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Crashing the Borders How Basketball Won the World and Lost Its Soul at Home
By Harvey Araton
Free Press Copyright © 2005 Harvey Araton
All right reserved.
If you have ever loved basketball, then you had to hate November 19, 2004. If you have relished the sounds and smells of the gymnasium -- the sweet squeaking of sneaker soles, the rustling of nets, and, yes, even the chatter less euphemistically known as trash talk -- then your senses came under assault by what you saw that night at The Palace of Auburn Hills in suburban Detroit. And the more times you watched the most frightening eruption of sustained violence ever in the American sports arena, the more you saw the replaying of a troubled young man named Ron Artest bolt from his reclining press-table position, across your television screen, and into everlasting infamy, the more angry you were and the more you hurt for the game that had brought so much joy into your life.
Since I was a young boy peering out my bedroom window at the netless rims of the basketball courts between Henderson Avenue buildings in the West Brighton Houses, a city project squeezed into a working-class neighborhood on Staten Island, I have loved the game. Loved it for its simplicity and accessibility, for the way it packed people of all shapes and sizes, races and ethnicities, into pressurized chambers of passion. Loved it for the freedom of individuality it promised within the framework of the collective. Loved it for the hours I could dribble my weathered ball down on the courts, even when they were empty in the dead of winter, and shoot and shoot until my fingers felt frostbit. Loved it to my five-foot-eight-inch playing limits, or for just being in the crowd when the kids with size and skills commanded the courts.
One of our blessed, Heyward Dotson, older than me by a few years, became a star at Stuyvesant High School and then all the way uptown at Columbia University. Occasionally, Dotson would bring Jim McMillian -- a college teammate who went on to shine in the NBA -- and other hotshot players from around the world's preeminent basketball city to New York's most isolated borough, to our unevenly paved oasis inside one of the Island's few pockets of relative poverty. We'd all gather round, watching in awe as these gods of the game communed at rim level.
One summer, when I was twelve or thirteen, my friends and I shuffled down to the courts for a clinic sponsored by the New York City Housing Authority. The main attraction was the impossibly tall and already famous UCLA underclassman, Lew Alcindor, along with a couple of Knicks backcourt reserves, Emmette Bryant and Fred Crawford. But it was another fellow, introduced as Mr. Bruce Spraggins from the New Jersey Americans of the brand-new American Basketball Association, who caught my attention, a six-five forward with a killer jump shot and no public profile.
When the Americans-cum-Nets prevailed after decades of misadventure to land in their first NBA Finals in June 2002, I wondered what had become of Spraggins and other franchise originals. I called Herb Turetzky, the only official scorer in the history of the franchise and a native of the same Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn that I had lived in until my family moved to Staten Island when I was ten. "Remember him?" Turetzky said. "Spraggins, Levern Tart, Tony Jackson -- those are my guys." He put me in touch, and Spraggins, answering the telephone at his apartment on 107th Street and First Avenue in Manhattan, said, of course he recalled the clinic for the kids in the Staten Island projects. "When we had that shootout we'd always do after the instruction part, I don't think I missed more than one shot," Spraggins bragged, affirming my belief that lifelong basketball memories could be made anywhere there was a ball, a basket, and the ability to stretch the truth.
As a sportswriter and columnist for four New York City dailies, I've been lucky enough to accumulate a few decades' worth. I have covered my share of games in the dowdiest high-school gyms and in the swankiest of luxury-box palaces. Years of following the Knicks with a suitcase and a laptop have taught me to navigate my way around most American downtowns and even a few intersections of Los Angeles freeways. Beginning with the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics and the original (and one authentic) Dream Team, basketball has helped me travel the world, to places I never dreamed of as a child whose family never ventured beyond the Catskills. From Europe to Australia, all the way to Tbilisi in the Republic of Georgia, in what just a decade earlier was behind the Iron Curtain.
I visited with the family of a Denver Nuggets' 2002 first-round draft pick named Nikoloz Tskitishvili, for a project investigating the accelerating rate of foreign-born players coming from all corners of the globe. On the wall at the end of a foyer inside a one-bedroom flat, I noticed a poster of Michael Jordan soaring for one of his patented dunks. Further inspection revealed the familiar trappings of Madison Square Garden, and looking closer still, myself, hunched over the press table, eyes on the airborne Jordan.
Thrilled no end to find myself enshrined with Jordan in this remote city in the heart of the Caucasus, I summoned Tskitishvili's mother, and the small circle of relatives and friends present to meet The New York Times columnist who had traveled so far to talk about their Nikoloz, with the assistance of an interpreter. "Look, it's me," I said, finger to the poster, and suddenly there was pandemonium, hugs all around, my back and shoulders pounded, a bottle of wine opened, a toast offered in the finest of Georgian traditions. To me, "friend of Jordan."
While I didn't break it to them that I wasn't quite on the level of Ahmad Rashad, the Jordan sidekick moonlighting as a network cheerleader, I certainly was no stranger to the Jordan phenomenon, to the man who in many respects was the global face of American entertainment culture across the 1990s. From his first championship three-peat with the Bulls through the Salt Lake City followthrough on the title-winning jumper that capped his second, there was no escaping Jordan and, by extension, the NBA growth industry.
I couldn't imagine having wanted to, for what other game offered a sports journalist the kind of upfront access to the field of play I'd had back in the projects when Bruce Spraggins paid us a visit? Even when deadlines became impossibly demanding, as the games dragged later into the East Coast night, you could always count on a window opening during the course of the game, the kind of dramatic scene, audio included, unavailable in the distant baseball and pro football press boxes.
Several years ago, Pat Williams -- one of pro basketball's more eclectic personalities, a personnel maven in Philadelphia and Orlando who doubled as a motivational speaker and quasi comic -- called to say he was doing a book on Jordan and asked if I had a favorite story that best characterized the man. "That's easy," I told Williams, and proceeded to write him a few paragraphs about a 1992 playoff game, Chicago at New York, a brutal seven-game series in which the game plan of Pat Riley's thuggish Knicks was to physically intimidate the Bulls, especially Scottie Pippen. On a late-game fast break, the Knicks' John Starks hammered Pippen to the floor, leaving him dazed and bloodied on the bench during a subsequent timeout.
I was sitting at the edge of the press table, a couple of feet from the Bulls' huddle, when Jordan shoved aside his coach, Phil Jackson, like he was the ball boy. Jordan kneeled in front of Pippen, shook a finger in his face, and snarled, "You better not take that shit," and demanded Pippen drive the ball to the rim even harder next time. In Jordan's eyes, I saw a frightening rage, however controlled, that I came to believe separated him from the others far more than his levitation skills. The old timers will tell you Bill Russell had that quality as well.
Having covered the sport from the tipoff of the rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, right through the coming of LeBron James, I'd be the first to acknowledge that superstars drive basketball, especially the pro game, more than any other team sport. But for me, the foot soldiers and the families have always been equally and often more appealing to be around. I can still see the pride and joy on the faces of Chris Mullin's now-deceased parents, Rod and Eileen, on the day he signed his first pro contract in Oakland. I can still hear the raspy oration of Mullin's St. John's college teammate, Mark Jackson, on the sunlit Brooklyn afternoon he eulogized Harry Jackson, when he said Harry was more than a father, he was "Daddy," and everyone in the tear-stained congregation who knew the difference shouted, "Amen."
To have been a young reporter, out on the road with the Knicks, writing about people I was more used to cheering for from the Garden cheap seats, made for an unusual and unsettling transformation. Willis Reed, the captain and wounded hero of the Knicks' 1970 championship team, had replaced Holzman as coach when I began reporting in the late 1970s for the New York Post. Dispatched on my Murdochian mission to search and distort, I proceeded to question Reed's strategy in one of my first road games, at Cleveland. The next night, in Detroit, Reed walked into the hotel bar where I was suddenly sitting nervously, nose in my beer. He walked over, put his arm around my shoulder. "Come on over to sit with us and have something to eat," he said.
The following season, Reed was fired, the Post's headline writers surely contributing, and replaced by Holzman, who remains the only Knicks coach to win a championship ring. Holzman, renowned for coaching an erudite brand of ball, was already into his sixties, but if you looked past the wrinkles, what you saw in the eyes was a street kid from Brooklyn, not so different from the African-American kids to come long after. Holzman was a tough guy with a quick needle who always got to the point. Example: When his friend and fellow basketball lifer, the Knicks' longtime scout, Fuzzy Levane, suffered a brain aneurysm and fell comatose in the early 1990s, I asked Holzman to describe Levane for a column I was preparing. It took Holzman two or three seconds to come up with the perfect quote, albeit one too colorful for the Times: "No one ever said, 'Here comes that asshole, Fuzzy.'"
As things would have it, Levane outlived Holzman, who died in 1998, months before his beloved Knicks made an unexpected push to the NBA finals. On the night they beat Indiana to close out the '99 Eastern Conference finals at Madison Square Garden, I bumped into Levane in a mad rush through the lower stands and up to the pressroom. He was sitting in his seat, crying. "All these nights, I've been looking across the court out of habit, to where Red always sat," he said. "I'd go home and want to tell him something about the game and I'd pick up the phone, start dialing, and say, 'What the hell am I doing?'"
Lifelong habits are tough to break, even as we lose our mentors, as the names and faces change, as the years whirl by. My father was never much of a sports fan but somehow my job covering the Knicks brought us closer than we'd ever been in the years before he died in 1990. All of a sudden, he was watching NBA games, calling me in my Brooklyn Heights apartment, making a connection. "This Larry Bird is something," he'd say. "This Bernard King..."
Now I watch my own sons -- vertically challenged as I was -- play in their youth-league games. They spend hours in the gymnasium at the local Y, they love the game, and that's all that matters. School mornings, we browse box scores over breakfast. We challenge one another in the backyard. We go see the Rutgers women play Connecticut and the preseason NIT doubleheaders at the Garden the night before Thanksgiving. We bond at night in our den, driving their mother crazy by flipping NBA League Pass channels at a furious pace, when half a dozen games are in simultaneous climax.
That's exactly where I was, reclining on the couch, watching the Knicks close out a tough road loss in Dallas, when the telephone rang on the night of November 19, 2004, the office calling to suggest that I immediately switch to ESPN. "I've never seen anything like this," the Time's Sunday sports editor, Bob Goetz, said. Neither had any of us. It was sobering and sad, but as I watched those images from Auburn Hills, replayed through the night and on into the following weeks, I began to realize that they were not a chance happening, not an unavoidable car wreck, as much as they were the unfortunate culmination of events and forces that had been building for more than a decade. The veritable race riot was almost inevitable for an industry plagued by conflicts of culture and class, some of them self-created.
By conventional measures -- ballooning NBA salaries, fervent corporate involvement, expanded network subsidies -- it can be argued that basketball is a thriving game on both the college and pro levels. However, what are the primary indicators for whether a sport is truly succeeding? If America's universities are raking in multimillions while educating few and embarrassing many, can college basketball be worthy of applause? If the NBA is a wildly profitable vehicle for the physically blessed but reinforces stereotypes and constructs walls of alienation and mistrust, is it fulfilling its mission on a grander societal scale? Both answers are no.
The perception of basketball as a black sport over the last several decades, combined with virulent racial sensitivities in America, practically demanded that proprietary logic and good taste be maintained. They have not been. While capitalists reigned, American basketball values warped, creating a system set up to benefit those who feed off the talent more than the talented themselves. More recently, as the sport has gone global in stunningly accelerated fashion, the American system has even worked against its own players in this increasingly competitive world.
Again and again, players at both the collegiate and professional levels have made a mess of their affairs, often in painfully public ways. Too many have played the role of the jock reprobate and have been deserving of the scorn they received by the media and the fans. Here, nobody gets a free pass, but the spotlight is further cast on the powerbrokers and policy makers from the pros on down, those who turned a blind eye to the dysfunction so long as it didn't stem the flow of dollars, who could have acted a decade ago to help keep basketball a beautiful game of grace and skill, and not the ugly spectacle it turned into at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
This book, a representation of more than two decades of my covering the sport with a particular focus on my years at The New York Times, traces the evolutionary arc that has carried this great game to once-unimagined heights and, sadly, to alarming and dangerous depths. Using a mix of personal experience and observation in memoir form, with additional interviewing done throughout the 2004-05 season, I hope to get to the root of what has made the great American game of basketball the wonder of the world but left it stumbling at home, searching for its soul.
Montclair, New Jersey
Copyright 2005 by Harvey Araton
Excerpted from Crashing the Borders by Harvey Araton Copyright © 2005 by Harvey Araton. Excerpted by permission.
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