Brian Viner: New York Knicks and American savvy make cheesy dream team for the fans

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The Independent Online

On Tuesday evening in Manhattan I went with my wife and children to see the New York Knicks play the Philadelphia 76ers in a pre-season basketball game.

When I lived in Atlanta in the mid-1980s, basketball was the American sport that gripped me most. I went numerous times to see the Atlanta Hawks, who at that time had a player called Spud Webb, famous throughout the National Basketball Association for his freakish height. In a team of Brobdingnagians, in a sport of giants, Spud measured just 5ft 7in. Yet he had the vertical elevation of a Harrier jump jet. Thrillingly, he won the slam dunk contest in the annual All-Stars game despite a height deficit of at least a foot against the opposition. It was like seeing Peter Crouch outjumped by Robert Earnshaw or, at the time, Mickey Droy outjumped by Brian Flynn.

So it was quite a nostalgia fest for me to find that in Nate Robinson, the Knicks have a guard who is almost Spud-like in his diminutive stature. Robinson stands only 5ft 9ins tall. Yet he, too, won the All-Stars slam dunk contest last year and apparently old Spud was there, willing him onwards, and indeed upwards.

My kids had never been to New York before, let alone to an NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden. A few weeks earlier I checked on the Garden's website to see what might be going on there during our five days in Manhattan and was delighted to find that our visit coincided with a Knicks game. My 13-year-old daughter was beside herself with excitement when I told her I'd booked tickets, not so much because she is a keen netball player, although she is, more because she has recently become an avid fan of the sitcom Friends, and Joey and Chandler are always banging on about the Knicks.

The only downside was the price of the tickets. Only in the super-expensive category were there five seats together, according to the website, and they cost a buttock-clenching $240 (£305) each. I ummed and I ahhed, but finally succumbed, reasoning that it might be a once-in-a-lifetime family experience. The tickets were duly Fed-Exed. Strangely, they came with a printed note that read as follows: "Attention. In the event you are questioned about how your tickets were obtained, please indicate they were given to you as 'a gift from a friend'. We appreciate your co-operation in our effort to maintain confidentiality with our suppliers." I found this both bewildering and troubling, and entertained visions of a SWAT team bearing down on me as I passed through the turnstile. Happily, we got in unaccosted.

The occasion was everything we had hoped it might be, and more. A few weeks ago in this space I wrote about the LA Dodgers v Arizona Diamondbacks game I went to see during a visit to Los Angeles, and how mass-attendance sports in Britain could learn a great deal from baseball in the way that it both encourages families to go, and shows them a good time when they get there.

Basketball is the same. We were served with drinks in our seats. During breaks in play, on came dancing girls with big bazookas (I'm referring to guns, not to their physical assets) from which they fired Knicks T-shirts into the crowd. Free merchandising! Can you imagine that happening at Stamford Bridge?

During another time-out, an announcer exhorted the crowd to choose, by the volume of applause, which of three songs we most wanted to hear over the stadium PA system: "Monster Mash", "Time Warp", or "Thriller". We voted for "Thriller", and the cameras then alighted on a little kid who danced brilliantly to the song, Michael Jackson-style, in the aisle.

It was all thoroughly cheesy, but wonderful. My kids had a ball. Moreover, because we were sitting next to the players' tunnel, they even got to high-five Nate Robinson, and my son Joe's new second-favourite sportsman behind Tim Cahill, a man-mountain of 6ft 11in called Eddy Curry, who weighs 285 pounds and is considered the physical heir to the great Shaquille O'Neal (7ft 1in and 325 pounds). And to cap all this, the Knicks won 113-102.

The occasion was such fun that I walked down Seventh Avenue afterwards feeling both exhilarated and dispirited. It was the first time we had been to a big sporting event as a family, and it took American know-how to make it an occasion that my wife, daughter and two sons could enjoy as much as I did.

Still, earlier that same day I had read the New York Times and scrutinised three pages of the sports section devoted to the burning question of whether the Detroit Tigers pitcher, Kenny Rogers, had tampered with the ball in game two of the World Series the previous night. There was more than a suspicion that he had used a substance called pine-tar to doctor the flight. Diagrams showed how it might have worked, and previous instances of ball-tampering - for example in 1980, when the Seattle Mariners pitcher Rick Honeycutt taped a tack to his gloved hand - were cited. At that moment, at least, American sport felt comfortingly familiar.

Who I Like This Week...

Tiger Woods, the subject of a vast advertisement in Times Square at the heart of Manhattan. I'd call it the size of a house if I'd ever seen a house that big, and it pictures Tiger giving his mother an affectionate hug. It is perhaps the ultimate example of Woods as a 21st century icon, yet he deals with the idolatry with, on the whole, admirable dignity and level-headedness. Nobody could ever have guessed, when Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in baseball, that 60 years later the country's most globally recognisable sports star would be a black man utterly dominant in the sport most definitive of white, country club America. Moreover, I can't think of many, or indeed any other world-famous sports stars who would want to look down on Times Square cuddling his dear old mum. I don't think David Beckham would go for it, somehow.

And Who I Don't

George Steinbrenner, the feudally autocratic owner of the New York Yankees, is to be portrayed in a forthcoming eight-hour mini-series on the TV channel ESPN. Based on the book Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning, it is a story of discord in the ranks of the 1977 Yankees, whose manager Billy Martin (played by John Turturro) was routinely bullied and humiliated by Steinbrenner. He's still at it, too, threatening until recently to dismiss the current manager, the popular and long-serving Joe Torre, because the Yankees didn't quite make the World Series. As far as I can gather, Steinbrenner is like a combination of Doug Ellis and Roman Abramovich, but without all their virtues.