Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Knicks Fan's Emotional Playoff Weather Report

I've spent the past several springs and early summers observing the NBA playoffs with the intellectual curiosity and remove of a laboratory scientist. I've studied team chemistry. I've charted passing-lane geometry. I've noted the power and grace of the players involved in those playoffs like a dance critic. And I've observed the customs of variously self-righteous, neurotic and apathetic fanbases like a sociologist. I've even unpacked literary analogs for NBA teams, once comparing LeBron James to the titular character in obscure Shakespeare play Timon of Athens and the heavily-inked Nuggets to Cyrano de Bergerac. Reading rather than rooting has characterized May for me. All of these endeavors have been exceedingly pleasant.

And terrible.

Because I write about sports in this space, and others, because I want to root, root, root for my home team. All the while, I've longed for the euphoria of Patrick's raised arms, embracing the crowd, after Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 1994. I pined for the anxiety of game days while I was in grade-school, when I'd struggle to manufacture witty retorts when my classmates in suburban New Jersey gleefully informed me, often correctly, that the Knicks were going to lose to the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers or whomever was the night's opponent. I waited to stoke that same furnace of anger that brightly burned in my tentative teenage spleen when PJ Brown tossed Charlie Ward into the stands during the 1997 playoffs. I even missed the poignancy of the 2-for-18 desolation that had come closer than any other experience to matching the grasping, quicksand anguish of being dumped for the first time that mattered.

Without those things from 2004 to 2011, I was not so much a basketball fan during the NBA postseason as much as I was a basketball enthusiast. Hoops watching, and even hoops blogging, was like constructing scaled sea vessels that would forever stay dry and be kept in bottles or on bookshelves. While I certainly got high from huffing the modeling glue and enjoyed the meticulous handcraft, it was not the same as sailing.

But after years of clear indoor springtime skies, the winds are howling around and inside me, rattling the shutters and trembling beverages in their glasses as if a T-Rex is stomping through the streets of Jersey city. My sterile playoff viewing environment has been ripped from its moorings and spun like Dorothy's farmhouse in that famous Plains twister.

Marveling at the balletic grace and rocket-powered explosiveness of Amar'e Stoudemire in Game 1 flushed my face with the joy of the playoffs while raging at the no-call when Kevin Garnett plainly, efficiently tripped Toney Douglas to free up Ray Allen for the Boston's Game 1 winner on Sunday reacquainted me with the stakes. Watching Carmelo Anthony's regal, irrepressibly Bernard King–like effort rendered something like irrelevant by Jared Jeffrie's timid game-killing effort in the post last night in the penultimate moment of Game 2 of the first-round playoff series between the New York Knickerbockers and the Boston Celtics brought it all back to me. The feeling after Game 2 was agonizing.

And, I'd missed it. Terribly.

After each loss, I was torn between violent and melancholy desires. I wanted to sulk away quickly, quietly to a windowless room and sleep fitfully but determinedly until the next game. But I also felt a fierce Rondoesque straightline drive to HULK!SMASH! home entertainment equipment belonging to myself and others. I wanted to throw laptops against walls. And then tear flat screen televisions from their wall mounts. I wanted present company to leave without a word, especially self-righteous Boston fans cheering Chauncey Billups' knee injury while thinking their seat on the couch represented some sort of moral high ground. Yet I wanted to yell FUUUUUUUUUUUUUCKKKKK as loud as I possibly could so that the neighbors would trudge downstairs to complain. And, then I wanted drink strong fermented drinks from ice-filled tumblers until my vision doubled and trebled as my urges to commit violence against myself and others lessened inversely.
Things are tough all over, when the thunder storms start increasing over the southeast and south central portions of my apartment. I get upset, and a line of thunderstorms was developing in the early morning, ahead of a slow moving coldfront, cold blooded, with tornado watches issued shortly before noon Sunday, for the areas including, the western region of my mental health and the northern portions of my ability to deal rationally with my disconcerted precarious emotional situation. -Tom Waits
To further confuse my emotional situation, both games engendered plenty of positive feelings along with all of the negative ones. In each contest, the best and most impressive player was wearing road blues. In Game 1, Amar'e was acrobatic and powerful. He looked like Patrick Ewing playing against the Celtics in 1990, and KG had as good a chance of staying in front of him as I did.

In Game 2, Carmelo Anthony channeled 1984 Bernard King in a talismanic and relentless performance. He scored 42 points, controlled 17 rebounds and doled out six assists (but, sadly, not seven). It was sports heroism (which is very distinct from actual heroism) and its most compelling.

I ooh'd and hot damn'd and hell yeah'd due to the superlative efforts of these two All-Star players who jumped at the chance to be paid exceedingly well by my the Knicks. The final scores of each games does not mean those exclamations weren't exclaimed and that that enthusiasm wasn't felt.

While I have managed to forage enough Knicks-related thrills to survive the regular-season mediocrity of the last few years, I haven't tasted moments as sweet as those for some time. I've subsisted mostly on a diet of Isiah-directed angst and then free-agency-related hope. But on Sunday and Tuesday, I was able to gorge myself on terrific play by STAT and Melo. Of course, the aged Celtics illustrated that being best was not nearly as important as being last in the postseason. In both games, the Celtics scored the last points of the game to secure the win. In both games, the final score threatened to render my elation and enthusiasm meaningless.

After two 2011 playoff games, the 'bockers are boasting an 0-2-0-2 record. Zero wins. Two losses. No draws. And, a pair of moral victories. Despite doing nothing to help the Knicks advance in the 2011 postseason, the slivers of light amidst the storm clouds are not insignificant. These twin silver-lined losses mark the best postseason that the Knicks have had since 2001. Not coincidentally, that was the last time that a basketball game ruined my day so thoroughly.

I was gutted after Vince Carter, Chris Childs and the Toronto Raptors ended the Knicks' 2001 season, closing the brief window of post-Ewing success. The lurching deadstop loss in the decisive fifth game of that series frustrated more than anything I've seen this week (or may see next) because that Knicks squad was trending down. Patrick was gone. Larry Johnson's back was going. Charlie Ward had just revealed himself to be an anti-semite. Without the center, the team could not hold. The sting of these 2011 losses has been mitigated by the fact - or, at least, my belief - that this team is trending up. Win or lose, the Knicks are blossoming into a better team than the Celtics right before our eyes. Of course, it also helps calm my nerves that New York has two home games coming hot down the pike with which they can even this series.

Biologically speaking, pain and discomfort are supposed to motivate us to back away from dangerous or potentially harmful situations. It is a warning signal. It's telling me to run like hell from these Knickerbockers. But like a moth to flame, I'm drawn to this likely losing effort. I've grossly overpaid for my ticket for Game 3 at the Garden on Friday and I'm open to all the pain that the fine print on the back of the stub absolves James Dolan of. Because, as William Faulkner wrote, given the choice between the experience of pain and nothing, I would choose pain. After years of vacuous Knicks nothingness, I'm relishing the opportunity for pain and confusion and sadness because it brings the chance for transcendent moments of happiness and an increased likelihood of high fives.

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