Lay Off ‘Pat the Rat,’ You Brainwashed Sheep

It seems like the ultimate New York heresy

It seems like the ultimate New York heresy. You should have heard some of the reactions I got from guys around the Observer office. You’re going to do what ? You’re going to write a column defending Pat Riley ?! Almost as if I were proposing to write a column defending Slobodan Milosevic, Butcher of Bosnia, say, or Donald Trump.

To me, it demonstrates just how disproportionately the disease of sports fanhood, fandom, fanship, whatever you want to call it, can derange the thinking of even the most reasonable, skeptical, thoughtful men. It’s worse than sex that way.

The disease of fanship? The very first piece I wrote for The Observer , some four years ago during the New York Knicks-Chicago Bulls playoff series, was an attack on fanhood. An attack on the small-time, bush-league, hick-town mindset you hear echoing in the moronic chant of We will/ We will/ Rock you!

No, excuse me, you won’t rock anybody, you beer-brained, potbellied shlub. You will depend on some highly paid hirelings to try to effect the humiliation you long to inflict on some other team’s highly paid hirelings you profess to lord it over and despise. Ones you’ll suck up to slavishly, of course, if some free agent deal brings them to your team.

The disease of fanhood produces a Madison Square Garden full of guys who aren’t fit to wash the jock of a warrior like Scottie Pippen, but who think they have the right to abuse him and question his manhood. Just because he plays for the Bulls and not for “us.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m one of “us”; I’ve been a Knick fan since I was a kid and they featured such luminaries as Sweetwater Clifton. I say “us” because I’m not condemning rooting for a home team, but rather the kind of blind, mindless, abusive, brainwashed partisanship that was exhibited by Garden fans at the first home game of the Knick-Miami Heat series, where you had thousands of guys make asses of themselves screaming insults at Pat Riley in brain-dead chants that ranged from Pat the Rat! to Riley sucks!

There’s something particularly lame and pathetic about the hate-Riley hysteria. Set aside the fact that most of the losers chanting Riley sucks! are secretly envious of his charisma, his smarts, his sexual appeal to women, his hair and his suits. Set aside Mr. Riley’s achievements with the Knicks-taking them from nowhere to playoff contention almost overnight, bringing them to within a whisker of a league championship, despite the hodgepodge of mediocrities a less-than-mediocre team management forced him to work with. And set aside, for the moment, the merely brainless chant of Riley sucks , despite its no-class loutishness. Let’s look at the genuinely outrageous Pat the Rat chant-the true proof of how brainwashed Knick fans have been by team management, or at least how brainwashed the loudmouthed expense-account corporate pooh-bahs with playoff seats are.

Pat the Rat. The implication is betrayal-of shameful treachery, of running out on his comrades. The dimwits chanting Pat the Rat have, it’s evident, completely bought into the self-serving line peddled by the mediocrities who run the Knicks (and their sportswriter acolytes), who have been trying to cover their own asses and their own inadequacies by blaming Mr. Riley for leaving for the Heat. The Knick brass who piously declare that they wanted to keep Mr. Riley, but that his greed and control-freak power trip led him to leave in some disloyal way for a better offer.

There are at least two sides to this story, although in the partisan pages of the New York papers, you’d never know it. The Riley version, which sounds at least as plausible as the management version, is that the Knick and Garden bigwigs, threatened by Mr. Riley’s desire for a bigger role in player personnel choices (and justly threatened, since no one in the basketball world confuses the Knick brass with geniuses), went through a sham negotiation with Mr. Riley. Too preoccupied with preserving their own perks in a corporate takeover, they made it impossible for him to stay with their small-time conniving-badmouthing and back-stabbing him to their conduits in the press. They showed that they don’t deserve to run a New York team because they were too cheap, mingy and petty to do what it takes to keep a world-class coach in a supposedly world-class city.

The main thing they’ve shown themselves good at is manipulating the media and brainwashing Knick fans to blame Mr. Riley for their failures, to paint him as a traitor, as Pat the Rat. It’s amazing that New Yorkers, usually so quick to see through the sham manipulations of corporate big shots, buy this line so unquestioningly, so naïvely. Amazing they’re so quick to demonize a guy who brought winning teams and a winning spirit to a franchise in disarray because he had too much pride to let himself be jerked around by lesser men. And don’t try to tell me the Knicks’ victory on May 3 changes anything-that beating a Miami team without its franchise player rewrites the past and justifies anti-Riley hysteria.

There’s got to be something more to the mindless viciousness with which Knick fans turned on Mr. Riley. Perhaps it’s sexual, perhaps they resent the undeniable appeal he has to women. Or maybe it’s sexual in a more complicated, gender-shifted way. A friend of mine, an extremely knowledgeable guy who writes for one of the big sports magazines and is no fan of Mr. Riley-after the Knicks-Heat playoff brawl fiasco last year, he even called Mr. Riley “evil” for what he regarded as the Machiavellian way he maneuvered the Knicks into making fools of themselves-has what he calls a First Wives’ Club theory of anti-Riley hysteria.

In his view, Knick fans are acting like the vengeful middle-aged women in the Bette Midler film: They look at Mr. Riley, now on his third team, like he’s the husband who abandoned them for a younger, hotter-looking model (the Heat, South Beach). Hell hath no fury like a Knick fan scorned, although if they really thought it through, they’d realize that the ones who scorned them were the team management and owners who tried to get by on the cheap with a coach who would let them call the shots, like the geniuses they thought they were. Knick management scorned the fans, showed contempt for them by figuring they could spin Mr. Riley’s loss as Mr. Riley’s fault, meanwhile loading up on lame player acquisitions whose only movement without the ball on court comes when there’s a fight to get themselves suspended over.

But there’s a deeper irony to the Pat the Rat moronic frenzy, my friend pointed out. Think about it, he said: New Yorkers are supposed to admire guys who go up against corporate hierarchies, who rebel against the suits, who don’t just follow orders from stuffed shirts with big titles. Mr. Riley’s his own man. He’d rather walk than put up with that kind of crap, let himself be ground down by lame-os. It’s the kind of thing New Yorkers would applaud if they weren’t deranged by the disease of fanhood. They should reserve their boos and chants for the small-minded bureaucrats who let him get away to protect their own inflated salaries and egos.

Instead, they turn on Mr. Riley. Could it be because he did something they lack the courage to do themselves? Because they don’t have the guts to tell off their bosses and walk out, they resent Mr. Riley because he did ? Could it be they call Mr. Riley a rat because they can’t face the fact that they’re another kind of animal-sheep?

Just asking.