I am always asked to write about basketball. People labor under the mistaken impression that, since I attend the Knicks games and have done so regularly for over 25 years, I’ve learned something or that I have insights and observations that are worth listening to, but they are wrong. I have only opinions and feelings based on nothing much but emotions, and I have gripes and theories, often crackpot. Mostly, I sit quietly at the Garden hoping for a close game, hating the blowouts, even if it’s the Knicks on top, enjoying the fans, marveling at the dancers and barely tolerating the endless insipid promotional stunts during timeouts. (If you’ve ever seen out-of-shape men and women shooting endless air balls from the foul line or frantic physical specimens racing across the floor trying to load, carry and push luggage racks as they compete, you get the idea.)
When asked why it is so important that the Knicks win, since at the end of the game or even the season nothing in life is affected one way or the other, I can only answer that basketball or baseball or any sport is as dearly important as life itself. After all, why is it such a big deal to work and love and strive and have children and then die and decompose into eternal nothingness? (By now, the person who asked me why the Knicks winning is important is sorry.)
To me, it’s clear that the playoffs or 61 home runs, a no-hitter, the Preakness, the Jets, or human existence can all be much ado about nothing, or they can all have a totally satisfying, thrilling-to-the-marrow quality. In short, putting the ball into the hoop is of immense significance to me by personal choice and my life is more fun because of it. Not that I ever thought of becoming a basketball player. My height was insufficient for a serious career, although to this day, if I play in a game with kids 8 years and under, I am a tremendously effective shot blocker.
Now, a favorite crackpot notion of mine is the following: I think the Knicks never regained their past championship form because they sinned by trading Walt Frazier to Cleveland. I can’t prove this, but those who have read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner know what the shooting of that bird did. Not that Frazier was an Albatross. Quite the contrary. He was, in my opinion, the greatest of all Knickerbocker players, and he was for a time not only the soul of the team but one of the spirits of this city.
I recall him after a routine night of superb basketball, tooling around in his chauffeured Rolls, dressed, to put it mildly, like an extrovert and lighting up the various night spots of Manhattan like he had just lit up the Garden. Clyde came up with the Knicks and was a major (I think the major) cog in the peerless machine that took two championships. It should have entitled him to tenure in New York forever. Dealing him to the Cavaliers upset some balance in the cosmic order, and the fruit of this curse could be felt from the days of Spencer Haywood, through Bob McAdoo, Michael Ray Richardson, Lonnie Shelton, the Bulls, the Rockets, Rick Pitino, Hubie Brown, Mike Fratello, last year’s brawl in Miami, many heartbreaking late baskets by Reggie, by Michael, even by Sam Cassell.
Now once again the curse has made itself felt, and the loss to this year’s Indiana Pacers, a team we could have beaten with a healthy Ewing, was particularly ironic since Patrick’s courageous return did not help but hurt. Another very personal feeling of mine, while we’re on the subject of great Knicks, and they don’t come any greater than Frazier and Ewing, is that while Michael Jordan is the finest athlete to toil at his sport and is a quantum leap above almost all other personnel in the history of the N.B.A., Earl Monroe was, for me, more exciting to watch shoot. I’m not saying here that I’d choose Earl over Michael to build a franchise around, but no player was ever as amazing to see in action as the Pearl.
In Spike Lee’s newest and best film, he pays appropriate homage to Monroe above all others, and Spike is someone, unlike myself, who truly knows what he is talking about when it comes to this game. (The only deep information I get on basketball comes from watching Peter Vecsey on television because he seems to have a genuine understanding of the sport, and I parrot his insights at parties, often pretending they are my own.) Earl Monroe was such a theatrical talent. There was something so dangerous, so charismatic about how he would pour in 40 points against helpless opposition, and one sportswriter wrote, “His misses are more exciting than most players’ baskets.”
This leads me to ponder the question of Allan Houston, also a terrific shooter. If the Knicks are to be a force in the coming years, his deadly shooting eye will be a major reason. So why is it more fun to watch Tim Hardaway score 30 than Houston? Are Houston’s picture-perfect jump shots and lunging drives any less an achievement? But why was it always more fun to watch Isiah Thomas drop 30 than that great old pro Joe Dumars? Is it because Thomas and Hardaway project danger and Dumars and Houston reliability? I suppose star quality is unmeasurable and what makes one dancer merely great and allows another to be Fred Astaire can only be felt and never understood.
Incidentally, I should mention here that I’m totally prejudiced toward a guard- oriented or small forward-oriented game. I’ve never enjoyed center-focused basketball, and watching Wilt Chamberlain, great as he was, or David Robinson or Shaquille O’Neal get the ball down low and put in is not my idea of a thrill. That’s why, when Patrick Ewing got hurt, the Knicks became a much weaker but much more exciting team. There’s no question Ewing is the franchise player and one of the greats in all the years of this sport. Can you imagine if he had been properly staffed over the past decade? Picture the Knicks without him. They would have languished near the bottom.
Now conjure up an image of Patrick over the past decade on the Bulls. With a center like Ewing, given their team, Chicago would have gone undefeated. Ewing would be my all-time Knick center on a team comprised of himself, Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Dave DeBusschere and Bernard King. Some might lobby for Willis Reed and while I’d want him on my team, I wouldn’t start him. Yet as soon as Ewing was lost to injury the games became thrilling, often being decided by a point or two in the final seconds. The guards ran the club, the guards and Larry Johnson, a forward of incredible agility (and fragility) with super moves that make him, like Hakeem Olajuwon, an unusually exciting low post player. (Olajuwon is the one center who has been some fun for me to watch perform over the years.)
In Ewing’s absence it became clear also about the role of John Starks, who is another veteran of special impact. When Starks first joined the Knicks, he was an out-of-control, sullen and pugnacious player, always spoiling for a fight. Over the years, he was forced to pay his dues. For a while, he was yanked from the starting five, he was seated at times during the final crucial minutes of big games and criticized for taking wild shots, for missing baskets and foul shots and worse, firing up blanks in the closing minutes of playoffs. Starks bore the humiliations with grace and remained loyal and dedicated to the team, wanting only to contribute positively. He has ripened into the heart and soul of the Knicks. Moving him to the sixth-man position has been an inspiration, as he is a player who makes the most of dramatic entrances. He has become a leader who never quits and a galvanizing force who turns on the team and the fans.
As far as the other Knicks guards go, I think both Charlie Ward and Chris Childs have certain fine individual skills and could learn from one another. If a science-fiction machine were available to combine both these guards into a single player, New York would have its great point guard. Childs fell into disfavor this season when he missed a single end-game shot. Ironically, the game before, he had the winning final shot, but after he missed an open jumper the next night as the clock wound down, he could do no right with the fans ever again. His flaws, which he has and which I believe are correctable, were held up to constant disgruntled scrutiny and ridicule.
Years ago, Mark Jackson suffered the fans’ ire, too, and was relentlessly booed by the home attendance each time he entered a game. His trade proved to be the Knicks’ loss, and he went on to play fine basketball in other cities and most recently to haunt us in the Pacers series. Jackson was the finest point guard the Knicks had since Walt Frazier, and they’ve had none close since his departure. It was a mistake to let him go but not to trade Rod Strickland, who is more explosive than Jackson but not as grounded. I never bought the story that Jackson was let go because of his feet-that he was too slow. He had become unpopular. His slow feet have not kept him from leading the Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals.
And finally, what can one say about Charles Oakley? Or can one say enough? Oakley has been a consistently tremendous ballplayer for New York who contributes mightily night after night, season after season, and actually gets better with age. Of course I’d hate to wake up in the middle of the night and find him hovering over my bed with that look on his face, but on the court he’s worth every cent they pay him.
I also admire the Knicks’ coach, although I, like Larry Bird (one of the many ways we’re similar), am a firm believer in the limits of coaching. It has been said that a good coach is someone who, if you give him a good team, will not screw up with it. I’ve always felt, if Jeff Van Gundy had coached the Bulls over the past decade and Phil Jackson guided the Knicks, that for the most part the record books would stand pretty much the way they are written today. The truth is, I always believed that I could have coached the Lakers in the years of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy and if not me then certainly my mother.
Having given you a number of my emotional feelings about the Knicks, a team I love, let me give you a few of my less socially acceptable notions.
First-I happen to like Reggie Miller. I liked it when he hit the three-pointer that tied the game with the Knicks. It set the stage with a drama that Reggie, who deserves to be a Knick and play in New York, seems to possess. The only thing that went wrong in my fantasy scenario was that the Knicks did not utilize the five-plus seconds they had left to win the game and make the afternoon a thrilling one for New York. If, as Reggie claims, he saw in the eyes of the home team that the heart went out of New York in the overtime, then that is unforgivable. The Knicks had the Pacers in a tie at the end of regulation at friendly Madison Square Garden. It’s a situation wherein they should dismantle their opponents.
Another unpopular archvillain I always liked to watch, and wished in years past was on the Knicks, was Bill Laimbeer. Constantly accused of being a dirty player, he would have been a huge plus for New York despite all the derision he got when he competed against us. I feel that way about Dennis Rodman, too. The fans in Chicago love him and we would, too, if he paraded his psychotic vaudeville here.
And what about Marv Albert? I’d like to see him back doing the New York broadcast. I miss that voice, full of city street urgency. He made the games exciting to listen to, and to deny him his place as the voice of the Knicks is unworthy of those who are empowered to hire. (Not to get off the subject of basketball, but I’m a firm believer that a Baseball Hall of Fame that excludes Pete Rose embarrasses itself.)
And what is all this postgame praying? Those new fashionable prayer huddles-what goes on? They can’t be thanking God for winning, because how do the teams with the losing records explain things? (“The Lord loves our team-He sabotages us so we can get a high draft pick.”) The players also cannot be thanking God for keeping them from injury, because they’re injured all the time. My theory is they’re thanking God for the huge increases in salaries over the past few years. Only a very benevolent Supernatural Being could be responsible for some of those numbers certain players earn.
My favorite player in the league is Charles Barkley. Not only has he been thrilling over the years, but his performances have been original and funny. I find his attitude of wanting a championship ring, but not letting it be a life-threatening event should he fail to obtain one, quite refreshing. He, like Dennis Rodman (although he brings it off with much more flair and aplomb), does not give an inch to the sanctimony that permeates professional sports.
Incidentally, lest the reader not think I’m totally blasphemous in my tastes and feeling, I should point out that I experienced a true religious epiphany watching the All-Star Game this year when the “torch” was passed from Michael to Kobe Bryant. For a minute, I thought I saw angels at Madison Square Garden. My feeling about Kobe is that he is a knockout talent and they should encourage him to play a complete game with assists, rebounds and defense and not use him to come in and make circus shots. But the concept of passing a torch I did find a hoot, no matter how many times the television announcers used the phrase; it’s a concept alien to basketball, which is a team sport, and Michael Jordan has not created a holy order like the papacy, where there is a line of accession. (If the smoke is light gray, the new Pope is Kobe; if it’s dark gray, Grant Hill’s been chosen.)
Finally, I would not like to end this little rumination without an interview that I dedicate to an old favorite writer of mine, Frank Sullivan, whose appreciation of clichés would have hit a new high had he lived long enough to hear one of today’s basketball players.
Interview between Frank Sullivan’s cliché expert and an N.B.A. star:
Int: In the upcoming playoff game, where will your team be staying?
Star: We’re going to try and stay within ourselves.
Int: But you’ll be trying to take your game where?
Star: To another level.
Int: By having your point guard do what?
Star: By raising his game a notch.
Int: And where do you plan on finding the game?
Star: I’m going to just let the game come to me.
Int: By hitting who?
Star: The open man.
Int: And staying-
Int: And what kind of minutes will your bench give you?
Star: Quality minutes.
Int: And how would you characterize your aging superstar?
Star: Oh, he’s a warrior.
Int: So why didn’t you win yesterday?
Star: We didn’t take care of business.
Int: What didn’t you get done?
Star: We didn’t get the job done.
Int: Rather than being voted M.V.P., what would you rather have?
Star: A ring.
(With this, the referee, who has been listening to this drivel, awards a double technical and the show is over.)