Maybe Steven Tyler's performance of the Star Spangled Banner before the AFC championship game was the worst rendition ever, maybe not. It's on the list, anyway. And the list jogged my memory: On Jan. 21, 1993, I was in Brendan Byrne Arena when Carl Lewis sang the National Anthem.
Singing the anthem is a no-win job, like playing offensive line. You only notice when someone screws up. Do you even know who sang the National Anthem at the NFC championship game? Probably not, because she (Kristin Chenoweth, by the way) did fine.
I definitely wasn't thinking about Carl Lewis when I went to the Meadowlands that night in 1993. I didn't care about track. I was a sixth-grade New York sports fan with no pro basketball loyalties or scruples, which is to say, I was a Michael Jordan fan. I taped Finals games while watching them, so I could watch them again later. I lived for the All Star Game. I paid money to see Space Jam.
Naturally, I'd wanted a pair of the lace-lock Jordans. But Christmas changed everything. Forget sneakers; my dad got me tickets to see the real thing. This was when the Knicks weren't a perennial laughingstock, and Jordan in the Garden was a hot ticket. So we got tickets instead to see the Nets play the Bulls: Jordan, Pippen, Cartwright, Grant, and Paxson.
And a special guest star. By 1993, Carl Lewis's position as the world's undisputed greatest track star was slipping. In the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, he'd been involved in some record-breaking relay performances, but the golden-toed Michael Johnson was the bigger attraction.
Neither one had been as memorable as the Dream Team. Head coach Chuck Daly never called a timeout in the eight games the United States played, most likely because they outscored their opponent by an average of almost 44 points. Long before Fatheads, there were Wall-Stars, and I had the whole team up on our basement wall. The summer of 1992 was probably what made my dad think about getting me tickets to see Jordan.
I don't remember much from the game itself, other than we were all the way up in the rafters. My dad confirms this and adds a bit more: "There was one breakaway by Jordan and he was beginning to fly and he got fouled in the air. The place was poised to go nuts thinking he was going to soar from the key to the hoop." Aside from the failure to launch, Jordan had his usual 30, and the Bulls won, 107-94.
The night was defined, however, not by the unremarkable game, but by the immortal performance before the opening tip. Truth be told, I'm not even sure I was aware that Carl Lewis, the Carl Lewis, was out there to sing the National Anthem. Why would an Olympic star be singing at a game in Brendan Byrne Arena, in January?
But as Lewis sang, I gradually realized he was making an absolute mess of things. People began laughing and groaning. I remember Lewis bravely throating through the rest of the song, though the words themselves came out like sandpaper.
What I remember most, from up there in the nosebleeds, was an atmosphere. As Lewis sang on, everyone exchanged that universal "What the fuck is going on?" look. Independently and simultaneously, a distracted pregame crowd became aware that something horrible was happening, and we instinctively began looking around to make sure others were hearing...it. It was a steady buildup, right to the merciful moment he finished. It was a performance even outside the expertise of future anthem-saver and a then New Jersey Net, Maurice Cheeks.
It would be years before I would appreciate the significance of that night and say with some kind of perverted pride "I was there" whenever someone brought it up. To this day I remain bitter, though. I saw the best basketball player ever, in his prime, and I can't remember a single thing about it except Carl Lewis.