Guys Like Us

The 90s Knicks were ugly and flawed, even as they were great. For some families, that was worth holding onto.
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My father has never made it easy to love him, mostly because it was never easy for him to love the life he fell into. Marriage, children, a medical career—all things he was told to want, and so he tried to believe that he did. And you could almost see the weight of all that responsibility bearing down on him, pressing him into shapes that were so unnatural to him that even when he wasn’t fighting against them, you could see how much effort it took for him to stay in them.

   

Whether the soft spot that he had for me was a cause or an effect of the love we shared for the New York Knicks, I can’t really say. What I can say is that my relationship with my Dad was never more right than when we were watching or discussing Pat Riley’s rugged Knicks of the mid-90s. Those were the teams I grew up on. Ewing, Starks, Oakley, Mason—those were my heroes, the first great sports loves of mine. And those assholes were constantly toying with me.

   

They were always dangling a championship in front of my face like meat in front of a cub, dragging it closer and closer until it was inches from my face and I was in a trance, watching its juices drip to the ground, absolutely certain that the next drop was mine. And then Reggie Miller would happen, or John Starks, or a missed finger roll, or a playoff brawl, or a head-butt, or Michael Jordan or any of the thousand other things that snatched that meat right back. I grew accustomed to starving.

   

This, some people say, was deserved. The wider world saw those Knicks as a pack of thugs muddying up a beautiful sport, either of their own volition or Riley’s. Maybe they were.     Truth is, my father and I wouldn’t have loved them as much as we did if everyone else hadn’t hated them so much--how else would they have shown us what not giving a shit looked like? He rooted for them because they did what he never could; they became something other than what they were told to be. Rooting for Starks and Oakley and Mason was, for my father, a chance to fight back against the inevitability of the life he was living. It was a strange search for redemption by proxy, but because it was also his way of reaching for me, it brought him even closer to the life he was trying to escape.

Sometimes, the only way out is back in.

***   

 

I was in 7th grade when the Knicks finally made it past the Bulls--thank you Michael Jordan for thinking you could play baseball--and into the 1994 NBA Finals. For a while, life was glorious. The smell of that meat was intoxicating and I was by my dad’s side for every minute of every game of that series.

Except for the fourth quarter of Game 7, when he turned the channel in disgust because it was clear that God hated New Yorkers. The Knicks were going to lose. There would be no comeback—no redemption—and my father didn’t need to see any more. But I couldn’t look away.

   

I needed to watch it all play out, needed to be fully present for whatever time was left before the Knicks lost in the championship. I needed to rubberneck this death in slow motion. The gore of it all was too much to look away from.

   

I went into my room and watched the rest of that goddamn game on a shitty little tv on the floor, lying on my stomach across the shaggy green carpet, inches from the screen. And I cried. Because it wasn’t just about the Knicks. It was about the knowledge that there’d be no more celebrating with my Dad, no more howling with joy when Ewing blocked a shot or Oakley grabbed a rebound. I cried because I really thought the Knicks were going to win, and I couldn’t understand how I could be so sure of something and so wrong.

   

For the first time, I understood—wholly and viscerally—that just because you want something, does not mean that you get it. It was that simple: Life was unfair. Dad wanted a different life and I wanted a father who was happy, and neither one of us was going to get what we desired. He couldn’t go back and untether himself from adulthood any more than I could make him behave in any particular way, and neither one of us could do a damn thing about the Knicks winning a championship.

   

And all that powerlessness hurt.

***

   

The next year the Knicks went 55-27. Starks made more three-pointers than anyone else in the league. Anthony Mason was Sixth Man of the Year. Things were looking good. And despite those horrific 18.7 seconds in the first game of the Eastern Conference Semifinals in which Reggie Miller scored nine points to beat them, the Knicks had won two straight games to force Game 7. It might all still be OK.

   

When the game started, my parents and I were making the six-hour drive home from New Jersey, where we’d been visiting cousins. My father had gotten into a fight with my uncle and we were promptly asked to leave a day early. I don’t remember what the fight was about but it doesn’t matter. It could’ve been anything. A comment about my cousins’ behavior, an offensive remark about their best friends, a jab about something unpleasant from the past. My father was just like Charles Oakley that way, with an uncanny ability to poke and prod at you until he found out exactly where you didn’t want him to go. He always found a way to get there, and often it was as ugly and unrelenting as Oak hitting the glass. He couldn’t help himself.

   

“I don’t know what’s wrong with you sometimes,” my mom said as we drove home.

   

“Oh shut up, Jan. Just go to sleep and leave me alone,” he spat back. “All these years I’ve had to put up with so much shit from all you women, I’m sick of it. Fuckin’ leeches…”

   

A trapped animal in a cage, dizzy with fear and throwing shit at his captors.

   

It was strange, feeling so much love and so much hate at the same time. I looked out the window and watched the blurry world roll past us, and didn’t waste the energy wondering why my mother never left him, as I sometimes did. I already knew the answer. It was the same for both of us: my Mom and I loved him because we didn’t know how to stop.

   

We listened to the game on the radio and when it was still a close game by the end of the 3rd quarter, we stopped at a sports bar to watch the rest of it. We sat at the bar and forgot to be angry we watched the last 12 minutes play out. Please God, I thought, please let this happen. We need this. And we really did.

   

The Knicks were down by five with a minute left and we watched horrified as Anthony Mason missed two free throws. I felt it all sitting in the back of my throat—everything that had happened that weekend—it was all right there, just waiting, making it hard for me to swallow.

   

When Starks hit that next three, it was like some emergency exit had been deployed, and there was air again to breathe. The Garden went nuts, and so did we. My Dad put his arm around me, squeezed me hard and tight, and I thought, It’s really gonna happen today. It was that same certainty that I’d felt the year before, only this time it would really happen. This time I knew in a way that was different--a tangible certainty: a clenched fist, a tightened muscle. On the next play they got the stop they needed and the season came down to one more play. Down by two, five seconds left.

   

I’ve watched this last play a few times over the last few weeks, and even now, over two decades later, it puts a rubber band around my insides to see it. Ewing takes the inbound from Harper, drives up the lane, and lays up a finger-roll inches from the basket. It clangs off the back of the rim.

   

What I didn’t notice back then was that in between the bounce and the buzzer, Ewing sees that he’s missed, and begins to jump up for the rebound. But then he lands, and it’s over. For some reason, that’s what gets me—when it’s done, and all he can do is look up and watch it play out in slow motion. I taste that same powerlessness from 20 years ago on my tongue--dry and bitter--when I see how, when it mattered the most, even the star of the team couldn’t change anything. He had no more control than anyone else. He never won an NBA championship.

       

***

The drive home from the sports bar was quiet, but not angry. The tension was replaced by a communal sadness because of the loss, and somehow that was comforting. I thought about how long I’d have to wait to see the Knicks play again, and how long it’d be before I saw my cousins again. I thought about what it would be like if my mother left him and about the knowledge that she never would. I held that knowledge in my hands like a small stone, and I rubbed it over and over again until it was smooth. My mother would never leave him and for that, I hated them both. For that, I was also grateful.

   

That team was everything there was about my father. Ewing was his talent, Starks his insanity, Oakley his knack for provocation. There was an arrogance to all of them that was predicated on the fact of winning, and how that justified anything. My father worked hard to provide for his family and if he dragged around the resulting anger and regret—if he made lewd jokes or told you to fuck off—well, that was your problem. Until, of course, there were consequences that made it his problem as well.

   

A bench-clearing playoff brawl that cost them the series. A fight between my father and uncle that ended Thanksgiving early.

   

A 2-for-18 performance in a game that meant everything. A job lost for insubordination a month before I was born.

   

A missed finger roll. One more affair.   

   

There was all that glittering promise—always—all those times when I was sure they’d come through for me and instead they self-destructed. The Knicks and my Dad broke my heart when I was growing up, in concert with one another and in oddly similar ways. But I haven’t figured out how to stop loving either one. I couldn’t if I tried.

 

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