Part entertainer, part wild man, meet the professional fan (cont.)
Like his job, the life of Cameron Hughes is anything but normal. It's a road trip that never ends. An iPhone tethers him to the rest of the world. On-the-job injuries such as sprained ligaments, a concussion and dehydration have hospitalized him without workman's compensation. His knees are shot, and his pretty good tenor voice now sounds like the back end of a '68 Dodge Dart. He reminds himself that he performs for the love of the game and the affection of the fans, and the money isn't bad either. But while the Knicks paid him a pile on Christmas Day 2010 to act up during a game against the Celtics, he would have preferred to be at home with his family -- if he had a home or a family.
He has neither a fixed residence nor a car. If the team that hires him doesn't cover his lodging, he finds a motel or a friend's couch. All of his possessions fit in a couple of oversized hockey bags.
When he was 17 he watched his mother lose a brutal two-year battle with breast cancer. "What do you do when you lose the closest person to you in the world?" he says. "You get up. You take what they taught you and you figure it out."
He went from one therapist's couch to the next and was in and out of his high school guidance counselor's office. By the next year he'd decided it was time to make a change, to try to fill the emptiness his mother's death had left. So he ran for senior class president. And won. But to him the position meant more than having veto power over the new chicken patty recipe in the school's cafeteria. It meant he'd gained the approval of his peers.
"My mother's message was about how to connect with people," Hughes says. "I care a lot about people. I want everyone to like me, because everyone liked my mom."
Prudential Center, Newark: The New York Liberty has hired Hughes to rile up its fans in a game against the Indiana Fever, the Liberty's last before the WNBA playoffs. It's Sept. 4, the night after the Djokovic match at the U.S. Open. A sparse crowd of some 6,000 is scattered throughout the Prudential Center, the home of the New Jersey Devils and Nets and, while Madison Square Garden is being renovated, the Liberty.
A Devils maintenance guy recognizes Hughes as he walks in. "Hey, you coming back this year?" the man asks. "We need you. It was like a funeral in the stands this year, bro."
The Liberty's senior dance team, the Timeless Torches, has occupied Hughes's dressing room, so he is left with a folding chair and a collapsible banquet table in a room where screaming children run circles around him. In prioritizing the night's talent, arena managers bumped Hughes in favor of the AARP-card-carrying hoofers. Fuming, he opens his gym bag, which is stuffed with multicolored Reebok Pumps. "I have about 20 different pairs," he says. "I try to coordinate with the team's colors." Like any sports professional, he's got a shoe contract with Reebok. Well, kind of. A company rep saw him years ago and put him on the freebee list.
Hughes wraps Ace bandages around his tender ankles. He puts on headphones, blasts music into his ears and sinks to the floor. He takes deep breaths and then starts shaking violently. It's Lamaze class meets P90-X. The breaths become louder, a cacophony of grunts, as he does pushups and sit-ups, shifts into a downward dog pose and then starts shaking and squirming on the floor like a man in epileptic shock. Sweat puts a shine on his face. Now he's in front of his vanity mirror, watching his reflection as he runs in place, his fists shooting into the air as he screams in time to the music. Soon he's out of breath, and the game hasn't even begun.
Finally Hughes slips out into the arena and moves incognito into position. In minutes he is on his feet, and, as he did the night before, he puts the crowd in his pocket. For the next couple hours he has kids keeled over in laughter. A 300-pound woman gets up and shakes her groove thing, and Hughes shakes his own while wearing a Liberty T-shirt tied tightly around his forehead: Carrot Top meets Rambo. Just as the game draws to a close, Hughes unties the improvised bandanna, ceremoniously wipes the sweat pouring off his face and tosses the shirt toward a middle-aged man accompanied by his wife and children. The drenched garment lands smack on the man's face. He and his family laugh for the next 15 minutes. Their night is complete.
As entertained as Hughes makes most crowds feel, not everyone has given him a standing ovation. At a Devils game last winter, a man upbraided him for wearing a Devils sweater not out of allegiance to the team but for the $2,000 Hughes is paid per game. If security hadn't rushed in to restrain the belligerent man, he and Hughes would have come to blows. More threats came from other Devils fans later in the form of obscenity-laced e-mails, some threatening Hughes' life.
"The diehard fans, after they realize I'm getting paid, get a little upset," says Hughes. "[But I'm like] Bono or Chris Martin touring; one night they're in Cleveland and next night they're in Boston, and they put on the Cavs jersey one night and the Bruins jersey the next. What's the difference between me and a board that says, make noise? At least I'm a human being.
"My allegiance is to the fans. The better I perform, the more likely the fans are to have fun, the more likely the team is to make money, the more likely they are to bring me back ... and the more likely I am to not have to get a normal job."
Canada Hockey Place, Vancouver: So the Liberty in Newark was not Hughes' career high point. No, it was 3.2 beer; the vintage champagne was the 2010 Winter Games. The International Olympic Committee lined up Canada's native son to perform at 25 hockey games, both men's and women's, including the men's gold medal showdown between the U.S. and Canada. Despite his nationality, Hughes was supposed to be impartial. He was to unleash his inner Switzerland.
"I was like an athlete," he recalls. "I had a nutritionist help devise a plan for me to be in top shape. We focused on snacks, breathing, water, exercise and sleeping. I was on a vitamin regimen. I didn't drink alcohol for two months. I was so focused. My goal was to make it to the gold-medal game no matter what happened. And I did."
Martin Brodeur, the goalie for Team Canada and the Devils, has become one of Hughes' biggest fans. In Vancouver during timeouts, Brodeur watched through the bars of his mask as Hughes sprinted up and down the arena stairs, pulling fans out of their seats to start synchronized clapping. Despite the diverse nationalities of the fans, Hughes proved that the language of cheering is universal. To Brodeur, Hughes' act was as infectious as it was endearing.
"That crazy guy has always brought a special smile to me and my kids' faces," Brodeur says. "He always adds to the atmosphere and the experience."
After the gold medal game all of Hughes's hard work was validated near the players' locker room. "I was out of breath, dead tired," he remembers. "Marty saw me keeled over on a bench and came up and told me I was one of the MVPs of the game. I'll never forget that night."