A sensational event year after year, Waiting For Next Year was lucky to become a sponsor of the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission this year, enabling various writers the opportunity to be at the 2012 main event both as attendees and media members. And boy was it a hoot.
Taking place as always at the Renaissance Hotel downtown, Thursday night’s event again hosted more than 1,250 people, including some of the biggest names in Cleveland sports. It was the place to be on a very Cleveland-esque cold night: Placed strategically in between Cavaliers home games, the event strives to gather together the stars for a night of auction items, award presentations and fine dining.
This year’s engaging host was ESPN Radio’s Scott Van Pelt, who began by first mentioning how he had always dreamed of making it over to Cleveland in January. He then poked fun at himself for the mix-up that led to Erin Andrews hosting in his place last winter. “This ain’t EA, this is all you get,” he joked. “I’m your player to be named later.”
SVP said last year’s snafu was an honest mistake; he simply had gotten the date confused in conversations with a Sports Commission trustee. He said he felt awful once he had seen reports on the Internet that he was coming for the 2011 event.
But no fear, Van Pelt’s long-awaited arrival was well worth the wait. As emcee, he weaved in and out of jabs about Cleveland’s sports misery, intellectual/snarky comments about the presenters, hopeful lines about the city’s blue-collar lifestyle and sincere remarks about how impressed he was about the huge turnout. His best line was “your moment’s coming Cleveland” about the city’s constant WFNY-mentality. It’d be hard to imagine a better, more natural host than the great radio guy for such a big awards show.
Speaking of the awards and the prominent attendees, let’s tackle the rest in some bullets.
- Without a doubt, the biggest character of the night was none other than the legendary Don King. Dressed in his finest patriotic jean jacket filled with dozens of political buttons, while always clutching to a variety of flags, the Cleveland native was in his finest form both as a socialite and award presenter. The boxing icon attracted crowds everywhere he went; one event volunteer said it took them two hours to move him out of the cocktail reception area and into the main ballroom. Whenever he could get an ear to listen, King rambled about politics, President Obama’s recent inauguration speech and, only occasionally when prodded, how he was proud to be back in the “great city” of Cleveland. It’s amazing King’s act still remains as lively as ever — even at age 81.
- Yet, the main story of the night was the big day for Kyrie Irving, who, of course, still doesn’t turn 21 for another two months. Just about 90 minutes after watching TNT at home when he was named as an NBA All-Star, Irving received the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission’s Pro Athlete of the Year award for 2012. He beat out other finalists Phil Dawson, 14-year Browns kicker, and his Cavs teammate Anderson Varejao. On stage with head coach Byron Scott and general manager Chris Grant, Irving said, “This is truly an honor. I’m really happy right now.” Backstage after earning the honor, I asked Irving what it meant to be recognized by his community along with his other news of the day. “Getting Professional Athlete of the Year in Cleveland was just like a cherry on top,” Irving said. “Honestly, this has been a good day. I can really say that, this has been one of the best days of my life.”
- The whole fun of attending this event is being able to mingle with the Cleveland sports icons. And boy, can it be easy to spot some of those folks in a crowd, quite obviously for many because of their height. Whether it was Austin Carr, Larry Nance, Hanford Dixon, Greg Pruitt, Brad Sellers, Eric Metcalf, Urban Meyer or Mike Vrabel, it was just a joy to be able to sit back in the reception while all these legends walked past on all sides. Heck, you can even lump the mascots into this category. Represented in the mascot column were the following teams: Lake County Captains, Lake Erie Monsters, Cleveland Browns, Cleveland Cavaliers and Cleveland Indians. I think Slider still gets my nod as an all-time favorite, yet kudos to LC’s Skipper for being quite the charmer in the crowd.
- Also in attendance: Several front-office executives from all of the teams. I already mentioned Grant, who along with Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III each presented awards on the evening. Browns CEO Joe Banner also was spotted at his dinner table, while Indians VP of Player Development Ross Atkins and President Mark Shapiro of the Indians each were conversing with fans throughout the evening. Before the dinner, I had a chance to meet the Browns owner and his wife Dee, and ask about the meaning of this event for the organization’s community outreach efforts. “It’s important for the Browns and our family to be involved in this community,” said Haslam, who was customarily wearing his usual blue shirt and orange tie. “It’s important for people to get to know [the new coaches]. This community supports our team unbelievably and it’s important we give back at things like tonight.”
- If you’re into these kinds of things, the lineup of the auction items was truly outstanding last night. There were five heavily-advertised premium items: A trip to the 2014 Super Bowl, a trip to the 2014 BCS National Championship and a travel package to Nemacolin resort were the coolest ones, but all five went for at least a couple grand. On the tables, there were unique prizes in the entertainment field — such as a signed Michael Jackson jacket — and boat loads of anything you could possibly imagine in the sports world. From a signed Urban Meyer photo to the STO dugout package at Progressive Field and even a Kevin Durant signed jersey, man, there would have been countless things I’d be bidding on if I only had a spare $500-plus. The ultimate prize then was the Golden Ticket, a $100 raffle where only 300 tickets were sold with the winner, Mike Corfias, claiming two season tickets to the Browns, Indians and Cavs. Looks like this also will be around at next year’s awards show too.
- Back to the awards: Olympic gold medalist Tianna Madison Bartoletta won Amateur Athlete of the Year, Kent State University baseball won College Athlete honors and Mentor QB Mitch Trubisky was the year’s top high school star. Best moment of the year was that nutty 57-56 triple-overtime Mentor-St. Ignatius football game from November. The three previously announced recognitions were local hockey executive Chris Wilk for the Sports Development Gold Medalist Award, long-time Browns player/broadcaster Doug Dieken for the Lifetime Achievement Award and 14-year-old cancer survivor Molly Miller for the Cleveland Clinic’s Courage Award. The cancer-related tragedy of Miller’s father recently was featured in an article by the Plain Dealer’s Tom Reed because of his childhood friendship with new Browns coach Rob Chudzinski. After presenting the award, Chudzinski said to the media that “it was a special award to me personally and a real privilege for me to be able to present that award to Molly. … She’s a special young lady.”
So there you have it folks. It was a treat being there yesterday with Rick, Scott, TD and our awesome photographer Jon Cole. We’re especially proud to have been in the media room this year, although we’ve been covering the event dating back to the 2008 event in January 20091 Now, it just feels officially official. And that back-page ad in the program certainly was pretty nice too.
We look forward to hopefully seeing many of you there next year. And stay tuned soon for more content from my incredible opportunity at the always-amazing Greater Cleveland Sports Awards.
(Photo: Jon Cole/WFNY)