It’s 60 degrees for the first time in what feels like four months. It’s St. Patrick’s Day, 5 o’clock in the afternoon in the heart of Manhattan. People are bathed in green and booze and I’m frolicking around Rockefeller Plaza dressed in an $8,000 blackbird outfit. And I’m having the time of my life!
No, really. The anonymity, the undying attention from young and old and the license to be a total buffoon all led to an exhilarating turn as the Long Island University Blackbird, which — by the way — included an appearance on NBC’s “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.”
The story of how I came across such good fortune starts on an icy Mattituck day two Decembers ago. On that chilly morning, I told my publisher and fellow staffers that after a whirlwind year as an editor at Times/Review Newspapers and a fulfilling 18 years in journalism I had accepted a job as public relations director of Long Island University’s Brooklyn Campus.
I settled in pretty quickly at my new post, publicizing such key events as the campus’ commencement ceremonies and the George Polk Awards in Journalism, which are administered by the university. During the winter of 2010, the men’s basketball team, the Blackbirds, struggled to win as many games as they lost. March Madness seemed light years away from downtown Brooklyn.
But when the wins started to pile up for LIU this year, I took notice. I started attending games. I brought my kids, and my wife. Heck, even my teenage daughter’s boyfriend came to Brooklyn for a game.
When LIU earned a berth in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 14 years, the school bathed in free publicity. The biggest media coup may have been Jimmy Fallon’s adoption of LIU as his 2011 NCAA tournament team. The Blackbirds were featured in “Late Night” skits for three straight nights, leading up to the Blackbirds’ second-round game against North Carolina in Charlotte. I made it my mission to get the school’s mascot on the show.
Convincing Fallon’s producers to invite the bird was an easy sell, though they said it needed to happen Thursday night. This presented a bit of a logistical nightmare, considering the costume needed to be in Charlotte on Friday and the student who wears the costume was in Orlando, Fla., until Friday. The understudy Blackbird was somewhere in Myrtle Beach for spring break.
“The Blackbird has a reputation to uphold. We can’t just let anyone wear it,” an LIU associate athletic director told me, before suggesting, “You might laugh, Brian. But do you want to do it?”
Roughly five minutes later, my DVR was set to record Channel 4 at 12:30 a.m. Friday. It was all a “go” after Pete Tymus, a campus administrator and diehard Blackbirds fan, committed to meeting me after the show and driving the suit to Charlotte to meet its rightful wearer for the big game.
Before I knew it, it was mid-afternoon Thursday and I was in a “Late Night” dressing room, struggling to squeeze into the Blackbird. Aside from the giant feet, the body part of the suit was tolerable.
It was the mascot’s giant head that posed the problem. Peripheral vision was, well, not very peripheral, while not really being able to see up or down was clearly going to be an issue due to the fact that I had to jog up the studio stairs high-fiving audience members.
An hour later, I was in full gear, standing in the dark behind a giant curtain and waiting for my cue to hit the stage. In my skit, three contestants from the audience were playing a game in which one of the prizes was a high-five from the LIU Blackbird. “You’re on! Go to No. 2! No. 2!” shouted the director backstage, after Fallon excitedly told Contestant No. 2 it was her lucky day.
I bounded into the studio and became awash in bright light. Spreading my black wings, I waved to the audience and hopped around a bit before remembering I had to find “No. 2.”
I looked right, spotted her and hurried over, but just before our high-five, the ground shifted under one of my feet. In order to avoid a complete flop, the high-five became a hang-on for dear life. I held the woman’s hand high for a moment as I regained my bearings. After letting go and locating the stairs, I tilted my beak up, gazed into the crowd and decided to slow down the pace, for I had never seen so many people so happy to see me. The high-fives evolved into hugs. Near the top of the steps, I became trapped in a delirious group hug.
I broke away before doing a quick little dance at the top of the stairs, and then I was gone.
But taping the Fallon show was merely Act I of my Blackbird odyssey. A Daily News photographer was waiting outside NBC Studios to take my picture in Rockefeller Plaza.
Once outside, I wasn’t hard to find. I was the giant Blackbird posing for a picture between the two blondes from France, then standing alongside a brunette with sparkly shamrock tattoos on her cheeks. Youngsters wanted to meet me, too, and a grandmother with a Spanish accent.
After a dozen or so impromptu photo shoots, it was time to turn back into Brian. The Blackbird had a date in Charlotte and his ride was parked on 50th Street.
Lucky for me, I was going to Charlotte, too, flying south to watch the real-life Blackbirds take on mighty North Carolina. Despite playing with tremendous grit and heart, undersized LIU fell to the Tar Heels 102-87.
I hadn’t had such fun with the NCAA tournament since 2009, when I ran the office pool at Times/Review in Mattituck. That year, I drafted a newsletter after each round, noting who was winning and assigning silly nicknames to the participants. Some names were related to basketball, i.e. Julie “Three Seconds in the” Lane, The Suffolk Times reporter who won the pool that year. Others were hardly related to hoops, namely “Pardon me, sir. Do you have any” Grant Parpan, now the company’s web editor.
Going back to running office pools during the tournament will be bittersweet. I already miss being the Blackbird.
Brian Harmon is a former Times/Review managing editor and Suffolk Times editor. He lives in Medford.