Mike O’KorenDecember 11, 2009
Two days ago, while I sat in a cubicle, unaware, the weather turned, snapping the withered neck of autumn. I had to work a little late, and when I got outside there wasn’t any daylight left. It had gotten very cold, and strong gusts blasted spiraling snowdust across the parking lot. As I crossed the parking lot and approached Golf Road, I saw two buses lumber past the empty bus stop, dooming me. That’s how I interpreted the turn of events: fuck, I’m doomed. The bus stop didn’t offer much protection against the elements, and I had to wait a long time for another bus to come. The battery died on my aging portable XM radio, right in the middle of a replay of a mildly diverting interview with 50 Cent on the Howard Stern Show. Without that satellite babble, which I use to paper over moments whenever I can, there was only the wind blasting past the filthy plexiglass of the shelter. But something was happening with the snow and the wind that I hadn’t noticed before, the snow dust coursing across the field behind the bus stop and across Golf Road like a fast rippling river. I stood apart from the river, blocked from the wind, but when the bus finally came and I stepped toward it there was a very brief interlude, in between the waiting for the bus and the waiting in the weary crowded sniffling congregation for the ride to be over, when I seemed to stand in a rushing shin-high river the color of ghosts. It was a moment.
The Nets have had their moments. The first and best came during the ABA, when Dr. J led them to two championships in the renegade league. After that pre-NBA peak, they fell into a persisting pattern in which they would bottom out for several years, then make a relatively brief foray into the realm of the promising, then fall apart and start all over again. In some ways, Mike O’Koren is the prototypical Net, joining them as a rookie during a season in which the sting, or stink, of their generally horrible play was muffled slightly by the overwhelming presence of youth on the roster. While the first card featured in this series showed the wizened veterans, Maurice Lucas and Mike Newlin, who were actually shouldering the scoring and rebounding load, the last three cards have been of rookies who had made significant contributions during the 1980-81 season. O’Koren, a New Jersey native, stuck around beyond the 58-loss season and so was there, a poor man’s Bobby Jones, during the Nets’ first mildly successful NBA era, backing up the talented young frontcourt of Buck Williams and Albert King. With a youthful core, the Nets made the playoffs five years in a row. O’Koren was there for all of those brief playoff campaigns (they only won one series, a shocking 1984 first-round upending of the defending champion Philadelphia 76ers), his diminishing contributions mirroring the diminishing promise of the team. He was traded to the Bullets in 1986, a move that did not save the Nets from reverting to the exact 24-58 record that had greeted Mike O’Koren’s arrival in the league. The Jersey boy returned a year later, in a deal involving an undisclosed amount of cash, to log 52 total minutes in the Nets’ worst NBA effort yet, the team finishing out the 1987-1988 trudge with 63 losses.
I played my last year of organized basketball that same year, sitting on the end of the bench for a Johnson State College Badgers team that had an even poorer winning percentage than the Nets. The JSC athletics website has the 1987-88 team record at 7-14, but I am pretty sure that this is a wild miscalculation on the part of the website; we won one or maybe two games. You’d think I’d have a clearer memory of our rare wins, but for the first semester of the season I was an “alternate,” which meant I was not one of the eleven full-time members of the team but one of four skinny partial rejects who took turns going on road trips to log the ol’ “DNP-Coach’s Decision,” and the team’s only taste or possibly tastes of victory came when I was back home in my room reading Dostoevsky or pulling my pud. In the second semester, when several grade-point average violations and the mid-year graduation of our sober-minded point guard, Norm, thinned the roster enough for me to be a full-fledged member of the team, I remember only losing, game after game after game.
That’s not exactly true. In fact, it’s not true at all. I remember a lot of other things, too. Once, after a road trip loss to a team that we had pegged as our best chance at a win (they hadn’t won all year to that point), we stopped at the house of the team manager. He lived on a farm in New Hampshire, and I remember standing with our team’s soulful, suffering leading scorer, Dave, as we stood by a fence that had some sheep on the other side. Dave reached over and gently patted the head of a lamb.
“This is God, man,” Dave said with a hushed voice.
Dave was some years older than the rest of us and had bounced around for a while between high school and college. He had a mustache and was in AA. In an early-season road game that I hadn’t been at, he had engaged in a thrilling mano y mano duel with the opposing star, tallying over 50 points to his opponent’s 40-something in a triple-overtime loss. (The unreliable Johnson State College website doesn’t have a record of this game.) But after that peak he, like the rest of us, struggled, becoming increasingly less sure of himself, less assertive, less focused, more adrift and agitated.
In April, either at or near the end of the season, Dave and I went down to his hometown, Hartford, Connecticut, to see the Grateful Dead. Here’s what I remember about my last year of organized basketball: Dave standing on the street outside the arena after the show, a large mournful man with a mustache, his arms outspread. All around us people were stumbling around or selling things or trying to find a ticket for the next night’s show. Most of these people gave Dave a wide berth. But once in a while someone got curious.
“What are you doing?” Dave was asked.
“Giving out free hugs, man,” Dave boomed.
Some of the people who asked him the question just laughed, some said “right on” and kept walking, but a couple people shambled into his big embrace. It didn’t seem to help much. When I think of that season I think of Dave, and when I think of Dave I think of a guy who needed something, needed it so bad it pained him, and he hadn’t figured out how to ask for it, or even what it was.
Just a few years later, I stood on a street in Manhattan with my brother and my friend Pete. I had my New Jersey Nets cap on my head. College was over, playing organized sports was over. Now what? On the weekends this question seemed to crescendo, resulting in an internal pressure to have something magnificent and amazing occur. I was young and living in the city of the Beats and the Fugs and the Velvet Underground and the Ramones. A city of magnificent transformations, of young people shattering the inherited parameters of art and copulating profusely, and where was I? Where was my Hydrogen Jukebox? Where was my Sweet Jane?
So that night, at least as I understood things, we had decided to Do Nothing. We had decided to go out onto the street and stand. Not even stand there or stand around. And we certainly weren’t out there to make a stand. We would just stand. Just . . . stand.
It didn’t last long before we gave up on the absurdity of standing in the middle of the sidewalk in a three-man triangle on the corner of Seventh Street and Second Avenue, our arms at our sides, staring at or past one another with idiotic blankness on our faces. But there was a moment, before we packed it in and drifted a block east to the International to drink, when I dipped my feet in the river that is always rushing past our shins, the river we only sense in stillness. As I remember it now, it was as if a voice had come to me, had quieted all the noise and questioning and half-assed questing and retreating in my tumbling mind.
The voice said: Whoop-De-Damn-Do.
At that time, the Nets had just crested again, for the first time since Mike O’Koren’s early seasons, and were in the midst of another collapse. The central figure in both the promising rise and the disappointing fall of the Nets this time was Derrick Coleman, a big, quick player who had as fluid and intuitive a feel for the game as anyone I’d ever seen outside of Larry Bird. Some players, for example Karl Malone, dominated through strength and will and calculating intellect; Coleman’s abilities were more musical, his talent lying in his ability to synch himself effortlessly into the complicated rhythm of the game and, if he desired, to nudge that rhythm in his direction. When he failed to seem to care about influencing events, basketball fans—who watched the game hoping to see the kind of rarified artistry Coleman was capable of—grew increasingly disappointed in the player. His orientation toward putting in the work needed to develop or even maintain that artistry was laid bare during the Nets’ collapse, when he was asked to comment on fellow team leader Kenny Anderson’s failure to show up at practice.
“Whoop-de-damn-do,” Coleman said.
It became tabloid fodder for while. It found a place of honor on the bulletin board in the apartment I shared with my brother. It was something we laughed about, repeatedly, and perversely cheered for its entertainment value. What did we care? Even though I wore a New Jersey Nets cap, the Nets weren’t really my team. They were only my team in air quotes. Whoop-de-damn-do to their collapse. Whoop-de-damn-do to my own. Whoop-de-damn-do to the whole spinning world.
But everything was in air quotes. Everything was half-sarcastic. Everything was never begun. Deep down, I was waiting. But for what? And as I stood on the street with my brother and Pete, I heard the words of Derrick Coleman, transformed into something beyond the context in which they were originally uttered, transformed into something beyond an existence bubble-wrapped in air quotes. Within seconds I’d lose the meaning again, just as, a couple days ago, I lost the touch of the river of ghosts the second I entered the hot, close air of a Pace bus. But there was a moment when I knew. There was a moment when there’s no winning and no losing. There is always this moment. There is always a voice saying Whoop-de-damn-do.