The Word From on High

The Knicks and organized religion have collided like a couple of speeding cars in recent weeks, and the results haven't been pretty. But they sure are compelling. So imagine our surprise, and curious delight, when one of the main players in this latest Knick saga sat down right next to us at Sunday's playoff game against the Raptors. There was the controversial team pastor, John Love, far away from his usual complimentary courtside seats, with us in the upper press box near Madison Square Garden's blue seats. A few MSG security personnel had decided that the pastor's safety would be best served if he watched from this perch, and they assigned him a personal bodyguard just to make sure.

Love has served as the Knicks' voluntary chaplain for the past 12 years, but the last two weeks have definitely been the hardest. In the April 16 issue of New York magazine, head coach Jeff Van Gundy cited Love as a team distraction and object of his personal scorn. Then, as the pastor and his "God Squadders" on the team were recovering from that blow, The New York Times Magazine put out an article on Sunday that quoted Charlie Ward calling Jews "stubborn" and blaming them for Jesus's death and the modern-day persecution of Christians. Allan Houston backed up Ward in the Times piece with a Bible passage about Jews "spit[ting] in Jesus's face and hit[ting] him with their fists." Charges of religious insensitivity and outright anti-Semitism have rained down ever since: from the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Congress, and Simon Wiesenthal Center among others.

The fans chimed in as well on Sunday. When Ward entered the game early in the second quarter, they booed him, and booed him some more the first several times he touched the ball. "That's ridiculous," blurted Love. His bodyguard responded with a time-honored description of New York fans: "I love this crowd. They'll goad you one night, and make you a hero the next. They'll tell you exactly how they feel. They don't hide nothing." Said a resigned Love: "Tell me about it."

Before the game, MSG president Dave Checketts added himself and the Knicks organization to the list of those who found Ward's and Houston's statements "objectionable." Love responded that the quotes were only "objectionable because they appeared as isolated statements. Those statements were definitely taken out of context. I mean, how do we really know what happened and who said what? It just kills me knowing Charlie. He's really a lover of all people. He doesn't prejudge by their ethnicity or race, creed or color."

Love went on to defend the content of what Ward and Houston said: "The Bible is not a history book, but you cannot deny its historical accuracy." The pastor did say that the good book leaves room for some historical interpretation, and that the "sins of the entire world were responsible for putting Christ on the cross," not just the Jewish people. "To say that one particular group put him on the cross fails to recognize the source of the sins. But you cannot deny what the New Testament says."

Later in the game Ward hit two free throws and followed up by rattling the "What Would Jesus Do" bracelets on his wrists (in what is apparently this year's version of Larry Johnson's "Big L" gesture). At this point, the once hostile Knick gathering gave the point guard a round of applause.

"The crowd doesn't know if they should boo him, or cheer for him," Love's guard observed. To which the pastor replied: "I wish they would make up their minds."

Oh, God! Book II

Although you wouldn't know it from the uproar over Eric Konigsberg's surreal encounter with Charlie Ward and Allan "Hand Me My Palm Pilot" Houston, recounted in Sunday's Times Magazine, religious fanaticism and anti-Semitism have been a part of the pro-sports scene longer than jock itch.

In baseball alone, it's a line that runs from John "There's No Jewish Babe Ruth" McGraw in the '20s to Leo Durocher (who called his own pitcher, Ken Holtzman, a "kike") in the '60s to the San Diego Padres' John Birch Society starters Eric Show, Dave Dravecky, and Mark Thurmond in the '80s to Marge "Hitler Did Some Really Good Things, He Just Went Too Far" Schott in the '90s.

And then there's the sticks-and-stones side of the story. In 1919, when Ray Chapman was killed by a pitch thrown by Carl Mays, two of his teammates, Hall of Famer (and Freemason) Tris Speaker and catcher (and devout Catholic) Steve McNeill got into a brutal fistfight over which church would sanctify Chapman's burial, bloodying each other so completely that both missed his funeral. Hank Greenberg, who recalled being called "a Jew bastard and a kike and a sheenie" by rival bench jockeys, had his 1936 season (and almost his career) ended by Jake Powell, who broke his wrist on a routine play at first, while Indian star Al Rosen had pitchers throw at him in the '50s because of his religious persuasion, "but there's not a guy alive who ever saw me rub."

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