Martin Bell: By 2006, SAS had sort of become a thing. …TV had caused him to mutate into this Take-Monster, and everything had to be loud and the most important thing you’ve ever heard. It really didn’t matter how outlandish his take was, but there had to be one and it had to be yelled. And apparently, it was something that was working at ESPN because his profile was rising ever higher. So it was just, it was very easy to not like SAS. Even though he was a fellow New Yorker, even though he was a Queens guy, I think that one thing too was that if you’re like, a teenage guy in New York who grows up listening to like Mike and The Mad Dog or whatever, who has to actually talk about something substantive to get through five hours per day, you have standards.
Pat Stango: I feel like then he was a presence. I just used to watch a lot more ESPN then, and was probably way more aware of what he was doing then than now. Like right now, I may not have seen or heard him in the last three or four years. I have no idea if he still has a show or not right now. But definitely then, he was sort of as big as Mike and the Mad Dog or Marv Albert would have felt when we were younger. He was the big sports guy then.
Martin Bell: He had totally abandoned substance for style. And what style he had was grating and irksome.
Brian Hughes: Being big NBA fans and rabid sports fans, he was an ESPN personality fairly consistently a couple years previously to them getting draft coverage. Marty and I had had multiple different discussions before the draft about how completely ridiculous we thought all his opinions were. Literally all of them. I remember for a good 25 minutes being like “Can you honestly believe this man is on TV saying these things?!” So going into that night, the first night that he was there and we were there, we were well aware of SAS. We were well aware of how ridiculous SAS was, and we were more than excited about the possibilities associated with making fun of him.
Pat Stango: It’s like A) he can take it. It would be weird if he couldn’t, because his whole shtick is about like being a dick and almost heckling athletes, you know. He’s sort of a paid heckler, you know. If anything, you’re just giving to him what he gives to all these athletes, which is just yelling at them. It would be mean to do it to like some low-key sports guy.
So, heckling Stephen A. was definitely planned. What wasn’t planned was filming it.
Martin Bell: A couple of weeks before the draft, I had graduated from law school and I purchased a video camera for that reason…so that I’d have footage for my parents. I had left that in my book bag and I took the same book bag into the Garden without even realizing I had the video camera on me. Back then, I guess two things were different. One, security at MSG is so insane now, and two, now you wouldn’t need a video camera, you’d just need a phone. So I realized partway through that I had this video camera. And we’d all gotten pretty drunk before the draft, which was our custom. We’d usually go and get drinks at Heartland Brewery at the base of the Empire St. Building before the draft. We had what I think was called the Seasonal Voyage, which was a sample platter of like seven kinds of seasonal beer, and we’d chug those down and then go to the draft.
In 2006, I realized once we’ve gotten to the second round and snuck our way up to the front sections, I still have like 10 minutes’ worth of footage and a sliver of battery power. So I just started to try to discreetly tape the heckling we were doing. It may very well be that some of what I was doing right then was wondering if we would be even remotely funny in the sober light of day to me at some point, which seemed unlikely. But we were there and I started to record this stuff.
Smith’s on-air behavior made him even more of a target.
Pat Stango: He’s just such a big personality… he’s just, you can’t hear him sitting there, you are just watching this guy like a cartoon basically. So animated and big, and especially at that time he was just such a big figure. Such an easy-to-imitate figure…like the year with Tolbert — why would you do it to this guy, he’s so nondescript. But with SAS, he’s… it wasn’t even so much heckling, but… the guy is just sort of asking for some interaction. He’s so big and animated, like everyone should be talking to him at the same time.
Martin Bell: Part of the reason it wasn’t really focused on the players was we only started in the second round, so there weren’t really any players worth doing anything with. So we were back in the room basically just trying to work SAS’s nerves, and SAS would occasionally, he would vacillate between ignoring the fans completely or actively, hostilely engaging them. So at either end of that spectrum, you’ll have a pretty enthusiastic audience.
After the draft, Bell decided to edit and post the footage he’d taken, and the next chapter in a heckling legend was born…
Martin Bell: I went home and I sobered up a little bit and started to look over the footage and was like “Hey, this is kind of amusing,” and I uploaded it to whatever crappy PC laptop I had at the time, and used whatever default video editing program had come with it. This was nothing I had any real expertise in. I’m not some sort of video editing genius, I’m just a guy. I put together just a few minutes of the heckling, including the Cheez Doodle stuff, and I’m like “This is kind of funny.”
Will Leitch: Deadspin was launched before YouTube was. …When I started doing the site, video just wasn’t a part of it, because video really wasn’t a major part of the internet. There’s a great piece about the Lonely Island guys on Vulture, about how they coincided with the rise of YouTube. Deadspin was launched before that, so there really wasn’t a lot of video stuff…there’s a great joke on The Office where Michael Scott talks about how he found YouTube, and just spent like four days at his desk just watching YouTube clips. Like, four days! That was a very exciting thing people forget about from that time. It just blew you away. Not only could you find all these old videos on there, but it was quick and clean and smooth. Maybe it wasn’t smooth, but it certainly seemed smooth to us. So the idea that you could all of a sudden, if you had the right kind of phone, which I don’t think I did, that you could take videos and put them on YouTube.
Martin Bell: I uploaded it to YouTube and I sent a link to Will Leitch of Deadspin, which was a site by then I had really come to enjoy. I thought the sensibility of this site was something that captured a lot of how my friends and I thought about sports. …Eventually they reached a point where they did some things they are probably not terribly proud of. But, you know, whatever, it was a good site, and Will did a good job with it and I figured that he might enjoy something like that and maybe make a post out of it. Or tack it onto whatever draft post. And I got a really enthusiastic response from Will that next morning saying basically, “Holy cow, this is great! Thanks for this. It’s really funny.”
Will Leitch: It really felt like a storming of the gates. Now it seems like the most obvious thing in the world. Now there are no gates. But back then, it felt like a storming of the gates to have someone take… because ESPN famously controls its rights. Like all sports, ESPN is a sports league, they kind of famously control their rights. So to have someone, not only get video of what is going on at the NBA Draft, but to get video behind the scenes of “Hey, what is it like with SAS that is not on camera?” When he yells and screams for the camera, the assumption is that it’s an act. But when the camera is off, he does essentially what we see him in the video doing, which is just shutting down and looking at his phone. …It was a lot of the appeal, not that it was just SAS, but that it was this highly produced, highly orchestrated event, that they kind of snuck behind the lines of.
Pat Stango: I thought it was hilarious. When we filmed it that night on Marty’s camera, I just completely did not think that A) he was even going to put it up. That wasn’t even in my head when we were filming it. At that point, it was to me just like a funny thing that me and you did tonight, and that’s the end of it. I think it got big pretty quick, like within a few days. He sent it to me and I thought it was funny, but as far as it catching on, I think it was pretty automatic. I guess it was Deadspin that put it up and all the views sort of came from that. It was definitely one of those things where after we left that night, I didn’t even think I would look at footage of it, never mind it being an actual video other people would see.
Will Leitch: Back then, you knew people were going to like it, because I really liked it! I knew it fit exactly what the Deadspin message was. That these people are full of shit. These people are full of shit and they are playing for the camera, and the minute the camera turns off, they are back to a normal person. They’re all lying to you. It fit into a very early Deadspin message that I think resonated. …What it also plays to is the message that everybody has been to a game and somebody heckles the right fielder. This was one of the major ethos of Deadspin; these people on TV, they act like they are outside of sports and simply covering it, but they are not! More people know who Chris Berman is than the shortstop of the Tampa Bay Rays, so he should be covered in the same way, if not with more scrutiny. Which was something the sports world wasn’t used to at the time.
Brian Hughes: The Cheez Doodles thing is obviously the thing that strikes me most. The initial response to him eating Cheez Doodles and recording it on the first video, is probably my most crystal clear memory of the whole thing.
Will Leitch: The guys heckling were hilarious. To see… to pick up the Cheez Doodles thing. It’s interesting, because we were talking about how media people are as much a part of our actual sports as the players and coaches and executives themselves. How does SAS handle a heckler? How does he do it? What does he do? Does he get huffy? Does he ignore them? Does he nod and hope they’ll go away? It was a fascinating kind of a look behind that that really spoke to what the mission of what Deadspin was doing. What people were really starting to react to, not just Deadspin but other sites, the idea that “Wait, we can just talk to these people. They are right there.” And I think it draws us behind that curtain in a way that was very entertaining.
Martin Bell: So Deadspin did their first post, and we got some absurd amount of hits the first day. We were…I guess we were sort of surprised, but not surprised by the popularity of the video. On the one hand, there were all sorts of stupid things getting lots of hits, and we figured that Deadspin had pretty good traffic generally. But we were getting like hundreds of thousands of hits inside of just a few days or a couple weeks.
Brian Hughes: I don’t think we ever really got the idea that it would be this many people that thought this was hilarious. But we thought it was really fucking funny. We really, really enjoyed ourselves and had an awesome time. So there was definitely an element of us that was like “If we’re enjoying ourselves this much and having an awesome time, why wouldn’t everyone enjoy watching us enjoying ourselves and having an awesome time?” But I don’t think we ever really got that it would become a viral thing and it would be on Deadspin and all that stuff. I don’t think we really saw that coming. But somebody posted it and then all of a sudden, it took off.
Richard Deitsch: My reaction was it would be very good for Cheez Doodles’ bottom line.
A big part of the video’s success was that it was about Stephen A., not a lesser-known personality like Tolbert.
Pat Stango: I think the Tolbert thing was just trying to get the crowd. That was definitely more about getting a lot of people to chant the same ridiculous thing. No one disliked Tom Tolbert; it was just a silly thing to get 50 people to chant at the same time. That was just completely like mindlessly… either we’re going to leave or just try to chant things. But we can’t just stay and watch this anymore.
Martin Bell: I don’t think our earlier stuff would have taken off in the same way at all. The earlier stuff was more geared at… it just wasn’t that interesting. I think that to a degree, it was more about us. I think that it was more just sort of about “Oh, look at us; we’re coming up with things to say about the players. ‘Oh, TJ Ford! The scouting reports say you are undersized as an audience member!'” That sort of thing.
With SAS, I like to think that, not that we were particularly brilliant or something like that. But I think it had more to do with the fact that SAS had become this entity that people had very little respect for and would like to see sort of put into place. I think that, despite what the contemporary political scene might have to say about it, I think that people tend to like sort of intelligent or at least reasonable discourse where they can get it. SAS made no pretense of being particularly thoughtful or particularly intelligent. His thing was not about projecting as thoughtful or intelligent or bringing something to the table, which you know, like, Jay Bilas did in spades.
SAS was all about just being authoritative. He made proclamations and those proclamations would take on the weight of pronouncements, and they would be done in this exact exaggerated sort of, you know, “I am all powerful and street smart and the consummate New Yorker” in a way that I think sort of aroused resentment. I think, “No, you’re not. The next thing that you say that is actually interesting from a basketball standpoint is going to be the first time on this show.”
Will Leitch: It’s not as funny [if it’s about Tolbert]. Because SAS takes himself so seriously. Remember, SAS is finally getting a little bit better about Twitter now, but let’s not forget he was failing on headlines. The only way you can really be SAS is to lack self awareness all together. If there’s a moment where you stop for a moment and are like “this is completely ridiculous,” you cease to be SAS.
Martin Bell: So, get to a point where you actually say stuff that is interesting, and then if you want to develop a persona about it, that’s fine. And there are people who do that in some way. Even Bilas, Jay Bilas, has a weird sort of thing on Twitter where he’s like really into Jeezy… which is sort of an odd, charming quirk. But it’s an odd, charming quirk that doesn’t seem like a forced “here’s a main thing I’m presenting about myself.” It’s just an odd, charming, quirk from somebody who generally gives you really interesting analysis and information. Pablo Torre, who I know from a previous life, does all sorts of wacky things on like Around the Horn and Highly Questionable and stuff like that, but the primary thing he brings to ESPN is that he’s a really smart dude. The positions he takes are consistently well reasoned. So there’s room for all that secondary stuff because there’s real substance to the guy.
I think what aroused particular resentment about SAS was that the approach was so cynical. I knew from talking to Philly people, and from reading SOME of his early print stuff at ESPN, that he was capable of putting thoughtful stuff together, and he knowingly and willingly shunned that in order to become a star.
It’s kind of like the HBO series Extras, in which Ricky Gervais’ character is like a middling actor who finally makes it big when he sells out completely. At the end of the first season, he gets his own sitcom, but it’s a horrific sitcom that plays to the lowest common denominator and his character has a wig and catch-phrases and stuff like that. He’s doing better than he ever has, but he is also widely resented. SAS is the sports equivalent of the Andy Millman character on Extras. And eventually, like the Andy Millman character, every now and then somebody will tell you that there is nothing to what you’re doing. In Andy Millman’s case, there was that fantastic scene where he got smacked down musically by David Bowie.
The SAS Heckling Society was to SAS what David Bowie was to Ricky Gervais in that moment. Which is, a public comeuppance after a particularly cynical rise to the top.
Will Leitch: The only way that someone like SAS can continue to be SAS is to have zero self awareness whatsoever. Tom Tolbert… TT gets the joke. He knows who he is. He knows he’s a former player that is a doof on TV and it’s all a big game and scam and can’t believe any of us gets away with it. SAS believes this shit and believes that he actually has all this stuff to say and is a big important guy. You saw it during the NBA Finals Game 2, he’s popping out of feeds saying “I’M GOING BALLISTIC!” You can’t fake that. You can’t fake that combination of insanity and inanity. You just can’t fake that.
Martin Bell: A lot of the appeal of the first video was just how raw and rugged it was. It was very clearly done off the cuff. It was very clearly just a couple of idiots who happened to have a video camera on and were having a good time, and doing so effectively because SAS was such a cartoon character.
Will Leitch: That makes it that much more fun. He lacks so much self awareness about who he is that is exactly the person you heckle. You don’t heckle Ernie Johnson. EJ knows who he is. EJ is a smart guy. He’s a chill guy. You don’t heckle EJ. You have to heckle the type of person that you think would not handle heckling well to truly get a great heckling in, and that’s another reason…of course, obviously part of it is behind the scenes. But if it had been someone other than SAS, it wouldn’t have been as much fun.
Pat Stango: All my friends at the time were really into it. At the time, I was also doing a lot of comedy around here and doing a lot of comedy videos and it was funny for that…like the thing I would put the least effort into would probably be the thing that caught on. Even like a lot of comedy friends of mine were like “wait, you were one of the guys that did that?” So many people saw that separate of me sending it to them. Because I wasn’t really sending it to people but so many people I knew were like, “Oh, I saw this, and your name was in it.”
Martin Bell: I mean, it got a level of currency in the pop culture or in the sports pop culture that we did not really expect. At one point, somewhere in the first couple of years, and I think it was after the first one, Tony Kornheiser dropped the Cheez Doodles reference on Pardon the Interruption, which seemed to thoroughly confuse Mike Wilbon. I remember texting my friends like “Holy crap, the doodles thing!” It was interesting that the Cheez Doodles thing got as much currency as it did.
You know, you look back on the video and some of it was obviously some really juvenile humor. My friend Stang goes like “QUITE FRANKLY, I JUST SHIT ORANGE.” It still makes me chuckle, but not in a way I’m particularly proud of.
Will Leitch: And the joke is that if SAS were a different person, he could have nodded and been like “OH HEY YEAH I LOVE MY CHEESY DOODLES,” and it would have been fun and they would have loved him. They all walk away and been like “What an awesome dude. We gave him some shit but he played along with it. Awesome.” But he’s SAS. He’s not built to do that. If he the type of person that would do that he would not be SAS.
The first video’s success convinced Bell they needed a repeat performance in 2007, which would see the debut of a famed new character…