Pre-emptive Prescription: Post-traumatic Knicks Therapy

“If they can’t get you on results, they get you on the relationships.”

–Jeff Van Gundy, before the first Knicks-Spurs game

They get you on the relationships. The coach was talking about his relationship with his players. That it didn’t matter that he got results from the team, got them into the finals, reporters–”they”–would still torment him over his purportedly strained relationships with Marcus Camby and Latrell Sprewell, the new Knicks stars he refused to start, or even play at all some nights.

They get you on the relationships. It’s a larger statement though, isn’t it? “If they can’t get you on results, they get you on the relationships.” It’s a truth about life, a truth about love, a truth about the relationship, the sometime romance between the City and the Team. A relationship that flourished in the past, then went dead, suddenly burst into a feverish revival–and now, I’m convinced, is inevitably going to bring us crushing pain, disillusionment and defeat. It’s time to ask: Can this relationship be saved before the torment gets to be too much? The series isn’t over yet, but already I think it’s not too early for Post-Traumatic Knicks Therapy.

They haven’t lost yet. As I write this they’re only down 2-1, and by winning that game they’ve just about guaranteed that what we suffer won’t be mercifully brief and brutal, but a more prolonged agony extended by an occasional moment of false-hope ecstasy.

Already the conversations have begun, the preparation for the big crash. On the Wednesday night before the first loss to the Spurs, I had dinner with this guy I know who’s recently become head of a major publishing imprint. He’s happily married, life is good, but there was an undertone of dread, emotional dread, one that emerged halfway through a bottle of merlot when he started talking about “the relationship.” The one with the Knicks, and how it’s somehow just as bad, maybe worse, than a relationship with a woman who steals your heart, fast-breaks and slam-dunks it.

And then, a couple days later, right before the second loss to the Spurs, I was talking with a public radio talk host before doing his show and he started talking about “the relationship” and its intensity for him, and how it all went back to his relationship to his father who was cold and unloving to him except when it came to the Knicks.

Lover, father. Father, lover. Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.

And it’s time to ask what the relationship counselors ask: What do we really want out of this relationship? Or do we want out of this relationship?

Is this a case of Smart City, Foolish Choices? Are we the City That Loves Too Much? Should we be guided by The Rules? Which of the city-team relationship archetypes do we want this one to follow? Do we want the Knicks to be the New York Yankees, triumphalist assholes? Or do we want them to be the Brooklyn Dodgers, tragic romantics? Do we really want them to win, or do we secretly crave the tragic self-laceration of loss? If it’s the latter (as I kind of suspect it is) why do we love teams we know will break our hearts? One might as well ask why we love women, um, I mean relationship partners of whatever gender, who we know will break our hearts, why do we go ahead when we know they’ll break our hearts and it will all come to a horrible, painful end that we’ll regret ever after because nothing will ever seem as beautiful, exciting and good, but we still can’t resist. We’re fascinated, even turned on, by the tragic denouement we see heading our way like a speeding bullet train, yet we don’t get off the track until it’s way too late and we’ve opened our hearts, exposed our souls and …

Hmmm. I’m beginning to think that Socratic dictum everybody cites–”The unexamined life is not worth living”–is really horribly wrong. The examined life is not worth living, well, is not bearable living at times. Therefore, in matters like this, at moments like this, I often believe the most therapeutic relationship strategy is the time-honored though much disparaged and unfairly underrated one: denial.

As I see it, in working out my denial strategy, we can choose from three possible forms of Knicks relationship denial: There’s Denial Strategy Option No. 1: pretending it wasn’t important in the first place. This is a strategy I’ve tried in the past with relationships. And with the Knicks. Back in 1994, for instance, as they were heading toward inevitable defeat in the finals in Houston, I wrote a piece for The Observer, the very first piece I ever published in this paper, in fact, denouncing fanhood, fanship. A kind of farewell to fanhood, goodbye to all that. It was heartfelt at the time, but deeply deluded. I now realize that what was really going on was that it was a way of executing Denial Strategy No. 1: You can’t hurt me because I don’t care. I’m not going to be a fan–any kind of fan–anymore. I mean, I was right there in the Garden at the Knicks-Bulls Eastern Conference Finals game when the questionable foul call on Scottie Pippen by referee Hue Hollins gave the game to the Knicks in a last-second frenzy and I pretended to be appalled at the injustice of the call rather than revel in the sweetness of the stolen victory.

Denial Strategy No. 1. It’s not going to wash, pretending it’s not important and never was. It was important, we let it become important that moment in Game 5 of the Miami series when that Allan Houston runner that had no business finding the net bounced off the rim, bounced off the backboard, practically bounced off the butts of the Knick City Dancers (yeah, I know, they were in Miami at the time) before it dropped in. Touched by an angel. When that happens, you can’t fight it, you know fate has selected you for some exquisite torment, but you have no choice. You don’t enlist, you’re drafted. Suddenly everything impossible seems possible and you push out of your mind the darker possibilities unleashed as well. No gain, no pain.

But it’s not going to work this time, and we’ve got to shift to Denial Strategy Option No. 2: From pretending it wasn’t important to pretending it never happened, or more precisely (to distinguish it from Denial Strategy No. 3) pretending it hasn’t happened yet.

It’s a strategy I’m basing on a peculiar sports-watching practice engaged in by a friend who’s an exec at a major sports magazine. A strategy he’s evolved to deal with saving his marriage and serving his sports jones. To deal with the Sunday evening conflict when major Jets and Knicks games coincided with the Sunday evening drive he and his wife would make back from their year-round place on the East End.

He had two choices: He could listen to the games on the radio in real time, a real but attenuated experience for him, which would also mean a painfully unpleasant experience for his non-sports-fanatic wife, who would have to put up with his dashboard-pounding frenzy in the kind of proximity their West Side apartment didn’t enforce on her.

So he devised this mind game: He set his VCR in Manhattan to tape the game and then he’d pretend that it hadn’t begun till he got back to Manhattan, when (although the game was over in real time) he’d begin to watch it as if it were real time. In his bubble of displaced not-quite-real time, while everyone in the city around him knew what happened, he would experience it as if it had just begun for him.

Of course this required the complicity and cooperation of spouse and friends who might happen to call. It’s tricky when the outside world threatens to infiltrate the time-bubble with its unwanted knowledge of the results. Like for instance when I’d call knowing whether the Jets or the Knicks had won, and his wife would answer the phone and tell me the bubble was in effect and I would have to decide whether to indicate explicitly or implicitly (by tone of voice) to her the forbidden knowledge that would then place on her the burden of not indicating to him, encapsulated in the bubble, the real-time results. When I’d talk to him directly, it would be a little weird but interesting speaking with someone who occupied a kind of bubble time zone different from mine. A different life zone, in a way. Sometimes, particularly right after a defeat he had not yet experienced, but I had, I would find myself envying his blissful ignorance. He was not yet suffering the way I was suffering.

So this has given me an idea. My Denial Strategy No. 2: Temporal Metaphysical Denial. If at those moments he had not suffered the way I suffered, if suffering can be postponed for three and a half hours, why not three and a half years? Why not a lifetime? Is it ever necessary to know? Hard to avoid knowing, yes, but necessary to know? No! Not if people cooperate in maintaining the Grand Denial.

My current plan then is to stop watching once the Spurs reach three wins. That way there’s no danger I’ll see the fourth and final game. The handwriting might be on the wall, but it will not be etched into my heart. So I would just like to ask everybody I know, right now, if they could please just avoid referring to the final game or the outcome of the Knicks-Spurs series. It just will not be a fact of history for me.

I don’t know if you remember that scene in Albert Brooks’ Lost in America. The one in the aftermath of the Las Vegas disaster where the wonderful Julie Hagerty, who plays his wife (and who looks exactly like an ex-girlfriend of mine who’s now married to a ski instructor, and who always hated it if I mentioned the Julie Hagerty resemblance, which may be why she chose the ski instructor, but I’m still in denial about that, too), has lost their “nest egg”–the life savings they thought would buy them freedom from yuppie careerism–loses it at roulette when she goes charmingly crazy in a casino. Anyway, Albert Brooks is trying to find a way to live with the devastating consequences to all their plans from the loss of the nest egg and he pleads with her never to even say the phrase “nest egg” anymore. In fact, to please refrain from using “egg” or “nest” alone, either. When she’s out in the woods and sees a bird’s nest, he tells her she should just call it “that thing in the trees with the twigs.”

So if I could prevail upon everyone I know or come in contact with from now on, please, my denial strategy requires that you don’t even use the word Knicks around me. Just call them “that thing in the Garden with the hoops.”

My hope is that I won’t be alone, that there will be a substantial number of fellow Knicks fans who will want to adopt this time bubble strategy. This will make it much easier for all of us to stay in denial together. We just won’t hang out with Those Who Know. My suggestion to the city: the equivalent of special handicapped parking zones for those of us undergoing Post-Traumatic Knicks Therapy, who are living in the time bubble of denial.

O.K., it sounds impractical. It’s not, well, rigorous in the details. There is the possibility of leaks in the time bubble. Think of it as a metaphor, if you like.

So perhaps we should move on to the far more philosophically rigorous Post-Traumatic Knicks Therapy Strategy No. 3: Total Ontological Denial, sometimes known as the Jorge Luis Borges/ Pam’s-Dream-on-Dallas Strategy.

I just happened (thanks to Paul Slovak at Viking) to have come into possession of the galleys of the forthcoming volume of Borges essays, conjectures and speculations in Selected Non-fictions, to be published in August. And it just happens to reprint three of my favorite of his metaphysical speculations in his recurrent crusade to prove that time itself is a fiction. “The Creation and P.H. Gosse,” “The Perpetual Race of Achilles and the Tortoise” and “The New Refutation of Time.”

In an essay in these pages a couple of years ago [Sept. 9, 1996], I speculated about the origins in his encroaching blindness of Borges’ preoccupation with the refutation of continuous time: his apparent need to believe that time is an infinite series of momentary disconnected snapshots of universes that create the illusion of flow: that only the infinitesimal instant we’re in is real, all other instants are (to us, in this one), fictions of a past and future.

I could go into it more fully, but I want to get to the practical consequences of these speculations for those in need of Post-Traumatic Knicks Therapy. In “The Creation and P.H. Gosse,” Borges flirts with the unlikely but technically irrefutable proposition that the universe might have been created just a couple of minutes ago. Anti-Darwinist theologian Gosse raised the possibility that when God created Adam and the Garden, he could easily have implanted extinct fossils in the newly created rocks to test us–to tempt us into believing the wicked fiction of an evolutionary past. If you can believe that, if you can conceive that, you could entertain the idea that we all happen to have been created a moment ago with a false memory, a fiction of our past existence implanted in our newly created brains like a fossil.

Unlikely but impossible to disprove.

So here’s the payoff, the practical consequence for Knicks fans: a pre-emptive ontological defense against the shattering impact of a Knicks loss looming in the night ahead like the berg that iced the Titanic: It didn’t really happen. It only seemed to happen. It seemed to happen in an illusory past that is itself a fiction implanted in us, a past in which the Spurs win a fourth game, a past which I–thank God–never had to suffer through in reality, because I have chosen to believe (and you can’t prove me wrong) that time, real time, only began after the illusory Knicks loss.

The loss will be just a memory, but not a real memory. I mean, if there can be a recovered memory phenomenon, why can’t there be a re-covered memory phenomenon?

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Hamlet said that. “So it’s all been a bad dream, Bobby.” Pam said that. On Dallas when Bobby emerged from the shower that morning and the entire previous season culminating with Bobby’s assassination turned out to be Pam’s bad dream. I like the idea that what Dallas was doing in that bad dream ploy was trying to find a way for us to exorcise the Kennedy assassination (Bobby being a Kennedy name and a Kennedyesque character) as a bad dream, a bad dream that, after all, happened in Dallas. And now Dallas (the show) was offering America a denial strategy. A denial strategy, which, I believe, can be applied to the Knicks. In my reality, the Knicks never really lose, and J.F.K. never died. It was all a bad dream. I know the difference between reality and a dream, and I know which I prefer. Denial: Don’t knock it, it can be a beautiful, therapeutic thing.