A Face in the Crowd

by Thomas Beller


4 Penn Plz, NY, NY 10001

Neighborhood: Chelsea

An odd thing happened during game two of the Knicks’ first round play-off series, against the Indiana Pacers. With a little under six minutes left in the third quarter, the Knicks were fighting there way back from a 10 point deficit, when Anthony Mason made a spectacular reverse dunk. The Pacers immediately called a time out, and the crowd, understandably, went wild. As is the case at the Garden these days, the crowds enthusiasm was immediately given a soundtrack, in this case “Give me some Lovin'”. Everyone clapped rhythmically to its beat, they watched an instant replay of the dunk on the scoreboard that hands suspended high above half court, cheering all over again when Mason slammed the ball through the rim. Nothing strange about any of this, of course, but when the instant replay ended it was followed immediately by a clip from the film Ferris Buhler’s Day Off, in which Mathew Broderick exuberantly leads a parade. The mood of the video clip was clear enough–celebration, ecstasy, and a little bit of pandemonium, but nearly every one of the nineteen thousand or so people in attendance paused for a moment, as though to register the sheer peculiarity of the situation. What was Mathew Broderick doing jumping up and down on a parade float, on this video screen, at this moment? And were they supposed to cheer him? The connection between Mathew Broderick, Ferris Buhler’s Day Off, and Anthony Mason’s dunk was a mystery. The crowd’s enthusiasm ebbed conspicuously. It was no crises though; the game resumed after a few seconds, and with it the complicated rhythm of emotional highs and lows of a hotly contested basketball game.

The event drew my attention to all the things happening at basketball games these days other than basketball.

I happen to be a part time enthusiast for crowds–what attracts me to them is probably what prompts many people to avoid them: their nascent violence, the lurking possibility of a riot, their frightening, irrevocable, and essentially mindless unity. I say ‘part time,’ because these same qualities of a crowd are also revolting, but I think that within those things that revolt us, there tends to be a kernel of fascination as well. Large crowds always suggest the possibility of mayhem and entropy, of all hell breaking loose; they’re like a liquid that has been filled perilously close to the brim of a container, and is always on the verge of spilling over the edge and creating a mess.

And they are capable, when acting in unison, of riveting you in the present tense. There is no better example of this than the cumulative inhale that takes place when John Starks even considers a long range jump shot. Knick’s fans have a reputation for sophistication, for appreciating back taps, and good passes and, conversely, for getting on the referees when a traveling violation, or a carry, is not called when they think it should have been, and this reputation is never more earned than in the case of Starks long range shots. Everything Starks has done all season has been a surprise–a delightful surprise for the most part, as his game took on more and more dimensions and he evolved, before our very eyes, from a marginal player into one of all star caliber, and occasionally an unpleasant surprise as well, such as when he has been goaded into flare ups of bad behavior like head butting Reggie Miller in the third game of the series against the Indiana Pacers. Moments such as Starks long jumpers, Anthony Mason’s unlikely grace bringing the ball up court under pressure, Patrick Ewing’s elegant turn around jumpers in pressure situations, or the one gesture that, no matter who the player, is guaranteed to bring a crowd to its feet–the slam dunk– all make you weep for joy to be part of this incredible outpouring of empathy, gratitude, and celebration.

The “mess” in question can, of course, result in death, but this almost never happens at American Sporting events (as opposed to soccer matches in Europe, where the crowd has spilled over the edge a number of times with mortal consequences), but the possibility itself is somehow exciting, and often a crowd’s enthusiasm will be fueled as much by its own volume as by what happens on the field, or the stage, or, in this case, the basketball court. For those lucky enough to get into a Knicks game during the second half of the season, when they were picking up momentum, or during the playoffs, when the anticipation of a championship began at a fever pitch and built steadily upward from there, the privilege was not in just seeing the team live, but in being part of the home crowd, and therefore being able to effect, to some degree, the events that take place on the court.

June 1993

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