Dr. Jack or Walt Clyde?: An NBA Love Affair

The organ is heard both when preachers preach and Walt Clyde Frazier rhymes; that can’t be a coincidence.
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For all the brand new, card-carrying members of the League Pass club, know that the League Pass has been enabling the roundball-obsessed for years. Getting both coasts and the European games beamed into a single screen—in such a way that it may feel as though it’s been directly beamed into the brain—is heady. It brings with it consideration of external necessity: you can watch damn near any game on your phone during what is considered company time, simultaneously tweeting with other folks who share similar priorities. This might be mitigated by high-functioning fans who leave work and then catch the Eastern Conference tip of a Bucks’ game, directly followed by the Timberwolves’ start on the West Coast: the NBA equivalent of a Louie CK bang-bang.

The different start time down coasts, plus the sheer number of potential possibilities, creates an obvious situation: what to choose? It’s likely that fans will most likely settle on one or another team more often than others. Logic follows that any sane individual would take advantage of the opportunity by watching either completely stacked teams or highflyers. Why is that? Because winning is fun, excitement is fun, and the magic of the League Pass is that you are able to choose as you see fit. Geography doesn’t have to define your viewing options. However, many go for the less glamorous—the 2005-06 New York Knicks, for instance. I know I did.

If you don’t remember those years, here’s the skinny: those Knicks resembled an elaborate ramen dish conceived by a student studying all night for a final aided by non-prescribed, expired prescription pills. It started with old, stale ramen—Penny Hardaway—topped with a dairy-based Eddy Curry sauce that never even met the sniff-test cut of certain failure, then was garnished with habitually misapplied Jamal Crawford mystery paste. The roster didn’t make sense, and if you were hoping for the pride of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University to bind it together, then please introduce me to your good friend, James Dolan, so I can hear about Jerome James’s post game. You could say choosing to watch this team was a decision only a high schooler indulging in too many TV dinners could make. You might not be wrong, but, for perfectly selfish reasons, I maintain the choice was a little more revealing than that.

The Knicks hold a special place in the NBA that is entirely unique to them; what exactly that means is open to as many interpretations as there are Craig Sager suit combos. At the bare minimum, it’s New Yorkers using the team as a conduit to soapbox about the greatest city in the world. It could be a more general admission that the team attracts eyeballs and opinion like no other, reasons being immaterial. Could the Lakers and Celtics say the same through a prolonged playoff absence? It’s far from certain. More circumstantial evidence rests in the former free agents who have been linked to New York for no other reason than NY is in the running to land them. And so, I prefer to think that choosing to tune into this incarnation of the Knicks was a gesture illustrating my loyalty to the NBA and its greater community and rich traditions, and not the above-mentioned TV dinners doing their thing. Delicately put, following the minutiae of the Magic would be a waste of time; whereas the blue and orange offered a cultural experience. Think of that organ alone, each note a revelation.

Walking into the sports store to pick up a hat after my introduction to League Pass was an opportunity to finally draw a line in the sand. Finger pointed square at the logo, I could now proudly explain my loyalty to the Knicks and, by extension, an important community of the league to anyone who asked.

I can safely say, though, the responses were never favorable, and they usually required further explanation that still failed to lower raised eyebrows. After enough of these exchanges I felt as if I might as well have been explaining why the best cold remedy is to drink cough syrup preemptively, hence the flask of Robitussin in stow. My halfhearted explanations of Eddy Curry’s inevitable emergence hardly quelled the guffaws when I steadily weakened the argument—or most likely saved face, in the listener’s opinion—by stating that, in the end, it wasn’t really about a player’s emergence or team’s reemergence. It’s about being a part of the longsuffering Knicks community that has approached this sport with a level of dedication evidenced in that they applaud the pass that leads to the great pass when other fans don’t. This isn’t done unless basketball matters. The organ is heard both when preachers preach and Walt Clyde Frazier rhymes; that can’t be a coincidence. That was my sentiment over ten years ago and that’s my belief to this day.

***

Passions run high in sports, so rooting for a team for less than visceral reasons understandably goes against the nature of fandom, or at least the common image of fans on their knees, shouting at the injustice of a Courtney Kirkland blown charge. Without these experiences, new fans can feel insecure, as if their lack of enduring emotional connection paints them as bandwagoners.

Longstanding fans and bandwagon riders alike, though, aren’t quick to question the validity of fanhood when the object of that fanhood is centered in the team’s home city itself. No one questions the fandom authority or sincerity of the little exchanges completed while handing the postman packages or in the crowded pub while trying to get the bartender’s attention. These scenarios of fleeting (sometimes forced) interaction are of a daily sort, especially inescapable in cities, which tend to be the places housing professional sports teams. Because these interactions are so important—more important than we may typically think—it’s helpful to establish some kind of relationship, some kind of coherency or common ground. Geography, in this case, helps. We are in this location at this time. Thus, the local sports team is always relevant; even if that barroom conversation three tables away doesn’t directly involve you, it’s still relevant to your sense of “here.”

It’s also a way to take that grounding with you, wherever you go. A native New Yorker pulling for the Knicks is entirely coherent: their “here” is simply somewhere else. But a Portlander pulling for NY?

I’m that Portlander. That’s why I’m thinking about this.

***

If you could transport yourself to a pub in Portland on the evening of May 3, 2014 you would see a packed room filled with a remarkable scene comprised of tables upended for spontaneous group hugs, pitchers worth of precious beer spilled after gleeful skipping collisions, and a chorus of high-pitched yelps. Many of those fans didn’t know they could erupt in a frenzy until that night—including me. Damian Lillard’s playoff series clinching 3-pointer was a good time to be a Blazer Believer.

Where was I exactly one year earlier, on May 3rd, when the Knicks won their first playoff series since 2000? Probably watching at home, but I don’t remember. There weren’t celebratory drinks to anchor the win in memory. There also weren’t local newspaper clippings, game tickets, or keepsakes tacked onto a wall to commemorate the occasion. The Knicks playoff advance was a happy moment, not a cathartic one. My experience was filtered through a flat, liquid crystal display sitting quietly in a corner, and more than likely me swiping my thumb over a phone, reading tweets. Luckily, there was no end of articles online that filled the need to occupy myself with the win, although it still felt far removed, decidedly on the other coast.

***

Years after I enrolled in the Knicks’ outhouse fire program, I found myself in downtown Portland when the irrationality of a deluded Blazer Believer arose in me. The face of this irrationality was Brent Barry—not symbolically or figuratively, but his actual face, attached to his actual, very large body—because when I saw it my reaction was to rubberneck him like Stretch Armstrong. Naturally, all it took for my complete loss of sanity was Brent Barry to walk down the street, making conversation with his teammate on what must have been the few moments of leisure time he would have during the playoffs. Where was my Knicks fandom at this moment? Evaporated in the cloudless Portland sky? For all the Knicks games I’ve seen through the years, the Stephon Marbury drives, Gallinari 3-pointers, Carmelo pull ups, nothing stuck in that instant. I couldn’t muster even a general appreciation—where was my allegiance to the NBA community? All of a sudden, Brent Barry walking down the street, chatting with his teammate, was enough of an affront to be met with an antagonistic stare.

Seeing a player as congenial as Brent Barry and meeting him with a gesture that could be interpreted as a hostile act is incredibly foolish for two reasons: the lesser reason being proof you’re a jerk, the graver being that gesture might be taken as an invitation for a smackdown. Fortunate for me, Bones didn’t waste his time on this small human. Instead, I was left to contemplate the state of my fandom.

Access to hundreds of games a year has many strange results, one of which is it forces you to justify—or attempt to justify—the amount of time that you’ve spent with flashing LCD screens in pursuit of a new community, maybe even to the point of ignoring the actual community around you. But sometimes that community refuses to be ignored, like that not-so-long-ago night in Portland, and I’m sure basketball is worth the time spent watching. There’s too much intrigue in the league for me to do otherwise, and the potential tensions therein make it even better. My decade-long, decidedly chosen dedication to the Knicks is intact, despite my Blazer leanings—or especially because of them, since those impulsive outbursts remind me of what shouldn’t be lost.


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