Note: This is the second part of the story, “The Night I Met Donald Trump at Shaq O’Neal’s 33rd Birthday Party.” PART 1 can be read here.
After zonked-out Tara Reid had to nearly be carried across the red carpet in front of the step-and-repeat banner, the parade of A- to D-list celebrities swarmed the media trough and boarded the “look at me” train.
Vivica A. Fox; “The View” co-hosts Star Jones and Al Reynolds; Miami Heat owner Micky Arison and President Pat Riley; Rapper Timbaland; Miami Heat teammates-Eddie Jones, Alonzo Mourning, and Dwayne Wade; Houston Rocket-Tracy McGrady; Chicago Cub-Sammy Sosa; Chicago Bear-Brian Uhrlacher, Oakland Raider-Ray Crockett, New York Met-Mike Piazza — the guest list went on and on. That’s who I remember seeing.
No surprise — Shaq won top prize for the “wow factor.” The guest of honor arrived at his party decked out in regal splendor, chauffeured in some futuristic-looking car so exotic it didn’t even have a brand name. Accompanied by his wife who was shorter than her husband by at least two feet, Shaq waltzed down the red carpet decked out in a bright-as-Tide white Zoot suit, his giant basketball-sized head topped off with a Panamanian-style fedora.
Celebrity events can be wildly unpredictable. You never know for sure who might show up, and perhaps more important, who will not show, despite accepting the earlier invite. That’s the danger of coaxing lots of media to attend and throwing a high -profile bash. If all the cameras and reporters show up, then it becomes essential to deliver on the goods. That means plenty of A-list celebrities.
Any remaining fears that the evening might turn into a clunker were put to rest when, out of nowhere, Donald Trump showed up with his entourage, along with his new wife, former model Melania. The Trumps were married just two months earlier in West Palm Beach, some 70 miles north of Miami. They still looked and behaved like newlyweds together. Their son Barron was born about a year later.
This was long before Trump had expressed any political aspirations. However, a new television show “The Apprentice” had debuted a year earlier on NBC which had already spawned a spin-off. The Trump name was hotter than the Manhattan commercial real estate market, and the cleverest con-man and carnival barker of them all was about to take full advantage of his swelling notoriety.
Newly married, with a hit-TV show in full production, his name plastered on consumer products from beef steaks to fancy hotels and golf courses — hell, he even had his own university! — Donald Trump was about to launch the mega-roll of a lifetime. Following more than a decade of ugly divorces, business collapses, bankruptcies, and embarrassing personal misfortunes, Trump was about to embark on the most remarkable personal marketing campaign ever witnessed in American politics and culture.
However, no one knew any of this way back on the balmy Miami evening of March 7, 2005 in South Beach.
He was still just Donald Trump, a.k.a. “The Donald,” there to pay his respects to Shaq O’Neal on the occasion of the NBA star’s 33rd birthday.
Parties attended by celebs are full of players, and by this I don’t mean the sporting kind. Everyone’s a player. Everyone has ulterior motives.
Well, maybe not Shaq and his immediate circle of teammates and “friends.” However, the people who go to all the trouble of fancying themselves up and attending such events do so for a variety of reasons — some personal and others professional. Perhaps it’s to make new contacts and/or re-establish relationships currently in the works. Maybe it’s to gold-dig a rich athlete into a paternity suit or better yet, marriage, which for some conspiring females amounts to cashing a lottery ticket. It might be a way for a nobody who aspires to be a somebody to get cheap publicity. Sometimes it’s just to giggle and gawk at the rich and famous.
At least I was paid to be there.
As the party’s official sponsor — make that co-sponsor, along with the surprise co-partnership of Hennessy — PokerStars.com was permitted to set up two live-action poker tables. Hopefully, the party guests would make their way over to compete for various prizes and charity gift certificates and we could get some good press out of all this. Like I said — ulterior motives.
Unfortunately, there was a huge problem right from the start.
Without any forethought by those put in charge of logistics, the two poker tables were positioned outdoors on the second-floor terrace next to a swimming pool overlooking the ocean. That might have been perfect for a poker game in the afternoon. But for games to be played much closer to midnight and later into the early morning perhaps, the night sky presented a huge problem.
No one could see their hole cards!
Making matters considerably worse, South Beach evenings are known for steady breezes off the ocean. This made each poker table a potential confetti machine. The flop would be put out, a gust of wind would suddenly blow off the waves, and the cards would go flying towards to pool.
Wait! I flopped a full house!
Too bad — misdeal!
Despite the hardships poor lighting, wind gusts, and flying cards, the poker games still proved to be a good draw. Trouble was, none of the celebrities were showing up. Sure, it was nice that lots of stargazers and broke nobodies wanted to play poker with us and compete for chip sets and schwag bags. But what was the whole point of spending $135,000 (plus expenses) as the host, if we couldn’t get the A-listers to come over and join the game for at least a couple of minutes?
That required Rich Korbin and I to get creative.
Rich and I made it a mission to work on the big two. That meant getting Shaq and Trump.
As manipulative as it all soudns, we had to get at least one photo of Shaq towering over the PokerStars.com table, confidently holding a poker hand, putting on a convincing shit sham that he was indeed having a total blast along with the PokerStars.com crew. Basically, that’s the real background of just about every publicity photo you will ever see. Fake. Staged.
Rich, you go get Shaq!
I’ll get Trump!
At this point, an argument broke out. Some public relations person who had been involved heavily in the pre-party planning approached. In a testy exchange, we expressed some considerable disappointment that the celebrities weren’t coming over to play poker.
Get us some celebrities!
The lady had sure talked a great game for weeks before, but come to find out — she didn’t really know Shaq from shit. She’d promised to deliver everyone from Kobe Bryant to Robert De Niro at this party, and she came up about four diamonds short of a flush. But, to her credit, we were drawing to a solid pair — Shaq and Trump.
“Where am I going to find Shaq in that crowd?” the PR lady asked. “There’s at least 500 people at this party.”
My reply was something to the effect — “Gee, I don’t know. Try looking for the 7′ 1″ Black guy dressed in white suit topped with a fedora.”
The xenostrobe flashing at Miami International Airport couldn’t have stood out any more than Shaq O’Neal in that room.
So, the PR lady worked her considerable talent on getting us Shaq. That left Rich and I to do some Trump trophy hunting.
The party downstairs had turned into a mob scene. Chaos. Security had apparently departed for the evening, and with the doors of a fully-functional hotel now wide open on a Saturday night, ass jokers were streaming in off the street, drawn like a steel to a magnet to the prospect of a free open bar and hanging out with a bunch of celebrities. You couldn’t move. Thick as flies on a rotting corpse.
Rich and I barreled our way through the crowd. To our quick surprise, we spotted Trump. He was standing off to the side near a wall, whispering something to Melania. Incredibly, no one seemed to be bothering Trump much, who appeared somewhat bored with what was happening. This was our big chance to nab a celebrity for the poker game.
Rich and I darted straight ahead for Trump when all the sudden what few lights were on inside the cavernous room went dim, and out of nowhere a spotlight appeared onto a makeshift stage close to where the Trumps were standing.
Boom boxes started blasting a rap song, bursting all but the most buttressed of eardrums, and then a sexy young woman dressed in a black evening dress stepped into the spotlight. The entire room was transfixed on the spectacle. Rich and I stopped dead in our tracks.
Cheering. Haaaaaaaaappppy 33rd birthday — Shaaaaaaaaaaaaaqqqqqqqqqqq!
Boom! Boom! Boom-boom-boom! Boom! Boom! Boom-boom-boom!
The pretty woman hoisted a violin onto her shoulder and launched into one of the most rousing displays of musical creativity I’ve witnessed. Come to find out later, the rapper was off to the side rapping live, and the woman joined impromptu into the makeshift duet with a staggering virtuoso of electric violin, superimposing a Vivaldi concerto layered brilliantly over the top of a bunch of indecipherable, but catchy lyrics. The classical violinist. The rapper. It was mayhem. It was also fantastic.
Shaq, the star and beloved birthday boy, was standing in the middle of the room some 15 feet away, bobbing his head up and down to the beat like a steady dribble. Within another minute or so, the music became infectious. Pretty soon, everyone’s head was bobbing to the beat like the wave. Rich’s head was bobbing to the beat. We looked over and Trump’s head was bobbing. Melania, too. Gee, this spectacle was great and all. But this music was shooting our poker plans all to shit.
After about 20 minutes, the performance was over and our prize catch was still swimming in the party pool. He had our hooks set. Trump was within sight.
I don’t remember if it was Rich or me who started with the small talk, which we both admittedly don’t like. Trump hates small talk too, from recent testimonials of his personality. Gee, I wish we’d just come right out and said what was really on our minds at the time — Mr. Trump….we need a favor….would you help us out for a couple of minutes? He’d likely have gone along. But instead, we wiggled through the usual conversational gymnastics trying desperately to get Trump to join the poker game upstairs. Trump politely declined.
I will say, and this comes as no surprise — Trump was cordial and even somewhat charming. One doesn’t get to that level without some degree of personal magnetism, and even though I didn’t like him even back then, he was a perfect gentleman. One might even say given his penchant for being famous, that he was (and is) naturally gifted at parties and in social engagements.
While Rich and I were congratulating the Trumps on their new marriage, a photographer appeared from nowhere and asked if we’d like a photo.
Rich and I aren’t exactly smitten with celebrities. However, the image of a couple of PokerStars.com guys hitched alongside Donald and Melania Trump would be a nice PR nick knack.
The grimy photographer didn’t seem very professional about his job and the way he was handling things. Presumably, he was going around the party, taking shots of famous people. He could have been a freelancer. He might have been paparazzi. He might have been off the street. Who knew?
I knew one thing. I had to get that photograph, no matter what it took. In the conniving world of modern marketing and PR, photos with famous people are currency.
To make certain I got the photo, I gave the photographer my business card, which listed my mailing address and telephone number. To guarantee the photo was sent, this required something a bit extra. So, I slipped him $100.
The photographer took a few photos. We all smiled and shook hands.
We never saw or heard from the photographer again.
To this day, there’s no actual evidence showing me meeting Donald Trump.
Well — at least, there should be evidence out there which shows that we finally got Shaq O’Neal to play poker. Right?
Uh, read on….
The PR lady had promised us Shaq. It was long past time to deliver. Now, it was close to 2 am and guests were starting to leave the party.
Shaq remained a no-show.
Pissed as hell and trying to figure out what we were going to say to higher ups at PokerStars.com, explaining why Shaq didn’t play poker that night despite paying the freight for the party, the NBA All Star was finally coaxed into coming outside by the pool. By this time, all the boundaries of security were long gone and Shaq was pretty much a moving target of anyone with bold enough to approach him for an autograph, or a photo, or a business idea, or a joke or any other mindless time-wasting augmentation of being a rich and famous celebrity.
Hey Shaq! Over here!
Look, it’s Shaq!
Shaq, my man!
Got a sec, Shaq? This will just take a second. My brother’s on the phone. He’s a big fan. Can you just say hello?
The PR lady made good on her promise and Shaq scurried his way over to the poker table with a trail of fan barnacles. The look on his face revealed this was the very last place he wanted to be at 2 am on his birthday, while his basketball buddies were downstairs partying their asses off. Even though we were in the midst of a Sit n’ Go, no one at the table cared about the interruption. Chips were fished out of the rack, and placed in front of Shaq like he was some Egyptian pharaoh.
Look! Shaq’s playing poker! Shaq’s playing poker! Go Shaq!
Within a few seconds, it became painfully obvious something was very wrong.
“What do I do now?” Shaq asked.
The dealer explained the action, that it was his decision to either call the bet, raise, or fold. Shaq didn’t have a clue what was going on. However, he’d apparently seen enough poker on television somewhere to move all-in. Shaq moved all-in.
Shaq’s raise was snap-called in two spots, and Shaq rolled over something like 9-4 off-suit. The board didn’t help, and Shaq was out of action in one hand.
I forgot if it was me, or Rich, or Brad Willis (who was blogging that night for PokerStars.com), but one of us yelled out, “Give Shaq more chips! Rebuy! Don’t let Shaq leave!”
Shaq was promptly given another fresh stack of chips. On the very next hand, the same thing happened. Shaq went broke.
Again, Shaq was given more chips and the Sit n’ Go suddenly had all the integrity of a rigged South American soccer match.
Three stacks into the game, and Shaq dying to split and go back to his party with pals Tracy McGrady and Alonzo Mourning, we suddenly realized that no one had a camera. This was a few years before smart phones came out, which enabled everyone with an instant camera-phone.
Where’s the photographer?!!! Where’s the photographer?!!!
Someone came to our rescue and quickly produced a camera, and Shaq was photographed shoehorned into the six seat, his giant 350-pound frame crushing a fragile metal folding chair, his mammoth size and stature overwhelming the felt while holding up two hole cards like he’s just drawn out on Johnny Chan heads-up for the world championship, pearly whites flashing brighter than his ivory suit.
High fives all around.
We got it! We finally got it! We got the photo with Shaq playing poker!
Now, twelve years later, I still have not seen that photo of Shaq playing poker — that elusive photo that essentially cost us $135,000 to get. But, that photo is floating out there somewhere. Somebody has it.
Cynicism is the final tumbling domino of broken illusions.
I’m betting if you surveyed those 500 or so people who attended Shaq’s 33rd birthday party that night, and queried them on who was the official sponsor, no more than 50 would have answered “PokerStars.com.” Perhaps 1 in 10. Hennessy probably would have polled only slightly better.
PokerStars.com might as well have handed out $20 bills on the streets of Downtown Miami. That would have been money wiser spent.
By 4 am, the party was done and we’d broken down the poker tables and put away the cards and chips. Time to leave. We were about to say our goodbye’s, until the next gig.
Then, out of nowhere, Rich Korbin appeared with a marketing idea.
“Have you ever heard of Katt Williams?” he asked.
No. Never heard of him. Rich explained to me that Katt was waiting for us downstairs. He wanted to meet both of us, interested in the prospect of receiving some kind of paid sponsorship with PokerStars.com. At the very least, Katt was interested in playing for the site, if we agreed to post the $10,000 entry fee to Main Event of the World Series of Poker, just three months away.
“It’s four fucking a.m.”
Rich, I must say, is on the ball. Always. 24/7. Somehow, he set up an impromptu meeting which was to take place in exactly 15 minutes, inside the hotel cafe, which was closed and completely dark.
Wait, we’re going to meet some aspiring stand-up comic right now at 4 in the morning, in a dark restaurant? After a party? Really? What the fuck?
So, Rich and I went downstairs and were met by Katt Williams and his sister, who served as his manager. The meeting lasted about 45 minutes.
Katt’s sister impressed the hell out of both of us. What a pistol. She was an astonishingly convincing marketer and pitch person. You couldn’t say no to her. Within just a few minutes, Rich and I might as well have been eating of out of her hand.
This meeting was a godsend. Admittedly, the rest of the evening had produced mixed results. However, we were ready to sign Katt that instant. ON. THE. SPOT. He was young. He was edgy. And, he was Black, which might sound racially biased, but from marketing standpoint — which should focus on the future rather than the past — was a noteworthy diversion from the usual sponsored poker players and celebrities made up pretty much of white bread. He was also extremely polite and couldn’t have been more impressive, in person. Then and there, Rich and I knew instantly that Katt Williams was going somewhere in show biz. Within just a few years, Katt Williams was appearing in his own HBO specials.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t get PokerStars.com to sign Katt to a sponsorship. That was a huge disappointment to us. The decision to pass on Katt was one of the few marketing mistakes our company made during my years I was with them.
No worries. Katt ended up doing pretty well on his own, without the help of PokerStars.com.
Katt Williams even appeared in a comedy special a few years later, “Friends with Shaq,” the friendship likely bonded that night in South Beach.
That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
Revealing my own complicit behavior in going along with the sham, here’s how I was quoted in the official party press release which was distributed the next day to all media via PR Newswire:
“We were thrilled to be invited to join Shaq’s friends and family for this intimate gathering,” said Nolan Dalla, Director of Communications for PokerStars.com. “It was a great way for us to come together with many of our celebrity poker fans and wish someone who continues to give us year after year of truly memorable basketball a very happy birthday. We were thrilled with the turnout, which included so many great athletes and celebrities.”