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The sweet squeak of sneakers on wood.
I fell in love with basketball when I was 10, mainly, because it gave me an excuse to hang out in my brother’s room. He’d sit on his bed, with a transistor radio to his ear, so absorbed in a game, that he barely noticed when I barged in and plopped onto the floor. I’d cheer or boo half a second after he did, doing my best to echo his outrage when he’d yell “No!”
During time-outs, I’d look at the posters on his walls -- Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Earl Monroe. Pete Maravich was the only non-Knick who made the cut.
“Do you have Pistol Pete and Earl the Pearl next to each other because they have funny nick names?” I asked, instantly regretting it, because the game was back on and my brother was in no mood. The Knicks were down.
Entree into my brother’s room wasn’t the only thing I loved about basketball. It was the sounds - the squeak of sneakers on the floor, the cheers and moans of the crowd, the simultaneously manly force and kid-like joy of Marv Albert’s “yes!” These sounds were the opposite of the drowsy pronouncements of balls and strikes that wafted from our TV on lazy Sunday afternoons. They were urgent and quick. Thrilling and fun. I had very little idea of the mechanics of the game but I understood its soul, and I loved it. These were the sounds of a club I wanted to join.
Many years later, when my new boyfriend Philip asked if I liked the Knicks, I lit up. When he said he had Row 3 seats, I almost cried. We’d meet after work, Philip, tall and smiling in a Hugo Boss suit, looking like a version of success I had no experience with. Wall Street was lightyears from my world, where Chief Creative Officers wore jeans and baseball caps. When he’d hug me to his chest, my cheek touching the fine wool of his jacket, my finger trailing the raw silk of his tie, I felt safe in a way I hadn’t since I was a child and my father marched in from work at the end of a day.
The thunder of the Garden filled my whole body and I pumped my arm, chanting “Go, New York, go New York, go New York, go!” with the joy of a club’s newest and most enthusiastic member. We sat a row behind Woody Allen, and I kept my eye trained on his bald spot between plays. Sometimes, we’d catch glimpses of Matt Lauer, wearing a blazer and jeans and shaking hands with fans. Once, we saw JFK Jr. whose giant head seemed to float above the crowd, so beautiful, so regal, so New York. If we’d been told there would be a time when two of them wouldn’t be able to show their faces and one would die tragically, we’d have put our hands over our ears.
This, our first year of dating, was heady with love and the newness of each other’s worlds. The Knicks were our touchpoint, both anchoring and propelling us forward. We gulped cold beer and shouted for them at The Garden. We propped ourselves on giant pillows on Philip’s bed and screamed with alternating glee and fury. We paced in front of the TV, as grimly, but not as elegantly, as Pat Riley.
The giant wingspan of Patrick Ewing’s open arms, after he sunk a 3, could bring us to our feet, and me to tears, and I wore my number 33 jersey proudly. There was a beautiful balance to the Knicks - Charles Oakley’s no-nonsense get-the-job done style was the perfect counter to the spunky joy of John Starks. The scandalous behavior of Latrell Sprewell was tempered by the wholesomeness of Alan Houston.
We watched and cheered through our first year of marriage, and, through the muted speakers of a screen on the wall, the Knicks were in the background the night before I was induced at Mt. Sinai. Sneakers squeaked beneath Clyde Frasier’s observations of “slicing and dicing” as I felt my first contractions and wondered how I’d have the strength to give birth to twins.
Somehow, I did, and our babies flourished, but the Knicks did not. Ewing and Oakley were traded, and players I didn’t know came in and started losing. We stopped watching as often, and then I stopped altogether.
Life went on and we were lucky. Until we weren’t. Four years ago, Philip complained of congestion that became a constant cough, and a suspicion of pneumonia was replaced by the diagnosis that no one wants to hear.
We bounced back and forth, consulting with doctors at Sloan Kettering and NYU, wondering whose hands to put Philip’s lungs into. They were all rock stars, but some were Paul McCartney’s - poppy and optimistic, while others were Bob Dylan’s - deeper, darker, giving us odds and stats we couldn’t un-hear.
After a particularly difficult conversation with a chubby, balding Dylan at Sloan Kettering, we got off the subway at Union Square and walked home, holding hands for the first time in years. We ordered pizza and drank dry white wine in silence until Philip went into what we still called the playroom, despite the fact that our kids were in college, and turned on the TV.
Sneakers squeaked. Crowds cheered. March Madness was in full swing. I grabbed my glass and joined him and before I knew it, I was cheering, as if I’d never left basketball. The game raged, fast and furious. A big 3 was scored, and Philip let out a whoop, that dissolved into coughs. I squeezed his arm and we kept our eyes on the screen.
Inevitably, it ended the way all games do. One team won and the other sat on the bench, silent and stunned, some with towels draped over their heads, others stabbing at their eyes with crooked forefingers. The air was heavy with the finality of loss. No next game. No tomorrow.
We, too, sat in stunned silence. Two frightened people who shut off the TV and had no idea what to do.
Ultimately, we chose a highly skilled Paul McCartney whose abundance of confidence gave us the belief we needed. And that belief got us through a very tough season. One that, to our wood-knocking amazement, ended on the up side.
And here we are. The Knicks have become exciting again. They made it to Round 2 of the playoffs. The one and only Patrick Ewing was at The Garden to cheer them on. John Starks, older, rounder, wearing a baseball cap, was there too, as was Pat Riley, also older, but not rounder. The Knicks got knocked out by Miami, but they felt like the Knicks again.
Tomorrow, I’ll go to New Jersey to spend the day with my mother. When I get home, I’ll do a spin class, and the tears I’ve held in, while watching her grimace as a hospice nurse lifts her from a wheelchair to her bed, will stream down my face. Sometimes she moves her feet in a walking motion, like Fred Flintstone in his car, when they lift her from one chair to another - the instinct to move dies hard.
Home hospice was a relief to all of us, including my mother. But it’s dragging on. And she’s ready for it to end. I pray she’ll go easy, and then hug my arms to my body when I think about what having that prayer answered will result in.
The loss that will stun and silence my family.
After I shower, Philip and I will have dinner, and watch Game 3 of the Finals and root for Miami, even though they beat the Knicks and we hate them for it. We’ll scream when impossible shots are made and we’ll yell at the refs for making bullshit calls and we’ll feel the way we did 25 years ago when we sat behind Woody Allen, except that we’re different now.
We used to kiss during half time. Now I go into the bedroom and try not to fall asleep during the third and fourth quarters. Sometimes, when I do, Philip comes in and says, “Fourth quarter, two-point game,” and I open my eyes and he sits on the edge of the bed and we cheer, for our team, and for the game itself.
A game that sweeps us up and reminds us that while loss leaves us sitting in stunned silence, sooner or later, whistles will blow.
And sneakers will squeak.
And we’ll get to our feet.
Because no matter how crushing the heartbreak, there’s one thing you can always count on.
A new season will come.
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