In the spirit of both Valentine's Day and the NBA All-Star Weekend, I'd like to pay tribute to my wife the Tiny Goddess and her love of basketball, along with a few subsequent thoughts.
My wife loves basketball. Specifically NBA basketball on television. The college game isn't for her. And not just her favorite team – the Lakers. She'll watch any NBA game. When games are on TV, I'll have to "double-Tivo" both games so she can watch the first game and a half in the family room and the last half of the second game in the bedroom. This includes pre-game shows (for Ernie, Sir Charles, Kenny, etc., as well as Doris, Avery, and Derrick Rose's father.) And if she falls asleep during the second game, I hide the sports section the next morning so she can catch up on the end of the second game with her breakfast. Tivoing the games and erasing the previous night's games are one of my jobs each morning. You have to make room on the DVR or run out of recording space. "List maintenance" is a constant responsibility.
I know exactly when the Tiny Goddess's love of basketball began because I was there. Her love of basketball began in 1972 when I was a big fan of the New York Knickerbockers, and she seemed to be a big fan of mine. So with me came the Knicks: watching the Knicks on television and listening to the Knicks on radio. (This was before there was cable TV, before every game, even home games, got televised, if you have the money to buy the sports package.)
Some background: I was raised to love basketball, playing it and watching it on TV. My favorite team growing up was the legendarily successful Boston Celtics team, in rebellion against my father and older brother's championing of the mediocre Syracuse Nationals. Plus I was short and fancied myself a point guard (a term that didn't even exist then; it was called a "playmaking" guard), and the greatest playmaker of all was Boston's Bob Cousy, my favorite athlete of all.
But by the early 70s – miracle of miracles – the traditionally inferior Knickerbocker team became great. They had a wily coach Red Holzman and a team of smart, accomplished players including Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Dave deBusschere, Earl Monroe, Dick Barnett, Jerry Lucas, and a whole host of the other interesting types including future Hall-of-Fame coach Phil Jackson. These Knicks were very good and played a beautiful brand of basketball, based on a simple strategy: hit the open man. OK, it was more complex than that, but they played the game as if it were a simple thing. The term "high basketball-IQ" didn't exist in those days, but the Knicks' team under Holzman exemplified it. Their playmaking guard Frazier was a player of consummate skill, class, and intelligence. They won and won well: and winning is fun to watch.
Add to that an essential element: the announcing of Marv Albert, the Knicks' play-by-play man. In those days, Marv did the radio broadcasts as well as the television games. The Tiny Goddess and I would listen to all the Knick home games on radio when we couldn't watch the away games on our little portable black-and-white TV. Listening to Marv Albert do play-by-play on radio is just about as good as seeing it with your own eyes; that's only a slight exaggeration. Sports on radio can be as dramatic as anything. (One of my big heartbreak moments as a Knick fan was hearing them get eliminated in the 1971 Eastern finals by the Baltimore Bullets of Earl Monroe and Gus Johnson while I was driving home from Montauk after a job interview with the legendary Dan Ratiner of Dan's Papers in the Hamptons for a job I never took.)
Now I know that Marv Albert had some personal problems in the past and that he also has some toupee problems in the present, but other than that, he is an absolute genius of an announcer. (Marv also does football and hockey.) I think it was listening to Marv Albert, along with my subsequent explanations when necessary, that taught the Tiny Goddess all about the game of basketball. And Holzman's Knicks were the perfect team to learn from: they played logical, basic, clean basketball. She learned from a Perfect Model.
In later years, we moved to Los Angeles and became Laker fans. This was not difficult to do in any way whatsoever. The Lakers – until recently –- are one of the greatest franchises in all of professional sports history. Smart, silent ownership ... constant flow of Hall-of-Fame caliber players ... unrivalled record of accomplishment ... glamorous, unblemished tradition including many, many championships. It's easy to root for the Lakers.
We arrived in LA at the end of the "Showtime" era of Magic Johnson, James Worthy and company. They were a ridiculously exciting team, and we saw a few games at the old LA Forum. The Tiny Goddess' boss had access to tickets, and sometimes they got passed down to us. (A favorite family anecdote is the time my son, five years old at the time, "high-fived" seven-foot-tall Vlade Divac at courtside.) The only time I saw Michael Jordan live was in an NBA finals game – Game 5, 1991 -- wherein Michael destroyed the Lakers. He scored 30; Scottie Pippen had 32.
Since then, we've been up and down with the Lakers. The biggest up is Kobe Bryant. He is the Bruce Springsteen of basketball. He plays every game full-out; he "proves it all night." He is, with the possible exception of Sandy Koufax, the best athlete on a team I've ever rooted for. Of course, Koufax had six erratic years before his six years of pure genius. Kobe's been fairly great for his entire career, until this last bunch of injuries that have essentially ended his career. But we won't talk about that any further, ok?
It's indeed tough times for Lakers fans. The Tiny Goddess doesn't wear her various Laker T-shirts and jerseys quite as often anymore, but she tries. (Good gifts, guys.) She's enthusiastic about Swaggy Pete and Jordan Hill and the rest of our summer league roster. She's a truer fan than I am. After all these years, she has a larger capacity for watching roundball than I do. She knows a ton of stuff. She'll even correct me on things!
Looking far, far back, I have to thank her for being willing to take on a hobby of mine and make it hers, too. She joined me in watching something that she had previously been completely uninterested in: sports on TV. (Outside of a little golf, her father wasn't a sports-on-TV nut.) I've seen wives who spurn their husband's fandom and miss out on what is potentially a good, shared experience. In some ways, rooting for Holzman's Knickerbockers brought the Tiny Goddess and me closer together when we were a young couple. It was something to share. Couples need common interests, and basketball-watching became one of ours.
At first, she watched basketball just to please me.
And now she listens to sports radio.
Later on, I took up one of HER interests. But that will be another blog.
***Extra credit goes to readers who recognized the title of this blog as a song from "Promises, Promises," the Burt Bacharach-Hal David musical, first sung by Jerry Orbach (a/k/a Lennie Briscoe of "Law and Order.")