POSTED: Aug 26, 2013 9:33 AM ET
Steve Schirripa (right) and Sopranos co-star Michael Imperioli (left), with Spike Lee at MSG in 2005.
When you were a kid like me, who grew up playing basketball in New York in the late sixties and during the seventies, when there were great games on every corner, every park, every borough -- people always ask one question.
Where was the best run?
Was it in Harlem or Bed-Stuy? Did you get a better game down at Manhattan Beach, or with the Irish kids in Rockaway?
Well I'll tell you where my best run was. But you're not gonna believe it.
You gotta understand, I didn't start out as a basketball player. Everybody in Brooklyn was into baseball, and I was no different, until my little league coach started a basketball team and asked me to join. I didn't know the first thing about basketball, and was terrible: the first time he told me to take a layup, I grabbed the ball and ran to the basket. I forgot to dribble.
But I got better. And I got obsessed, too. Pretty soon I was spending every spare minute playing hoops. Alone, or with other kids, didn't matter. I loved basketball more than anything in my whole life. The only time I wasn't playing was when I stopped to listen to the Knicks games on the radio. Those were the golden years of the Knicks, Willis Reed and Clyde and then Earl the Pearl, and of course the voice of Marv Albert was the essence of basketball: Every kid imitated him every time you made a basket -- "Yessss!" or "Yes and it counts, and the foul!"
We couldn't afford to go to the games at Madison Square Garden when I was a kid, but when I got to college you could get blue seats -- that was the nosebleed section back then -- for six bucks apiece, and I'd take my girlfriend there on a date. That was my idea of a good time -- and if it wasn't hers, that was her problem. You could find another girl, but you could never find another team that great. Basketball just filled my heart with joy.
But basketball is a game that will break your heart, too, just because it can. I played JV at Lafayette High School, but the next year I was the last guy cut from the varsity, and I was more miserable then I've ever been, before or since. It took me a year to get over it, but I spent the year getting better too, and when I went to college, I went for one reason.
And it wasn't to study Shakespeare.
I made the John Jay college team my freshman year, then transferred to Brooklyn College. What I lacked in talent I made up for in hustle -- and I lacked plenty, believe you me; I mean, maybe I got five points and five assists and five rebounds a game. But I was a take-charge kind of a guy, and I loved the game so much, they made me the team captain. That was pretty nice, for a lumbering lug of a guy from Brooklyn.
We got to play in the Garden once, against Hunter College; I scored 13 points (although if I hadn't stayed out 'til 2 o'clock the night before, I probably would have scored double that). We had a 10-point lead at halftime, but blew it. Still, I don't care if you're from California or Colorado or Canada, every kid who loves basketball wants to play in Madison Square Garden. Just putting your sneakers on the boards sends a chill up your spine.
But as good as college ball was, summers were the best. I played every night of the week in the summer: in the Dyker Park league, and Sunset Park, and in the Brevoort Tournament in front of 3,000 people. I played in the park at West 4th Street and 6th Avenue, when guys would double- and triple-park up and down the block just to watch us play. I'd go anywhere for a game. A lot of times I was the only white guy, and I'd get heckled from the stands, but I took it in stride. Good-natured, bad-natured, what did I care -- I was playing. That's all I cared about. Brownsville, Bensonhurst, Breezy Point, didn't matter. I played everywhere. (Well, almost everywhere. I'm half Jewish, and after college I got recruited to play on a kibbutz in Israel. Even for me, that was a little too far just to shoot some hoops).
And so where was my best run?
It was a gym that's now a strip club, behind what was once the Stardust Hotel.
In Las Vegas.
Now, before I get tarred and feathered and tossed out of Madison Square Garden forever, let me say that those years I played at all those famous courts and playgrounds of New York were the best years of my life. But just because there were so many of them, you didn't get the concentration of talent, and celebrity, and intense competition, that you got at what was then the Las Vegas Sporting House. Because it was the only game in town.
I moved to Vegas and started working for the casinos in my early 20's, and immediately found the games at the Sporting House -- and let me tell you, there were amazing games. All the UNLV players, past and present, were there. Future NBA stars, and past. Greg Anthony. Larry Johnson. Ricky Sobers. Reggie Theus. Armen Gilliam. Stacey Augmon. And not just the players: Any celebrity who came to Vegas and wanted a game, he showed up there. Woody Harrelson used to come around. So did Sylvester Stallone. And all the boxers who showed up in Vegas showed up at the Sporting House: Tommy Hearns. Evander Holyfield. Mike Tyson, who let me tell you was a much better fighter than he was a basketball player.
And here's what I loved about it, other than the fact that I was playing the best ball of my life: You'd be standing on the court and in walks Alonzo Mourning, and your first reaction is, holy cow! I can't believe who it is! You're awed. But the minute you start playing, he's just another guy. (Another guy who can shoot circles around you, of course -- but just another guy nevertheless.) It wasn't about celebrity, or fame, or any of that. It was all about the ball.
That helped me later, when I became an actor, and had to do scenes with guys who I'd seen in the movies, guys who'd been my heroes. Once the cameras start rolling, you put all that aside. You're just two guys, doing a scene. I'll never forget where I learned that.
I'll never forget where I learned about teamwork, either. When you're out there on the court, it's all about five guys working together. I don't care what you say: No team is carried by one guy. Either everybody's working or nothing works. I still say that's why The Sopranos was so good: All the actors liked each other, and hung around together after work, and supported each other -- the way a good basketball team does -- and it showed, up on the screen.
Now, more than 20 years and 100 pounds later, I don't play any more. But I still love basketball more than just about anything outside my family. In fact, my favorite thing is to bring my family to Madison Square Garden; they love the Knicks as much as I do. And when everybody on the court is going full-out, giving 110 percent, I gotta say, there's nothing else like it. No other game in the world.
As a Brooklyn kid, people ask me if I'm gonna switch to the Nets; all due respect, and they're great for the neighborhood and great for the borough, but I gotta say, in all honesty: That will never happen in a million years. The Knicks are in my blood, they're in my DNA. I've been with them through the great times, the good times, the really really bad times, and now, thankfully, the good times again. And it'll only get better.
I'm lucky that I don't have to sit up in the nosebleeds anymore. Sometimes I get to sit courside, still get to put my sneakers on the boards, once in a while, thanks to the Knicks.
And it still sends a chill up my spine.
Steve Schirripa is the author of the new book Big Daddy's Rules, and stars on Karma's a B*tch on Investigation Discovery.