Under The Garden

An evening at Madison Square Garden, a few moments in the Knicks locker room, and a meditation on Carmelo Anthony's hideous, hideous sweater.
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Burnt umber, ya heard.

Screengrab via Knicksnow.

I’m flabbergasted.

I’m standing in the New York Knicks’ locker room and staring at one of finest professional athletes in the world, completely at a loss for words because of the garment that said athlete has chosen to wear.  It’s a sweater. But not just any sweater and I can’t help but thinking that it’s not so much a fashion statement as a very weird, paradigm smashing, arch-joke. The sweater is not only seriously faded and fraying at the edges but is festooned with the logos of all the football teams of the AFC East, and style-wise resembles nothing so much as one of Bill Cosby’s patchwork threads from twenty-odd years ago, but only if Cos had used that sweater to plug a leaky pipe in the basement of his manse and then hadn’t bothered to throw it away after a plumber rectified the situation because the sweater had some serious sentimental value; it was the garment he was wearing when he heard NBC was picking up his pilot sometime in 1983, maybe, and so he couldn’t bear to chuck it even though it wasn’t worth taking to the cleaners to get the basement-infused rust and mold stains out since, colossal significance notwithstanding, it really was a godawfully ugly sweater. And so it was shoved in the back of a closet for decades until someone finally got around to cleaning out that part of the closet that everyone has, filled with clothes that they can’t bear to part with for whatever reason, never donate to some charity or just toss, and yet wouldn’t be caught dead wearing for all the reasons listed above. This was that sweater. But Carmelo Anthony, who was idly lazing about the locker room after a rather dreary, unremarkable home-court drubbing of the Wizards, did not seem to be wearing it in that way. (It's not the sweater you see in the photo alongside this article; it is incalculably worse.)

Maybe I should start at the beginning.

I had been assigned to cover what promised to be a joyless dirge of a basketball game between the disorientingly successful early-season Knicks and the supremely moribund cagers from D.C.  It promised to be a real room-temp shit taco of a game, but it was free (I’d have a press pass), and even if I were in the turning-down-basketball business, for the first time, I’d have the opportunity to do all those real reporter things—post-game press conferences, locker room interviews and whatnot. The game was as lopsided and lame as expected; the most memorable part of the evening was being asked by a German reporter if he could take a photo of me tweeting, in hopes that it would encourage German sports journalists to tweet during games.  

I don’t know if it worked, or how it could, but at least a moment of meta-social media promotion distracted me momentarily from the execrable game. My notes consist mainly of variations on, “Sweet fancy Moses! Washington’s putrid” that I scribbled on the fresh scoresheets that were passed out by an MSG Intern at the conclusion of every quarter. As I was jotting notes, I couldn’t help but recall the pre-Pitino cautionary-tale 1980s, and the scoresheets my father would snag for me during our regular forays from our scalped spots upstairs down to some absent season ticket holder’s seats in the half-empty lower section. I thought about how strange and significant the scoresheets seemed then, and how strange and not-so-significant it was to be handed them, with no great ceremony, now. The important thing was not to think too much about the game.

***

When the final buzzer mercifully ends, my fellow scribes and I trundle down to the press room for some well-enunciated platitudes from Coach Mike Woodson, and then even further down into the bowels of Madison Square Garden, through tunnel after tunnel to some sub-rosa sub-chamber to finally land in the Knicks’ Locker room, there to await the arrival of the team itself.

There is a weird theatricality to seeing all this first-hand. My experience of basketball, for the most part, has been as a serialized TV show that I’ve been following for the last 30 years or so; to suddenly walk onto that incredibly detailed set was jarring, a strange crossing-over.

It wasn’t a wholly foreign, disorienting experience, though, if only because I have been in that sort of room before. I’ve been there as an actor, post-performance and exhausted and either still buzzing after being in the zone or picking to death the myriad ways in which I could have fixed this or that or any of the million different things that made the show so wholeheartedly unsatisfying/unsatisfactory. More than anything, regardless of that internal evaluation of the previous few hours, I know that the people in that room want to strip off a layer of psychic skin and go out in the world where they can talk about anything, really, except the job. But talking about the job is, in this case what the players have to do: we had to ask, they had to answer, right there in that room and in that mood, regardless of what we’d all rather have been doing, all of us knowing that our opposite number would rather be doing something else.

***

But even if I understood the vibe, I still had the nagging sensation that it was wrong to be in that locker room: this was a sacred space and time, a chill-out room for performers tripping on endorphins, and I was there checking out their brands of deodorant and after-shave preferences. I desperately wanted to peek behind the curtain, but was acutely aware of violating a basic tenet of privacy and private space.

But of course I was. I was a tourist. The other non-players in there were all at work, and doing it with all the vigor people bring to things they've done hundreds if not thousands of times before; doing a job/going through a routine that they’d performed hundreds, nay, thousands of times before. I knew those guys, too. Not personally, of course, but over the years I’ve spent countless hours reading the tabloids. Call me an Altacocker, but I still really dig newspapers: the actual thing, the object itself, the ballast I tuck under my arm as I make my way through New York City. I like getting actual information from them. I like the greasy smudges of printer ink residue that stain my fingers and seem to resist every form of non industrial-strength soap this side of Lava with Pumice.   

But while I was pondering the inevitable death of print journalism and whether my attachment was really just so much trumped-up nostalgia, I also managed to overhear this snippet of dialogue from two of the city's more prominent beat guys, who will of course remain nameless:

REPORTER A: So what are you gonna do?

REPORTER B: I was gonna go with the movie thing.

REPORTER A: The movie thing?

REPORTER B: Yeah, you know, the movie they were shooting at halftime. Make fun of the game, how shitty it was, maybe they shoulda used the actors instead.  Blah, blah, blah.

REPORTER A: That’s your lede?

REPORTER B: Yeah.

REPORTER A: I was gonna do that, too.

REPORTER B: You can’t do that.

REPORTER A: Why not?

REPORTER B: You can’t do that, that’s my thing. I just told you…

REPORTER A: Why can’t I do that?

REPORTER B: …I just told you that’s what I was gonna do. You’re gonna steal my thing?

REPORTER A: It’s not your thing. I didn’t steal it.

REPORTER B: It’s my thing. I just told you I was doing that thing.

REPORTER A: I didn’t steal it. I was gonna do that before you said…you’re really saying…Get the fuck outta here.

REPORTER B (laughing): Lighten up. I’m just busting your balls.

In my head, I started a script treatment; like David Mamet, but without his weird new politics. A tabloid reporter who stumbles across an incredibly intricate, wholly improbable plot to con a group of pro athletes out of gobs of money. I'm seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman for the lead.

***

And then the players began to amble in and what was a fairly listless, disheveled, anhedonic group of middle-aged men suddenly transformed into an uber-caffeinated, nitrogen-infused pack of hyenas, pushing me and any other straggler without the necessary quick-twitch instincts out of the way. They formed a tight phalanx around a soon-to-be-dressed-like-a-modern-Zorro-in-a-wide-brimmed-black-fedora-and-combination-cape/cloak-designer-thingy Tyson Chandler. (Again, not the one pictured; again, you get the idea.)

Chandler, who is not new to all this, barely flinched. Wearing only a towel and checking himself out in the mirror, he responded to a couple of text messages while simultaneously slinging a couple of platitudes into the camera along the lines of, “Taking care of home court.” What was noteworthy, even borderline disturbing, was that at no point could I discern a moment where he shifted from a private to a public space; no discernable change in his state of being between surveying his reflection for zits or other blemishes, chatting with teammates, chuckling audibly at the antics of J.R. Smith, who literally skipped from the room after bellowing, “Poindexter,” at Kurt Thomas, and stoically doling out to the press some blandly printable things about what was, again, not the kind of basketball game you’d write about unless you were being paid to. And one would think those events would carry a different emotional/qualitative weight and tone.

And after more than few years in the theater, I’d like to think I’m a pretty good judge of what is and what is not a performance, but this show is an animal unlike any I’ve encountered before. Like Chandler’s hearty chortle. If it’d been 100% manufactured, I’d have sniffed it out like a fart in a crowded elevator. Nor did it come across as some real-fake amalgam that was intended to convey the idea that: “I, Tyson, am laughing at this funny event to show you reporters what a genuine guy I am—the kind of guy who laughs at the antics of my colleagues in a real, non-forced way so you, the press, can cobble together a by-the-numbers article about what a tightly-knit team of guys this is; guys who genuinely like each other as opposed to tolerating each others’ existences because we work together.” Rather he laughed as if we were not there. He had learned not to see us.

Or not. Perhaps there were no private moments in these exchanges, after all. There's no way of knowing if Tyson and his teammates were actually behaving as if they would if everything, the entire routine of dressing and engaging in idle banter with reporter and non-reporter alike, was actually a performed, scripted spectacle because while we (or at least I) thought we were spectators, we were actually playing an active role in this little mise en scene. This was something to think about, but before I could get too deep into this particular true/false infinite regression, the party broke up. Like a flock of flying birds, the press formed a v-shaped path for the exit and the room was, quite suddenly, more or less empty.

***

One last thing. The sweater.

I was gathering up my gear and doing that twitchy, spastic dance of checking pockets for my cell, keys, wallet, cigs, press pass, lighter when I spotted Baron Davis, who has taken on some unnamed ambassadorial/casino-greeter role with the Knicks while he rehabs from a particularly gruesome knee injury. He was taking a couple of (what I assume were) his kids/young relatives to meet a late-arriving Carmelo Anthony. Anthony, though I’d failed to notice before, hadn’t really participated in any of the post-game interviews.

And there Melo was in the corner, smiling bemusedly with one of Baron’s offspring/extended family who was also grinning ear-to-ear and fidgeting in that way little kids do where you can’t tell if they’re really excited or they just have to take a leak. The last remaining journalist or two was leaving him alone, but oddly, even though I’m sure they’d have liked to get a plum quote regarding the evening’s on-court, events, it was as if they made a point of not going up to Melo. I know I’ve seen him on the teevee machine reciting some variation of, “Both Teams Played Hard,” but either there was some unspoken signal or code to which I was not privy, because Melo was allowed to hang out in the locker room without even a light pester from the ink-stained wretch contingent.

Thing is, I wanted to ask Carmelo a question, regarding his new-found ability to restrain his more demonstrative instincts when he feels he’s being slighted by the refs on certain non-calls and whether or not that has resulted in better treatment from said arbiters and more frequent trips to the foul line. I thought it was a good, non-cliché question that hadn’t been posed by the other members of the Fourth Estate. Also, I just didn’t want the night to end without being able to say that I’d actually spoken to a real-live Knick, face-to-face.

But I was stopped dead in my tracks by that sweater. Not in a mocking, “Ha-ha. He’s a celebrity and probably one of the top 10-20 basketball players on the planet but lookit that douchebag! He’s like, rilly famous and he’s wearing that sweater? I am not famous or rich, but at least I’m not walking around in public looking like that! Quick, lemme take a photo and tweet it and maybe take this jerk down a peg!” kind of way. Even if I had been so inclined, I couldn’t even get my shit together enough to whip out my phone and point and click. I was just gobsmacked because seeing Melo in that outfit was so damn silly and unexpected and, oddly, humanizing. That sweater was, suddenly and garishly, significant.

I desperately wanted to know why the sweater was so important or if it was his most comfortable piece of clothing and on this particular Friday night he was too tired to put on his best finery and just didn’t give a crap if an outsider might or might not out him to TMZ. I didn't ask him about it; he was busy being nice to kids and I’m not that guy. And anyway, the sweater was the most unguarded, unmediated, unperformed moment of the evening. It was loud enough on its own.


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