Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Satori on Flatbush Avenue
Just when you think you’ve found a spot where you can pass for normal, along comes someone who reminds you everything’s relative.
In June of 1998 I received a startling lesson in perspective. It happened during the NBA Finals, a hard-fought grudge match between the Chicago Bulls and the Utah Jazz. It left me as stunned as Karl Malone when Michael Jordan stripped the ball from him to seal up Game 6 and ice the championship.
I’d been living in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood for nearly three years. My girlfriend and I had broken up a few months earlier, after two and half tumultuous years, when I declined to abandon New York City along with her. My spiffy new job at Children’s Television Workshop (later renamed Sesame Workshop) meant that I could just about afford both the apartment that was now mine alone and the half of our consumer debt I was responsible for.
Though I had made a lot of close friends over the previous couple of years, it was still a lonely time as I struggled to find my place as an ex-Mormon naïf from Utah in the big, cold city. Many an evening found me putting down whatever novel I was reading (or short story I was writing) and heading around the corner to Mooney’s Pub on Flatbush Avenue for a shot of Jack Daniels, a pint of Guinness, and possibly some televised basketball.
Mooney’s was a neighborhood haven—not exactly a sports bar, not exactly a dive bar, not exactly a fern bar, but something comfortable and welcoming in the middle. I had spent a long and memorable thirtieth birthday there the previous summer, and I liked the dim, low-key vibe. I could sit at the end of the bar with my notebook and pen, imagining myself Charles Bukowski, and no one would bother me.
That spring, however, basketball became a bit of a distraction to me. I had never followed sports very closely, though I’d been exposed to enough growing up that I could at least follow the action when I watched. I always enjoyed seeing the Runnin’ Utes of my alma mater cream my parents’ beloved B.Y.U. Cougars at anything, but otherwise the only team that ever truly excited me was the Utah Jazz of the 1998 playoffs.
This was the era of Karl Malone, John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek. Under the leadership of Jerry Sloan, the Jazz had grown over the decade into an unlikely powerhouse, muscling their way to their first NBA Finals appearance in 1997. That year they lost to Phil Jackson’s Chicago Bulls, the legendary squad of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Toni Kukoč, but that didn’t stop Utah’s momentum. They crushed all opposition in the 1997-98 season, taking the Western Conference championship with a 62 wins and only 20 losses. The only team that matched their record were the Eastern Conference champion Bulls, though the Jazz beat them both times they met during the regular season.
As the playoffs unfolded in April and May, I began to get caught up in the excitement. The Jazz battled hard against Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler of the Houston Rockets in the opening round, coming back from a 2-1 deficit to win that five-game series. I didn’t own a television, so I started arranging my evenings around Utah’s playoff schedule. I was at Mooney’s cheering as the Jazz rolled over Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs four games to one in the conference semifinals. And I was there whooping it up as the Jazz mowed down Shaq and Kobe and the rest of the Lakers in a four-game rout in the conference finals. Apparently I still needed something miraculous in my life, and that year the Jazz made it seem even to a recently minted atheist like myself that miracles were possible.
Or maybe I just wanted to see some underdogs from Utah make good.
Whatever the impetus, my vocal partisanship did not go unnoticed at Mooney’s. You’d think with the Knicks having lost all four of their regular-season match-ups with Chicago, folks in New York would be less than enthusiastic about Michael Jordan, but I was the definite outlier in the crowd. No one gave me much guff but a few people did ask me about it; over the weeks I got to know a few other regulars and they learned a little of my story.
One of the regulars I did not get to know, though he certainly drew my attention, was Joshua. In that crowd he was hard not to notice. He was an Orthodox Jew of about my own age who dressed exclusively in open-collared white shirts, black slacks and black shoes. Short and wiry, he wore a yarmulke over his buzz cut and moved in a tightly coiled prowl, like someone who could handle himself in a scrap—and hoped to get into one. His side curls and patchy beard, at least to me, contrasted sharply with the whiskey glass always in his left hand and the lit cigarette always in his right. No one cursed more loudly or viciously when the tide was running against the Bulls.
To Mormons, Jews are the original children of God, true heirs to Zion with the most legitimate claim on divine hereditary favor. During a ritual called the Patriarchal Blessing, most young Mormons are told which of the Tribes of Israel has spiritually adopted them. All of which is by way of saying that I—who never once while still attending church had come close to smoking or drinking—was deeply shocked by Joshua’s wordliness, and more than a little frightened by it.
Somewhere around the middle of the championship series, I was sitting alone in a corner of Mooney’s pumping my fist for a fresh Jazz bucket when Joshua stormed up to my table. He stared down at me with suspicious eyes and took a long drag on his cigarette.
“I heard something about you,” he said at last.
For some reason my stomach clenched. “Yeah?”
“Yeah.” His eyes narrowed. His hand moved back to his mouth. The cherry on his cancer stick glowed like a hot poker. “I heard you’re a Mormon.”
It been more than a decade, back to my days as a missionary, since I had felt like my cultural heritage might put me in danger. “Yeah,” I said. “That’s right.”
His eyes bored into mine, Clint Eastwood–like, as he took another deep drag. He blew the smoke out the side of his mouth and with a tilt of his head declared:
And he prowled back to the bar for another whiskey.
The Jazz ultimately lost that championship to the Bulls, 4-2, just like they’d done the year before. But what I remember most clearly when I think about that spring is not the heartbreak of that loss. What I remember is seeing myself in the flash of a funhouse mirror and realizing that, yes, in that time and place—in most times and places—I was the weird one.
When confronted by realities outside my own limited experience, it’s a moment of clarity I try not to forget. ∅