SB Nation

Robert Cohen | February 13, 2013

Not getting over it

Notes on rage, loss and Jeremy Lin

"There are some things one remembers even though they never happened. There are things I remember which may never have happened but as I recall them so they take place." – Harold Pinter, Old Times

While I fully intend for this piece to be about Jeremy Lin – being written it is on this first, rather mournful anniversary of the Linsanity phenomenon – there seems no way to talk about Jeremy Lin (or in my case to keep talking about Jeremy Lin, for I have been talking about Jeremy Lin, as people will tell you, for quite some time now) that does not involve talking about myself first. Namely that part of myself, that acrid, apparently bottomless reservoir of choked-back bile, of humiliations swallowed and casual injustices endured, that is either unable or unwilling to stop talking about Jeremy Lin.

We remember what it felt like, that giddy mid-winter helium hit, for a fan base mired in yet another season in hell.

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There’s no need to rehash the old arguments. Why relitigate the trials of last summer, who said what to whom and the luxury tax implications that followed? We know. We know the PERs, the PPGs, the turnovers, the $139 million rise in MSG stock values, the astounding, defibrillating jolt to a comatose franchise. We remember what it felt like, that giddy mid-winter helium hit, for a fan base mired in yet another season in hell, in all likelihood the eighth circle. That’s the one shaped like an amphitheater, by the way, full of seducers and pimps, where the lamentations of the sinners make you put your hands over your ears and furiously scratch your skin off with your nails …

Anyway, enough. The parade has left town, the thrill of newness is gone, and as we pause to sweep up the yellowed confetti we can be forgiven for wondering if we really did make too much of this thing after all. Or as my wife said just after midnight on July 14, just after James Dolan declined to match Houston’s offer and just before our divorce: "Wait, you’re not really upset about this, are you?"

OK, in point of fact we did not get divorced, though there were many tears shed that night (mine) and recriminations registered (hers). But never mind, we have put that behind us. Put away those childish things. Clearly too much has been said already. Too many key-strokes hammered, cable subscriptions cancelled, jerseys rent. Clearly not everyone has the will or the fortitude to hang in there on this thing. Not everyone has the time. We are an impatient species. Soon enough we grow weary, even of – maybe especially of – the sublime. Soon yesterday’s boldest headlines are forgotten, receding byte by byte into the digital haze, their binary clarity – their one/zero, winner-takes-all certainties – growing blurry, indistinct. Other disasters announce themselves. Other priorities intervene.

And what is that message? It is a message every sentient human being and sports fan – and by no means should the two be confused – knows all too well. Shut up is that message. You are a feeble voiceless person is that message and for all your investment in such World Historic Matters as who does or does not wear the shorts of your team, you have no say whatever. You get some passionate attachment to Lin out of the deal, you get the illusion of community, you get at times a certain irrational uplift as well as, much more often, let’s face it, an equally irrational, plunging, hideous depression, but none of this mitigates the reality that you are doomed to writhe in the grip of a brutally disheartening allegiance, so just deal with it is that message and move on.

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Still, the earth being round, round as a ball, moving on generally involves some circling back. Perhaps this is especially true for Knicks fans, who tend to punish themselves with the past, towards which they are more fetishists – or masochists – than historians. Opiate, meet masses. Read the blogs, go to the bars, score a scalped seat way up in the blue section, and you’ll see them, time’s exiles, all around you, muttering of those nights when the Garden was Eden, and all the nascent promise of a rising counterculture found, or so it seemed, its most eloquent secular expression, the blacks and the Jews and the longhairs and politicos and the working class whites coming together, night after night, in a passion play of unselfish cooperation, with the ball forever swinging out to the open man, and the open man forever just turning out to be ludicrously talented. We remember the ancient patriarchs: Clyde, Barnett, Willis, Dollar Bill, Cazzie, Debusschere, Lucas, the Pearl. How could we not? The names have been dangling from the rafters of memory so long, they’ve grown if anything too familiar; their rattle in our heads sounds, in truth, a bit hollow at this point, a bit weightless, even absurd, like those clopping coconuts in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, impelling us forward (or is it backward?) toward yet another overpriced ticket or cable bill.

Meanwhile the new names lumber past with their bloated contracts like so many elephants on parade: Michael Sweetney, Eddy Curry, Steve Francis, Jerome James. Riley and Van Gundy come and go. The dark ages of Isaiah. Larry Brown. The losses mount, the prices rise, the building empties, the rage builds. It grows vast and deep; it contains multitudes. In truth, every unhappy fan is miserable in his own way. In my case there are fault lines of psychic, ethnic, and existential aggrievement that for all I know run back to the pogroms. But perhaps this is true of everyone. To be and to feel powerless in the face of an impersonal, arbitrary authority is, strictly speaking, never anybody’s fault, not even our own. It is simply for most of us what is the case. We can protest all we want, but in the eternal litigation of Self v. World, of our limitless need for affirmation and the planet’s manifest indifference to and containment of that need, we are forever losing ground. The evidence is against us. Witnesses lined up at the door. Cruelty, as George Eliot wrote, requires no motive outside itself; it only requires opportunity. A pre-existing condition neatly captured by Kafka in this one-line story from his notebook: A cage went in search of a bird.

The losses mount, the prices rise, the building empties, the rage builds

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For a visual illustration of which, check out Charles Smith’s two-foot gimme putback being blocked – and blocked – and blocked – and blocked – in Game 5 of the ‘93 playoffs with the Bulls.

But wait, where was I? Oh yes. Powerlessness and cruelty and rage. Cages and birds.

I am thinking – in a sense I am always thinking – of a Sunday afternoon back in the 1980s. I have only just moved to New York from the West Coast, and am ready to commence my epic, utterly clueless assault on the literary scene. So far it’s not going too well. I have met a number of rich people who went to prep school together and appear to know a great deal more than I do about living in Manhattan in a productive and successful way, a way that appears to involve, either directly or indirectly, paying me and my ambitions no attention at all. Which may be why I’m feeling, that Sunday, a little vulnerable, and why on the excuse of some filial business or other, or maybe just to do laundry, I’ve taken the bus out to Jersey to see my parents. It may even be why when my father goes ahead and invites me to play a little tennis, I say yes, despite the fact that I’m already shaking my head no. The fact is I did not enjoy tennis at that time in my life and am not particularly good at it, and even if I was good at it I would not have been good at it in the presence of my father, who has an unnerving way of taking out his own multiple tennis-related frustrations (at least I think they’re tennis-related) on me – snorting through his nose as I labor through my strokes, hollering terse, impatient corrections of my serve even as his own repeatedly catch the net – in a way I would surely experience as infuriating and disabling were it not so familiar and predictable. Of course it infuriates and disables me anyway. But then to be a son of a father is no easy thing. Ask Abraham and Isaac. Of sacrifices and injustices there is no end.

Nonetheless here we are, my father and I, out on the municipal courts, trying. Flailing in the morning sunlight. And then all at once something feels off, something feels wrong, there’s a small disturbance rippling through the field of vision, like a needle skating over an LP, and I look up to find four strangers strolling across our court as casually as you please.

Let me just pause here, as I did then, to let the wrongness of this event sink in. These are mature men, younger than my father but older than me, regulars of some sort – you can tell by their smooth tanned legs, their casual, unhurried movements – and yet somehow they are, with no sheepishness or apology, no acknowledgement or explanation, either oblivious to our exertions or in some lofty, jockish way contemptuous of them, walking right across our court in the middle of our game, as if we aren’t there.

I glance at my father. After all he’s a salesman, a people person, a tennis person: surely he’ll handle this the right way. But in fact he says nothing. He makes a vague, impacted gesture with his wrist, expressive of some irritation or other, then beckons me to go ahead and get on with the game. Clearly to him this is a trivial slight, or possibly no slight at all. And for me? Listen, don’t get me wrong: I’m no stickler for protocols and formalities, and as I say I couldn’t care less about tennis in general and this wan, half-hearted little game of ours in particular. But to me, there is no going on with the game. To me the game is over, the game will always be over, has always been over. Game? What game? The only game now is to find the right words to give voice to my rage and resentment, not just at these four smug, entitled assholes who have just walked across our court, but at every smug, entitled asshole walking across every metaphoric court in our lives. All I need are the words. Only where are the words? There are no words, or if there are I can’t find them, can only stand there fecklessly fluttering my racket back and forth, my internal engine steaming and hissing and going, in the end, nowhere at all.

I'm willing to be the last one out the door, to turn out the lights of Linsanity after everyone's gone home

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The point is on some level I’m still standing there, you see. Still looking for the words. Yes, on some level, Your Honor, those four guys in their white tennis shorts continue to float blithely through my head, transgressing chalk-lines of memory and time – their tufted chest hair still visible through the V of their polo shirts, fluffy and luxurious, like clouds in a Tiepolo – and the dull murderous rage they inspire does not diminish over time but in fact continues to intensify in a spiraling, even borderline scary way I can’t help but think about when I turn on ESPN at night and see a highlight clip of Jeremy Lin snaking through the paint or making a no-look pass to Harden. And then I think of James Dolan, that ultimate Manhattan rich kid, that blithe and bullying under-achiever, and though increasingly when I do I feel like Charles Smith, doomed to get stuffed every time I rise, or like John Starks unable to stop firing bricks in Game 7, or like Jeff Van Gundy hanging hopelessly on Alonzo Mourning’s doric-column-sized leg, seeking purchase where there is no purchase, I choose to hold onto my rage at such moments, not let it go, not get on with the game, but to hold on. I choose to hold on not despite the fact that Lin himself has moved on, that the team’s winning without him, that he’s having, all in all, an up and down season down in Houston, that it’s in no way clear he will prove over time to be worth all the money the Knicks chose not to pay him, though I very much think he will, but because of it. OK, I get it. Nothing to see here any longer, no reason to keep focusing on this – "Well, clear this out now!" said the overseer, and they buried the hunger artist, straw and all – I accept that. I’m willing to be the last one out the door, to turn out the lights of Linsanity after everyone’s gone home. I’m fine with that. Because I remember talking to a friend after that first game against the Nets, a shrewd, long-suffering Knicks fan, much more knowledgeable than I was. "Eh," he said, "Lin looked OK. I doubt in the end he’s worth getting excited about."

I nodded. Undoubtedly my friend was right, no question. On the other hand he was also wrong. Because in the end, of course, nothing’s worth getting excited about. Which is why we choose to get excited anyway, even if the smart money is against it. Which it will be, it will be. It will be, let’s face it, every fucking time.

Editorial Team

Photo Credit: Getty images

About the Author

Cohen

Robert Cohen is the author of four novels, most recently Amateur Barbarians and Inspired Sleep, and a collection of stories, The Varieties of Romantic Experience. His stories and essays have appeared in Harper's, Paris Review, the Believer, and many other magazines. He teaches at Middlebury College and lives in Vermont.

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