This article in New York on the grotesquerie that is the New York Knicks is pretty entertaining. It’s got some great stories about the paranoia and dysfunctional environment of a team I used to follow. Unfortunately, I almost missed the good stuff because I was tempted to throw the magazine across the room several times in the first page or two.
I’m going to give the writer the benefit of the doubt, and hope that his editor was the one who inserted these bits, in hopes of making the article “literary,” and not just a compelling feature about the decline of a New York City institution.
Now, it’s one thing to refer to Isiah Thomas as a “$6 million coach [who] counts the days like a guest at GuantÃ¡namo”; I’m willing to let that incomprehensibility slide. I mean, you’re writing for an Upper West Bank audience, you need to put some sort of Bush reference in your lede. No, it was the second paragraph that infuriated me:
As Tolstoy might have observed: All winning teams are alike, but each losing team is wretched in its own special way.
What an impossibly wrong cliche to use! All it takes is one look at the league standings to realize that the winning teams in the league aren’t alike at all. Moreover, most crappy teams are characterized by their near-facelessness and lack of identity.
As near as I can tell, this idiotic statement was meant to show that one can make references to classic literature even when discussing something as stupid as sports! Imagine! Stop trying to be literary!
I seethed, but stuck with the article. And then the team was compared to — well, I’m just gonna give you the sentence first:
If Thomas inherited an aging, overpaid roster, he parlayed it into a younger, faster disaster flick, a Kurtzian horror of bloated contracts and hyped neâ€™er-do-wells.
So the Knicks, by being overpaid and surly, are somehow comparable to . . . The Heart of Darkness? Stop trying to be literary!
The article gets very good after that, bringing in all sorts of good (anonymous) sources, explaining the differences between Isiah (as a player) and Stephon Marbury, the guard he hung all his hopes on. But still, it’s as if the editor can’t resist trying to turn this amazing scene into — well, I have no goddamn idea, after this passage:
An hour before tip-off, Yao Ming sat in the visitorsâ€™ locker room, all seven foot six of him, massive chin in massive hand: the Thinker. As he fielded queries in two languages, his eyes never wavered from the 36-inch Panasonic that replayed the last Knicks-Rockets game. Yao watched Yao attack New Yorkâ€™s big men, get slammed, make two perfect foul shots. The art of war.
I’m down with the Rodin image for Yao. I guess I’m okay with the bizarre “look! he’s watching himself!” language of “Yao watched Yao.”
But getting fouled by crappy bigs and sinking a couple of free throws is “the art of war”? WTF? If the Tolstoy reference was literary hackery and the Conrad reference was sorta racist, what on earth is this Sun Tzu reference supposed to mean? “Yao’s a chink, so his literary basketball reference needs to be Chinese!”? Stop trying to be . . . whatever the f*** you’re trying to be! Let the story breathe!
Fortunately, the article hits high gear immediately after this passage, including episodes where the writer finds the opposing team’s scouting report on the Knicks, where he’s convinced that the team’s management is actually bugging the locker rooms, where a beat writer is described as covering the Knicks “out of spite,” and where an opposing center explains how to tell when lard-assed Eddy Curry is tired (“When you run down court and he’s 30, 40 feet behind you.”).
All of which is to say, this is a really entertaining and informative piece of sports writing by Jeff Coplon. It’s a pity someone damaged it by trying to make a good story “literary.”