Sportswriter Samori Benjamin at the Garden Hoping for a Win
In the Mecca of B-ball with a Knick Icon
Going to check out a New York Knicks game at the Garden is an exciting experience under any circumstances – the grandeur of the massive arena, the roar of the crowd, the celebrities from show biz and politics, the exciting floor shows….and then there is the game – but going to the Garden as the guest of Dr. Dick Barnett, a Kick icon who played on the only World Championship teams in franchise history is a very special trip. This became immediately clear as we entered the building to watch the Knicks Play the San Francisco Warriors.
The guards at the entrance recognized Dick in the bustling crowd, which was moving at a snail’s pace due to the body scans by electronic metal detectors and hand searches of bags, and waved him to the front of the line along with me and Zach Husser – a former Columbia University football and basketball player who originally introduced me to Dr. Barnett and invited me to attend the game with them. Once inside we went straight away to the Delta Lounge on the 5th floor, a VIP sanctuary where the big shots and their guest congregate. The average fan does not know this place exist, and even if they do they have no idea of its extravagance. Everything – food and beverages – is free, except for alcoholic drinks. And this is no mere finger foods, but lobster tails, corned beef, loads of fresh steamed vegetables, fruit juices, exotic breads and the like.
There were large flat screen television sets everywhere, so the swells could watch the game without mingling with the boisterous mob in the stands. Actually, this was a place to meet and greet, see and be seen, to “network” with Gotham City’s movers and shakers. The congregants in the lounge, like the common lot of fans, were mostly white and about half of them seem to have been invited by somebody else with juice, since they were running around gawking like Alice in Wonderland. After a while it became apparent that some of these people were much more interested in networking than watching the game. Perhaps because they knew the home team would break their hearts before the evening was over.
After a while I went to the exit that led into the arena and the Knicks were just going through their pre-game ritual, a kind of primitive male war dance to hip hop beats in a darkened house, while a voice on the loud speaker egged the crowd on, prodding them into such a state of excitation they let out a blood curdling collective primal scream that ricocheted off the walls and echoed throughout the cavernous arena. I was anxious to get to our seats by tip off time but I had to prod Dr. Barnett in order to get him out of the lounge where he was comfortably ensconced in a prominent place so that everybody who came through could see him as he chatted with passersby.
Doc was lukewarm about getting out into the arena because he too has lost faith in the ability of the Knicks to win a game, and it is a source of great disappointment, having played on the Knicks team with legendary ballers like like Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Walt “Clyde” Frazier, Willis Reed, Dave Debusshere and “Dollar” Bill Bradley, that won the NBA Championship in the 1969 -70 and 1972-73 seasons. As he pointed to their Jerseys hanging atop the arena, it must have been painful to watch as these imposters in Knicks uniforms disgraced themselves and abused the fans; which had parted with their hard earned coin and trudged out in sub freeing weather to watch them stumble around the court in a danse macabre; a comedy of errors that was more embarrassing than funny.
The Only NBA Champions in Knicks History
As the game plodded on I began to suspect that perhaps success and failure may both be imposters after all. For as I watched the hapless Knicks fall behind by 21 points at halftime I wondered how these jokers had ever won a game in the NBA. How they had once been thought of as serious contenders. While it seemed that everything the Warriors tossed in the direction of the basket went in, as they ran a series of razzle dazzle plays, the hapless Knicks were stiff as stuffed owls anchored to their pedestals.
What masqueraded as an offensive strategy for the Knicks consisted of passing the pill to Carmelo Anthony, then cavalierly watching the giant overhead monitor screens waiting for him to put the ball in the hoop. But, alas, on this night Mello was as cold as the icicles hanging on the roof outside; the boy couldn’t throw a grape through a hoola hoop. But aside from an occasional three pointer from the point guard, J.R. Smith and Tim Hardaway JR, they just kept passing the ball to Mello and staring up at the monitor screen.
Perhaps because Mello had been on a scoring streak the last few games, shooting forty points or more had become common fare, his team mates thought he was a gift that would just keep on giving. Alas they were wrong, and nobody seemed able to come up with a second act. Every time Mello got the ball the defense collapsed on him with two and sometimes three players guarding him; yet it never seemed to occur to him to look for the open man and pass the ball off. He seemed to believe, like the rest of the team, that scoring the ball was his gig.
Mello Shooting the Ball
A human scoring machine
But he needs help…especially when he’s cold!
As halftime approached the drubbing the Knicks were undergoing became so painful for loyal fans it was akin to witnessing a loved one being pecked to pieces by diabolical crows from an Alfred Hitchcock movie. My son Samori, a sports writer who has been covering the Knicks for years on WBAI radio and WBAISports.com, assured me that the suddenly silent crowd was anxious to go crazy but the Knicks gave them no cause for applause.
Thus in what appeared to be a desperate attempt to give the home crowd some reason to cheer, a picture of Mark Jackson, the San Francisco Warriors coach, appeared on the giant overhead screens with the caption “All Time Knicks Great Point Guard,” then they proceeded to show video highlights of some of Jackson’s smooth moves. The crowd finally had a reason to cheer and they went crazy cheering for the coach of the team that was kicking the home team’s ass! It was, to say the least, bizarre.
Dr. Barnett flashed a smile of approval as he watched the video of Mark Jackson in action, but when the Knocks flashed a tribute to “Sweetwater Clifton” the former Globetrotter who became the first African American player to wear a New York Knickerbocker Jersey, Doc’s mood went from mirthful to salty. “There are playing Sweetwater up big now, but they didn’t do shit for him when he was driving a cab later in life to put food on the table. Walt Frazier managed to bust in the organization beyond the court as an announcer, but the Knicks usually don’t do shit for black players.” he said.
Dick Barnett in 1972
That Championship Season!
As an aside he commented “The Pearl just had knee replacement surgery a couple of days ago.” Dick Barnett had escaped the fate that befell Sweetwater Clifton and many pro-Athletes after their playing days are over – the great Allen Iverson of who played in Philly is the latetest example – by acquiring a PhD, becoming a professor of Sports Management and writing several books.
We departed at the conclusion of the first half, unable to bear any more of the drubbing, since the Knicks were down by 21 points in a half where the Warriors had scored over 70 points, and only the real fanatics operating on blind faith believed things would get better in the second half. Alas, we felt the Knicks were engaging in fan abuse and we had had more than our share; would enable them no longer. Doc decided to hang out in the Delta Lounge, and wait for his old pal and former Knick Cal Ramsey, who was wheelchair bound.
As me and Zach were leaving a couple of the guards who saw us come in with Dick came over to us shaking their heads “couldn’t take it no more huh?” one of them asked….”It beats me how they manage to fill up this place for every game, win or lose the people still show up come rain or shine” As I listened to this rather incredible revelation, I thought to myself: I guess that’s why the call them fans….which is short for fanatics.