Sunday, February 15, 2015

Four Point Play

I have a theory that one’s capacity to enjoy a sport is defined by experiencing moments of wonder at the right time in one’s development as fan.

The setting--Madison Square Garden, 1999, game three of a Conference Final series in which The New York Knicks are going head to head with the rival Indiana Pacers.

None of this was supposed to happen. After a lockout-abbreviated season of roster shuffling, injuries, and uninspired play, the post-Patrick Ewing era Knicks just barely limped into the playoffs as the eighth seed in the weaker conference--ostensibly the worst team to survive to the NBA post-season. In a twist of fate, the team gelled at just the right time. They upset the top-ranked Miami Heat in the first round and went on to defeat the Atlanta Hawks handily in round two. And so, they found themselves four games away from their first NBA Finals since 1994, with the potential for their first championship since 1973.

The heel on the glass slipper of this Cinderella story looked ready break against the Pacers, a team with its own championship aspirations. The Knicks won the first game of the series and I started to believe they really could go all the way. But the Pacers beat back New York in game two in what felt like a stark return to reality--a headshot that may not have KOed the metaphorical Knicks prizefighter, but that came in hard enough to leave him in the condition of easy prey.

I watched all of this not from the stands of the Garden, but on TV 250 miles north in Utica, New York, seated in my best friend’s bedroom as we passed a bag of pretzels back and forth, looking up dirty jokes on the Internet during each timeout or break between quarters. I watched game three slip away and resigned myself to the fact that The Knicks had already overachieved and that they wouldn’t go all the way.

But though the Knicks seemed outmatched and outplayed, they hung in. The score never suggested the blowout that the game play might have the casual observer believe was materializing before them.

Five seconds left, the Knicks were down by three. A three-point shot might earn them overtime, but even at 15 I was a jaded enough Knicks fan that I didn’t quite believe.

Larry Johnson, the once-superstar turned journeyman whose accumulated back injuries that demoted him from athletic specimen to spot-shooter, got the ball in the corner. That season, he had devolved to a near-comic character who made a show of folding his arms into an L-shape (“The Big L”) in over-the-top celebration of his own minor accomplishments on the court. He was the guy who, contrary to Allan Houston or Latrell Sprewell, had yet to really deliver a star-caliber moment in 1999.

Larry Johnson got the ball and took his shot from behind the three-point arc. As he leapt, Pacer forward Antonio Davis went up with him, hand outstretched to go for the block. The ref’s whistle blew, calling an (admittedly spurious) foul on Davis, just as Johnson’s shot dropped through the hoop, hitting nothing but net on the way to the gymnasium floor.

The unthinkable had happened. An exceptionally clutch shot and a foul called in favor of the Knicks. Moments later, Johnson drained the free throw that secured The Knicks’ one-point victory.

And in Utica, we leapt, pumping fists in the air, in one those moments of male adolescence when only curse words will do to communicate a certain extremity of emotion, even in the case of joy. For in that New York victory, we, too, were winners. Loyal believers in an underdog squad. When LJ raised “The Big L” in front of the faithful at MSG, they returned the gesture, as did we to the glow of the TV screen, saluting our new hero.

NBA basketball is the only sport I follow with any regularity or verve. There are all manner of reasons for this, but I hold firm that one of the biggest is that perfect storm of circumstances we discovered that night. I fell in love with basketball when my de facto home team made its first run to the Finals in my lifetime in 1994, and grew more impassioned during Michael Jordan’s second act--The Bulls’ dominant fun from 1995-1998, that generated a sublime sports story.

And then were was June 3, 1999, when summer had taken a warm enough hold that I burned through hours of daylight most days shooting baskets against a backdrop of fantasy NBA scenarios in my mind. And it was a Saturday night, when the prospect of overtime didn’t mean choosing between missing the end of the game and being exhausted at school (the latter being the inevitable choice under such circumstances).

Watching that game taught me everything I needed to know about the importance of faith for a fledgling sports fan. That if you keep watching, keep cheering, and nurture even a hint of belief, then something truly inspiring can happen. That four-point play felt like nothing short of a minor miracle.

And so I keep the faith today. Against reason, and perhaps sans some of the passion I could muster sixteen years ago. I remain a fan. I remain a believer.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Chasing the Sun (part 2)

Read part one here.

We met at the zoo. Ate tacos and drank over-sized margaritas. Walked past a strip of beach, bought bottles of water, and watched the surfers.

And I held her hand.

We retreated to Black’s Beach. Across the street from UC San Diego, we climbed down a winding stone set of stairs to reach the sand--a far steeper descent than West Cliff in Santa Cruz where I had been days before.

We sat in the sand and watched the ocean before us. Talked about how she had spent a birthday night at this very spot, snuggled alone in a sleeping bag, listening to the rhythm of the waves crash and reflecting, thinking, wishing.

She said was going to stare into my eyes for a minute. I thought she was just being romantic, but rather, one of the nudists on the beach was trying to make eye contact with her, and the attention to me both focused her eyes away from him and asserted that she and I were on that beach together.

We waded into the water, leaving my shoes and socks next to her sandals in the sand. I rolled up my jeans to knee-level--not high enough to keep them entirely dry, as it turned out. We looked west, where the sun had descended behind clouds. Not a sunset view in the traditional sense, but striking just the same where fading light and reflections and wind played at merging water and sky.

We held hands again. She asked me what I wanted.

I told her, “Happiness.”

She asked what that would look like.

I took her cheek in my hand, guiding her to face me. I bent to her for our first kiss.

We collected our shoes. We passed more old men with their flaccid penises dangling proudly. We climbed back up the stairs and wander back to the car. In the hours to follow we ate sushi, then ended up in her living room, listening to Gillian Welch, watching clips from Portlandia, and talking, talking, talking.

We fell asleep above the sheets on her bed, flat on our backs, holding hands.

And I knew.

“Chasing the Sun” is a song centered in New York, ostensibly a reflection on Sara Bareilles’s move from her native California to Manhattan. It fell into heavy rotation for me upon the release of The Blessed Unrest that July, and was the first track for the mix I made myself to listen to along my California road trip.

Yes, it’s a song about New York City. But it’s also about reflection. Achieving peace with our histories. The pursuit of happiness. Living.

You said, remember that life is
Not meant to be wasted
We can always be chasing the sun
So fill up your lungs and just run
But always be chasing the sun.

I resumed my planned trip itinerary the next afternoon. But we met up again a day later in Santa Monica. And after spending the better part of the day in flight, direct from LAX home to Baltimore, when I turned on my phone again, I had a series of text messages waiting for me. Links to new music on my Facebook wall. A weary smile waxed on my face. A life ahead of me.

All we can do is try
And live like we’re still alive.