May 27, 2012

Before The Wizards

I started watching NBA basketball in earnest in the winter of 1994 when I moved to Cooperstown, New York after finishing graduate school. Don't question why I moved to Cooperstown; let's just pretend for the purposes of this blog that it seemed to make some sort of sense at the time. The winters in Cooperstown can be long and to say there's not a whole lot to do there for someone in his late 20s would be an understatement. Watching basketball every other day or so gave me something to look forward to on weeknights after a long day of work and a white-knuckled ride home in my tiny Honda CRX over the snow-covered hills and roads between my job and my apartment. Sometimes the trip home was enhanced by me braking to avoid deer darting right in front of me or swerving between deer nonchalantly standing in the middle of the road. I hated that drive in winter, even without the deer.

When it came to choosing a basketball team, there were two teams on my cable system: the New Jersey Nets and the New York Knicks. Despite the Nets' recent success with Chuck Daly as coach, they were destined to be a time killer on a slow TV night. I'd been rooting for the Knicks to knock off Michael Jordan and the Bulls over the previous few years in the playoffs and was already a little invested in the team headlined by Patrick Ewing, John Starks and Charles Oakley. When the Knicks traded for Derek Harper with Jordan temporarily retired that first winter in Cooperstown, it seemed like Harp might be the missing piece that put the team over the top and on their way to bringing the NBA championship back to New York for the first time in more than two decades. The Knicks were good that year and made it all the way to the last game of the finals but lost to the Houston Rockets on my birthday in a seventh game where John Starks couldn't hit a shot to save his life and Pat Riley refused to stop him shooting. I was hooked starting with that 1993-1994 Knicks team.

At the same time I started watching the Knicks in upstate New York, my dad had started tuning in to the same broadcast on his cable system in Connecticut and watching Knicks games became something we enjoyed doing together even though we were 200 miles apart. When the team left the court, our own post game routine was to get on the phone to talk about what had happened that night, win or lose (usually win, in those days), with a pause in conversation for the press' post-game discussion with first Pat Riley and later Jeff Van Gundy, after Riley bolted for the soon-to-be-hated Miami Heat. After a couple of years of watching games apart, I decided to call Ticketmaster early in the 1995-1996 season to see if I could get some tickets for my dad and I to see the Knicks play at home in Madison Square Garden. As luck would have it, we managed to snag a pair of tickets to the game against the Toronto Raptors two days before Christmas.

I say "as luck would have it" because, unbeknownst to us, Knicks games at that time were typically sold out and you could not just call up and buy some tickets beyond the first few hours they went on sale. We found this out the next year when we called Ticketmaster only to  discover the entire season sold out. We only made it to a game that season because my sister found a ticket resale outlet on Staten Island. This was before StubHub or any of the other established ticket resale companies existed; if those tickets didn't work, we'd just have gone back to Connecticut empty handed. We finally figured it out the following year and called the minute the non-season ticketholder seats went on sale and managed to get a whole three pairs. Actually, we made my mom do it for us and she spent hours on the phone that day to get those tickets. Anyway, for whatever reason that first time I called, we got some tickets. Who knows, maybe nobody in New York wanted to go see the Raptors on Christmas Eve Eve.

I don't remember much about that first trip other than we could hardly recognize any name on Toronto's roster and the entry sequence to the Garden completely turned us around so we had no idea where in the arena we were relative to the street grid. Oh, and the Knicks won. And we loved it. And so we continued to go over the next couple of years, making the trek by car and train down to Manhattan and back again in all weather, including a trip home from a game against the Sixers on my dad's birthday during a blizzard when the entire state of Connecticut seemed to have just decided not to clear the roads that day. Thank God for four wheel drive that day; I'd rather have been dodging deer.

In those first few years, we always sat in the upper deck end zone (it was almost as if there were no other tickets for sale) and the Knicks almost always won. The only loss we saw in our trips down there was a double overtime loss to John Stockton, Karl Malone and the rest of the Utah Jazz, a game in which my dad and I sat behind each other (we couldn't get two tickets next to each other) and Allan Houston missed two free throws at the end of regulation which would have clinched the game. But really, how could it get much better? Big time hoops with a contending Knicks team in the Mecca of basketball. If I was hooked by watching the 93-94 Knicks on TV, I fell in love with the game at the Garden in the few years after that.

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