I came of age on Gatorade. For much of my youth basketball belonged to Be Like Mike, when media, marketing, mythology and mass production coalesced around his cult of personality to sell us a shitload of sneakers. Then suddenly the man retired, mourning the murder of his father by chasing high heat for a minor league affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. There were reasoned rumors of a gambling addiction and secret suspension coming from the corridors of country club locker rooms on Chicago’s North Shore; whether these whispers were paranoid ideations, polite fictions or false narratives, Jordanleft the game for a spell so that lesser lights could shine.
In the 1994 finals, the blue collar Knicks – Ewing, Oak, Mason, Smith, Starks and Harper – were tied up 2-2 with Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets when Game 5 was interrupted by a happening so surreal it almost felt like art: the screen was split and shared with live footage of Orenthal J. Simpson leading the LAPD through the golden light of an LA eve in his white Bronco, with Tom Brokaw providing the play-by-play. More than nostalgia, a trip through the past is theater. The past is absurd.
The Knicks won the game but lost the next when Hakeem the Dream got a hand on John Starks’ 3-point attempt as the clock ran out. Then it got worse. I watched Game 7 from a motel room outside Indianapolis, in town for a regatta (I rowed because I lacked any of the skill sets required of more interesting sports; couldn’t hit a curveball, couldn’t hit a jumpshot, all I could do was endure). The contest was close, two evenly matched teams putting it all out there, but John Starks, my favorite player, the heart of this team I loved and the hot hand of so many fourth quarters, could not buy a bucket. He went 2 for 18 from the field, missing all 11 of his three point shots. As the game wore on, it became increasingly clear that a certain sort of dream was being manifested, the kind where you are thrown into an unknown situation in front of strangers and expected to perform, and after your early hope has run dry and delusional, you begin flubbing your lines and realize you are acting out your own apocalypse. Somehow the Knicks were still in it, somehow Pat Riley kept Starks in it, somehow he kept shooting, somehow he kept missing. I watched in powerless silence, witnessing the forming of the inevitable, just as we do with our own nightmares.
As things were falling apart, what I didn’t know was that I was in the early stages of fever, the heat rising like a red wave, the imminent end of days. The buzzer sounded, the Rockets won, the Knicks lost, the dead screen doing nothing to explain what had just happened. The silence screamed, and I think I fainted. I woke to a dream in darkness, feeling large worms like the flowering snakes of Medusa’s hair burrowing through my gut, consuming me from the inside out. I ran to the bathroom sink to force them out; not really knowing the finger-down-the-throat trick, I flexed and retched the muscles of my neck to bring the parasites up from my mouth. The sound gave the darkness form; I locked eyes with myself in the mirror, only then realizing that I was standing over the sink of a shitty motel bathroom, sick and delirious and alone. I fell back into a sea of sweaty sheets and slept through my race the next day.
That’s about when I fell out of love with basketball. I stopped playing pickup and exactly no one cared. The following year Riley left for Miami; Reggie Miller scored eight points in nine seconds; Jordan reclaimed number 23 and his place in history. I quit the stupid sport of rowing a boat through water with seven other dudes and went off to college in the suburbs of Chicago, surrounded by Bulls fans sustained in the ecstasies of a second three-peat. All these ghosts from the past. It was hell.