The success that came from the 2006 draft video convinced the hecklers they needed a repeat performance.
Martin Bell: It was a rewarding sort of thing, but… I think, number one, it placed a little bit of pressure on us. We’ve got to do this again, what are we going to do the next year? …I figured that next year would probably be better even if we did the exact same thing, just because we could plan, and I could actually bring like more than 10 minutes’ worth of footage. So there’s editing that we could do.
And then I was watching Late Night with Conan O’Brien and I was watching one of the really good Triumph the Insult Comic Dog clips. I think it might have been the one outside of the Star Wars premiere. Not the Phantom Menace premiere, the Attack of the Clones premiere. If you haven’t seen that, you should.
Martin Bell: I’m watching that and I’m like “Now, that’s not a bad idea.” The only other really great thing about the NBA Draft is the interactivity, where you can interact with players. So I thought, “What if we do this thing where we create a SAS puppet and have SAS interview players as they are drafted, in that brief walk between the main theater and the press room?” That way, it’s still the underlying theme is that SAS is being ridiculed, but there’s a little bit of fun with some of the players too. So I liked that idea a lot.
By that time, I had like an actual full-time job. I was out of school, and so I actually took the day off to go to the Garden in the morning and get in the line for tickets. But there was a problem.
Brian Hughes: The draft got a little bigger. It got more difficult to get tickets and unfortunately, Marty and I moved into having more real lives. You couldn’t just take multiple days off work to secure NBA Draft tickets and set up filming comedy videos.
Martin Bell: It was 2007, and the 2007 draft was particularly popular because that was the Greg Oden-Kevin Durant draft. So very few tickets made their way out to the public to begin with, and most of the people in that line, including me, even though I had gotten there relatively early, went home disappointed. It seemed like they literally made like 50 tickets available to the public, because it was supposed to be the greatest one-two punch at the beginning of the draft in 20 years.
So I was left without a ticket and I got home and sort of scratched my head and set about the business of trying to get a ticket, including emailing Will Leitch and saying “we’re gonna try to do this again, but I can’t get ahold of a ticket.” Will, bless his heart, actually I think put up a post saying “Hey, can somebody get a ticket for the SAS hecklers?” I think by then, I think we had named ourselves the SAS Heckling Society of Gentlemen. I think that name actually appeared for the first time in a signature of an email to Will and I liked it.
Current Daily Beast senior news editor Ben Collins was interning for SLAM at that point, and had contacted Bell about following the hecklers during the 2007 draft and doing a story on them. But his story got off to a different start than planned, thanks to the struggles to get a ticket.
Ben Collins: I was interning 10 years ago, and the year before, I saw the YouTube video and thought it was the funniest thing on the planet. So I reached out to them because I was wondering if they were doing it again. I wanted to do it again, and it’s amazing SAS hasn’t gone away yet years later. And they were like “Actually, we’re going to do something much bigger this year and if you want to come along, you can do so.” If memory serves, he said like “meet me at the Heartland,” some shitty wonderful sports bar in midtown. We met up. From the first video, you would assume these were like slightly intelligent people who were very good hecklers. What it wound up being was two genuinely brilliant humans. …Martin is one of the smartest people on the planet.
Brian Hughes: What went into that happening, if I recall, is we had sat at what was the Heartland Brewery on 34th, which is a place that Marty and I would go far too often. Marty saw that a dude read about a the story on Deadspin about us needing tickets. He contacted Deadspin and I think he worked at maybe Marvel or something and had gotten I think promotional tickets, but he only had one.
Martin Bell: So we went to rendezvous with the people that had gotten us the ticket, and I had gotten an email I think the day before, from a guy that was working for SLAM Magazine named Ben Collins. Collins had asked whether he could follow me around if I was going to do the draft thing that year. So I’m like “Yeah, sure, why not.” So I got in. Brian didn’t get a ticket, but he met me to drink before at the Heartland Brewery at the foot of the Empire State Building.
Hughes said letting Bell take the ticket was the right call.
Brian Hughes: It was never really a debate. As much as I liked going and I enjoyed heckling, Marty is just a savant with this stuff. He’s uber-creative and he had a really good plan for what he wanted to do… I knew it was going to be hilarious. I went home that night having watched at some bar near MSG for the first round and thought to myself “Shit, I’d really love to be in there, I’m sure it was a great time.” And definitely there was part of me that was like, “I kind of wish I had taken that ticket,” but ultimately it went to the right guy. Marty should have been the one doing it and I’m glad that he did.
A big difference at the 2007 draft was that Bell made a Stephen A. sock puppet. But it wasn’t as elaborate as he’d initially planned.
Martin Bell: It had taken enough time to get the ticket that I didn’t really have the energy to do the one other thing I was going to do that day, which is take this one sock that I had and get some arts and crafts materials, pipe cleaners and the like, and felt, to make it look kind of like SAS. What I wound up doing instead was taking a nap… and I’m like all right, I’ll take some time to make it look like SAS later on. I was really tired. I woke up late that afternoon and there was no time to really make the puppet look more like the disheveled sock that it was.
This time around, Bell also focused more on interacting with players, using the sock puppet and his Stephen A. impersonation.
Martin Bell: I think a number of people had already been drafted. So we’d already missed Oden and Durant, or at least the better part of Durant. So the first person the sock puppet SAS heckled was Al Horford, who I think was the third pick that year. …I’ve got a camera in one hand, a sock on the other, and I’m running around up the rope-line, dodging autograph-seeking kids, saying things like “QUITE FRANKLY AL HORFORD, THIS IS STEPHEN A. SMITH. HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE DRAFTED??? IS THIS THE GREATEST MOMENT IN YOUR CAREER?!?”
Bell was able to interact with the players thanks to the peculiar setup of the theater.
Martin Bell: The thing about the theater at MSG, at least then, it’s very oddly constructed. There’s no sort of secret bowels or tunnels through which they can get the players from the main theater room to the press room, which is where they had to go immediately after being drafted for sort of like a mini-press conference. Everyone had to do that. They had to go through the same tunnels that everybody went through from like the concessions area in order to get to their seats in the main room.
I was not the first in our group to figure this out. Pretty much all of my friends did, and they are like, “You have got to spend some time down here.” …I wasn’t that interested [at first] because I thought the joy of this thing was to just sort of watch the actual show happen, and this sort of surreal thing in which all of these kids become millionaires. But my friends were right, and the time I got down there, which I don’t think I did until the next year, I really appreciated that you could basically interact with these players. They would be on the other side of a little rope or whatever, but there would be high-five opportunities or heckling opportunities.
Ben Collins: It was so weird that they were allowed to do that post-9/11. Like run around inside MSG with just basic tickets. Heckling the shit out of people. It was an amazing thing. In hindsight, it doesn’t make any sense. That would never happen again, but it was a remarkable thing.
Martin Bell: It was interesting to see the spectrum of reactions. Al Horford and the security guard who was minding Al Horford seemed to find it really funny. Mike Conley laughed out loud, he was really, really digging it. I remember Mike Conley. Jeff Green was largely oblivious. A funny thing happened with Yi Jianlian, who was picked sixth. I followed him and I said that “YI JIANLIAN, QUITE FRANKLY, THIS IS STEPHEN A. SMITH. WOULD YOU LIKE TO DO YOUR FIRST AMERICAN INTERVIEW WITH STEPHEN A. SMITH?!? I KNOW YOUR HANDLERS ARE HANDLING YOU, BUT YOU HAVE BEEN DRAFTED IN PART BECAUSE YOU KNOW HOW TO HANDLE YOURSELF!!!” Which was entirely an extemporaneous line, but that I felt very good about immediately after. And I’m still not quite sure why it made me chuckle.
After that, and this is the only time this happened, we got stopped by a security guard at MSG who claims that I should like tone down the “racist humor” and I’m like “What?!?” I was actually enraged, because among other things, I deplore racism. I wasn’t like making fun of the guy… I had adopted a ridiculous accent, but it wasn’t Yi’s, it was SAS. So that was sort of a weird moment.”
Ben Collins: Initially, because there was no face involved in the very first video, initially everyone thought it was racist. A large racist play. And Martin is black. So if it’s racist, it’s a really incredible meta-commentary on racism itself. So that was a part of it too. [Some of] the initial negative reactions was exclusively that. Like, is this OK? And then it sort of existed on a different plane than that, I think.
Martin Bell: Corey Brewer, I may have actually missed. Or at least he wasn’t that excited. Brandon Wright was a highlight for me of that video just because he seemed entirely stoic and unresponsive. I was running up to where he was walking and trying again, and then, finally, I think I let fly the phrase “WHY HASN’T THIS CHANGED YOUR LIFE BRANDON WRIGHT?!?”
Ben Collins: I think he did it in the best way he possibly could have done it. He sweet-talked a lot of security guards. He actively engaged with people that asked him questions about what he was doing. I think the kids, instead of being afraid of it, like there were kids trying to get autographs that largely found it pretty funny.
Martin Bell: If you are playing the Atlanta Braves, you start thinking about Craig Kimbrel relatively early. If you are heckling the 2007 NBA draft, you start thinking about Joakim Noah, who’s already a pretty well-established personality, about five picks before [where you think he’s going to go]. …And then Noah comes down, and you don’t know what is going to happen. And he had on a predictably ridiculous outfit. And he’s really working it with the crowd. And he’s a guy stopping along the line to sign autographs and I’m like “there’s potential for something here.”
So I guess two things happened. One, shortly before getting Noah, I say something like “Joakim Noah has been a prince of a man here, a real man of the people. Because he has been such a man of the people and because his hair is so long, I hereby dub thee, Joakim Noah, THE PEOPLE’S PRINCESS.” I have no idea where that came from, but again, it made me almost deliriously happy to say.
And then Noah comes over and I’m videotaping him with the puppet and he smacks the puppet out of nowhere. This was startling to me, but also like his vest, because someone like Joakim Noah was going to do something expressive. So I started to walk away and Noah looks back and says “Don’t put that on YouTube! I’m gonna get killed for it!” or something like that. I kind of shrugged and of course I’m going to put this on YouTube. That’s awesome. You only look better for this having been on YouTube.
Martin Bell: I think that I, and my friends once they saw this, walked away with a pretty positive impression of Joakim Noah, because he wasn’t dead inside. It wasn’t the sort of vacant personality there. He was somebody that was enjoying being drafted in a way that we imagined we might.
As the draft rolls on, Bell shifts his focus from the players to Stephen A., but the SAS heckling isn’t as easy as it was in 2006.
Martin Bell: So we go back in and the focus is again on SAS. I think that somewhere in there I shot the video that appears at the very first seconds of the 2007 video. Which is where I call out to SAS and I’m like “SAS, I’m coming for you SAS. You want some Cheez Doodles? How many Cheez Doodles do you want?” He apparently heard me and he motions like “One bag. One bag!” or whatever.
So that was the first interaction that we had with SAS, who seemed to know about the Cheez Doodle thing, and seemed to be begrudgingly acknowledging our presence there, but didn’t seem super good-natured about it. Anyway, we did that one bit where we made fun of him for having the temerity to go to the bathroom. He didn’t have Cheez Doodles that year.
For Collins, watching the heckling live was so memorable that he immediately went home and wrote his story on it.
Ben Collins: I was baffled and so happy. This was one of those things where I was going to take the week and write it, but I got home and wrote it in like 24 hours. I wrote it immediately after the draft happened. It was so much fun… I was just excited about it. Very rarely do you see something — I was like exclusively a sports writer back then — very rarely do you see something genuinely different. I was just so excited to get it out there.
Not all the fans in attendance were sold on what Bell was doing, though. While Collins said the overall reaction was more positive than negative, there were some critics.
Ben Collins: I think at first they were freaked out because he was a loud person with a sock on his hand yelling at celebrities. The most interesting part was sometimes when he would chase them through the hallways; there was this exit hallway that would bring them into like a green room or something… I’m not really sure where they were going.
After he would get into some of the players’ faces, [the fans] wouldn’t react particularly happily with it. There were some side debates if this was like “cool” or an “OK” thing to do. They were like, “you are ruining this kid’s moment,” and I think that is a totally valid argument. Especially for players that are now out of the NBA or something, that was the best moment of their life and they had to encounter a sock puppet harassing them? I mean, how fucking weird is that? That’s a really weird thing to have to do. So there was that element.
One media critic was Dan Steinberg of the D.C. Sports Bog, who talked to Bell during that draft and then wrote a piece blasting the hecklers.
Martin Bell: The guy that does “DC Sports Bog” for the Washington Post went on record somewhere saying that we were sort of taking away from the draftees’ moments, which was one of the single dumbest things I’ve ever read. …I would think that on the night that I would become a millionaire, I’m probably not going to remember Martin Bell walking by you for a couple of seconds, amongst a whole bunch of other fans, with a sock on his hand. But that just goes to show that some people will be outraged about anything. Whatever. I enjoy Dan Steinberg’s work generally, and I enjoyed it at the time, but it felt like an odd shot to take from somebody whose work I enjoyed, but whatever.
The 2007 video was still generally well-received, though, and Bell said the greater planning made it a more-polished product.
Martin Bell: We threw that up. That got like a whole lot of hits. It was much more polished, sort of artistically.
Ben Collins: The video was worth it and it was a fascinating thing to see such a staged thing… if you think about it, these [drafts] are such staged things too. Incredibly scripted by TV and the NBA itself. For some guy to just go in there and ruin it is fucking hysterical. It’s really great.
After the 2007 draft, things changed substantially for Stephen A. with the cancellation of Quite Frankly and his demotion from ESPN’s main draft set. Bell said that led to a very different approach in 2008.