Notebook in hand, I slid into the group of scouts and executives from the Phoenix Suns, and stood around casually, talking to fellow student Andie Wright. The moment the conversation died down, I seized my chance:
“Hey Lauri, my name’s Matt, and this is my friend Andie. We both go to USC, and we’re really big fans and loved watching you play this year. Is there any way we could get a picture?”
Lauri Markkanen, the seven-foot Finnish freshman from the University of Arizona—and expected top-ten pick in June’s NBA draft—turned to us with an ear-splitting grin. He reached down, and slapped me on the chest.
“USC, huh? How’d you guys like that bank 3???”
Still laughing about the incredible shot he made to beat USC at the Galen Center in mid-January, the future NBA-er happily obliged our request. After snapping a quick photo and wishing each other the best of luck, I turned to Andie, surveying the room of team and league executives, future first-round picks, current All-Stars and Hall-of-Famers.
“Well,” I said, still smiling from the conversation, “that was pretty cool.”
In retrospect, however, “cool” was certainly an understatement. Our presence at the NBA Draft Lottery was just the latest stop in what had already been an unforgettable day. It began at the offices of NBA Entertainment in Secaucus, NJ, where we toured the NBA Replay Center and met with the top executives of the league’s digital team. From there, we headed to the NBA league office on 5th avenue. After being greeted with enough food to feed an army, we all sat down at a conference table with nametags in front of our seats. Mine read “Matthew Simon, USC Annenberg.” The one directly across from me? “Adam Silver, NBA Commissioner.”
After our day at the league office, we rushed back to the hotel to quickly change and regroup before heading over to the New York Hilton Midtown for the Draft Lottery. Upon entering the room, we were all immediately blown away by the blowout set out before us. Despite the luxurious spread, I barely had time to touch the food. I rushed from one big name to another, talking to current NBA stars Devin Booker and Joel Embiid, chatting with top prospects like Markelle Fultz, De’Aaron Fox and Justin Jackson, and even grabbing pictures with Hall of Famers Magic Johnson and Clyde Frazier.
In the middle of the reception, I spotted Wyc Grousbeck, the CEO and Managing Partner of the Boston Celtics, my hometown team. I went up to him and introduced myself, explaining that as a Boston native and diehard Celtics fan, I was incredibly excited for the night’s events and the Celtics’ chance at the No. 1 overall pick. Upon hearing I was from Boston, his eyes lit up and he excitedly grabbed my hand. “This is Matt,” he said, introducing me to his date, “He’s from Concord, MA, and here with USC Annenberg.” After chatting with them for a bit we parted ways, but not before wishing each other luck in the Draft Lottery.
About two hours later, Wyc stood on stage and I jumped to my feet in the audience as the Celtics were awarded the top pick in next month’s draft. I was able to catch up with him after the announcement and express my excitement, a feeling that was immediately returned. We were both on top of the world, for the exact same reason. It was the perfect ending to an incredible day, a day that I will unquestionably never, ever forget.
No sport analyzes their game better than baseball. Of all the pregame shows, postgame analysis, and former players that break down the action that occurs between the lines, baseball commentators lend a detailed perspective to the game in a way that no other sport does. Whether it’s full-time analysts, sportswriters, or former players, these baseball gurus provide insight in breaking down every aspect of the game that enhances the viewer’s experience and makes the game more enjoyable to watch.
On the last day of our Maymester trip, we got to experience that environment firsthand. We traveled out to the MLB Network studios in Secaucus, NJ, where we were hosted by broadcaster Matt Vasgersian. Matt gave us a tour of the entire facility, from the studios, to the control rooms, to the editing stations, and sat us down with a number of network employees who shared with us a wide variety of experiences and involvement at the network. He showed us a wall where every MLB player, past and present, who visited the studio signed their name, and then took us to a similar wall reserved solely for Hall-of-Famers. Right as we were staring in awe at the names of Yogi Berra, Pedro Martinez, and Ken Griffey Jr. (and many, many others), another Hall-of-Famer, Atlanta Braves legend John Smoltz, walked by us in the flesh, causing our jaws to drop to the floor.
Our tour concluded at MLB Network’s famous Studio 42, which looks nothing like your traditional studio at all. Instead of desks and a plethora of graphics, Studio 42—named for Jackie Robinson—is a miniature MLB ballpark, complete with a full field, dugouts, a scoreboard, and outfield bleachers. Not only is the novelty of the setup exciting, but it also allows for more in-depth baseball analysis than any other studio in the country. Former players can physically set themselves up on the pitcher’s mound or at shortstop, and demonstrate specific technique to the audience and their fellow analysts. They say that when you walk into a baseball cathedral like Fenway Park or Wrigley Field you can feel how special the venue is just due to its history, and the many greats of the game that have been there before you. While it might sound cheesy, being able to hang around at Studio 42 had a similar feel to it. Our trip to the network was the perfect bookend to an incredible two weeks in New York, and easily one of the most enjoyable visits of our trip.
I didn’t go to New York City expecting to fight aliens.
After our visit to YouTube Spaces, however, you can cross that one off the list.
Thursday, our last full day in New York, was scheduled to be a light one. We were headed down to YouTube Spaces in Chelsea Market in the morning, and then a small group of five of us was going to head out to MLB Network in Secaucus in the afternoon.
The experience of finding YouTube Spaces is an adventure of its own. When we were told that their offices were at Chelsea Market, we assumed that meant that they were in the general area of the popular tourist attraction, and that could be a landmark in case we got separated from the group or wanted to grab a bite to eat once we were done. Instead, we quickly realized that the offices were inside the market itself, and we waded through throngs of tourists and restaurant-goers, clutching our soaking umbrellas and trying not to get lost in the crowds.
We met up with Lance Podell, who introduced himself as the Director and Global Head of YouTube Spaces. Although the comparison might be a bit of a stretch, the room’s futuristic vibe, combined with Mr. Podell’s raw, unadulterated enthusiasm, reminded me a bit of when Willy Wonka first appears in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and invites all the Golden Ticket recipients to come inside.
Mr. Podell showed us YouTube Spaces’ impressive setup, where any YouTuber with 10,000 or more subscribers can make an appointment and come and use the incredible sets, lighting setups, cameras, or other equipment available, all for free. He showed us how versatile each set was, how any part of the building could be used to film a video (even the bathroom was designed to look like a nightclub), and told us about some of the projects that take place at the space, and how they are looking to expand their reach.
By far the best part of the visit, however, was when we were given a chance to try virtual reality goggles. We were shown a couple of demonstrations, and then invited to jump in ourselves. After watching some of my classmates explore a city and create 3D paintings in outer space, I decided to give it a shot. I put on the goggles, grabbed the controllers, and found myself on a distant planet. I began to see instructions in front of me as I walked around the surface of this new unknown world, and got the brief explainer on how to shoot my gun, change my type of ammunition, and use my shield to defend myself. I quickly found alien ships coming at me from all sides, and had to crouch, slide, and duck behind my shield to avoid their incoming fire. I shot back, knocking my enemies out of the sky in quick succession, feeling like the heroic defender of the galaxy.
As I sadly removed the goggles and handed back the controllers, I stated that, without question, that was one of the coolest things I had ever done. I was able to play with incredible technology like a kid in a candy store—or should I say, chocolate factory—and was incredibly grateful to have had such an amazing opportunity.