As I watched Charles Oakley scuffle with Madison Square Garden’s security guards, my first thought wasn’t anger, but a painful consciousness of my own age. I was born in 1965. Oakley was born in 1963. We’re both part of the “not quite Boomer but not quite Generation X” demographic. There the resemblance ends. I’m a 5’11” intellectual misfit who trips over his own feet in the shower. Charles Oakley is a 6’8” superman, one of the most intimidating power forwards in the history of the NBA. Seeing him as a middle-aged man with gray hair being dragged out of his seat and put in handcuffs by James Dolan’s rent a cops, however, allowed me if ever so briefly to put myself in his shoes. Suddenly the great Charles Oakley was just another worker being mistreated by his former employer, a man who had given the best years of his life to a corporation that no longer needed, or wanted him. I suddenly felt like an old man.
Has it really been twenty-three years since game five of the 1994 NBA finals?
I was not a Knicks fan in the 1990s. I preferred the New Jersey Nets and their great Croatian shooting guard Dražen Petrović. Nevertheless, for anyone living in New York City in the 1990s, Pat Riley’s New York Knicks were impossible to avoid. Something about the New York Knicks in the 1990s summed up my frustration with my own life. Year after year, Patrick Ewing, who was drafted out of Georgetown in the mid-1980s, kept them in contention for the NBA title. Every year they came up short. The Pat Riley Knicks were like that guy in his twenties who just can’t get laid. A great center, two first-rate power forwards, a coach who already had four NBA Championship rings, a dynamic shooting guard in John Starks, they seemed to have everything going for them. Every year the New York City media speculated about whether or not the Knicks would win it all, would have that moment of pure, orgasmic bliss when they finally made it over the top after all those years of frustration. Every year they failed to close the deal. By the late 1990s the it was impossible to avoid the inevitable conclusion. Their best just wasn’t good enough.
The closest Patrick Ewing ever came to getting his well-deserved championship ring was Game 5 of the 1994 NBA finals. Michael Jordan, who had cock-blocked the Knicks for so many years, had, like Alexander, decided that, in basketball at least, there were no more new worlds for him to conquer. So he took two years off to play minor league baseball. That left Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets. Make no mistake, Olajuwon is one of the greatest players ever to palm a basketball, perhaps even better than Jordan, but, unlike Jordan, he did not have that same air of invincibility. The referees would occasionally call a foul on Hakeem Olajuwon, or penalize him for traveling, something they never did against Jordan. On June 17, Game 5 of the seven game series, the Knicks and Rockets were tied. The Knicks had stolen a game in Houston, and the Rockets had stolen one in New York. I was living in my crappy little apartment on Hudson Street near the White Horse Tavern above one of those nondescript bars – I forget the name – that have all long since been gentrified out of the West Village. It was a Friday night, but as usual I was broke and had no social life, so I was at home. I didn’t own a TV. I knew the game was going on but I wasn’t listening to it on the radio. Suddenly from below I heard an extended booing. I tried to ignore it, but it just wouldn’t stop. What was going on? It seemed to swell as it went on, gathering itself below and in a pool of rage below and wafting up through the building until it drowned out Mazzy Star or Tori Amos or Nirvana or whatever I was listening to as I drunk myself into oblivion.
Out of curiosity, I went downstairs. The noise was coming from the bar, where a large crowd of people had gathered to watch the basketball game. Suddenly it all made sense. Something something bad had happened, a horrendous penalty call that had decided the outcome of the game, or worse, a career ending injuring to Patrick Ewing. I pushed my way inside, getting a sharp elbow to the ribs and a “get off my fucking foot” as I made my way through the crowd. The anger was palpable. Finally, when I got close enough to the TV set, I realized what had really happened. There were no New York Knicks. There were no Houston Rockets. The networks had all cut away from Game 5 of the NBA Finals to Los Angeles in order to show us OJ in his white, Ford Bronco. It was a reality show that nobody in the bar wanted. Whatever stories the media has invented over the past 20 years to justify their obsessive coverage of the brutal murder of a white woman by her black, ex-football player husband, nobody in that little corner of the West Village that night cared about O. J. and Nicole Simpson. They cared about the New York Knicks. They wanted to see Patrick Ewing, John Starks, and Charles Oakley take the lead against the Houston Rockets, not two boring hours of a car chase. Perhaps they knew what was coming – the Knicks would win Game 5 and take the lead only to lose two games in a row and drop the series – and just wanted to savor the moment before Hakeem Olajuwon and his unstoppable reverse jump shot ruined their dreams for good.
I don’t remember how long I stayed in the bar. Perhaps ten minutes. Perhaps an hour. I didn’t order a drink – I couldn’t have gotten close to the bar had I wanted to – and didn’t engage in any conversation beyond “fuck this shit.” But I would never forget that night. The media landscape had changed for good.