Precursor: A few days ago, my old friend Matt Lawyue – contributor for SLAM Magazine, and all-around good sir – levied a proposition. Whoever’s team lost the Knicks-Blazers matchup last Tuesday would have to write an ode to the winner. Via electronic handshake, the wager was set. And, as you should be able to tell by this post’s mere existence, the game did not end so well for me. As such, an ode to the New York Knickerbockers:
When I was younger, I had a friend, Ian Fischer. During recess, me, Ian, and the other guys would meet on the asphalt courts, divvying up the milquetoast middle-school talent and spending thirty minutes playing scrappy, sharp-knuckled basketball. More often than not, whenever Mrs. Hill would ring the end-of-recess bell, the game would be tied with a few buckets apiece. Now, typically, our overriding metabolisms would send us sprinting to the front of the lunch line. But on a select few occasions, on a few of those gray days that still stick in my mind a decade later, my team would corral a rebound, swing the ball around the perimeter, and find Ian’s waiting hands.
Swish. Game over. Time for some chicken nuggets.
It wasn’t strange to hear us bellowing one of our favorite players’ names, beckoning their grand spirit from the hardwoods of our imaginations. Shawn Kemp. Michael Jordan. Gary Payton. We were four feet tall and as white as the inside of an Oreo, but with the basketball in our hands there was no reason to think we couldn’t be a seven-foot Lithuanian (Arvydas Sabonis) or a genie-turned-giant (Shaquille O’Neal). So why did Ian’s call always stand out?
Because this guy, AL-lan HOUS-ton, was from about as far away from us as you could find. Not just in stature or talent – though those things were too on opposite ends of the spectrum. No, I mean literally far away. We were tucked in a forgotten corner of Northeast Portland, going about our daily logging and salmon-running, while Allan worked, lived, and subjugated opponents to unspeakable punishments in the coastal, blinking, faraway metropolis of New York.
To us, New York might as well have been Atlantis. To us, the Knicks were as relevant as the Great Wall, or the Blue Mosque, or the Great Rift Valley. Sure, we saw them once or twice a season when their orange-and-blue uniforms tramped about the Rose Garden: Ewing vs. Sabonis, Johnson vs. Grant, ‘Spre vs. ‘Sheed (with Portland coach PJ Carlesimo still unaware of his future fate). But as soon as they came, they were gone, off on the next podunk West Coast stopover. We went back outside and perfected our jump shots, the Knicks’ only remainder coming from Ian’s occasional shouts.
A decade later, the Knicks are a bit less irrelevant. Internships and the internet have brought the Big Apple far closer to home: close enough to watch Isiah’s cave-in, to enjoy Spike’s liverish outbursts, and to assume that anytime the Blazers met the Knicks we’d find a guaranteed win. While my team has had its bumps and bruises (alas, if only bumps and bruises, and no worse, had befallen Oden’s knees), they had not – nor had any other team – succumbed to the fate of the Knicks. Marbury’s hair. LeBron’s rebuff. The willingness to take Zach Randolph off of our hands. Had Edward Murphy – of the eponymous law, not of Pluto Nash – played basketball, he would have undoubtedly been signed by the Knicks.
On Tuesday, Portland, in injury-besotted doldrums, hosted the Knicks. “Finally,” we thought, “a reprieve. No Lakers. No Spurs. No Magic. Just the sick-puppy Knicks – our favorite punching bags. Nice to have a breather on the schedule.” Having just come off an emotionally draining loss against the Heat, New York would provide a nice bounce-back. Just what we needed.
And then, the game happened. Something wasn’t right. Amar’e, our thorn in last year’s series with the Suns, was as priggish as ever. Wilson Chandler was finding time for a few dunks. Ronny Turiaf – c’mon Ronny Turiaf? – was snagging boards like he was back on Gonzaga. Apparently, my GameCast was not glitching – 100-86, New York over Portland. My keyboard now has a dent from the drop of my jaw.
The Blazers had lost. To the Knicks. Suddenly, an ode was the last thing I wanted to write.
But a bet is a bet, and I am a man of my word. I don’t know that this ode will find its way into any collection, any volume of purblind and reformed Knicks doubters, bound for $19.99 following the Knicks’ 2014-15 NBA Championship. I can only hope that Matt’s ego does not inflate such that it stretches out his tattoo, and that he is willing to buy me a slice of Koronet Pizza the next time we see each other. The Knicks, it would appear, are no longer the shlubs we once thought.
Somewhere, AL-lan HOUS-ton is holed up, remembering his glory days of the late ‘90s. Perhaps he even sees flashes of him and his teammates in the latest incarnation: some Marc Jackson in Toney Douglas, some Patrick Ewing in Amar’e Stoudemire, maybe even some of his old flame whenever Raymond Felton lofts another three. Somewhere, HOUS-ton is remembering all of it fondly, and smiling that the Knicks are now, finally, back.
And somewhere, on a cracked asphalt court in Northeast Portland, Ian is calling his name.