Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Making A Bad Decision

 Originally written April 19, 2009

The dull box of Brendan Byrne Arena has played a much larger role in my youth as the first home of my New Jersey Devils, and likewise Madison Square Garden for the New York Rangers, but remarkably enough, I had actually made my first visit to the Byrne a month before that fateful loss to Toronto, when I went to see the Devils’ co-tentants, the New Jersey Nets. My first professional basketball game was on November 11, 1995. That morning I was playing in a pee wee football game in Summit, New Jersey, when a parent of one of my teammates offered my father their tickets for that night. I had never been to an NBA game before, so I was fairly excited, but despite that, I remember shockingly little about the game itself.

The Nets were playing the Sacramento Kings, this much I recall, and the Nets won by an 86-84 score as the Kings fired up a three-point shot at the buzzer that bounced off the rim. The more impressionable aspect, however, was the horrific weather that night. The Meadowlands of northern New Jersey are a large flat area where wind can pick up and wreak havoc, which has often been an element of difficulty for punters when the Giants and Jets play across the parking lot. On that particular night, when there was a massive thunderstorm, my father, my friend Matt Nedostup and I sprinted from the arena to our car, at one point on the trip seeking refuge behind a parked 18-wheeler as a break from the swirling winds. By the time we were once again under a roof we were completely soaked.

Much of the in-game experience that night is a total mystery to me. What I remember of the arena itself has long been pounded into my head by my many trips there to see the Devils, and the inside feels fairly similar except the center of the action is wood rather than ice. I’ve only been to a handful of Nets games in my life, though a game in 2003 between the Nets and Pistons does come to mind. The Nets were a double casualty of both only a scant interest in the NBA in my childhood and the fact that when I finally did get sucked into professional basketball, it would be the Knicks that I’d call my team.

This was a bad decision.
I first paid attention to the Knicks in 1994 during their seven-game loss in the NBA Finals to Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets. I rooted for them and remember watching Patrick Ewing standing on the scorer’s table and soaking in the cheers after defeating the Indiana Pacers for the Eastern Conference title that year. But I also liked Michael Jordan and the Bulls. How could you not? I wasn’t the most enthusiastic follower -- really I was mostly a fan of the legendary NBA on NBC theme music -- and didn’t really settle myself as a fan of a particular team until 1999. The first half of that season had been cut short by a lockout, one of many monetary squabbles between two different sets of rich men that rarely get any sympathy or understanding from the public.

In reality, collective bargaining agreements do broach a number of serious issues and determining how to divide the pain is no small matter.

But we’re fans. We don’t care. We want to watch our games.

By the time the playoffs rolled around for the shortened campaign, the Knicks snuck in as the No. 8 seed, and did so as a fairly different group from the one that made the finals five years earlier. John Starks was gone in favor of the energetic and controversial Latrell Sprewell, likely the biggest difference between the two teams. Sprewell was so deemed controversial because in December 1997 he had been told by P.J. Carlesimo, his coach with the Golden State Warriors, that he needed to “put a little mustard” on his passes.

Sprewell responded by choking Carlesimo.

Sprewell wouldn’t play again for 14 months until the Warriors dealt him to the Knicks at the start of the shortened 1999 season. With Spree, a self-described changed man, providing energy off the bench while Larry Johnson and Allan Houston created from the perimeter, the Knicks stunned the NBA with a remarkable postseason run that saw them get past the top-seeded Heat on a late runner by Houston in Game 5. New York was only the second No. 8 to advance to the second round, after the 1994 Denver Nuggets, but they would be the first to reach the conference finals after a sweep of the No. 4-seeded Atlanta Hawks.

One round later against the infinitely clutch Reggie Miller and the hated Pacers, the Knicks would become the first No. 8 to reach the NBA Finals in a dramatic six-game series that featured Larry Johnson’s miracle four-point play in Game 3 and forever cemented Sprewell’s place in the hearts of Knicks fans. The Knicks would fall in five games to a vastly superior Spurs team that featured the almost unbeatable frontcourt of Tim Duncan and David Robinson, but my mind was made up.

This was my team. I was a Knicks fan.

For the next decade I would wonder how I could have gone so wrong. While the local Nets would trade for future Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kidd, who led them to two straight Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003, the Knicks would wallow in mediocrity until hiring Isiah Thomas to be team President in 2003, a move with longterm consequences so far reaching and so disastrous that by the time he was forced out in 2008, New Yorkers were wishing they were merely wallowing in mediocrity again.

To recount Thomas’ myriad mistakes and poor decisions is an interminably frustrating exercise in masochism. During his tenure, Thomas traded for former Coney Island phenom Stephon Marbury, a man with a long history of being a difficult ball hog as well as a locker room cancer. Marbury’s greatest accomplishment as a Knick might have been providing comic fodder during a sexual harassment lawsuit against Thomas and the front office when he admitted on the stand that he had lured an intern into his truck for sex. Not to be outdone, Thomas also traded two unprotected first-round draft picks to the Chicago Bulls for Eddy Curry, a vastly disappointing high draft pick with a known heart condition. When asked about how Curry could improve his rebounding once, his former coach Scott Skiles said, “Jump.” One wonders how difficult it was for Bulls GM John Paxson to hide his laughter when Thomas first called up to offer the deal.

The Knicks would be horrendously bad during Thomas’ tenure, and moves to add Zach Randolph and sign Jerome James to a five-year $30 million deal only compounded the pain. James is often forgotten when recounting Thomas’ mistakes, but he may supplant Curry as the most awful. James would only play 90 games for the Knicks in three and a half seasons while averaging a whopping 7.72 minutes per game. At one game I attended against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Knicks were being thoroughly handled when James finally made his first appearance late in the fourth quarter. Much of the depleted crowd cheered wildly whenever he touched the ball and completely erupted in cruel mockery when he actually score a basket.

As one fan yelled from behind me during the next possession, “Give it to Jerome! He’s got the hot hand!”

At another game against the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007, my friend Bert and I attended fully prepared with grocery bags to wear over our heads. Unfortunately, that night was one of those rare instances when the Knicks actually defeated a team vastly superior to themselves, but we still took a picture for our records, and were asked to pose with the bags on for a photo by some visiting Cavs fans to boot.

While my first Knicks game came after their inspiring run to the 1999 Finals, it was actually before the Thomas Circus did everything short of literally burn down Madison Square Garden to ruin the franchise. It came on January 24, 2002, on a night when I clearly shouldn’t have gone. A junior in high school, I had my AP U.S. History midterm waiting for me the next morning, and after settling in for a night of cramming everything from a different Marbury in Marbury v. Madison to McCulloch v. Maryland, I got a phone call from my friend Jon Weg telling me Bert had given him two tickets to that night’s game. Clearly, the more practical option would have been studying for the exam, but who was I to turn down a gift?

To maintain some foolish notion that I was actually studying, I brought my notebook with me as I walked to the train station and met Weg on one of the cars. I assume my mother wouldn’t have allowed this, but fortunately for me she was at some sort of meeting at the time. When Weg and I sat in the car, I distinctly recall him having a terse interaction with the conductor. While Weg is generally something of a provocateur, this all fell on the conductor. The cost of a round trip ticket at the time was $8.50 and Weg handed the conductor $10 and two quarters, expecting to get two dollars back. Instead the conductor gave him back his 50 cents along with the remaining $1.50 in small coins.

“I wanted bills!” Weg told him.

“Well, you can enjoy your quarters.”

Weg drove home his disappointment by loudly reading the conductor’s number off of his hat and saving it to his cell phone. For whatever reason, the conductor seemed undeterred by the threat of a complaint being filed by a 16-year-old, rightfully so perhaps. Weg never did file a complaint, but as he showed me at a Mets game later that year, he kept the conductor’s number saved for months in case the mood struck him.

Unlike the Nets, this game I remember quite thoroughly. Knicks games at Madison Square Garden, when the team isn’t atrocious, are an exciting affair. The Garden and the tenacious fan base create an atmosphere that is difficult to replicate when you combine both the intensity and the intimacy provided by a smaller arena. On this particular night the Knicks were coming off a dominating win over the Toronto Raptors, and responded by giving the fans a tremendously flat first half against the Phoenix Suns. After the second quarter the Knicks trailed by 18 points and the crowd rained down a deluge of boos as the players went to the locker room. My only joy had come from taunting the Suns’ Bo Outlaw because he had such a peculiar free throw shooting form and the Garden PA announcer referred to him by his given name of Charles.

This was far different from the later years when a poor performance might have been expected. The Knicks had made the postseason 15 straight years and were only three seasons removed from a Finals appearance. The Knicks weren’t in the midst of a good season, but this still wasn’t the team I had been used to watching on TV for the past few years. According to the game story the next day, Knicks coach Don Chaney apparently unloaded on the team in the locker room at halftime.

And they responded.

The Knicks came out blazing in the third quarter and turned the tables with lockdown defense that held the Suns to just 33 points in the second half. New York rallied for a 96-91 win much to the excitement of the gathered crowd. Interestingly, this makes the Knicks the only one of my four favorite North American sports teams to win the first game I saw them play in person. Weg, ever the friendly and bubbly sort, was hugging and high-fiving strangers all around him as the final seconds of the clock ticked away. I joined in the fracas while frantically reminding myself not to leave the history notebook I had stashed under my seat.

I came home and did a poor job of forcing myself to study, or at least I think I did. The academic part of the evening is hazy at this point. But I do remember letting it slip to my math teacher, Mr. Fox, that I had shirked my studious responsibilities for the sake of a basketball team that was 10 games under .500 at the time I decided to go. Mr. Fox was a great teacher, a good man and one of the primary reasons I consider myself to have succeeded so well in high school and later college. However, this time we didn’t particularly see eye to eye. You never spoke out of turn in Mr. Fox’s class, nor did you ever show up late or without your homework done. To be fair, he was only expecting the same dedication when it came to academics from his students that he gave to them. And when I told him I had attended a basketball game instead of studying his silent disapproval was a clear sign of how he felt.

But he was also a Rangers fan, so clearly he couldn’t be right on everything. Moreover, I don’t know how I did on that exam, but Dr. Conlon, my history teacher, never knew as far as I know. And that’s probably a good thing since she wrote me a letter of recommendation when I applied to college later that year. As for Mr. Fox, he must have gotten past my irresponsibility. He wrote me a recommendation, too.

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