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Zoned Out

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By Michael Marsh

For nine years I covered high school sports for three local newspapers. Sometimes I wondered why I stuck with it, watching football games during hot humid days in the late summer and cold wet nights in the fall. After basketball games I'd anxiously wait for teenagers to get off pay phones. Sometimes I had to compile game summaries while I wrote my stories. Try writing as phones ring off the hook and editors hover over your head, waiting for copy. But it wasn't a completely thankless job. There were some great games. And occasionally I'd get a free hot dog or a slice of pizza.

Then it happened. I got a VIP pass to the opening night of the ESPN Zone. "Eat! Drink! Watch! Play!" said the marquee near the entrance on Ohio Street. After about a minute inside, I had sensory overload. There was loud dance music. Rows of televisions played the highlights of a few dozen games. Caterers walked through the crowd with trays of champagne, beer, and exotic food. Some athletes even showed up, like former Bear Otis Wilson, erstwhile Northwestern basketball player Evan Eschmeyer, and onetime Duke star Corey Maggette. I saw Jerry Reinsdorf eating sushi. This was a far cry from my neighborhood bar, though in all fairness, it does give out free popcorn during Monday Night Football.

The food kept coming: trays of oysters, crab, shrimp, ravioli, and chicken. There were tables full of caviar, smoked salmon, and fancy desserts.

"I've been picking the fake cleavage from the real," said a guy leaning against a bar. "It's about 50-50."

"How can you tell?" I asked.

"The curve," he said, "the shape, the heft."

I decided to go upstairs. Corey Maggette, Cory Carr, and Vince Carter were shooting baskets. Two dozen white guys were standing around watching. The place was packed with all sorts of interactive games: you could kick a soccer ball at a virtual goalie, ride a pretend motorcycle at 175 mph, or snowboard down a steep video mountain. I decided to try my skills on a putting green.

I spotted one of my former bosses, Larry Green. He used to be the executive editor of the Sun-Times; now he runs the advertising department. I had never talked to him before, but I was part of the party.

"I used to work for you," I told him.

"I remember you," he said. "Where did you work?"

"High school sports."

"Where do you work now?

"The Chicago Reader."

"Well," he said, heading back into the crowd, "nobody's perfect."

I felt like I was back in high school sports. I'll show him, I said to myself: I sank my putt.

A well-dressed woman walked past. We knew each other casually, but she didn't say hello--she was with a date. Maybe I should get a little something to eat, I thought, strolling back to the spread of lamb chops, seafood, and strawberry tarts.

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