By Owen Russell
There are times where I am jealous of what New York Sports used to be. I was born too late to experience the Yankees as a dynasty, the Knicks as NBA title contenders, or even the defensive juggernaut Giants of the 1980s. But the more I think about it, the more I realize I’ve been lucky to experience some of the greatest moments sports has to offer, especially in New York. As I leave The Vanguard, I’d like to reflect on four of those moments, and share what makes them so special.
RVD defeats John Cena for the WWE Championship at One Night Stand 2006.
For those who are unfamiliar with their wrestling history allow me to set the scene.
Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) rose to prominence in the mid ‘90s as a hardcore alternative to the WWE mainstream professional wrestling, which began to grow stale. ECW was defined by a mix of ultra-violence and supreme athleticism, all consumed by a ravenous fan base thirsty for a new brand of pro-wrestling. In 2001, the company filed for bankruptcy and WWE owner Vince McMahon bought the IP. ECW died, and with it the brand of anti-establishment wrestling young people in the late 90s came to love.
In 2006, WWE shocked the wrestling world by announcing the relaunch of ECW, kicking off with One Night Stand 2006 from the Hammerstein Ballroom in Midtown Manhattan. Hammerstein served as a home for the original ECW whenever they visited the Big Apple.
In the main event, ECW original Rob Van Dam (RVD) squared off against WWE’s version of Superman, John Cena, for the company’s top title, the WWE Championship. Cena had a reputation of obliterating all challengers in 2006, and ECW fans feared that Cena would steamroll RVD in ECW’s NYC holy ground. The match proved to be more momentous than any diehard fan could’ve presumed.
Cena got booed out of the building by a crowd of hardcore New Yorkers.Van Dam got a rousing round of applause, and the crowd stayed hot throughout the match. Despite some screwiness, RVD beat Cena after catapulting himself from the top rope, connecting with the “five star frog splash.” ECW’s former chairman Paul Heyman ran to the ring, and counted the pin fall, awarding RVD the championship.
RVD’s win over Cena is one of my first memories as a wrestling fan. Even though I didn’t witness it live, it played on all the YouTube highlight reels. The fact that the moment is forever linked to New York makes it that much more special. Me and my brother would act out RVD’s five star frog splash much to the detriment of our parent’s basement couch. You might not consider wrestling a sport, but to that I say… loosen up.
Watching my dad sing the National Anthem at the Barclays Center.
Another moment that readers may criticize as “not technically a sports moment.” Cry me a river. This is my last issue, let me have fun.
My father is classically trained as an opera singer. He studied at Juilliard and later went on tour with the New York City Opera Company. To this day, his stories from his tours can be the funniest part of any family get together. Take the time he and his friends got into a screaming match with the band Smash Mouth in the lobby of a Michigan hotel. But as a kid, I never truly understood the scope of my dad’s talent (he likes to point out the time I referred to him as a “stupid church singer” when I was in preschool).
In early high school, I dabbled as a huge Nets fan. When the team moved to Brooklyn, I was growing tired of the Knicks, and Brooklyn’s black and white color scheme partnered with their association to Jay-Z gave the team a specific appeal to pre-teen Owen. I particularly liked Joe Johnson, the team’s All-Star shooting guard who earned the reputation as a lethal scorer and the nickname “ISO-Joe.” Imagine my shock when my dad, “the stupid church singer,” told me and my brother he would be singing the National Anthem at the Nets game, and that we would get to go along.
We were stunned. My brother and I were led past the locker rooms, through hallways lined with autographed sports memorabilia. As we walked forward, the sounds of around 17,000 people echoed. I couldn’t believe it as we stepped out of the tunnel. My jaw dropped. There I was standing on the court mere feet from the players I pretended to be in gym class. The game was Nets vs Nuggets, but it didn’t matter who was playing.
The main event came when the court cleared, the lights went down, and out came my dad. He stood there with three other musicians. It was Christmas time and my dad was part of a caroling barber-shop quartet. He and his group sang, filling the arena, and the place applauded. It was a surreal moment. There I was at my first basketball game, but all I could focus on was how cool my dad was. The anthem ended, and then me, my dad, and my brother watched the rest of the game from excellent floor level seats. The Nets won. Joe Johnson scored 27 points. And my dad became a rockstar. To this day, any time somebody mentions the Barclays Center the first thing out of my mouth is “Did I ever tell you my dad sang the National Anthem there?” It’s usually met with groans.
It’s certainly not the first time my friends have heard it. But for me, my dad warrants a mention on my all time New York sports moments list.
Linsanity topples Kobe Bryant.
The New York Knicks have never been good in my lifetime. There have been glimmers, but for the most part, rooting for the Knicks is about as healthy as smashing one’s face into a brick wall. Perhaps the most promising moment in recent Knick history (barring the current playoff run) came when Jeremy Lin went head-to-head with the “Black Mamba” Kobe Bryant.
In 2012, 11-year-old Owen was, like the rest of New York, swept up by the sensation that was Jeremy Lin. An undrafted free agent out of Harvard, Lin exploded onto the scene after scoring 25 points against the New Jersey Nets and All-Star Deron Williams. At that point, the Knicks were underperforming big time, and they added Lin to the starting lineup as a desperate way to shake things up. Lin continued to surge, scoring 20-plus points against some of the NBA’s brightest stars. Then came the ultimate test. Feb. 10, 2012, Lin and the Knicks against Kobe and the Lakers.
By this point I was hooked big time. Lin became the face of New York. An underdog kid, who appeared out of nowhere to light the world on fire. But if there was one player who still reigned superior to Lin during this time, it had to be Kobe Bryant. Kobe was ubiquitous with basketball. Anytime I launched a napkin at the trash can in my middle school’s lunch room, I’d shout “KOBE” like the millions of other kids around the country. For me, this was a battle for basketball supremacy. Who would become my favorite player? Lin or Bryant.
I begged my parents to let me stay up for the game. Lin and the Knicks marched into Madison Square Garden with a point to prove. Kobe had downplayed Lin’s success in the media, even scoffing at the idea of guarding him. But with lights the brightest they’ve ever been, Lin exploded. He went on an absolute tear, scoring 38 points and dishing seven assists. Kobe dropped 34 points himself, but he couldn’t keep up. The Knicks smashed the Lakers, winning 92-85. Lin conquered Kobe on national television, and I was jumping around my basement like an idiot. After that I pleaded with my parents to buy all the Jeremy Lin merch possible. I had a shirt, a hat, even a towel, and I think at least a sticker or two.
As an adult, or something resembling an adult, Lin’s success takes on a whole new meaning. I wasn’t aware at the time, but Lin offered hope for millions of Asian-Americans who had been limited by racist stereotypes. He became a symbol for not only New Yorkers, but for people across the country.
The Giants end the Patriots’ perfect season in the Super Bowl.
Tom Brady and the New England Patriots terrorized the NFL my entire childhood. By 2007, Brady and the Patriots had already won three Super Bowls and were threatening to win their fourth. On top of that, the Patriots had bulldozed their way through the 2007 season, winning each and every game. By the Super Bowl, New England boasted an 18-0 record, and on the doorstep of history they had one more challenger in their way… The New York Giants.
The Giants weren’t supposed to be here. New York squeaked into the playoffs as a wildcard team after losing the division to Dallas. The team sent one player to the pro bowl, and each of their playoff wins came by hook or by crook. Earlier in the season, the Giants had lost to New England in the final game of the regular season, where Brady threw his 50th touchdown. Even as a kid, I knew the Giants stood no chance against Brady and the mighty Patriots.
The Game was surprisingly close. New York’s stellar defense locked down the Patriots’ potent offense. But as the final quarter ticked away, the Giants found themselves trailing 14-10 with less than three minutes remaining. What happened next made me fall in love with football. On a crucial third down, Eli Manning bobbed and weaved through a swarm of New England defenders.
With nothing left but hope, Manning rocketed the ball into the air. I sat on my living room rug, wide-eyed as the ball sailed towards David Tyree. I barely remember it in real time, possibly because I blacked out from sheer excitement, but Tyree grabbed the ball, pinned it against his helmet, and came down with possession. I had never seen anything like it in my whole life. From there Eli Manning found Plaxico Burress in the back of the endzone for the game sealing touchdown. I was delirious. It was the greatest moment in my young sports fandom.
Through the years, I became less and less of a Giants fan. In the early 2000s, my older brother became a Buffalo Bills fan, and I hopped on the bandwagon to impress him. Since then my allegiance lay up north, but I will never forget the Tyree catch, and the Giants’ upset over the Patriots. It laid the foundation for my love of sports. A moment that beautiful will always have a place as top moment in New York sports history.
So there it is. Four moments which rank atop my New York sports Mount Rushmore. They range in scale from championship winning plays, to sweet family moments between me and my dad, but regardless, they helped turn me into the fan I am today.