I arrived at Madison Square Garden last Wednesday some fifteen minutes before tip-off. Lines at the windows rolled nearly ten people deep. Still, I waited. Folks turned in vouchers for free tickets. Parents hung on to their kids by the hand. The pulse rate at the Garden reached over 100 beats per minute, with the intensity of a Bon Jovi concert in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Minus the rugrats.
When I got to the counter, I asked the clerk if he had one open seat in the sections behind the backboard. Usually, these seats remained available up to the last-minute during the regular season. In the playoffs, I figured, 25, maybe 35 bucks, tops. No problem. The dude punched in a bunch of different codes, and each time, his formula came up empty. Nothing. Not-a-one. Then he tried another route. Meanwhile, I felt the stares of half-a-dozen fans behind me, eager to see some good playoff hoops action.
So when the son-of-a-bitch told me he had one seat available, on the floor, next to the basket, my non-practical-it’s-okay-to-splurge-on-yourself ass didn’t even hesitate.
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll take it.”
The New York Liberty hosted the Indiana Fever in a critical Game 3, do-or-die, lose-and-go-home WNBA Eastern Conference semifinal playoff game.
And I wanted–no, needed–to be a part of it.
With that, I gave the man my American Express card, and he swiped it for 260 bucks.
I freaked out.
Yet in return, he gave me an access pass to a sporting event not even the little girl in me could have ever imagined.
I was 13 years old when I watched Cheryl Miller lead the U.S. women’s basketball team to its first gold medal at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. They trounced the competition, from Yugoslavia to South Korea, winning by an average margin of 32.7 points per game.
During the Olympics, Miller averaged 16.5 points per game, leading the team in scoring, rebounding, steals, and assists. And at 20 years old, she revolutionized the game of women’s basketball, both in the international scene, as well as at the collegiate level. She came with a complete-game arsenal, from the defensive boards to the outlet pass, right down to the double-pump finish.
She patterned her game after Julius Erving, bringing style and flair below the rim, as well as her own brand of showboating on the court. As for her hang time, let’s just call it, ridiculous. From 1982-86, she won two NCAA national titles at USC, earning two NCAA Tournament MVP’s, and three national Player of the Year Awards. Before that, her high school career was, as Scoop Jackson called it, “beyond sick,” becoming the only player, male or female, to be name a PARADE four-time All-American.
During her senior year, the bitch dropped 105 points in a game against Norte Vista High School.
Add to her all her accolades, the second all-time leading scorer in NCAA history, a Pan-American Games gold medal, a Goodwill Games gold medal, a James E. Sullivan Award nomination, and you have the most dominant woman’s basketball player of her time.
In fact, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED dared to call her the best basketball player in the country, period, regardless of gender.
And I wanted to be just like her.
Because playing professional basketball in this country was not an option back then, Cheryl Miller retired from the game to pursue a career in coaching, and later, broadcasting, hanging her high-tops for good after she suffered a knee injury.
Meanwhile, younger brother Reggie launched his future-Hall-of-Fame career with the NBA’s Indiana Pacers. And the USA women’s team went on to win another gold medal at the 1988 Olympics, before settling for the bronze at the 1992 Olympics.
I flashed my ticket to the usher, who directed me to Gate 63, an end-court entrance, which faced the backboard of the home team’s basket, against the bright lights of the World’s Most Famous Arena, MSG, or simply, the Garden. With each step down the flight of stairs to the floor, my anticipation for an unforgettable experience began to thump in my chest. Some 16,000+ New York-lovin’ sports fans filled the seats of the nearly 20,000-seat capacity stadium. I sat in my folding chair, VIP-seating alongside the who’s-who of professional basketball, in time for the concert-like drama of the player introductions.
Everyone’s on their feet. Lights dimmed. And the PA announcer got on the mic.
Prime-time pumpin’ adrenaline.
I remembered the first time I ever watched the Liberty play in New York in front of their home crowd. A newfound friend from the Bronx offered up an extra ticket to a bunch of us that morning via a text message. I hit the reply button on my phone in an instant: i’m down. send. Later that night, we met up at the Flushing Meadows Corona Park stop off the 7-Train, as we walked over to Arthur Ashe Stadium on a typical hot-and-humid night in Queens, two summers ago. For the first time in history, a professional basketball game was being played outdoors, on the same court, where Venus and Serena Williams won two US Open women’s titles each. On that occasion, a near-record breaking crowd of 19,393 witnessed an historic spanking of the NY Liberty by the Indiana Fever, 71-55, amidst the fireworks in the moonlight.
And I was never the same after that.
When I watched women play professional basketball, running-and-gunning up-and-down-the-court, blocking shots, and shooting threes from behind the arc, outdoors, I knew that’s why I came to New York City.
This is where big dreams happen.
And along the way, I’ve learned many lessons about my own limitations.
Last summer, my fourth-year in grad school, I played one-on-one ball with my homegirl, a fellow Pinay sister-friend from Seattle, who had just earned her Masters in Public Administration from NYU. When she moved to East Harlem from Brooklyn Heights to a two-bedroom, comfortable pad of her own, we met each Saturday morning, at a run-down court in Harlem’s Morningside Park to shoot hoops and shoot the breeze, perfecting alley-oop shots till we quit. No matter what, even if she hauled her ass home at 4 am after tearin’ it up at the Friday Freedom Party, we met at 10 am on that court, for b-ball practice, and later, a soul-food brunch. In between our missed shots, we talked about our families, our goals in life, and our loves lost along the way. Most of all, we met up on the court like most folks meet for coffee, not so much to sharpen our lay-ups, but because we wanted to support each other.
As summer rolled into September, I took a 3-month assignment in Joplin, Missouri, and we stopped meeting for our b-ball sessions in Morningside Park. A few weeks later, an intruder had broken into her East Harlem apartment, she moved out, and I offered her refuge in my university apartment during my time in the Midwest.
When I returned in the winter, we traded our summer alley-oop passes for online episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, 90s dance moves to Bell Biv Devoe, as we started hatching ideas on our respective returns to the West Coast.
While Magic, Michael, and Larry reclaimed the gold medal for the U.S. men’s basketball team in Barcelona, the U.S. women regrouped after a disappointing showing at the 1992 Olympics and the 1994 World Championships. Determined to regain its spot at the top on the international podium, USA Basketball assembled 11 of the best American women ballers in the country, who embarked on a 10-month global training tour, competing against many national teams and U.S. collegiate teams. Olympic veterans Theresa Edwards, Katrina McClain, Ruthie Bolton, Jennifer Azzi, and Carla McGhee returned to the team, joined by a trio of youngsters, who later formed an Olympic dynasty, themselves: Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, and Dawn Staley. And fresh from an undefeated, NCAA championship season with U Conn, Rebecca Lobo completed the women’s version of the 1992 Dream Team. They compiled a 52-0 record to sellout crowds, on their way to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where the U.S. women coasted to the gold medal, averaging 102.4 points per game.
That team laid the foundation for the WNBA.
Since the All-Star Break this season, the New York Liberty–anchored by Cappie Pondexter, a two-time WNBA Champion with the Phoenix Mercury–reeled off a franchise-record 10 straight wins, to finish 22-12 for the season, earning the second-seed in the East. With the series tied at one-a-piece, New York looked to clinch Game 3 on their homecourt, awaiting the Atlanta Dream in the Eastern Conference Finals.
As I sat down in my seat, behind the Liberty basket, I enjoyed a front-row view of all the action. A few times, sweaty bodies dove for loose balls, as they almost hugged my lap. Just like on TV. I looked up nearly five floors above me, where Patrick Ewing’s retired #33 jersey hung up in the rafters, as well as the New York Rangers’ 1994 NHL Stanley Cup championship banner. Here, ghosts of Reggie Miller knocking down eight points in 16.4 seconds continued to haunt the Knickerbocker faithful, and yet, on that night, New York cheered on their team against Indiana, as if the 1995 Pacers were in town.
To my left, the cameraman’s assistant sat on a box, offering me LifeSavers, Tic Tacs, and Dentyne in between post-up plays, a battle for the boards, and offensive put-backs. Kia Vaughn. Taj McWilliams-Franklin. And Pondexter willed the team to victory. We offered our own play-by-play commentary, high-fives, as our hearts nearly stopped beating the final twenty-eight seconds of the game. To my right, a buddy of Knick forward Wilson Chandler sported a green silk chiffon scarf I almost swiped from his neck, it was so pretty.
Crowd-pumpin pop music rocked the speakers all night.
Even Frank Sinatra.
And everytime starting point guard Leilani Mitchell handled the ball, I hollered her name at the top of my lungs, like an island-b-girl happy to see ohana in the big city.
At 5’5″ tall, Mitchell rose to the starting point-guard position, after the Liberty released Loree Moore in the offseason. Last year, she played with a heavy heart, as the Liberty finished 13-21 for the season, a second franchise-record worst, and her mother, an Australian of Asian descent, lost her two-year battle to breast cancer.
Her mother died in March 2009.
When Mitchell asked head coach Pat Donovan what she needed to do to be more of an impact player, Donovan replied that she needed to be more scrappy on defense, while improving her thee-point shot. She went to work on her game overseas in France during the offseason. This year, she earned the WNBA’s Most Improved Player of the Year Award, leading the league in 3-point shooting.
Recently, I looked up her mother’s ethnicity, which is a mix of Filipino, Malaysian, Singaporean, and Indian heritage. And somehow, it mattered to me that a part-Pinay point guard played in the WNBA, as if that was me, directing the Liberty offense, like I had imagined many times on the courts in Harlem.
With :03 seconds remaining, Fever point guard Briann January missed a game-tying three-pointer, and Liberty forward Essence Carson grabbed the rebound. New York hung on for a nail-biting victory, 77-74, with no time left on the clock. Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” started bumping in the background. 16,682 in attendance stood in their feet. And Alicia Keys echoed the sentiments of the fans in a recorded chorus.
“… let’s hear it for New York. New York. New York.”
My feet remained on the hardwood floor, and I turned to my left. I gave the camera man’s assistant a friendly fist-bump for the most exciting basketball game I had ever seen.
“It was a pleasure,” I said.
He smiled. “See you Sunday, Game 1?” he asked.
I nodded. Even though I knew I wouldn’t be there.
I walked out of the Garden, onto Seventh Avenue, into the neon mega-wattage of Times Square. And on this night, I remembered why I still live in New York City.