It happened again.
I won’t speak for other Knicks fans, but my brother and I maintain a running list of professional basketball players associated with the Miami Heat that have championship rings, while Patrick Ewing remains ringless. We do this so that, whenever we find ourselves lulled into the belief that things are good and right, we can look at the list and remind ourselves that the universe is truly a Hobbesian wet dream of chaotic injustice. Alonzo Mourning. P.J. Brown. And now, Eddy Curry.
With apologies to Lewis Black, I’ll repeat that, because it bears repeating. Eddy Curry. Has a National Basketball Association World Championship ring. Not someone else’s that he bought at a pawnshop or found in a Cracker Jack box, no – his very own.
IT HAPPENED AGAIN!
During the playoffs, I had a brief Twitter exchange with someone as we discussed the natures of our respective Knick fandom. I mentioned how I didn’t really care about the Celtics enough to wish them well or ill, despite their Boston-ness. I came up as a Knicks fan during the 1990s, better known as the Rise, Golden Age, and Fall of the Black-Sneaker Knicks. As a result, my personal sports fan grudges were permanently molded by the events of that time, a time where the Celtics were largely an afterthought. Larry Bird was on the way out, and after he retired, Boston had two playoff appearances until the next millennium. No, my Trifecta of Sports Hate runs Bulls-Pacers-Heat. To my dying day, if you run a word association test on me, “Bulls” will get a response of “brick wall”, “dead end”, or variations on that theme. I will never see the Pacers without seeing Reggie Miller alternating between dagger threes and some of the hands-down worst flopping in NBA history. During the writing of this piece, I YouTubed the clip from the 1993 East Quarterfinals where John Starks bumped heads with Miller (I refuse to call it a “headbutt”. I know headbutts. I’ve delivered headbutts. I’ve received headbutts. That was not a headbutt.) and Miller does his “My God, I’ve been shot!” routine. It’s so bad that, after watching that, I take back half of what I’ve said about LeBron James. LeBron, I’m sorry, but Reggie’s still King Flop.
But the Heat? Oh, the Heat. When I say “where to begin”, I mean that I just spent twenty minutes trying to figure out where to start this part. I suppose it really started off in 1995 when Pat Riley turned into Pat The Rat, faxing in his resignation as Knicks head coach to take over the Heat. (Aside: the douchetasticness of this move would remain rarely surpassed until Todd Graham bolted after one season as head coach of the University of Pittsburgh football team to take over Arizona State. Oh, Todd The Fraud. Get heatstroke, you bum.) From there, the ensuing years are a blur of defensive, extremely physical play with a few historic moments. P.J. Brown bodyslamming Charlie Ward. Ward, Ewing, and Allan Houston suspended for the next game in that series, Larry Johnson and John Starks for the game after. The LJ-Mourning fight, famously remembered for Jeff Van Gundy trying to break it up and clinging to Mourning’s leg. H20’s teardrop. The list goes on. LeBron’s Decision, while it drove everyone in America to dub the Heat “The Bad Guys”, was just one shovelful of dirt on the already-existing mountain of sports hate. I was like the Wal-Mart greeter for everyone who jumped on the Heat Hate Bandwagon. “Welcome, sure glad to see you. In Aisle 5, you can find Miami’s home crowd dressed all in white like they’re just passing time until the plane to Jonestown takes off.”
It was with this baggage that I encountered a columnist conflict. One of my preferred columnists to read is Bill Simmons, a status I’m not alone in granting. For me, the preference is because his columns largely read like conversations with my brother and my friends about sports – personal conspiracy theories, jokes about the production of sports as well as the sport itself, a valiant if futile attempt against homerism, and ultra-heavy usage of pop culture references. (Personal theory: a hundred years from now, we’ll have a dialect of English that consists entirely of quotes and references from The Simpsons.) He’s the buddy you catch the games with that are worthy of a trip to the sports bar.
My other go-to columnist is Dave Zirin. If you haven’t heard of him, it’s understandable. Zirin writes sports with an eye to the greater social issues that surround the game. Have you ever heard someone say “Keep politics out of sports, it doesn’t belong here?” Zirin is the guy that responds “Screw that noise.” Some of his recent columns, as of the time of this writing, have titles like “Palestinian Soccer Star/Hunger Striker Mahmoud Sarsak to Be Freed”, “After 44 Years, It’s Time Brent Musburger Apologized to John Carlos and Tommie Smith”, and “’Drones, Missiles, and Gunships, Oh My!’ Welcome to the 2012 London Olympics”. I discovered Zirin by accident while working in a bookstore that dealt in used textbooks. One of the school’s professors made Zirin’s book “What’s My Name, Fool?” a required textbook for the class, and anything with a picture of Muhammad Ali screaming on the cover is something that I naturally pay attention to. Some lunch breaks and a 20% employee discount later, the book now rests on my shelf, and his column is part of my regular Internet reading.
Like anything and anyone I read, I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with them at times, all to the benefit of sharpening what I think and what I believe in. But one week, I came to a point I rarely had before – Zirin and Simmons had written diametrically opposite columns regarding the Heat-Thunder finals. Mommy and Daddy were fighting. Zirin had written a piece highlighting the original sin that accompanied the birth of the Oklahoma City Thunder – the naked con job pulled on the people of Seattle by Howard Schultz, Clay Bennett, and David Stern that hijacked the Seattle Supersonics from town and sent them down the road to OKC. It was done in the spirit of so many franchise shifts over the years – the team owner wanted a shiny new arena, wanted the city taxpayers to pay for it, then hit the road when he didn’t get what he wanted. In a plea to not justify this conduct, Zirin beseeched America to pull for the Heat to win the title. Simmons’ piece took an alternative approach, one that I don’t recall seeing in the national discourse about the issue very often before: a consideration of the Thunder fans. Simmons, who stood as high on the battlements as anyone in the fight against Sonicsgate (the name of a great documentary, by the way, and available in its entirety on YouTube) and once gave pages of ESPN online real estate over to Seattle fans and their emails, wrote about the plain fact that there are good basketball fans in Oklahoma that don’t have Snidely Whiplash mustaches, wanted a basketball team but didn’t ask for this shit, and ultimately do everything you could ask a fan base to do in supporting their team.
This seems simplistic, but it’s true. There has been a basketball bias against Oklahoma, dating back to when the New Orleans Hornets played in OKC temporarily in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I couldn’t turn around without hearing remarks along the lines of “Wait…they’re playing in Oklahoma? Where, in a high school gym?”. As with so many other things in America, race played a factor in the jokes as well (“Do they even have black people in Oklahoma?”). That line above all shows, I think, the slant against OKC. We’ll forbid Oklahoma an NBA franchise because they don’t meet the requisite diversity mark in the public consciousness – a mark well exceeded, of course, by the renowned African-American cultural bastions of Indiana, Minnesota, and Utah. But the verdict had already been entered – a team had been stolen from a good basketball city and planted in this wasteland just because some rich yahoo wanted a toy to show off to his buddies. People in Oklahoma don’t get basketball, the team will be dishing out ticket package deals to try and keep attendance looking respectable, and within a few years this whole thing will be over. This was the basketball equivalent of boosting the Jets out of Winnipeg and dumping them in the Phoenix desert. Case closed.
But here’s the thing – Oklahoma showed up. Every year, from the debut to present, the team has averaged 97% home attendance or better. After the Knicks were knocked out of the playoffs (yeah, by the Heat. Another page in the book.), I started watching the other games and remember being seriously impressed by the OKC crowd. I texted my brother “Check OKC in the all-blue. Awesome Kansas Jayhawk impression”. These people weren’t a prop, or bribed into going there. They understood what they were seeing, the interplay of Durant, Westbook, Harden, Collison, Sefolosha, everyone else, and responded correctly. I had more fun watching those games than I did the following three in Miami, including Miami’s win in Game 2. During the Spurs series, I remember the outdoor shot of the arena showing the game on a Jumbotron and additional Thunder fans in the thousands crowded around outside like a giant block party, which was a weirdly cool thing to see. I say weird, because since the Consol Energy Center was built, the Pittsburgh Penguins have done the same thing during home and away playoff games, and my Pens fan friends all know that I have nothing but scorn and derision for the “screen people”. I can’t explain it, but in Oklahoma…the outdoor screen plays.
Yes, every voting district in Oklahoma went for John McCain in 2008. But I don’t feel right administering a political ideology test to allow someone to watch basketball. Yes, the Thunder owners make money doing things that I think shouldn’t be allowed to happen and spend some of it giving to causes that advocate agendas which I oppose with every fiber of my body. But if I scrapped every sports team with owners that followed that mold, I have a sneaking suspicion that ESPN would even more boring to watch than it is now. Yes, the Sonics were stolen from Seattle in a blatant and heinous manner. But, and it pains me to say this, this is nothing new, in basketball or in sport. Where are the Lakes in Los Angeles? I can personally testify that the NHL was one unbuilt casino away from having to promote the Kansas City Penguins. After the Sonics left, you had old-timers in Baltimore Colts gear going “Yep, been there.” In fact, while we’re talking Baltimore, the Yankees began life as the original Orioles, for God’s sake. The only places where you’re immune from the heartbreak of team loss would be English soccer, and probably college sports. They can’t move schools. …I think.
So here we sit. The Thunder didn’t win the title, but the world keeps turning. I can guarantee you that no one in Oklahoma City is going about in sackcloth and ashes, rending their hair and crying to the sky over their greed and hubris in taking the Sonics. Nor is anyone in Miami chalking up their win to the good fortune to play a team that had so offended the Sports Gods that their defeat was foreordained. I can further guarantee you that any greedy, selfish, jackass sports team owner that two days ago was strategizing to bilk their current host city into building a new shiny arena that they can show off to their other greedy, selfish, jackass sports team owner friends or else move to a town that would build said arena did not today say “Uh-oh, Bennett’s crew lost, the game’s up” and chuck their plans into the trash. It doesn’t work like that. We, the storyteller addicts, like to think it does, but no. Barring a total calamity, the Thunder will be in the playoffs next year. Hopefully, one day, they meet the Seattle Supersonics there. That’ll be a thing to see.
Especially if the Heat were mathematically eliminated in February. Seriously, fuck the Heat. They suck.