Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Thirst For Winning

With the Chicago Bulls back in the national spotlight and the emergence of young Derrick Rose as one of the league’s most dominant players, Bulls fans are taken back to the days when another young player was beginning to take flight.  Michael Jordan's emergence would not only change the identity of Chicago and the game... but would also make him one of the most marketed sports figures in history. He was a winner, not only for his city, team and league, but also for any company lucky enough to have him endorse their product.

It was after winning his first National Basketball Association Championship in 1991, that Michael Jordan would begin a long relationship with Gatorade, which would commence with a commercial that would become part of pop culture and lift up two brands to unimaginable recognition and gain. The story of how Michael Jordan came to endorse Gatorade is legendary among marketers but the more captivating story is the origin of the lyrics and song that made the Gatorade commercial popular and made every kid want to Be Like Mike.

Jordan's 1st NBA Championship - 1991
It was 20 years ago when Jordan signed a lucrutive 10-year contract with Quaker Oats, to become Gatorade's exclusive spokesperson, rather than resigning with Coca-Cola.  After the contract was signed, the advertising firm of Quaker Oats made the decision to bring back its creative chief, Bernie Pitzel, to introduce Jordan and Gatorade to the world, as he was told.  One of the challenges that Pitzel soon learned was that prior to his arrival, a commercial had already been approved by Quaker Oats executives, which left him scratching his head since it was the same type of Jordan highlight reel commercial that other endorsers were using to sell their products.  To Pitzel’s dismay, Quaker Oats gave him only 3 days to come up with a new concept.  Upon returning home that evening, Pitzel sat down to watch Disney’s The Jungle Book with his son. When he heard the song "I Wan'na Be Like You," he immediately thought of a creative concept since he knew that a million people wanted to be like Michael Jordan due to his growing popularity.   

Originally, it was Pitzel's plan to use The Jungle Book music over the video, but he soon found out that Disney officials wanted $350,000 from Gatorade for a five-week commercial run in order to use the track.  As a result, he decided that he would write his own lyrics that would play off the concept that everyone wanting to be Jordan. Pitzel then went to his favorite Chicago restaurant, Avanzare, to do some creative thinking.  He soon started writing the following lyrics on the paper tablecloth: 

Sometimes I dream
That he is me
You've got to see that's how I dream to be
I dream I move, I dream I groove
Like Mike
If I could Be Like Mike
Again I try
Just need to fly
For just one day if I could
Be that way
I dream I move, I dream I groove
Like Mike
If I could Be Like Mike

Several hours later, he faxed a ripped tablecloth with the lyrics to four different local music companies, hopeful that one of them would orchestrate a tune that would fit well with his lyrics, since he only had 48 hours left.  One local pair of jingle writers took 'Be Like Mike' and really made it the chorus.  They then hired eight singers to sing the work, rather than one, which sold the concept that everyone wanted to be like Mike.  When finished, they knew that no other company would beat their catchy tune and Pitzel agreed.

Pitzel then drove up to Wisconsin to meet with Gatorade executives and to present the "Be Like Mike" lyrics and tune from a tape played on a boom box. Gatorade executives knew they had a winner. Pitzel then dreamed up the commercial's visual concept, which included a group of children trying to be like Mike in front of Jordan himself at a basketball court in Chicago.  Additional footage was filmed of Jordan playing a pick-up game with grown-ups, goofing around and drinking Gatorade.  These concepts tried to humanize Jordan since most thought of him as a basketball God.  And although we may not be able to fly through the air or play basketball like Michael, we can be like him and drink Gatorade.

Scene from the "Be Like Mike" Commercial

The commercial ended with the simple phrase "Be Like Mike. Drink Gatorade" and that is exactly what happened when it aired in August, 1991. It was a defining moment in Gatorade's history, lifting an already popular product to even greater heights.  It was a winner.

Jordan would go on to appear in over 20 Gatorade commericals, but "Be Like Mike" was the trend-setter because even today, you still hear kids and adults, singing the lyrics to "Be Like Mike".  In 2003, Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, wrote an article regarding Jordan's best commercials.  All of Jordan's commercials, covering all of his endorsed products, were considered and it wasn't a surprise that "Be Like Mike" was rated #1 because of its popular tagline and catchy tune.  I emailed Bernie Pitzel prior to our trip about the commercial and he replied, “That spot struck quite a chord…anything you can do to effect or become part of pop culture is a huge win.  Be Like Mike did just that.”  

So it was during the Chicago leg of our Illinois basketball trip, that we wanted to pay homage to Michael Jordan in some way, because he was such an influence to us growing up. Most basketball fans, when visiting Chicago,  gravitate to two locations to pay tribute to the greatest basketball player ever.  Most travel to the city’s west side and pose for pictures in front of the famous Jordan statue outside the United Center, while others drive to the Architectural Estates in the north suburbs of Highland Park to take a photo outside Jordan’s front gates (like we did).  But it was another location, a hidden gem of sorts, that we decided to locate to pay homage to not only Michael Jordan but to one of the backdrops for one of the greatest commercials.  

Front gates of Jordan's estate
We wound through various roads into the heart of the Highland Park suburb, until we came to Sunset Woods Park.  Thanks to the Park District of Highland Park, we were able to locate the outdoor basketball courts where Michael Jordan was filmed playing basketball with the kids trying to imitate him, with their between-the-leg dribbling and acrobatic shots.  The court has been replaced in recent years with a skate park but another court sets beside it.  So for an hour, we looked around the area, trying to imagine what it would have been like not only to work with Jordan on the set but also getting the chance, as a kid, to play basketball with him.  Prior to leaving, we played our traditional 2-on-2 game, as we do at all the gyms we visit.  And for a few shots, without trying to injure ourselves, we too tried to "Be Like Mike".

Skatepark (background) where the commercial was filmed
Sunset Woods Park

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Centralia’s Masterpiece

Many basketball enthusiasts say that a trip to Centralia, IL is a basketball pilgrimage because for nearly a century, its Orphans were considered America’s winningest high school basketball team.  Although they have surrendered that title in recent years, you are still reminded of the honor while driving through town.  It was during the 2007-08 season that the Centralia Orphans won their 2,000th game, a feat that only a select few basketball programs can put on their program’s resume.  As you enter the new CHS athletic arena, you are welcomed to the “Home of the Orphans” and to one of the largest high school trophy cases that I have seen.  Trophies, jerseys, and other basketball memorabilia introduce visitors to the teams decorated past but it also reminds its players, students, and community what’s expected in the future. 

One of many trophy cases outside new CHS athletic arena

Even though the program's basketball history is on display at the new school, all basketball enthusiasts will agree that you must take the 2 minute car ride up the road to Trout Gym because it’s the true mecca of Illinois high school basketball.  And until you visit it, your pilgrimage is not complete.

Sign hanging outside Trout Gym
Our family was thrilled to be given the luxury last year to enter Trout Gym, because in 2006 a new school and gym were built and as a result, the old school was sold to a local group, the doors were locked, and the lights were turned out in Trout Gym.  Although a story on Trout Gym is deserving for obvious reasons, it was a hidden gem that caught our eye before we entered the historic gym, that I had to write about.  Above the gym’s entrance, a colorful stained glass work of art is arranged to depict a Centralia player in motion, shooting the ball over his opponent.  But, it’s the message incorporated into the stained glass that left an everlasting impression with us. 

Stained glass window from the outside

In 1936, Trout Gym was built in the midst of the Depression as a project of the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works, which concentrated on the construction of large-scale public works such as schools, dams and bridges, with the goal of providing employment and contributing to a revival of American industry. Architect Frank Rixman designed the gymnasium in the WPA Moderne style, which was a popular style from 1925 through the 1940s. 

According to an article in Chicago Art Deco Society magazine's 2007 Spring and Summer edition, the stained glass panels were designed by Emo Fry and constructed by the St. Louis Art Glass Company. The influence of the Art Deco aesthetic is unmistakable in the side panels; the only known depiction of such a scene in stained glass. 
Players in motion and the Latin phrases

Although the stained glass is visible from the outside, it's positioned so you can view it while climbing the inside staircase leading to the balcony seating.   Most visitor’s eyes are immediately drawn to the players but a quick glance to their left and right and you will notice the Latin phrases: Mens sana in corpore sano and In omnia paratus. 

Mens sana in corpore sano translated means "a sound mind in a sound body", which can be construed to mean that only a healthy body can produce or sustain a healthy mind. Its most general usage is to express the concept of a healthy balance in one’s mode of life. The other phrase, In omnia paratus, translated means "prepared for all things", which is the desire to provide those with the skills they need to be successful in whatever they choose to do.  Also within the stain glass are various symbols represent standard curricula, including music, biology, athletics, etc. 

While speaking with one of the gym’s owners, we were told that legendary coach, Arthur Trout, had the large stain glass window installed because he believed in these values and taught his players to believe in them as well.  He felt that the combination of academics and athletics would make a student a well-rounded individual. 

It is only fitting that Illinois greatest high school gym has its own masterpiece for everyone to inspire to and see when entering this basketball museum of sorts.  Its message should be embedded into every basketball program across the nation because it was from these values, that Arthur Trout and his Orphans turned winning into an art.

Our family at Trout Gym

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Walk Down Memory Hall

As we walked up the ramp into the old Memorial Gymnasium in Lebanon, Indiana, I remember thinking, “If only these walls could talk."  A lot of basketball history was written in the gym, from successful teams to a Hall of Fame coach and a legendary player, to even one of the greatest set of free throws made in basketball history. From the excitement the gym has witnessed over the last 82 years, the walls would probably be speechless.

Basketball has been a staple in Lebanon as far back as when it was introduced to Indiana in the 1890’s.  Lebanon is part of the basketball region of Indiana referred to as the “Cradle of Basketball” because the first eight state champions came from a three-county, 30-mile radius. When Crawfordsville won the first Indiana high school state championship in 1911, it was Lebanon High School that they beat.  But it didn’t take long for Lebanon to write their own chapter into the Indiana basketball history books because a year later, in 1912, they took home their own state title and then two more in 1917 and 1918.  To honor these great Lebanon teams, the city built a new gymnasium.

Memory Hall, formally Memorial Gymnasium

In 1926, the 2200-seat Memorial Gymnasium would become home to the Lebanon Tigers until 1968. Its pale-yellow brick interior walls, horseshoe seating, and stage, make it one of the most appealing gyms that I have seen.  For decades, the community would fill the gym to watch their beloved Tigers, but in 1963, a certain player would launch a career that would later put college coaches in the bleachers and Lebanon on the nation’s basketball map.   

Rick "the Rocket" Mount played for Lebanon from 1962-66, where he led his team in scoring, including 33.1 ppg throughout his junior and senior seasons. On February 14, 1966, Mount became the first high school athlete to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.  His Senior year, he won the Indiana "Mr. Basketball" award and was named "USA Basketball Yearbook Player of the Year," given to the nation's best high school player. He finished his high school career with 2,595 points, currently the fourth highest total in Indiana high school history. Mount would attend Purdue University and become a 3-time All American.  Mount’s high school and Indiana Hall of Fame coach, Jim Rosenstihl, acknowledged that Rick is “naturally one of the greatest shooters to ever play the game”.  

As the excitement was fading in 1966, a new school and gym were being built on the east side of town.  After Memorial Gymnasium closed, it fell under authority of the Parks Department, which renamed the gym Memory Hall and leased the facility for some time to Ivy Tech and the YMCA.  Afterwards, there were periods of time that the gym set unused. 

According to the City of Lebanon's website, in 1831, the city was named Lebanon because a cluster of hickory trees on the site reminded one of the town's commissioners of the Biblical cedars of Lebanon.  It's only fitting that in 1985, another form of "hickory" would bring basketball fans back to Memory Hall.   It was Lebanon’s own, Memory Hall, that played the part of Jasper gym, the site of the Regional Finals in the movie Hoosiers.  The game is most remembered for its final seconds when Hickory manager, Ollie MacFarlane, is put into the game when the Huskers have no other players left.  After being fouled with only seconds left on the clock, he sinks two underhand free throws to win the game, sending the Huskers to the state finals and Memory Hall into movie history.  After the filming was completed, the gym would again go unused.

Memory Hall played the part of Jasper
In 1992, Lebanon's new mayor faced the prospect of demolitioning Memory Hall but instead made finding a use for the historical gym a top priority in his administration.  With help and state grants, the building was redeveloped as senior housing and the gym was restored as a fitness center, Lebanon Sports & Fitness, for the community.  So often, old gyms are demolished so it is uplifting to see a community fight to keep an old gym and its memories alive and use it for the greater good of the community.

Our time spent in Memory Hall was memorable, not only because we were able to play basketball in one of Indiana's historic gyms, but because of the stories we were told while touring it as well.  I am so glad the walls couldn't talk that day, because my family was given an even greater opportunity to hear the stories from non-other than Indiana basketball legend, Rick Mount himself.  And after listening to those stories, I'm speechless.

Visiting with Rick Mount