The Six That Nearly Got Away: One Man’s Odyssey to Find a TV Showing the NBA Finals
I was Matthew McConaughey two nights ago. Or Channing Tatum or, to take it back, Dustin Hoffman. I was the leading man in that most tired of romantic comedy clichés. There’s always a chase in the final act, across town, to the airport, to stop a wedding. The man with the chiseled jaw just has to reach his lady in time or love will be lost. I was that man Tuesday night, running through famous landmarks, an up-tempo string section as my soundtrack. I had to reach my Kate Hudson before it was too late.
Thing is, my Kate Hudson wasn’t a woman about to make the biggest mistake of her life. It was the final minutes of game six of the NBA Finals.
My evening began, as none ever has before, at the Metropolitan Golf Writers Association’s annual gala dinner. I was there because of a scholarship I had won. Any other night, it would have been an enthralling event—speeches were being given by Pulitzer prize-wining sports writer Dave Anderson and the night’s keynote speaker, Paul Azinger. But throughout the dinner, I strained to hear the luminaries over the persistent voice echoing from the back of my head: “Duncan, LeBron, D-wade, Birdman’s neck—it’s happening right now. You’re missing it!”
Important context: I don’t have cable. There was no DVR at home to save me. This game was ephemeral—if I missed it, it was gone.
The dinner wrapped at 10:20pm, during halftime of the game. I was one of the first people out of the building, not that it did me any good: I was in Tarrytown, 30 miles north of New York City, with no car. I snagged a ride to the train station and waited for the 11:02 Metro North, which would take me south to Grand Central. My phone’s lousy internet connection couldn’t support a live stream or radio broadcast. As the train bounced along the Hudson River, through the woods of Westchester and yards of Yonkers, I kept my eyes glued to the ESPN Scorecenter app, holding my breath each time a pixelated orange circle floated to the picture of the rim. Will it go in? When’s the next update? Sometimes the signal would drop for minutes at a time only to catch up by cycling through plays in rapid-fire fashion. I experienced early minutes of the fourth quarter in fits of script and sprites.
At 11:38pm, I rolled into Grand Central. Heat up by 3. 2:57 on the clock. Suddenly I was underground. My signal vanished.
I knew the game was close; perhaps setting up to be a classic. The doors to the train opened and I ran up the platform, past the slow-moving mass of passengers who were unburdened by urgency. LeBron’s legacy was at stake and these oblivious travelers were ambling up the stairs like a gimpy penguin. I ran through a tunnel until I hit the main concourse of Grand Central Station. This hall, the closest thing Americans have to the Sistine Chapel, has been the setting of countless film climaxes. There are no TV screens, so this is not where my story was meant to end.
Out onto 42nd street I went, at full canter. There had to be a bar open somewhere. My phone’s signal awoke at 11:46. LeBron had just hit a three. 20 seconds left. T.G.I.Friday’s was closed. I crossed Fifth Avenue as Kahwi Leonard misses one of two free throws. Ahead I saw the bright lights of Times Square—surely amid that sea of luminescence there was a screen showing the game. The next time I got an update, I was half a block away. My phone told me about one of the most exciting, dramatic moments in NBA history. It is a visual that will be etched into basketball lore. It came to me as a single sentence of sterile text: Ray Allen makes 25-foot three point jumper (Chris Bosh assists).
I finally made it to Times Square; breathless, I asked a portly kid in a Tim Duncan jersey, “Is it over?”
“Overtime,” he said and pointed upwards, to a giant screen above the former ESPNZone, around which a crowd of about 100 had gathered to watch the final minutes.
I relaxed. I was there for the start of overtime. I had stopped the wedding, let’s get to the bus, cue the Simon & Garfunkel.
But the relief was short lived. With about 2:30 left, at exactly the stroke of midnight, the massive screen cut away from the game. It must have been on a timer. The game should have been over by that point, so the screen switched to a loop of commercials for ABC shows. As the final minutes of the game ticked away, there was the bland Bachelorette bachelorette Desiree, offering platitudes about her suitors being on the show for the right reasons. To hell with your right reasons. What sort of twist was this? I raced through counties and across avenues only to spend the closing seconds beneath a 20-foot-tall Jimmy Kimmel, surrounded by flashing lights, but completely in the dark.
It took exactly six minutes until someone in the crowd noticed the Yankees Clubhouse sporting goods store across the street. We saw people staring through the window, meaning there was a TV. Together we, the former ESPNZone screen viewing group, moved across the lanes of traffic, a few nearly getting hit by yellow cabs as they traversed. Once there we could make out a television, a flat screen on the back wall of the store, maybe 40 inches in size. The view was mostly obscured by a large Yankees emblem in the window display. People squatted, climbed on each other and fought for a glimpse of the action. The only view I could muster was a sliver of the left side of the screen.
When the Heat were on offense I could only see the half court line, but I had full view of the hoop during Spurs possessions. All around me people called out the score and situation, keeping their neighbors informed. What I couldn’t see myself, I learned about through the reactions of people who had a line of sight on a different part of the screen. Altogether, I was able to piece together the narrative. Then it came down to that final Spurs possession. Players scurried in and out of my view as San Antonio ran an inbounds play with 1.9 seconds left. Danny Green curled toward the far corner, chased by Chris Bosh. The two met in that climactic moment, perfectly centered in the only corner of the action I could see. I watched as Bosh blocked the shot and put an end to my chase.
In rom-coms, there’s always another woman tugging at the leading man’s affections. She’s typically beautiful, smart and ostensibly perfect, but there’s always that magic missing; she’s the safe choice, a capitulation. I’m going to watch game seven tonight from my couch, with a full, working screen. I’ll see the replays and hear the commentary from tip to horn. No matter how good, even unforgettable, the action, Game Seven will be easy.
Game Six was the most elusive, beguiling and satisfying sporting experience of my life. And we have one hell of a meet-cute.