I guess I was seven or eight when I first began to figure out sports. My introduction came only one or two innings at a time, because the Mets started their games at 7:40 and I had to go to bed at eight. Because of this I would watch the Mets pitcher (usually) get out of the first inning unscathed, followed by the Mets hitters going quietly in their half, and then I would wake up the following morning only to find that runs had been scored, a team had won, and high drama surely had abounded, all while I slept. You get into that rhythm, you get beat over the head with that same sequence of events over a summer, and eventually it occurs to you: this is how the game is played. It starts slowly – only rarely would a Met hitter’s grounder be perfectly placed down one line and go for (gasp!) a double – and it ends in some glorious crescendo which I cannot know because I, regrettably, have to go to bed.
What I didn’t realize then, and am realizing now in spades that would more than make up for my ignorance of 1993, is that the Mets sucked and that’s why they never scored in the first inning. Any subsequent offensive explosions that occurred after I went to bed must have been embellished by my imagination when I heard of them the next day – after all, if the Mets lost 9-2, well, that’s two more runs than I ever got to see, so it must’ve been incredible!
I start with the Mets and work my way to the Knicks because that’s how my house worked. Those of you raised in the same house as your father know the sporting hierarchy your old man unwittingly but staunchly impressed upon you, and for me basketball came behind football and baseball. If anything he should’ve started me on the Knicks because, unlike the Mets, they didn’t suck. But I watched the Knicks, or what little I was able to see before bedtime, and applied the same Metsian illogic to what I saw with added conviction; the formula I was beholding actually resulted in wins.
That formula: Dribble ball up court + pass to Patrick Ewing in post = high-percentage jump shot or two free throws. It is my first enduring memory of the Knicks – John Starks’ threes, Anthony Mason’s hair and Charles Oakley’s badassery follow closely – and it’s indicative of my first impression of the game not so much for what it was but for what it wasn’t. It was a winning strategy for the Knicks, it was one of the game’s greatest post players in the prime of his career, it was perennial playoff basketball in the world’s most famous arena; but it wasn’t interesting, it wasn’t creative, and most importantly it wasn’t anything that would bring basketball out of third place in the Woods household.
Patrick Ewing’s post game made him the greatest Knick of all time, nearly brought a championship or two to the Mecca of basketball, and curbed the growth of my basketball fandom by a solid decade. Fans of prior and subsequent generations may rightly balk at this, but I suspect there’s a small window of those in my age bracket – those who first remember Ewing right at his peak or just after it – who felt something similar. “So this is basketball?” I actually remember thinking to myself. “You just throw it to your tallest guy and he tries to get free throws?” I knew nothing of his college career, the 1986 Draft Lottery, or his unlimited potential (to be fair, I knew nothing of his shortcomings either), but I knew how the Knicks scored most efficiently, and I knew it was boring the hell out of me. To me, just like the Mets going down 1-2-3 in the first, that was just how the game was played. Hell, that was why it was only the third best sport.
Eight year-old Will was wrong, obviously, but I don’t mind airing some of his dirty laundry – he’s mostly gone now, anyway. Still, I imagine growing up in another time and place and how it would have affected me as a fan. I think of Magic’s Lakers and Jordan’s Bulls, but as a Mets and Knicks fan of course I don’t automatically identify with the perennial winners; just as often I think of supremely entertaining talents without titles like Steve Nash, Pete Maravich, Dominique Wilkins. Mets and Knicks fans know it isn’t just the wins that keep people coming back, it’s the entertainment factor, and Ewing never sold me on anything other than the maxim, inescapable to me at the time, that winning basketball was boring basketball.
No recollection of Ewing’s career seems complete without a discussion of his failure to win a championship with the Knicks; I won’t address it other than to say it’s petty and derives itself from fans’ frustrations at the shortcomings of an entire team misguidedly directed at one player. That “failure” aside, you rightly hear Ewing discussed as, in some order: one of the 25 to 50 greatest players ever, one of the greatest Knicks ever, one of the greatest college players ever, etc. And when I hear those things, it isn’t like hearing about the heroics of Reed or Frazier or DeBusschere or Seaver or Gooden – I did see Ewing in his prime, only without the context to know what to make of his talent. His real failure, in my eight year-old eyes, was that his style couldn’t sign up a new, lifelong fan. So the irrational among us resent that he never brought it all home, the more stolid remember his greatness, still others may jump right to the Gold Club or the missed finger roll or even the Ewing Theory and the run to the Finals while he was out injured…I mean, I just can’t be the only one who hears his name and feels nothing. It sure feels like it, though.