Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Pete, Andre, "Team Toast" and Al Trautwig

After we attended the US Open semifinals last summer in Flushing, the older of my two younger brothers really started to dig the idea that he and I become the sort of debonair fellows who regularly attend tennis matches. We would introduce ourselves to any ladies sporting knee-length skirts and fitted blazers from the Brooks Brothers spring collection as Tom and Nick from West Egg, Long Island and it would be a lark.

This sophisticated style, though, seemed to have been scrapped before we even set foot inside Madison Square Garden last night for the BNP Paribas exhibition doubleheader featuring a match between John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl and a bout between Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. Rather than knotting the sleeves of our v-neck Lacoste cable-knit sweaters around our necks and ordering sauvignon blanc in plastic wine flutes from the wait staff serving the first several rows of section 74, we brown bagged a few Bud Light tallboys while milling about in the LIRR terminal beneath the Garden before buying a flask and heading on up to section 405. Thinking that we had a long night of tennis ahead of us just like that windswept night at the Open, we were in no rush to get into our seats as commuters rushed around to board their trains.

We headed upstairs to MSG after learning, thanks to the wonders of the Twitterverse, that Mac was wearing out Lendl like a rented tux in a match that was merely a race to eight wins. As we waited our turns at the turnstiles nearest the C escalators there was a party of three having their tickets scanned. Actually, it was a pair of well-dressed, dark suited white businessmen and a sleepy-eyed black gentleman in a white and blue ski jacket and a maroon baseball cap. Once the first Mad Men extra had his ticket scanned, the second deftly passed several folded bills to the ticket scalper, who quickly turned and made a beeline for the exit. I pointed the transaction out to my brother, who hadn't noticed it. Had he been so untrustworthy when buying tickets from scalpers then my family's Christmas may have worked out differently.

As we were circling the upper tank to get to our seats in Row F of Section 405, it was announced that McEnroe was not going to be able to complete the match that he already led, 6-3. He'd sprained his ankle warming up earlier in the afternoon and just couldn't make it any longer. Had we already been regulars on the exhibition tennis circuit, I'm sure that we would have known that injuries are a key factor in games featuring retirees in their 50s. Although he had to retire from the match, McEnroe was willing to ham it up for the crowd, chatting with his brother about tennis and the Knicks before pulling off the shorts that he'd been playing in to reveal some circa-1985 tight short shorts. Johnny Mac's pride in his ability to fit into those shorts seemed to rival his enthusiasm for the Knicks' acquisition of Carmelo Anthony.

Once McEnroe and Lendl were rolled off the court, the wait began for the main event. After scanning the crowd, my brother and I quickly surmised that any and all tattooed patrons who had smuggled in flasks of stronger stuff than the 400-level at the Garden was serving were in the Agassi camp while the folks wearing turtlenecks and angular eyeglasses were for Pete or European. After a highlight reel of their finest co-starring moments and some unexpected fireworks, the once-and-forever rivals made their way onto the court. Perhaps to make them feel like they were back in their glory days, the PA blared a Pearl Jam song as they began warming up. Up next was the Red Hot Chili Peppers. All that was missing was all of Agassi's hair and most of Sampras'.

Our hopes of watching Agassi flay Sampras took a hit when Mr. Veronica Vaughn broke Mr. Steffi Graf in his very first service game. Yipes. Andre, bouncing not-so-lightly on his feet as he waited at the baseline, was simply not up to task last night. Although there were flourishes of his relentless ground game, he committed too many unforced errors while Sampras seemed the more energetic of the pair, even punctuating his overly-dramatic leaps and charges with fist pumps. Although there was no radar gun readings to be seen, Sampras' serve certainly passed the eye test. It also passed the Agassi test. The most interesting part of the first set may have been a debate over whether Pete refuses to crop his seriously thinned hair because that look is so associated with his rival. The way I see it, Pete will rock a full-on combover before he shows up at an event like this with Andre's (second) signature haircut.

After dropping the first set in the best-of-three match, Agassi momentarily looked primed to force a third set after breaking Sampras a few games into the second set. To the obvious disapproval of the woman sitting in front of me, I wondered aloud if these exhibition matches usually find themselves going the distance to give paying public there money's worth. Which, then, made me wonder if Pete had been carrying Andre a bit here like a favored boxer knowing that there's more money to be made by winning in the third round when the fix is in. Had Pete let himself be broken in order to get us all to a winner-take-all set? I mean, Agassi broke Sampras just one game after he double faulted to be broken himself ...

Wanting a third set enough to believe that both players also wanted it, my brother bought a last round of drinks. Since we thought we'd be sticking around for a while. Instead, Sampras stuck it to Agassi, breaking him at 5-5 and rolling home from there. After the convincing win there were gracious interviews all around and all four stars re-took the court for the obligatory photo opportunity. In the locker room, McEnroe had swapped his little white shorts for a Knicks cap. Also, he wore other clothes. Wisely.

Stuck with mostly full cups of beer, we sat back in our seats as the rest of the crowd exited. We sipped and did our best to ignore the ushers. Eventually we were hassled enough to move toward the now-empty escalators. When we got down to the 300 level, a sharp looking balding guy who looked familiar got on the escalator behind us. It was the MSG Network's very own Al Trautwig.

After quickly and likely not very quietly talking about talking to him, I turned around and said hello and asked him what he thought of the night. Without seeming guarded or put off in the slightest, he told us that he'd thought it was great to see all four of the players on the court again, and that he thought Sampras could have kept Agassi from winning a single game if he'd really wanted to.

Emboldened by how unexpectedly seriously Trautwig was taking too stragglers with half full cups of beer on the down escalator, we moved on to talking about the Knicks. Trautwig readily admitted that he'd first thought the price for Anthony was too high, but that he'd changed his tune once he felt the vibe in the stands for Melo's debut last week and saw what both he and Billups bring to the court. At this point in the conversation there was a brief interlude during which we all sang Billups' praises in three-part harmony. From there, I mentioned that players and hoops writers were already referring to a "Knicks Big Three" that included Billups.

As we reached the ground floor, Trautwig made no attempt to flee or alert security. Instead he walked with us toward the 7th Avenue exit as we started talking about Wednesday night's game against the New Orleans Hornets. I mentioned that it would be the first time that NOLA point guard Chris Paul would be in town since Carmelo arrived, and that the rumors of his eventual Manhattan transfer would be running rampant. I told him that Melo, Amar'e and CP3 trio was already dubbed "Team Toast" in reference to the toast that Paul supposedly made at Anthony's wedding about a forming future League of Justice to combat the SuperFiends. While he seemed to dig the derivation of the nickname, which I believe was originated by the fine folks at Straight Bangin', it was clear that he had no interest in talking about the latest from CP3 rumor mill. As we got to the street, we thanked him for chatting and made our way across 7th and toward 6th. I didn't look to see which way Al had gone, but he was so forthright and open that I'd imagine if we all ended up on the same commuter train that he would have gone right on talking sports with us the whole way home.