Kayce Ataiyero, 35, is the original (and likely only) daily newspaper reporter turned minor-league basketball general manager. Prior to her tenure with the Chicago Steam, she spent time at the Philadelphia Inquirer, the News & Observer in Raleigh, and the Chicago Tribune, where she covered the infamous R. Kelly trial. If the concession staff happens to bail on a Steam home game, don’t be surprised to find her slinging hot dogs. —Kevin Warwick
The Inquirer was my first job out of college. I did political reporting, municipal stuff. I covered 9/11. The pilot of the second plane, Victor Saracini, lived in Lower Makefield, one of the communities I covered.
It was strange, because the night before I was in Boston interviewing at the Globe, and I almost missed my flight out. I was the last flight out on September 10 and that was back before all the TSA security stuff when you could run through an airport and not be shot. I was booking through the airport and ran up to the gate and was like, “Please, please let me on.” I had to go back to work the next morning. They were getting ready to close the door. I was that close.
From Philadelphia I went to North Carolina and worked at the News & Observer. A lot of weird crimes go on in the south. I did a story on a teenager who killed his parents because they wouldn’t let him go to the prom or a prom party, and he kept them in the house and stayed in the house with them for two weeks or something. It’s one of these things where it can be absolutely depressing, but just seeing how the legal system works is fascinating.
One case I had there was a guy who was suspected in this woman’s disappearance about seven or eight years prior, Deborah Leigh Key. I always remember the names. She had gone out to a local bar with a group of friends. It was an artsy, sort of eclectic group. They usually made sure each other got home but this one night she had started chatting up this guy at the bar and her friends left. Next morning her car’s still there, purse, keys. She’d vanished. No body was ever found.
I came here in ’05. I was at the Trib a little less than five years. I started out in the Schaumburg bureau and it was actually a really cool gig. I covered the R. Kelly trial. To sit and watch porn in open court is a very bizarre experience, mainly to look at the people’s faces while they’re not trying to react. I remember during the jury questioning the defense attorneys were asking a woman what her impression was: “Do you know the defendant? Have you heard of him? Do you listen to his music?” She says, “Well, I think he’s kind of dumb because I read that he couldn’t read.” He looked heartbroken.
I don’t know if you’ve been in the 26th and California courthouse, but the acoustics are weird. A lot of cool judges would let you sit in the jury box, so you could actually hear. Most of the reporters were sitting very close to [R. Kelly], talking about the VMAs where Britney Spears had her big comeback. He was just cracking up. He was totally into our conversation.
[CEO and co-owner of the Chicago Steam] Ron Hicks and I have been friends for a while. I’ve always been a basketball fan. When I was in junior high I was the stats keeper for our boys’ basketball team. I was really into the sport in high school—and I fell in love with the Fab Five from Michigan. I still remember how my heart just ripped open when [Chris Webber called the time-out]. I let out this primal scream, and my mom runs in and I’m like, “We don’t have any more time-outs! We don’t have any more!”
I was there when the [North Carolina Tar Heels] won the title, and it was amazing. That’s a great basketball country. You’ve got UNC, Duke, NC State, Wake Forest. It’s like the best place in the world to be a basketball fan. And when UNC is playing nothing happens, no phones ring. We’d all be sitting in the newsroom watching the game because nobody’s calling you back.
Ron started the [Chicago Steam] in ’07, and the following year I started helping out—just coming to the games as a fan. I love minor-league basketball for the same reason I love college ball: the players are hungry. Maybe they didn’t have the best college careers and want a chance to pursue that pro dream, or maybe they were drafted and it didn’t work out. The NBA is great but they’ve all arrived. A lot of our guys go overseas or get picked up by the D-League. We’ve had about three dozen guys in the history of the team that have gone to play overseas. A lot of people, particularly in the U.S., don’t know how competitive basketball is overseas. You go to some countries and it’s a huge sport and guys are making really good money. Stephon Marbury’s getting like a million dollars a year playing in China, and that’s just his base salary. He’s got shoe deals and drink deals. China is the next frontier for pro basketball.
We’ve really been growing in attendance. This year we’re shooting for 6,700. We’ve typically averaged about 3,000-4,000. We had an exhibition/scrimmage game yesterday, kind of kicking some tires on some guys that are trying to make the team.
We’ve had [former NBA player] Sam Houston, Arthur Agee [of Hoop Dreams]. It’s not uncommon to have a guy come here, play a couple games, have great stats, and have a team call and say they want to hire him. Our biggest asset is Ron, who was a former player himself overseas. He played for 15 years all over, so he has a network of contacts with teams and scouts. He does a really good job of putting out feelers for guys and keeping a pipeline of job opportunities so that our guys have a shot at making it.
This was and is his baby. He started this at Dolton Rec Center with one basketball, no jerseys. Even as a lifelong basketball fan I didn’t appreciate how complex the business is. There have been a lot of minor league basketball teams that have come through Chicago, and a lot of them don’t last. It’s a lot of moving parts, and we’re in Chicago competing with half a dozen pro sports teams, and a dozen minor league and college teams. I am responsible for supervising staff and players and handling payroll and other business-end issues. Titles are great but you just do what needs to be done. Maybe I’ll go to practice and have to carry balls or something like that. It just depends.
There was one day I went to a game and his concession staff didn’t show up. I’m like, “OK, I can fix hot dogs.” It’s nothing I ever thought I’d be doing with my life, but I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t doing this.