HOUSTON — It was a one-on-one half-court game mostly for charity and some for bragging rights. But not long into the slow-moving action between ABC late night host Jimmy Kimmel and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, it was clear neither had much to brag about when it came to basketball prowess.
The pair dribbled the ball and bumped each other quite a bit. And they shot quite a bit. But they didn't do a whole lot of scoring. In fact, what was supposed to be a first-to-15-points game was shorted to first to 11, "in the spirit of bipartisanship," Kimmel announced when both were firing more air balls than slam dunks.
When it ended, what bragging rights there were belonged to Cruz. He won 11-9.
The contest, a product of some smack-talking between the comedian and politician that happened during the recent NBA playoffs when Kimmel questioned both Cruz's basketball prowess and his knowledge.
"The reason this is happening is because after Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, I likened Sen. Cruz to a blobfish, and he did not like that likening so he challenged me to a game of one-on-one," Kimmel told his TV audience when the showdown was announced.
They agreed to meet for a half-court game on the campus of Texas Southern University, a historically black university in the shadow of the Houston skyline. Each chose a favorite charity, and even though admission was free, those who showed up were asked to donate to a worthy cause.
Kimmel's charity was Texas Children's Hospital; Cruz donated to Generation One, which bills itself as a "transdenominational ministry."
Crowds began filing into the university's Health and Physical Educational Arena in the center of campus about three hours before the 5 p.m. start time. It appeared a little more than half of the 8,100 seats in the arena were filled by game time.
For Cruz, a Republican seeking his second six-year term in the Senate, it was a mix of home-court advantage and a trip into hostile territory. The several homes in the diverse neighborhood surrounding the campus featured "Beto" yard signs that signaled support for Democratic hopeful Beto O'Rourke, the three-term El Paso congressman seeking to upset the incumbent.
Even at one point during the game, several in the audience chanted "Beto, Beto, Beto." Kimmel then ad-libbed, "This is the closest we're ever gonna get to a town hall."
After an extended warmup of the audience and pregame introductions, the action started fast. Cruz, wearing a Houston Rockets t-shirt, scored a basket on his first try. But then it was miss after miss after miss by both. The senator maintained an early lead, but Kimmel moved ahead with a well-tossed hook shot to take a 6-5 lead at the half.
When the game resumed, there was little action that affected the scoreboard. But there was scoring. Cruz was the first to reach 10 points, but Kimmel scored twice soon after bringing it to 10-9. After a long dry spell, Cruz launched the winning shot from the sideline and won by three.
The game was the property of Kimmel's show and ABC, which meant the media was asked not to photograph the action or much of anything else inside the arena. A reporter was admonished in the press box for tweeting out too much of the action, fearing it would spoil plans for televised replay.
On the court, both players hammed it up for the crowd and appeared to taunt each other, but it was difficult to pick up exactly what was said. A pink-costumed "blobfish" offered comic relief from the sidelines and occasionally made his way onto the court.
Neither player was made available to media not associated with the network, but Kimmel, who wore a TSU uniform, did a little pre-game boasting.
"I'm (a) sub-mediocre basketball player and I'm still going to beat him," Kimmel told the Houston ABC affiliate, KTRK.
He didn't, but seemed to take the loss in stride as the court was showered with confetti. When he announced that more than $14,000 was raised for charity, the crowd roared with approval.
Cruz quipped the game set a "Guinness record for fouls."
Kimmel couldn't resist a political dig. "Ted, you're a good sport, but I still think you're a terrible senator," he said.
The game will air on ABC Monday night.