Twelve years ago tonight, I met Donald Trump at the most unlikely of affairs — former NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal’s 33rd birthday bash in Miami Beach.
Why was I invited? I have no connections to the NBA or Miami’s hipster social scene. I hate going to parties. And, hanging out with celebrities is way overrated.
Well, I wasn’t invited to Shaq’s party, exactly. But I did fly all the way across the country. I stayed the entire evening. I also hung out with celebs including Shaq O’Neil, future President Donald Trump, and a young up-and-coming comedian who shall be mentioned later.
I’m writing about this story for the first time.
Two months earlier, right after New Years, I was at the Sea World park in San Diego on a family vacation. Miami Beach, Shaq O’Neal, and Donald Trump were 3,000 miles away, but might as well have been somewhere on the moon — for all I cared.
That’s when my cell phone rang.
The voice on the other end informed me about a potential marketing and public relations opportunity for the company I was working for at the time. In addition to my annual seasonal work at the World Series of Poker, I also worked full-time for PokerStars.com, serving as their Director of Communications. Those were exciting days to be working in poker, when we all had money to burn and the sky was the limit.
For the princely sum of $135,000 PokerStars.com had the chance to be the “official sponsor” for Shaquille O’Neal’s 33rd birthday party. That figure amounted to pocket change for Isai Scheinberg, PokerStars.com’s enterprising founder and then-owner/CEO. Shaq’s party was certain the be the social event of early 2005, even going so far as to generate national attention, especially in the sports and entertainment media. O’Neal was then at the top of his game. He’d just left the Los Angeles Lakers where he won an NBA title, signed as a free agent with the Miami Heat where he joined legendary head coach Pat Riley. He’d lead them to their first world championship the following year.
O’Neal wasn’t just a basketball player. He was a superstar. He appeared in movies and was one of the most recognizable athletes in the world.
$135,000 sure sounded like a bargain.
Sponsoring the birthday bash meant paying for the mega-party which was to be held on ritzy South Beach, on the night after the Heat played a home game in Miami in early March. Everyone who was anyone was invited and expected to attend. This party included a stellar guest list certain to generate lots of publicity and perhaps even some much-needed goodwill with numerous celebrities. TMZ would even be there, their cameras rolling, just in case anything wild happened.
After a follow-up conversation with Dan Goldman (PokerStars.com’s Director of Marketing) and Isai, we jumped at the chance to host Shaq’s party.
This wasn’t just about poker. This was Creative Branding 101. This was being hip. This was being at the center of the scene where much of our player demographic wanted to be. We were about to entertain the most popular sports stars in America, numerous A-List celebrities, and one brash New York real estate developer who a dozen years later would become the 45th President of the United States.
What could go wrong?
In early 2005, PokerStars.com ranked the second-largest online poker site in the world. The site was raking in millions, remarkable since at the time there were no more than about 200 employees worldwide. The site might as well have been a mint. PokerStars.com was printing money.
But for Isai, and his son Mark (who was just as instrumental in building the site and creating the empire that was to come), ranking second was totally unacceptable. We knew our software was superior to the game design used by industry kingpin, PartyPoker.com. We knew our customer service was top notch in the industry, out hustling every other company in the gaming sector, including the land-based casinos which might as well have been living in the previous century. We knew that our top management was genuinely driven by something more than just making money and was run by dedicated poker people who knew the game backwards and forwards and were clued into what players wanted in a poker experience.
The push was on to become the number one poker site in the world, both in terms of daily traffic and reputation. Sponsoring non-gambling mainstream events like Shaq’s birthday party was yet another way to try and legitimize our company — which despite our best efforts — was still tainted as a shady gambling company based someplace that might as well have been Outer Mongolia, and therefore was quasi-legal.
Of course, no one gave this financial shakedown a second thought. The irony of multi-millionaire athletes, presumed billionaire financiers, and movie stars having their personal entertainment paid for by an outside company was preposterous.
We’d all jumped the shark. This was cultural insanity.
Shaq’s birthday party took place at the swanky Hotel Victor, a refurbished Art Deco percolator for Miami’s “in crowd,” where South Beach’s thriving gay scene intersected with local elite. Think of the movie — “Birdcage.” A few years earlier, fashion icon Gianni Versace had been gunned down just steps away from the main entrance to Hotel Victor.
Rich Korbin and I became the chosen ones. We were plucked to play the role of party hosts, representing the official sponsor — PokerStars.com. My qualifications for this role were suspect, at best. However, Rich was essential to the operation.
Rich was known as the man to get things done at Stars. “The fixer” has a bad connotation. But if we had a fixer, it was Rich. He made things happen, and it was usually best not to ask about details. We didn’t want to know. When we’d ship stuff to events and ran into the Teamsters Union, and we needed our freight moved before everyone else’s shit got rained on at the loading docks, Rich greased the wheels and got us set up before everyone else. When it came time to negotiating a new deal with a supplier playing had ball on the contract, Rich ball-busted the shit out of them. That was Rich’s talent. “The Art of the Deal” should have been written by Rich Korbin.
Rich also seemed to have connections just about everywhere. So, he hired a handful of local poker dealers based around Miami to pitch cards all night. We planned on running two poker tables non-stop as long as they’d let us run the games. Given the legal restrictions against gambling and the precious time demands of party guests, we agreed it was best to run something called Sit n’ Go’s. That’s basically a small tournament of 9-10 players, usually lasting not more than 30-40 minutes. We expected to give away thousands of dollars in prizes. Hopefully, the media would stick around and we’d get some “free” promotion for PokerStars.com, which would only end up costing us closer to $160,000 with all the extras added in.
Who knows — maybe Rich and I might even make TMZ.
Sometime around 30 years ago, an unknown marketeer saw a tremendous opportunity in the mundane. Take a closer look at old movie newsreels of athletes and celebrities. When out in public back in those days, famous people up through the end of the 1970’s were almost always interviewed while bunched up in crowds along with other people hanging out in the background. Entertainment and sports media lacked much in the way of commercialization. There were no logos. Corporations didn’t dabble in what later became known as — entertainment marketing.
Then, at some point during the “Greed is Good” 1980’s, a marketing maven somewhere who likely never got proper credit (more fittingly, the blame) for the idea saw lots of precious media real estate being wasted and decided to change every aspect of how pop culture is covered in the modern age. And so, that’s how the “Step and Repeat” banner got invented. When the person of the focus took a step, the logo was imagery repeated over both shoulders. It didn’t matter where the celebrity stood or the position of the head and face. There was the logo behind. Note that’s how the banner got its name.
Today, you can’t watch a soccer game or see an interview with a movie star on television without absorbing a corporate logo plastered somewhere on the screen. The Step and Repeat banner is now used everywhere, in all sports and major media events. After a ball game, athletes are interviewed with corporate logos emblazoned in the background. Now, even parties have the unremitting Step and Repeat banner in the background, and Shaq’s Miami bash was no exception.
Our banner that was special made that evening included logos from PokerStars.com and — much to my shock when I initially saw it — Hennessy, the brand of cognac which has a reputation for being a favorite of hipsters.
What in the hell was Hennessy doing on our Step and Repeat banner? We paid a premium for that space!
That was the first time I’d seen Hennessy was involved in our party. I’d been led to believe PokerStars.com had an exclusive on the marketing. Gee, I wonder if Hennessy had to fork over $135,000 for their role as the “official sponsor?” Err, make that — “co-sponsor.” Something seemed dirty about this deal. Of course, this is how those deals work. It’s standard practice. This is the bait and switch game, and companies fall for it — hook, line, and sinker — every time.
Still, if we were going to share media exposure, then I suppose we could do a helluva’ lot worse than being connected to Hennessy. Poker and a premium liquor — that’s a coveted pairing. Fortunately, we didn’t have to share the limelight with chewing tobacco, or tires, or worse — an insurance company. Thank you, Geico — for presumably not returning the phone call or we might have been paired with that green lizard.
That night, the Miami Heat defeated the Philadelphia 76ers 108-100. That was a good thing. We didn’t want the Heat to lose, which might have cast a spell over the jovial expectations of Shaq’s birthday party. Winning basketball players are happy basketball players. Oh, and thank goodness the game didn’t go into double-overtime, which could wrecked the evening.
Sometime around 9 pm, Tara Reid was among the first celebrities to show up on the red carpet and walk the Step and Repeat, which marked the glitzy entrance to Hotel Victor. Reid was either so drunk or so stoned off her ass that she had to be helped up the ramp to walk. She was a hot mess.
Limos and Bentleys and Rolls Royces pulled up in front at the red carpet and one by one the celebrities paraded like pretty people in front of the cameras. I worked the red carpet “line,” making sure the dozens of media outlets got the shots they needed while making certain no celebs were held up for too long by any one photographer or interviewer. My mission was to keep the line flowing steadily, getting the shots, and making sure the celebrities weren’t overwhelmed.
My career had been reduced to an ass-kissing enabler.
Coming Next in Part 2: Meeting Trump and Playing Poker with Shaq