We are hunkered down around the little white television we use to have.
The television was my then girlfriend Debbie’s when we were in college, and it fits our current surroundings: a somewhat dingy, much too small, yet hoping to be more, one-bedroom apartment, that is really just a studio with a wall.
It is June 17, 1994.
We are watching Game 5 of the NBA Finals, the Knicks are playing the Rockets at the Garden, and we are hoping to watch them go up 3-2 in the series.
We want this win, we are focused on the game before us, and we are not moving.
The Knicks deserve our full attention and they must have it.
This is their night.
This is our night.
And we are taking no chances that we will inadvertently cause the Knicks to lose by getting distracted and not providing them with the proper dosage of the energy, positive Karma, and undiluted attention that only we can provide.
Their win depends on our ability to will it into being so, hence there will be no distractions, just hunker.
But then the chase happens.
Soon NBC is switching between the game and the L.A. Freeway, then they move to a split screen, and ultimately we are forced to do everything in our power to give the Knicks what they need, despite our inability to pretend in this moment that they are all we care about.
We live on 96th Street, off of West End, and we are just an overpass away from the West End Highway. We do not cross under the overpass at night because we are convinced that trolls live under there.
Not that the neighborhood doesn’t basically feel safe if you ignore the crack den on 95th and focus on the parking garage across the street from our building. The garage is open 24-hours a day, which means lots of light and security throughout the night, something considered an amenity in the housing market at the time.
There is our shell-shocked neighbor though, the one who keeps the mouth of his feral pit bull taped shut with duct tape, is rumored to walk the halls at night with a hunting knife, and just weeks after the game will blow-up his apartment one beautiful Sunday afternoon.
And yet, we don’t remotely believe that our particular living conditions have any greater importance or bearing than most anyone else’s living in New York City at the time.
There is a lot of shit going on.
There is the first World Trade Center bombing in February of 1993, when a truck loaded with explosives is parked under the North tower for what turns out to be a test run.
There is Joel Rifkin’s arrest in June of 1993 for murdering sixteen women over a four year span and leaving their bodies to decompose in the wilds of Long Island.
There is the Long Island Railroad massacre in December 1993, when Colin Ferguson shoots and kills six passengers, while wounding nineteen others.
There is my co-worker’s sexual assault on a suddenly empty train passing under the East River, as well as, my own physical assault which I suffer just two months before the game on 125th street one sunny evening after work as I walk to Ben & Jerry’s for a milk shake.
And maybe this is as it always is, just merely something new to me, and those I grew-up with, striving middle-class Americans from small towns, born of a privilege that comes with being white, and in my case male, who have not grown-up in violent homes or neighborhoods, and so have not known day to day violence, much less the tension of managing the fear that comes with it.
None of which should ignore the pleasures that also existed in 1990’s New York: the late night clubs such as Webster Hall and the Tunnel where we munched hallucinogens and danced until daybreak beckoned, before stopping in the Meat Packing district at Le Florent to have breakfast on the way home; drinking in Max Fish’s Café and McSorley’s in Alphabet City and the lower East Side respectively; listening to David Murray at the Village Vanguard and the Wrench at CBGB’s; seeing the debuts of plays such as Oleanna by David Mamet in the East Village and Angels in America by Tony Kushner and Two Trains Running by August Wilson during their opening run on Broadway; and buying bagels so hot at H&H Bagels on Broadway while walking home in the middle of the night, that they verged on melting in our bare hands.
All of that, and watching our beloved Knicks of course, including but not limited to Charles Oakley, John Starks, the recently departed Anthony Mason, and my great love, Patrick Ewing.
All of which is to say, that it was a vibrant, scary, amazing time, and the city badly wanted, if not outright needed this win, and this despite the fact that the Rangers had already won the Stanley Cup earlier that week after 54 years of yearning.
Then again, maybe none of this true.
Maybe that’s how I remember it, and maybe that was me projecting my needs and fears and confusion onto the city itself, a city I had adopted as my own, and loved, but hadn’t found as welcoming as I assumed it would be.
All of which is also to say that maybe this is less a story about New York in the 1990’s, and more a story about what New York meant to me at the time.
I had idolized Patrick Ewing since the moment that I stumbled onto a photo of him in Sport magazine cradling a ball near his head and stating, “I take it personally when you come into my neighborhood.”
It was his unabashed mix of ferocity and pride; the power game mixed with the light touch around the basket; the anger and smile; the grace he showed when subjected to the terrible, racist things people felt they had permission to say about him because he was a public figure, because he was a big man fighting big men when it was still a big man’s game, and because of his looks – too black, too African, too something.
On a more base level though, I loved him because he was tough and cool, and I wanted to be tough and cool.
As a teenager I never felt tough or cool enough, something that had seemingly, or mostly passed, but here, now, in the New York City of the 1990’s, I suddenly felt that way again.
Prior to this, I had been living in San Francisco, playing ultimate Frisbee, and going to Dead shows, and my stoner humor had fit right in there.
But I was suddenly out of sorts again.
I wanted to fit in, and build some kind of community, but I couldn’t find a new team to play on, and I couldn’t quite figure out how to build anything else to fill that void.
There had also been the assault, which left me feeling vulnerable and exposed, and not the kind of man I thought I was or should be.
There was Patrick Ewing though, on the screen, bigger than life, and as tough and cool as ever, as well as, the Knicks, and while they were counting on our role alone in ensuring that night’s win, there was a still a sense of community which surrounded the team, the season, this series, and especially this game, that I needed, and they were only too happy to provide.
So there we were in the NBA Finals with Ewing, despite his greatness, clearly overmatched against the Rockets’ Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon, he of the grace and quick feet, shot making prowess, ease around the basket, and all-around big man dominance.
We, he, Patrick Ewing would have to be greater than great to beat Hakeem, and no, basketball is not a one man game, and there would have been no 2-2 tie going into Game Five without Starks and Mase and Oakley, but it was Ewing’s moment, and if he could not be transcendent in the way the greatest athletes can be, he had to at least be Hakeem’s equal.
Ewing did his part, mostly, with a record 30 blocks in the series, and a ridiculous Game 5 given his match-up against the Dream:
And yet, today, do we truly remember Ewing’s brilliance in the game?
A game in which the Knicks went up 3-2, needing only one more win in the final two, albeit in Houston, to clinch the title?
We do not, not really, and we do not because of that super slow chase along the L.A. Freeway, the white Bronco, and OJ Simpson.
OJ Simpson, who won the Heisman Trophy and then went on to become the first NFL running back to run for over 2000 yards in a season.
OJ Simpson, who for a stretch of entertainment history crossed all sorts of pop culture and racial lines by playing a Conehead on Saturday Night Live, running through airports in Hertz commercials, acting opposite Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun movies and starring in Roots.
OJ Simpson who was rejected for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s role in The Terminator because James Cameron did not think he would be believable as a killer.
OJ Simpson who was now accused of murdering his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman.
The police had been dispatched to his home that day to bring him in. He had in turn slipped away with his life-long friend AC Cowlings in a white Ford Bronco and was soon leading the LAPD on a really slow chase along the L.A. Freeway, NBC at first switching between the game and the chase, before eventually moving to a split screen and showing both at the same time.
As it was, we were already breathless, living and dying, with every basket the Knicks made, and did not, and before the split screen, every time NBC switched away from the game.
But we were also breathless as we watched a sports and pop culture icon we all worshipped, or once had anyway, on the run, wondering how it would all end.
Now, was it true to say that the March 1991 beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles Police Department beating and the subsequent acquittal of the police officers in April and May 1992 hovered over the proceedings just as the omnipresent helicopters were doing throughout the chase?
Of course it was.
So, did we want OJ to escape then?
Yes, we did, sort of.
Did we want a shoot-out?
Maybe, no, but we wondered what it would look like.
Did we want OJ to kill himself?
No, not really, though we wondered about that too, because how wasn’t it going to end like that?
It was possible that OJ would escape to Mexico of course, and we all kind of wanted that too, or the idea of it anyway.
It was the most fantastical, and impossible, outcome imaginable, and yet, why wasn’t it within the realm of possibility that OJ could allude the police in the same fashion he once had the tacklers so set on bringing him down to earth among the rest of the us?
It was totally possible.
It was also spectacle; both reality television before there was quite such a thing outside of Real World, and a media frenzy that was a real time life and death race against time – the news cameras were everywhere, and we did not know what would happen next, any more than we now know how a leg of the Amazing Race will end.
We just know it will end, eventually, and so we keep watching.
What does it say about us that we could not look away though, and that in so many ways, we were ready to watch someone die, live and televised?
Or that we really didn’t know, or care, where OJ had been or what he was doing for some time now, and that before all of this we were essentially done with him, as we would soon be with Patrick Ewing?
That we use heroes until they are no longer useful for us and then we let them drift away to figure out on their own what comes after the lights and the adulation are gone?
How about the fact that many of us are white and that we worship black males, but otherwise treat them as disposable, and the other, here for our entertainment, but nothing more?
Because all of that was at play during these hours, life and death, game and chase, race and privilege, and yet what does it also mean, that even though a man’s life was at stake, it was no more important to us than this game, and the gift that Patrick Ewing was simultaneously delivering to us, his delirious fans?
And what about the fact that OJ ultimately gave up, peacefully, parked his car and left with the police?
Was that truly the end we wanted?
Do we even know?
Also, what does it mean that the Knicks would go on to lose Games 6 and 7, the former by a sliver, as the Dream blocked Starks’ shot in the closing seconds, following a lights out shooting performance in the fourth quarter, only to result in a full-on Starks implosion in the final game?
How did we feel about that, though more importantly, how could we also feel like that was a death, when there was so much actual death in the air?
Because we needed it.
We need heroes, and we need community, and we need to believe, that these things are real, because if they’re not, what else is there besides real life in all of its ugliness?
I moved to Chicago shortly after Game 7, Michael Jordan came out of retirement, and I had to watch the Knicks lose again and again at his hand, nowhere closer to a title, except for a blow-out loss to the Spurs in the finals years later as Ewing sat on the bench, injured, impotent, and not long for New York, or any of his former glory.
One afternoon I left school and walked to Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tavern and stood around in the crowd of academics and construction workers, a low buzz electrifying the room, as we huddled around the little television above the bar and watched as OJ Simpson was acquitted for the double-homicide he had been charged with.
At first there was a stunned silence, and then applause, before the crowd slowly moved back onto the street.
Something had happened, but the significance of what it was, was not quite clear, and may not be yet, except for the feeling that we were at the dawn of a new era, a period when the real time emergence of the internet, social media, and 24-hour coverage of anything, and all things, celebrity and scandal, would be ascendant, and we would soon find ourselves speeding into a world where no secrets were safe, and no stories would be buried, not for long certainly.
And while quickly enough there was all of that, there was also a re-definition of what heroes might be, because in a world where heroes may still get a pass for their most aberrant behavior, we now know everything, believe we should know everything, and regularly learn, that much of it isn’t very pretty at all, much less heroic.
BEN TANZER is the author of the books Orphans, which won the 24th Annual Midwest Book Award in Fantasy/SciFi/Horror/Paranorma