My love for basketball began in 1990, when I was 12 and playing with dinosaur erasers.
The general store in my elementary school sold these cheap little erasers that came in different dinosaur shapes: pterodactyl, triceratops, tyrannosaurus rex, stegosaurus, etc. As a young kid, I mostly played baseball and football. I’d make up long, elaborate games between teams of dinosaurs. Their body types determined their positions: the pterodactyls, with their long wing spans and slim bodies, were wide receivers and centerfielders, adept at reaching up high for touchdowns (or interceptions) and reaching over the wall to steal a home run. The squat, powerful triceratops were tight ends and catchers. The t-rexes played linebacker and pitcher (the short arms gave him a deceptive arm angle). The stegosauruses were offensive linemen and designated hitters—you weren’t getting by one if he didn’t want you getting by, and good luck getting a fastball by that tail.
When I learned to read, I followed the Knicks in the box scores. I loved the detective work of recreating the arc of the game from that little square of information; loved the elegant calculus of all the different logics and formulas inherent in its maths (e.g. some papers didn’t keep track of 3-pointers; if you take the points a player scored, subtract the number of free throws made, and multiply his field goals by two, the remainder is the number of three-pointers he made).
In the fall of 1990, I started following on TV. There was an ice storm that winter that devastated Rochester for weeks. We went so long without power, we drove to NYC one weekend to stay with family, just to get some heat (when Dante wrote The Inferno, he channeled just a fraction of the coldness of western NY). I saw the Knicks play the Jazz at Madison Square Garden. I remember Karl Malone getting a technical foul. Jerry Sloan, too. I remember Mark Eaton live, easily the most captivating player on the floor—the guy made Patrick Ewing look small.
I remember watching the teams shooting around at halftime and counting how many times they missed, so when I went home and practiced I wouldn’t ever be discouraged by missing a shot.
That spring the Knicks were swept in the 1st round by the eventual champion Bulls. I was so young and naïve that when Game 3 began and Maurice Cheeks hit a couple jumpers and the Knicks took, like, an 8-2 lead, I thought they were on their way. All Cheeks had to do was maintain that pace, score 96 points, and the Knicks would be fine. Spoiler alert: he didn’t.
The 1992 Knicks might be my favorite team ever. Pat Riley came to NY and put the Knicks on the map with bright blinking lights around their name. Xavier McDaniel became my favorite player, both for his power, whirling dervish post game and for getting in the face of Michael Jordan.
Sports Illustrated ran a feature on the team that year, with a cover photo of Ewing at Golden State, the night he put up 35 points and 21 rebounds and the Knicks won in Oakland (even when Golden State is bad, winning in Oakland’s no joke). The Knicks got off to a hot start that year, blew the division late to Boston (one of the only times I ever heard my father curse was watching John Starks take a 3 late in a game the Knicks lost in Atlanta when they only needed a 2 to win), dealt the death knell to the Bad Boys in a wild best-of-5, shocked the world winning Game 1 at Chicago (Ewing crosses over Cartwright!), won a Game 6 where Ewing took his level of play beyond even Jordan’s (it happened that year in Games 1 & 6 and in 1996’s Game 3), and hung in till halftime of Game 7. I was hooked and have been ever since.
At its highest level, basketball is the most aesthetically pleasing game on Earth (I’m also a big soccer fan, and while I know it’s called “the beautiful game,” haters always find something to complain about with the NBA’s latest style of play; to these people I say: Stoke City). Watching the Spurs and Heat last June was watching art every night for three hours. Every sport, at its purest, at its best, becomes something greater than the sum of itself. Basketball becomes 10 people on a string working independently, as counterpoint, and as complement—one organism.
Basketball is like watching evolution play out in front of you (with lots of blaring background noise). It’s theme and variation if Beethoven had a floating runner instead of a keyboard, the endless ebb and flow of an ever-shifting means (post-heavy systems/fast break teams/pick & roll teams/systemless systems) versus two constant ends (offense:score::defense:stop). And the slightest differences make the biggest differences. Someone who can dominate guys who are 6’4” can’t hit half their shots against guys 6’6”. Evolutionary leaps come along: a 5’7” guy who can dunk; a seven-footer with infinite range; a 6’9” seeming chimera who does everything better than everyone else.
Some years you watch basketball for the forest. Sometimes you watch for the trees. When your team hasn’t been in contention for, say, 13 years, and then gets to the 2nd round, you’re watching for the forest. Your eyes are on the big picture. From training camp onward, you follow this epic, unscripted narrative for eight, nine months. The farther your team goes, the more difficult it is to watch; you may become a more difficult person to be around, at least until the game’s decided. A bad call by a ref, a three banked in as the shot clock winds down, a turned ankle, and suddenly the narrative takes a wild swing. Ever watch Plinko on The Price Is Right? The chip moves down the board pretty easily, until it gets about halfway down; from then on, the closer it gets to resolution, the more erratic the twists and turns. That’s what watching for the forest is like.
Some years you watch basketball for the trees. As a Knick fan, I call this time “The 2000s.” We all have seasons where we know our team isn’t going anywhere. Nobody likes it. But in a sense, these types of years are what being a fan is all about. You watch the games, quite simply, for the games. You don’t worry about the big picture. You aren’t fixated on some inevitable-but-unknown moment of truth. You root, like you did as a kid, to win a game. That’s it. Sometimes these games, for whatever reason, stick with you as much as any moments of playoff grandeur. For every Ewing’s 1990 Game 5 vs. Boston, there’s Nate Robinson’s 40+ point explosion in his first game after weeks of benchings, a win at Atlanta; for every Allan Houston winning runner vs. Miami in 1999, there was Houston scoring 50 in an unforgettable win at the Great Western Forum. When you watch for the trees, you’re watching a one-night only drama.
As far as the game today, I love watching Lebron play. There are limits as far as how useful a comparison between players of different eras can be; to me, Lebron’s been the best player in the NBA since 2007. Is he better than Michael Jordan? Lebron plays in a globalized league where zone defenses are legal; MJ dealt with hand checking and more physical defenses. I didn’t see Bird in his prime, or Magic, or Kareem, or Wilt, or The Big O, or Bill Russell, or George Mikan. I don’t know who’s the best ever. I don’t care. I will say this for Lebron: that he’s in the discussion after “only” 10 years means he’s done as much as anyone could so far. Think of this, too: Lebron’s 3 inches taller than MJ was and 70 pounds heavier…yet he’s no less athletic, no slower, no less air-worthy. He has the body of a 4, the scoring skills of a 2/3, the passing and vision of a 1, and he can shut down most everybody, 1 through 5, in the league. For someone in the future to come along and be to Lebron what Lebron is to MJ, he’d need to be seven feet tall, weigh 360 pounds, and do everything. I’m not sure that’s humanly possible. Lebron may not be the best ever. But it may be true that no one else will ever be as good as him.
I’m old enough as a fan now to have “When I was young, this/that was better than now” moments. I wish the league would go back to a best-of-5 first round; it’s so much more dramatic. I’d like to see at least some exhibition games where the three-point line is removed; I’m curious what changes would result. I wonder if the perimeter game would be relaxed even more if the court was widened. I’d like to see automatic technicals for coaches who stomp their feet and act histrionically when an opposing player’s shooting a 3. I hope one day there are teams in other countries around the world. I hope the game continues to globalize and diversify.
I have a blog where I write a lot about the NBA. One thing I write about is wishing the league, the televising networks, the media who cover the game, and the fans who watch would not so readily lose sight of the players’ humanity. It’s easy to focus on those aspects of players’ lives that we envy: the money; the connections; the adulation. But the counter to those perks are the realities of life as a professional athlete that I know I, for one, would hate to have to deal with.
I’m working to make my career as a professor and a writer. After earning a degree, I get to explore options for where I want to work/live. I don’t have to worry about being drafted to teach at some college with a history of poor leadership, in a city or part of the country that takes me away from all my friends and loved ones and lands me in a place I have no knowledge of/interest in. If I decide I don’t like my job and want to look for work elsewhere, I don’t need to worry about what millions of strangers around the country think about my decision. If I feel under the weather, I can cancel class…and if, that same night, I feel better, I can go out to a movie and not worry about anybody taking my picture and Tweeting it to 3,000 friends who then tweet it to three million people. I don’t have to worry about me living my life mattering to strangers.
The past few years I’ve been constantly disgusted by the vitriol directed at players exercising their rights as free agents. No one is going to reasonably argue that “The Decision” was well-thought out or well-executed. But Lebron gave Cleveland the best 7 years that franchise has ever had. Is it really offensive or unfathomable that a 25-year old, given the opportunity to move from Ohio to South Beach and work for a better company, with some of his friends, would do so? Carmelo and Dwight Howard, same thing: they took their franchises to the highest heights they’ve known, earned their paychecks (market value-wise, anyway), and took advantage of perhaps the only time in their careers (careers which, compared to other fields, are shorter and nearly impossible to break into) where they hold the upper hand in negotiations.
When the Knicks traded Ray Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Timofey Mozgov—NONE of whom wanted to be traded; ALL of whom were vocal about wanting to stay in NY—for Carmelo, I didn’t hear one single radio caller or read one single newspaper columnist bemoan the lack of loyalty shown by the organization. So don’t hate when the door swings the other way. To quote Hyman Roth in Godfather 2: “This is the business we’ve chosen.”
The amount of coverage/exposure nowadays for the NBA is dizzying, and wonderful in so many ways. Greater access to something, however, does not ensure greater intimacy or understanding. Sometimes the breadth of information newly available leads to oversimplifications; to get a grip on a subject, we dumb it down. Exhibit A: the absurd obsession with the number of rings someone has determining their value and/or their “will to win.” I watched Patrick Ewing go head-to-head against Michael Jordan a bunch of times. Jordan didn’t want it more than Ewing. He didn’t want it more than Starks. The Bulls were a better team than the Knicks. That’s why they won.
Dwight Howard isn’t the reason the Magic and Lakers failed to win in his time there. Melo isn’t the reason Denver didn’t win. Lebron wasn’t the reason the Cavs didn’t win. Who was Dwight’s best teammate in ORL? Melo’s in DEN? Michael Jordan had Scottie Pippen. Lebron had Mo Williams. There’s a difference.
The ’07 Cavs making the Finals was as impressive as a lot of title teams I’ve seen. Making the Finals, for that roster, was as good as a ring. The 2001 Sixers taking a game off the 15-1 Lakers? That’s as good as they could do. Allen Iverson isn’t a bum for not winning. There may only be a handful of players in history who could have led that 76er team so far.
Can you tell I’ve grown up hearing Patrick Ewing scapegoated?
What am I looking forward to next year? Can Lebron continue to do everything for Miami, over 82 games and 2 months of playoff basketball, to lead them to a threepeat? Does the return of Danny Granger and addition of C.J. Watson give Indiana enough of a bump to get them over the Heat hump? What kind of Derrick Rose comes back for the Bulls? How do the Knicks look after finally giving their team a chance to develop continuity? Why do the Nets keep being celebrated for moves that the Knicks would be excoriated for making? Are the Thunder ready to take over the league? Is it asking too much, even of the Popovich Spurs, to bounce back from being 5 seconds away from a title to make a run again? How much better are the Clippers? If Dwight Howard’s recovered fully from his back and labrum issues, where do the Rockets stack up? Is anything more frightening than the Lakers licking their wounds?
Will the league make any significant rule changes? Can the instant replay process be streamlined? Will the style of play continue to trend toward favoring perimeter creators and outside shooters, or is there a niche now for post-players to resurrect? How will the 2013 rookie class fare? Will the 2014 class be as great as everyone is saying?
I love the league.
I love the game.
Sometimes we mix these up, or think of them as analogous. They’re not. Loving the game means I’m happy taking in a pick-up at the local park, or a low-res high-school game on community access TV, or craning my neck as I drive by a house where some kid just took a shot at the rim on his garage, because I have to know: did he make it?
Loving the league means continuing to watch, trees or forest, because my understanding of the game, my investment in its narratives, and my joy at its unfolding are ever evolving, like the players themselves, like the game itself, like the dinosaurs long ago.