvement with the test but decided against it), one was about the French Open (how could I mix up Marcelo Rios and Gustavo Kuerten?) and one was "Who was the first player to hit 30 homers for 4 teams?" (I said Reggie; Canseco was the answer). They set the cutoff line at "13-for-20," so everyone in the room who didn't get thirteen correct got the big David Spade "Buh-bye."

(Note to reader: Feel free to remove your seatbelts and walk around the cabin for the next few paragraphs as I describe the game and the rules. I'll tell you when to return. Back to the column...)

The six people who passed (myself included) were herded into another area so they could 1) conduct individual interviews and 2) actually "play" some of the game with each of us. Sitting in the little lobby, I was fifth in line, so I had time to get nervous and make small-talk with a New Yorker sitting next to me who kinda looked like David Berkowitz. When I told him I was from Boston, he said, "I'm a Mets fan... eighty-six, baby!" I countered by asking him if he had ever snorted coke with Gooden, Straw and Hernandez. Advantage, Sports Guy.

By the time they called me in, my competitive juices were flowing and I fought off a sudden, minor attack of nerves — four people staring at me on the other end of that same long, wooden table, flanked by an Orwellian camera recording my every move — and tried to remain jovial and irreverent.

After a five-minute interview, we played a little of the game... but before we get to that, I'll explain how "Drill" works: Even though they book three contestants per show, each person competes alone for two minutes, almost like in "Millionaire." Four celebrity panelists ask questions from their respective specialities — sports movies, Kentucky basketball, the Masters, World Series, etc. — and you answer as many questions as possible in 120 seconds. VERY cool concept. If you get one question wrong, you have to switch panelists. And each panelist can ask a maximum of five questions, so you can't answer more than 20 questions in two minutes.

(In Round One, the two contestants with the two highest scores advance. In Round Two, you get to answer a maximum of 25 questions in two minutes... the person with the highest TOTAL score for the two rounds advances to the Final Round, where they have to answer a difficult question in their "speciality." My specialty was the '86 Celtics, so if I was chosen for the game and won, my final question would have been something about that '86 Celts. Piece of cake.)

Anyway, I immediately targeted the girl with the "BASKETBALL" sign in front of her and buried all five of her questions in about 3.5 seconds. From there I had Uncle Mo on my side (you know, Mo Mentum); I missed one baseball question and passed on a college football question, but I nailed everything else to finish 18-for-20. It was very strange — I constantly felt that I wouldn't know the next question, but then they asked it and I would think to myself, "Hey, I know that one!" That's what it was like for two minutes. Hey, I know that one. Hey, I know THAT one. And yes, the panel seemed pretty impressed, and not just because I did a Clubber Lang impersonation after answering a Rocky III question. They said I would hear from them "in a few weeks."

(Note to readers wandering around the cabin: you can come back now. Please put your seatbelts back on and move your seats to the upright position.)

Leaving the Big Apple, I felt good for three reasons:

1. I only missed five questions all day. By Pedro standards, I probably submitted this pitching line: 9 6 1 1 1 12.

2. The interview went extremely well. It also helped that three of the four interviewers were women — I turned up the charm like Patrick Bateman in "American Psycho." Hey, whatever helps, right?

3. Since they weren't publicizing the tryouts or paying for transportation, at least 90% of the potential contestants in my group were from the tri-state area and 50% of them looked like Giants fans or Mets fans. Just in the name of diversity, I held a distinct advantage hailing from Boston and not from New York, especially because my parents aren't related.

So that was that. I traveled back to Connecticut for the night (the same night of that 19-inning Red Sox game) and didn't utter a peep to anyone except my girlfriend and a few other friends. You never know.

*****

You have to admit, you're getting excited right now, aren't you? The thought of your buddy Sports Guy battling for big bucks on an ESPN Game Show?

Well, on August 22nd, I got The Call.

I made the cut. Hell, of course I made the cut! My show taped on August 31st and would probably air in September. If I beat my two competitors, I won $5,000. If I nailed my "specialty" question about the '86 Celts, that was another $5,000. But the best part is this: they arranged this show almost like the NCAA Tournament. Win one show and advance to the Round Two to tape another show and possibly win more money. Win four shows in all — including the Final Championship show — and you're guaranteed $100,000. Nail your specialty question in the Championship Finals and win another 100 grand.

(I'll add that up for you: $100,000 + $100,000 = $200,000. Boo yeah.)

Of course, there was another subplot to this whole thing: what if I went on this show and lost? How could I face all of you? How could I ever call myself the Sports Guy again? As far as choke jobs go, me blowing the "Two Minute Drill" would be right up there with the '86 Sox and the '99 Blazers, wouldn't it? I decided I wouldn't mention anything on this site about "Drill" until after the taping... and if I happened to lose, I would move to Tuawateneo to work on Andy's boat with Red.

Now I had a big knot in my stomach. And it stayed there for nine days as I kept telling myself, "You're the shark in Jaws... you're the shark in Jaws..." Ultimately I immersed myself in writing my columns and avoided thinking about the show, other than reading Sports Illustrated's "Sports Almanac" for an hour a night in the bathtub, just to bone up on useless facts like "Who was the only safety to win a Super Bowl MVP?" (Jake Scott, if you're scoring at home). In time, I became more excited about the thought of competing than for the potential financial windfall. I couldn't imagine anyone beating me. I really couldn't.

I was Pedro. I was Jaws. I was unstoppable.

But not for long.

*****

So there we were on Thursday, ten of us, sitting in a quarantined room in the Sony Music Soundstage at ten in the morning and getting briefed by the producers of the show. They were filming three shows that day, so they had summoned nine contestants and one alternate. Here's a surprise —- all the contestants were guys! Everyone looked pretty nervous except for one guy who was trying to make friends and saying stuff like, "Hey, we're all in this together." As for me, I tried to remain as intimidating as possible and gave off an "I'm in Allen Iverson's posse and yes, that's a gat" vibe. I wasn't here to make friends, dammit.

A lawyer entered the room and passed around a contract with "clauses" of eligibility for the show. As I glanced at the first page, something jumped out at me: the standard section that said "I swear that I have no family members that work for ABC, ESPN, Disney, etc." Only this section said, "No family members and/or friends or acquaintances."

Uh-oh. As you probably know if you ever read this site, one of my closest friends works as a coordinating producer for ESPN — my buddy Gus — and through him I've met a number of ESPN people, including Rich Eisen, Dan Patrick and even "Two-Minute Drill" host Kenny Mayne. If you want to take things a step further, I have a number of readers who work for ESPN in some capacity as well. If ESPN's the mob, than I'm Frank Sinatra.

Conflict of interest? Yeah, probably. I have to admit, I was hoping it wouldn't come up. I have met Kenny twice, the first time at the shower for Gus' son (I'm the godfather) where Kenny almost floored me by telling me how much he enjoyed my "Grading the Wimbledon Babes" column. So we knew each other in a very casual way. As for Dan and Rich, I know both of them pretty well; they could definitely pick me out of a police lineup, but I wouldn't classify them as "friends" by any stretch. Acquaintances? Maybe.

But Gus? That's different. If knowing someone at ESPN was a conflict of interest, than I definitely had a conflict of interest.

At this point, I had a dilemma: should I even mention anything about this? I read the contract and it was pretty explicit; it even said that they could pursue legal action against anyone who answered the questions on the contract dishonestly. And I started thinking about all the times I mentioned Gus on the site and the Behind the Scenes at ESPN column I did three summers ago — where I spend large chunks of the column talking to Dan and Rich — and it just seemed too improbable that they wouldn't find out if I kept winning. What if a newspaper broke a story like "Game Show Champion once met host!!!"? What if Gus or Kenny somehow got in trouble? What if Dan Patrick stopped thinking I was cool? There just seemed to be too many variables.

So I spoke up. Like a robbery suspect spilling his guts, I told the lawyer, "Yes, I know someone at ESPN. One of my best friends, actually."

As I spoke the words, one of the ladies who served on the Selection Committee did a double-take and her shoulders sagged. Right then, I knew it didn't look good. They told me to write down the history of my connections at ESPN and told me they would discuss it and make a decision.

Here's the worst part: while they were deliberating, they showed us a tape a "mock game" they did last month, with Kenny as host and three actual contestants who hadn't made the cut for the actual show. The other contestants in the Green Room were shouting out answers like no-confidence idiots, but I wasn't saying a word. Two thoughts here:

1. I knew almost every one of answers. No joke. Every nine out of ten, I knew the answer. So for the first time, I was thinking to myself, "If I can somehow get my ass on this show, I'm going to actually win the damned thing."

2. You will LOVE this show. The creators knew what they were doing; over a 30-minute span, they throw out between 100-110 possible questions ... and they're all about sports! And Kenny Mayne and celebrity panelists are involved! How great of an idea is this? If this show doesn't succeed, I will write a 10,000-word WNBA preview next summer while dressed in drag. You have my word.

While I watched this show and silently nailed every question, they abruptly waived me into another room where I was interrogated by the executive producer, a well-dressed British guy named Michael. Instantly I knew this was bad luck — I've always hated British people. I think it stems back to the Tea Party Act. And British Guy voiced his concerns and sugarcoated things as much as he could before giving me the El Shafto — "With all your ESPN connections, I just don't think there's any way I could put you on this show and feel good about it."

Understandable, I guess. If I were him, I wouldn't have allowed me on the show either (nothing gets people riled up like a game show scandal). Now I just wanted to get the hell out of there — I was disappointed and pissed off that nobody had mentioned the "You can't know anybody at ESPN" thing before I hauled my ass all the way to New York and dusted off my "Larry in the '86 Finals" game face. They offered to let me stay to watch the tapings of the other shows, which sounded to me about as fun as watching the taping of a porn movie when you haven't had sex in two years.

Within five minutes, I was standing on the street, my shirt pulled out of my pants, a bag thrown over my shoulder, trying to hail a cab in the Big Apple... looking like a scene from a bad movie.

*****

And so the story ends. "The Two Minute Drill" debuts this Monday on ESPN at 7:00, with new episodes airing every Monday for the next two months. And I'm sure I'll watch every one of them. And when they show the episode with The Alternate who took my place — an African-American guy named Chris — I'm going to tape that particular show and watch it later that night.

Why, you ask?

Well, when Chris finally sits down for his two-minute drill, I'll be shouting out the answers the same way Rain Murphy ran that final Jericho Mile. Murphy had four minutes, I'll have two. Murphy had his fellow inmates standing around the track; I'll have all of you, watching that show, rooting against that Chris guy, knowing I'll do better than him, cheering me on from your sofas to a hollow victory. I'll be Pedro and Jaws rolled into one. I'll have all my pitches working. I'll be a killing machine.

And I will win. I will win. And after I beat everyone's score for that show, I'll remove the tape from my VCR and throw it off my deck in the relative direction of New York.

It's the least I can do, don't you think?

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A few notes. 2 Minute Drill was canceled in December of 2001, after airing for 15 months. If a sports game show is can't miss proposition, it hasn't yet been done right. A reader contacted Simmons asking him how he would have done with the questions on the episode he was scheduled to tape. Simmons replied that he would have bombed, with the questions heavy on Olympics and college sports. Simmons's friend "Gus" was Gus Ramsey, who was and is a SportsCenter producer. Lisa Guerrero is currently the chief investigative correspondent for Inside Edition.