I knew what was coming. You knew what was coming. At that point – one year ago today – it’s conceivable both my animals knew what was coming. And they’re both pretty dumb, even for animals.
Still, I watched. We watched – 10 million of us to be exact. It felt like we had to. In the history of television, we’d never seen anything quite like this; one man single-handedly incinerate the blissfully sports-tortured souls of millions of people with such swift, icy aplomb. Anyone not named Dennis Miller, anyway. And certainly not wearing a shirt like that. That was definitely a first.
I’m taking my talents to South Beach.
We weren’t sure what was worse: the fact that he said it, or the fact that he’d planned to say it – just like that, in just that room, with just those kids from the Boys & Girls Club and just that Lake Erie city of half a million watching, a good number of whom were already five shots deep and scrambling to remember which drawer had the matches and which drawer the jersey.
Who does that?
By then we all knew he wasn’t coming to New York. Hell, If my meeting with the most financially blessed franchise in the sport consisted of a cable mogul with a shitty blues band and a guy in a wheelchair, I might not have either.
It’s not about saving a franchise. It’s about winning championships.
Apparently he didn’t see the value of the challenge – the risk and reward of “rescuing” the team belonging to the game’s true city. And that’s cool.
An hour long show called The Decision? That’s not cool.
Up to that ugly point, LeBron James was my favorite athlete on the planet. And I’m pretty sure I wasn’t alone. He played the game how you wanted to see it played. Forget the Jordan comparisons; I imagined this is what it must have been like for my Dad to watch Bobby Orr – a guy who, like LeBron, awed with his effortless prescience, struck like an asp, moved like a twister, and saw what very few saw, long before they saw it. Unlike Orr, LeBron’s was a level of play matched only by the almost preternatural manner in which he navigated the media.
Now this? This Superfriends bullshit? What is this? This is more awkward than that Mike Tyson-Robin Givens interview. Besides, you were supposed to come to here! We aired 146 episodes of Chris Duhon, Floor General; lost to Dallas by like 90 points; freed up enough cap room to sign you and a buddy – whichever one you wanted! Hell, we’d have signed the other four dudes from St. Mary’s! “Sure, LeBron, they can start!” We’d have built a skyscraper/moon ladder that looked like you! Dunking! We would’ve recalled Bloomberg for no reason at all, given you the key to the safe that had the key to the city in it, and given you that too – and the safe, and the building! We would’ve given you a parade in the Canyon of Heroes and used $1000 bills as confetti! Jim Dolan would’ve stopped making music completely!
Nope. We get the guy with two papier-mâché knees and an eye that would literally fall out of his face on contact, if it weren’t for a pair of plexiglas Oakleys. A guy who’d spent the better part of his young career feuding with the coach that was now awaiting his training camp arrival. The guy’s great –don’t get me wrong. But you? Win one title, just one, and you’d have been a legend. First billionaire athlete? We’d have the New York Mint just print your own @#$%^&! money, with your face on it. More importantly, you’d have had 19 million people in the palm of your hand, like so many grains of pregame chalk dust launched skyward, suspending but for a second on high – your floating subjects catching the thousand rafter lights and shimmering in billions as real as your dreamed-of dollars – before descending down to that cherished Garden floor. Your Floor, in Your House.
South Beach? ARE YOU #%$*&%? KIDDING ME?!?!?!
* * * * * *
I was nine, and I wanted to be Patrick Ewing. I couldn’t isolate a particular reason why. There were, however, four I’d call cursory:
1) He was tall, and so was I.
2) I liked blue and orange.
3) His middle name is Aloysius, which is just awesome.
4) I #$@%&*^ loathed Michael Jordan.
Growing up outside of Detroit, I always liked the Pistons. Well, I liked that they routinely beat the Bulls anyway. But that’s about as far as it went. The sports contrarian in me was never much concerned with the rules of regional loyalty. I was nine, the only one in my hockey-centric family who appreciated the game. More importantly, I liked what I liked, and didn’t exactly give a rat’s ass if I was the only one who liked it. In this case, I liked this rough-and-tumble collection of big city bullies, all forearms and rebounding and gracelessness. I loved Ewing’s lumbering polish, Oakley’s shameless thuggery, Starks’s moxie and Mase’s free throw grimace. I loved staying up late to watch them on TNT, and setting my Sunday watch to the NBA on NBC. Most of all, I loved knowing they’d one day beat the Bulls and that bitch Michael Jordan.
Let’s just say I cried a lot growing up. Particularly around springtime. For three consecutive years, I watched my beloved Bockers throw every ounce of rage and effort at dethroning a Bull’s juggernaut which, by virtue of its own tortured, Piston-hindered Sisyphian struggle to the summit, had built up a genuinely terrifying head of downhill steam. I watched Jordan impale us game after game. I watched Charles Smith miss nine layups, putting a fist-sized hole in one of our pillows because of it. After addressing the carnage (mostly in my room), I’d root for the Blazers and the Suns. I watched Drexler retreat faster than his own hairline; Barkley play hung over; and Jordan swallow them both without chewing. Out of hatred grew a nauseous respect which only fed the hatred further.
And then, just like that, the dude retired. To play baseball. What? Satan doesn’t retire, and he sure as hell doesn’t retire to play baseball. He loses to the Knicks, in seven grueling games that end with Ewing hitting an 18-foot baseline turnaround. What….what is this?
The next spring, we beat them. Granted, it took a Scottie Pippen meltdown, recovering from Toni Kukoc heroics, and Michael Jordan not playing basketball. But whatever – onward and upward! The beast had been slain, even if it was a beast without its brain. Despite going seven games, the Indiana series always seemed like a forgone conclusion. It was our turn. In the Finals, we went up 3-2 – had it in the bag. Olajuwon was barbecuing Ewing, roasting him on an open flame of Dream Shakes and turnarounds and Sam Cassell kick-out threes. Didn’t matter. No way we lose two straight. The Big Fella beat him in college and he’d beat him again. Besides, after OJ and his Bronco cut short the glory of watching us go up 3-2 in Game 5, we were owed a split. We’d taken Game 2 at the Summit, and there was no reason to believe we couldn’t steal one more. And then Starks went 3-80, Olajuwon put up 55 and 20, Derek Harper led us in scoring. And it was all over. As the Game 7 horn sounded, you could feel the window close an inch or two.
The next few years wrought with semifinal exits, by the time the strike-shortened 1998 season got under way, few thought the Knicks capable of any kind of serious run. Least of all me, who’d taken to the comforts of ’70 and ’73, and in the innumerable books that bore out the almost cosmic unity of those teams and that coach. Instead, we were made witness to the most improbable of runs – as peppered with miracles as it was ironically blessed by a battered and broken Big Fella – that brought us again to the brink. Mercifully, this one ended much more quickly and. We shouldn’t have been there in the first place. But that didn’t stop it from hurting like hell. Hakeem had gotten his ring at our expense, and now Robinson had too. And few doubted their wake would find Duncan plundering more than a few of his own.
I went off to college in 2001, the year the Knicks began their slide into sub-pedestrian doldrums. No longer television fixtures – more accurately, no longer good – I lost touch (when you have a hard time paying a monthly rent that’s less than the cost of League Pass, that’s easy to do). What did I care? There were books and girls and narcotics and awful food and liberal propaganda to consume. Sports – all sports, and saddest of all the NBA – receded from passion to something resembling habit. With PTI and SportsCenter, what else did I need? I was drawn to the college game, the only place where I could sense the spirit of those early-to-mid-90s NBA glory years — defense first, second, last. Besides, those were my peers out there, kids my age playing the game as if their lives depended on it. Which, for many of them, it absolutely did. They hadn’t made The Show yet; hadn’t been corrupted by its marketing or marred by its money. This, I thought, is basketball how it’s supposed to be played.
As the decade ground on, I’d hear the news and read the reports, summoning sadness like a mother whose sons compel one too many police visits; the prodigal Marburys and Franchises; Howard Eisley and Shanden Anderson and Michael Sweetney and they’re still paying Allan Houston how much?; Larry Brown and the epic fail rescue mission; Zeke’s exploits doubly weird to a Detroit kid; all so devastating in their wilting of historical context that even glancing back to the good old days became a near impossible exercise. I’d defend them, or defend those good old days anyway. And I certainly couldn’t love or root for another team the way I had them, despite the bar being buried well below the basement. Even as I slowly got back into an NBA recapturing a faded glory, it was as a widower who just couldn’t move on, left with nothing save the hope of one day playing Witness to a Lazarus-like resurrection at the mercy of the one true King. Like many Knick fans, I hoped — even expected — Godot to hop game-ready off the Penn Station train, wearing #6.
* * * * * *
There’s a picture of Amar’e Stoudemire, either right before or after inking his mammoth 5-year, one-tenth of a billion dollar deal. He’d just arrived at MSG, wearing a gray near-seersucker suit and requisite token logo cap. He stands there, all seven feet of wingspanability outreached, a castoff king’s embrace of Camelot. Spirited away for a media baptism, the man who would soon seek out Hebrew roots took the podium and delivered a stanza harkening his once and future people’s pained returns.
The Knicks are back.
Like a forensics agent prying up Gacy’s crawlspace, Donnie Walsh had been brought in to sort out a pile of bodies as bloated as the contracts many of them had signed. It took some truly goofy rosters and putrid basketball, but Walsh eventually succeeded in at least one tenant of his multi-pronged plan: getting the Knicks far enough under the cap to sign not one, but two max contract players. We had the room, we had the city, we had the media and the nightlife and anything else a topflight player would want. But we also had something few of them would want: the pressure. Ultimately, it was too much for LeBron, who stumbled on the wise truth that beaches and bikinis were a lot easier to deal with than bad weather and beat reporters. Instead, we got this flawed superstar, from Orlando by way of the Arizona desert. He dressed like LeBron; he exuded confidence like LeBron; in shades, he even looked a bit like LeBron. But he certainly didn’t talk or act like him.
The Knicks are back.
We wanted to believe him. Not since Starbury’s prodigal return had a Knick signing garnered so much attention, and so much scrutiny. Like Stephon, Stoudemire was a top-flight talent – no doubt about that. But he also came with his fair share of baggage, in the form of two uninsurable knees and an eye injury that could’ve half-blinded him, had he not laid on his back, eyes closed, for 10 straight days (3 minute mark). His sieve defense was well-documented, as was his feast or famine rebounding. Still, the combination of seven All-Star appearances and relative Playoff success sort of spoke for itself. He wanted his own challenge, the chance to show the world the terrifying tandem he formed with Steve Nash was more than a clever puppet show. The money was certainly a factor. The models probably weren’t too far behind. But the fact is he was here, in the city, seemingly loving every second of it. With Marbury, you got the sense that he dreaded the pressure of it all, of coming home to rescue a city his shoulders just couldn’t brace. And there’s the rub: Marbury acted like he had to do it; Stoudemire, like he wanted to.
The Knicks are back.
The Decision was a watermark moment, not just for Cleveland and Miami and the whole NBA, but for countless fans as well. Including me. When the most talented player on the planet — the quintessential “tell your grandchildren” guy — pulls off something that coldly contrived, you can’t help but seriously reevaluate what it is, exactly, that draws you to the game. In my case, the instinct was retreat into a crumbling sanctuary; the façade still scarred, the lane paint inexplicably orange. But that made it all the more right. The past pains, laughingstock doldrums, bad monies after bad – at least it was pure. It was real. It’s where I should’ve been all along.
Hundreds in jerseys, hats, tickets and League Pass later, I rest easier. Sure, I felt somewhat dirty, somewhat guilty — like a Catholic who spends 7 years in a Satanist temple’s cocaine sandbox before lurching back into the St. Paul’s pew. Does that make me a fair weather fan? I suppose it does. If .500 basketball is fair weather. What matters is that it felt right — the shwag a pithy penance for too many years distanced in both pride and emotion from the one sports-related thing that mattered growing up — as much as sports related things can truly “matter”, anyway. That’s how powerful The Decision was. In the wake of such monstrous disloyalty, there’s only one reasonable response for someone confronted with their own absenteeism: go home, and stay there.
Contrastingly (and more importantly), that’s how rapturously adrenaline-pumping Stoudemire’s arrival was. We knew it would likely come at the expense of David Lee, who’d managed to salvage the frailest of franchise dignity precisely because his was a game reflective of Bocker squads past. Stoudemire, by comparison, was the future. How big a window that future will allow, is anyone’s guess — as is whether the gutting-dependent acquisition of Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billup will serve to shorten or extend it. Assuming there is a next season, it’s safe to say another 42-40 mark won’t be met with the same hopeful praise; the first time in a long time that’s been the case.
One promising regular season and disheartening playoff sweep on, the clock ticks still. Down in Miami, the guy who first raised the stakes, igniting as many dormant fans as the now numbed in Cleveland did his effigies, stares at the same clock. For the next half-decade, these two old nemeses — bound by blood and brawls and 1-95 and little else — will see their legacies take shape. For the recently vanquished Heat, burdened as they are by the weight of their own absurd predictions, time is far from free; the clock hands more and more pride’s pickpocket.
As for the now four decades dry Knicks and their faithful followers, today’s joy lies in simply watching the hands move forward.