Saturday, February 23, 2008

Dr. Louis Fishman, who was variously known in life as Lou, Sonny, and, to the author of this blog, PopPop, was a longtime Knicks fan who died in the early morning on Tuesday, January 22nd, after suffering a stroke on the previous Wednesday and having spent the interval in a state that was more or less unconscious and inert.

My last conversation with him had, not surprisingly, taken the form of an argument about the Knicks. It was my contention that the team was badly assembled and that all of the players were, relative to other professional basketball players, bad at basketball, and I saw this as the major explanation of the Knicks troubles. My grandfather blamed the team’s abject state on Coach Thomas; he felt that Thomas “just sat there” on the bench and did not show the animation and passion appropriate for a man being played well to run an historic franchise into the ground. (I speculated, privately, that, had Thomas been a white man, what my grandfather called apathy would instead be seen as “cool” and “collected.”) My grandfather maintained that the Knicks players were, in fact, quite talented, and that a competent coach (such as Larry Brown?) could have turned them into a winning team.

A particular point of non-agreement was our respective assessments of Jamal Crawford. Early in the season, I had observed that the Knicks depended on a dominant scoring performance from Crawford to even be in a game. The problem is that Crawford is no player to depend upon: he is a streak shooter whose performance regularly fluctuates from awful to brilliant. He takes a lot of shots, and, while on some nights many of them go in, on other nights almost all of them miss and, given the state of the Knicks’ rebounding, a missed shot is very much like handing the ball to the other team. An inherently unreliable player, he had, due to the badness of the team, found himself their most reliable scoring option—which essentially dooms the Knicks to mediocrity and inconsistency. My grandfather took the opposite point of view, and maintained that Crawford was one of the five or so best players in the East. I abused Crawford’s defense and might have referred to him as a far crappier version of Rip Hamilton.

It is hard to overstate how actually pleasant this conversation was for both of us to have. We both, I think, felt a desire to connect with the other that was out of proportion with our meager abilities to transcend the gulf of years; our patience for minor differences in attitude, opinion and demeanor; and our capacities to even understand such a desire, much less express it. We had few subjects of conversation in common, and on the remaining ones we would generally either find ourselves in tedious agreement, or so fervently opposed to each other that frank conversation was completely impossible.

The great mercy of sports is that, due to their relative ultimate banality, a level of difference of opinion that would be unacceptable on a subject like the State of Israel is almost welcome when it comes to the New York Knicks. Both my grandfather and I possessed somewhat argumentative personalities, and it was pleasant to find ourselves in a disagreement where we could be sure that all that was finally at stake was the evaluation of a group of basketball players, and not larger judgments on ways of life or habits of thought.

On Tuesday, January 15th, the Knicks beat a tired Washington Wizards team; in their previous game, on Sunday, they had beaten a tired Detroit Pistons team. On Wednesday, in an e-mail to a friend discussing the victory, I wrote “the next time Jamal Crawford goes 6-for-fucking-7 from downtown, the Knicks might win that one, too.” Sometime before or after I sent that e-mail, my father called me and told me that my grandfather had had a stroke.

At that point it was unclear what exactly the ramifications of this would be—although in retrospect this uncertainty seems mainly due to the reluctance of all parties concerned to contemplate the worst and likely outcome while there was still a credible cause for hope. When I spoke to my father, my grandfather had been sent home from the hospital; his refusal of treatment having been honored largely because he was himself a physician. His speech was impaired and he could not swallow. There was a chance that the symptoms would clear up in the course of the night and there was also a chance that they would get worse.

The Knicks were playing the New Jersey Nets that night and I was pleasantly surprised to find that they were winning when I checked the score on-line before I left work.

As I had planned on the train, the first thing I did when I got to my apartment was turn on the television and check score, to see if the game would be a cheerful and appropriate topic of conversation when I called my mother, which was the next thing that I did. The Knicks were up by something like fifteen or twelve, with six or so minutes left to play, and so I decided they were safe.

My mother was watching television with my grandfather, whose condition had not improved. Speech was now impossible for him, and he had resorted to communicating with notes, although this was also becoming difficult. At the same time he seemed comfortable and peaceful. Were they watching the game? No, they had switched to something else when the Knicks had been trailing earlier. Well, I have good news…

I spoke with my mother for a little longer. When I got back to the game, the Knicks lead had shrunk to five, and it promptly proceeded to evaporate completely, putting the game up for grabs in the closing minutes. What the hell were Randolph and Curry doing on the floor at a time like this? Where was David Lee, IsiahThomsas-yousonofabitch? I felt insanely guilty for having potentially inflicted this spectacle on my grandfather, which had probably given him another stroke.

But the Knicks hung on, their victory assured after Jamal Crawford, who had had another very good game, stroked in a three pointer in the game’s final minute. I decided that I would call my mother again, to tell her the final result in case they had turned it off at a point when it seemed that the Knicks were going to lose.

As the game ended I experienced a lonely feeling of uncertainty which frequently comes at the end of a game and dimly mirrors the feeling of finishing a very good book. I had briefly vested my interests in a group of people who were not myself, and in the wake of their departure, and my return to my actual circumstances, I was left in a certain confusion about what to do next.

This time my course of action quickly appeared to me out of this emptiness: I was going to call my mother and tell her to tell my grandfather that I had been wrong, and that Jamal Crawford was a great basketball player. And following closely on this realization was the knowledge that my grandfather was going to die.

They had actually watched the end of the game, which had somehow not been fatal for my grandfather. He apparently smiled when my mother told him about my change of heart regarding Crawford, and wrote on a peace of paper to ask if I was at home. Home in Queens or home in New Jersey? I was at home, but in Queens.

After my grandfather fell asleep that night, he never woke up in any recognizable way, although a debate about his level of awareness persisted until he died on the following Tuesday. His children, my mother and her sister and brother, inhabited his apartment in a rapt state that almost mirrored their father’s, while my father, my sister, and myself appeared, when we could, on the fringes, brooding and protective, making coffee or brining food. As we slipped into an existence without him, our efforts at understanding each other and ourselves were like Jamal Crawford’s jump shots: frequently bouncing sharply away from the rim with an ugly clang and sometimes falling perfectly into place at the end of a marvelous parabola, graceful and improbable.

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