Friday, March 4, 2011

The Payback Trilogy

I've read enough Baseball Prospectus to understand that nothing I do, as a fan, has any effect on the outcome of a sporting event. Not my yelling. Not my would-be-witty blog posts. Not the spot where I sit while watching. None of my actions have any effect. Which makes me, in this regard, nearly as useful as Andy Rautins.

Now, I don't mean to say that I still didn't worry over which Jets jersey to wear during Gang Green's recent playoff run. Because I did. But I understand that the only purpose of such behavior was to give me something to do before the game and something to talk about during. My ensemble didn't help Shaun Ellis sack Tom Brady in New England or prevent Bart Scott from wrapping Rashard Mendenhall in Pittsburgh.

Recent events, however, have forced me to revisit this stance about my own ineffectuality. Maybe Bill Simmons is right. Maybe reverse jinxes matter. Maybe RBI is a valuable evaluation tool. And, just maybe the things I do and say and eat and drink can alter the performances of athletes that don't even know that I exist. Because that seems to be one of the only ways that I can explain how the woeful Cleveland Cavaliers have beaten the Knicks three times in three tries this season.

In case you haven't heard, those 2010-2011 Cavaliers have been one of the worst teams in NBA annals. Byron Scott's charges have just 12 wins. Seven of those triumphs came in the first month of play, but the comic sans wave crested in the first quarter of LeBron James' return to Cleveland on Dec. 2. With a vociferous crowd behind them, the Cavs took an early lead. The high point came when Antawn Jamison drew a foul while scoring a driving layup. He then knocked down the ensuing free throw to give the home team a 17-12 lead. From that made free throw up until now it's been a nearly uninterrupted free fall. The South Beach SuperFriends finished the quarter strong, with James scoring 11 of his team's final 16 points while assisting on the two buckets he didn't score. The next three quarters would go just as well for Cleveland as the close of the first.

The Cavs would go on to drop their next eight games before the Knickerbockers arrived in Cleveland for their first meeting on Dec. 18. The Knicks squandered a lead in the final minute of the game before capitulating in overtime. As I said earlier, the freefall was nearly uninterrupted. After that first win over the Knicks, the rudderless Cavs would go on to lose their next 26 straight games, establishing a new mark for consistent putridity.

When the Knicks next came calling at Quicken Loans Arena in late February, the 'bockers had just acquired Carmel Anthony, Chauncey Billups and assorted Balkmans from Denver. The new-look New York team stuttered and fumbled its way to a win over the Milwaukee Bucks in its first future outing, but would then go down in Cleveland. In that game, J.J. Hickson played with a ferocity that neither me or the Knicks seemed to anticipate, and it was only a fourth-quarter explosion from Billups that made this one close down the stretch.

Already rocking an impressive 0-fer against the least competitive team of recent vintage, Anthony sounded almost Rexian in making it clear to the media that there would be no messing around when Cavaliers visited the Garden just a few days later. True to his words, the Knicks began brightly in the game, with Toney Douglas continuing his recent streak of strong starts. TD attacked the rack for the opening score. Soon after, Melo dropped a three and then Amar'e got himself to the line after a strong drive. Douglas was propelling the offense at full speed, pushing it through Amar'e. When Jared Jeffries took a charge early it looked like this one would be over early.

To their credit, the Cavs would battle all night, playing with a confidence and an anger that one might not expect from a team so far down the standings. Some of the spirit of belief was imbued by recent arrival Baron Davis, who generally embraces the Garden stage, but just as much was contributed by bulky Newark-schooled Samardo Samuels. For all their brutish exuberance, though, the Knicks lead ballooned to 12 points midway through the fourth quarter as Stoudemire was again working himself past 40 points.

But with an offense operating at full speed only in fits and starts and a defense still being lashed together on the operating table, the home team stalled as the finish line came into sight. It shuddered and shimmied just like the 1986 Dodge 600 I drove used to as I'd force it to make that last hard uphill left turn toward my high school in 1999. This sudden and dramatic loss of locomotion was exactly what a drafting Davis had been waiting for. He exploded toward the tape, knocking down several big shots and playing with the been-there confidence that LBJ used to provide for this team in the building.

Soon enough, the Knicks were trailing in the final minute and forced to have Amar'e shooting a three pointer. As is his wont, he nailed it. Obviously. Former Dan D'Antoni protege and onetime apple of the Donnie Walsh's eye Ramon Sessions then went 1 for 2 at the line to give the 'bockers one last chance to avert disaster. Trailing 115-117, the Knicks had the ball with 7 seconds left (or less).

The ball was never going anywhere but Anthony. He lowered his head and he drove through the paint toward the rim, rising up into the air when he was halfway there. With a clean look above the fray to the cylinder, Anthony was oblivious to Samuels planted beneath him until both were tumbling toward the parquet. Whistle. Offensive foul. Game. Over.

While getting ambushed by an engaged Davis is not exactly the same as losing a lead in Cleveland or as no-showing in Cleveland, there is not enough lipstick out in the wider world to enter this pig in the beauty pageant. This was the worst loss of the season. Because it came after those other two. Because it came with Carmelo. And because it came after Carmelo talking about how this team would not lose the third meeting after dropping the previous two.

Those three wins for Cleveland account for the better part of the paltry five that this club has gathered since that relatively hot first month. But, why? How? Are you there God, it's me Margaret and I want to know how these players have consistently lost to those players?

Oh. I see. Damn. Yeah, our bad.

It's because we, as fans, wanted this for Cleveland. We wanted their homegrown hero to leave. We wanted the 26-game losing streak. We coveted LeBron James and we gleefully scribbled slogans on poster board to this effect. We printed Knicks jerseys with LBJ's name and number on them. It didn't matter one lick to us Knicks fans if Cleveland went 0-82 this season. Nope. In fact, our addition was always supposed to be there subtraction. That was, when you got down to it, part of the fun. Because we could get what they had just because of who we were: Knicks fans. This was the prevailing we-gomaniacal thinking. No?

For 18 months, the Knicks were the free agency bogeyman haunting everything that Cleveland did on and off the floor. We're responsible for the Cavs mortgaging the future for suitable sidekicks for James. Danny Ferry and the Cleveland front office felt incapable of building something strong and sustainable because the lure of James Dolan's money, Madison Avenue market share and Madison Square Garden seemed stronger than the quainter comforts of Cuyahoga County.

When it comes to the relationship between these two franchises, it matters only slightly that LBJ opted to take his talents to South Beach instead of Seventh Avenue because the Knicks and New York City created "The Decision." It was the confidence that we had of James' ultimate departure and the passion with which we wooed him that sewed the seeds of that heartbreak. These Knicks can't beat those Cavs because we created them.

As James would tweet, ain't karma a bitch.

Ew Be Illin'

The proliferation of 'Melo gear has me thinking back to the zenith of Knicks fashion. Run (right) can be seen sporting one of the most badass garments ever.

In Memoriam: Hank Gathers and Wes Leonard

It was 21 years ago today that Loyola Marymount basketball star Hank Gathers died after collapsing on the court during a game in the West Coast Conference Tournament against Portland State. Hands down the best college basketball player in the country and arguably already in the upper echelon of all basketball players amateur or professional, the 23-year-old had just thrown down a vicious ally-oop to stake his squad to a 25-13 lead with 13:34 still on the clock in the first half. Gathers, already with eight points in the game, high fived his teammate and best friend Bo Kimble as they got back on defense. Moments later, the physical marvel crumpled to the floor. He tried once to get up but couldn't muster the strength. A defibrillator was used on him shortly after he was removed from the floor, by that time his heart had stopped beating. His mother screamed and medical personnel scrambled. He was dead before he arrived at the hospital.

Earlier that season, Gathers had collapsed at the free throw line during a game at UC Santa Barbara. He missed his first shot. And dropped before he could loft the second. He was able to regain his feet and walk off the court under his own power. The senior star who was months from the NBA draft, where he was undoubtedly going to be one of the first players to shake David Stern's hand, having led the NCAA in points (32.7) and rebounds (13.7) during his junior season, was soon diagnosed with an abnormal heartbeat. He was prescribed medication and cleared to play shortly thereafter.

Eerily and inconceivably sadly, a young high school hoops star died yesterday shortly after hitting a game-winning shot for his team. Wes Leonard stood 6 feet and 2 inches tall but seems to have loomed much larger in the esteem of those who knew him in Fennville, Michigan. Last night, Leonard dropped in a game-winning layup in overtime to clinch a pristine 20-0 season. A gym full of high school kids clamored for their talismanic three-sport star as his teammates lifted him on their shoulders. And then he died. He was a teenager who had just hit the game-winner in a hoops game. And then he fucking died. Right there on the court. It would later be determined that he'd suffered a cardiac arrest due to an enlarged heart.

So, yeah, I've got no great point here, philosophical or medical. I certainly can't conjure any silver lining or greater good wrought by the public deaths of these two basketball players with heart problems. These are just two sadsadsad stories that by some terrible quirk of the universe are sort linked. That is all. Also, sorry.