Contributed by Greg Olear
Of the many ways, expected and otherwise, that fatherhood changed my life, one that surprised me is the extent to which parenthood has altered my priorities. To some degree, my kids dictate everything I do. Nowhere is this more evident than in my relationship to spectator sports, to basketball in particular, and to the New York Knicks above all. If basketball were church, I was, before getting married, on the verge of entering priesthood; I’ve become, by conscious choice, a hoop agnostic.
Once upon a time, my devotion to the game was born of need. There was a void in my life that I filled, or tried to fill, with an inflatable orange ball. This, my “blue period,” began in earnest in the fall of 1996 and ended in June of the following year. I was 24 years old, and therefore miserable. Instead of New York’s East Village, a neighborhood I desperately wanted to call home, I was living in Hoboken, a single square mile sandwiched the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels, which I called “The Sixth Borough,” but everyone else referred to, correctly, as “New Jersey.” I’d graduated the year before, and didn’t have many friends. I detested my job, which involved writing fake SAT questions. I was in the throes of a protracted breakup with a woman I never should have dated in the first place. I was, in short, depressed.
Fortunately, this period coincided exactly with the 1996-7 NBA season. The Knicks, a team I’d been vaguely following since their run to the Finals two years earlier, had an even better squad than the one that lost to Houston in ’94. From tip-off through their heartbreaking loss to the Miami Heat in the conference semifinals, I was obsessed—not clinically, but unhealthily for sure—with that team. My blue period, you might say, was really a blue-and-orange period.
To wit: when John Andraise, the color commentator and Marv Albert’s broadcasting partner, took off a game to attend the marriage of his daughter, I dreamt I was at the wedding. When the Heat’s P.J. Brown instigated a brawl that saw Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston, Larry Johnson, and John Starks—otherwise known as four of my team’s five best players—suspended for the last two games of the playoffs, I rooted for the unsuspended skeleton crew to topple the stupidly-named Heat with more passion than I’ve ever rooted for any sporting event in my life. When the Knicks lost, I didn’t get out of bed for three days. I felt like a good friend had been shot dead in my living room.
The best thing I can say about following sports is that it alleviates loneliness. When you invest in a team, especially if the team does well, you are embraced by a community that has only one prerequisite for membership: that you care. It’s religious, in a way (a similarity the Knicks players drove home that year by praying at center court after every game). This, more than anything, is the appeal of following a team: the instant and unconditional acceptance to a community, vicarious though it might be. I don’t know what I would have done without the Knicks during that brutal stretch of my life. I will always have a soft spot for John Starks, Charles Oakley, and the other members of that team. In a small way, they saved me.
I never really recovered from the loss to the Heat—which is probably a good thing. Although I still watched, and still cared, I wasn’t as emotionally invested as I was during the magical, and cursed, 1996-7 season. I moved to Manhattan. I got a better job. I made friends, good ones. I met my wife. My own fortunes were inversely proportional to the fortunes of the Knicks, who, after Coach Jeff Van Gundy (whom even my sportophobic spouse adored) quit in December, 2001 (two months after 9/11), endured a decade of abject wretchedness from which they have only recently begun to emerge.
Still I watched. I watched when Isiah Thomas destroyed the team. I watched when Larry Brown, a man I despised to a degree approximating Captain Ahab’s feelings toward the whale, coached the club. I watched players I actively disliked. After my son was born in 2005, on Christmas Day—Christmas is a big deal in the NBA, in the same way that Thanksgiving is in the NFL; there’s always a full slate of games on national TV—I still squeezed in a few telecasts.
And then, one day, it hit me. When the only player on the team I even remotely liked, David Lee, reacted to an opposing player trying to help him up after a fall by scowling and swatting the guy’s hand away, I thought: I’ve had it. I’m done. The Knicks were terrible. Not only that, they were loathsome, a team of jerks. And I was no longer that lonely, bored, depressed twentysomething in Hoboken exile, drinking away his sorrows after a playoff loss. I didn’t need them anymore.
I didn’t have the time or the emotional energy required to watch and root on a lousy collection of people I disliked, even if they were wearing Knicks uniforms. There is only one prerequisite for membership in the club of sports fandom, remember, and I no longer felt it. I no longer cared. My kids—my daughter was born in 2006—took up the lion’s share of my time, and what little remained I chose to spend doing other things.
That night, I made the decision to actively disengage.
That’s the thing about having a family: it forces you to reassess your priorities. What’s more important, my son and daughter, or the Knicks-Bucks tilt? Six years ago, I actively chose the former. And I’m glad I did. Every member of my family, including (and especially) me, has benefited from my less-undivided attention. We’re all better for it.
Although if Linsanity takes hold again next year…
Greg Olear is the founding editor of The Weeklings and the author of the novels, Fathermucker, Totally Killer and Fathermucker, an LA Times bestseller. He lives in New Paltz, N.Y.