The acclaimed sportswriter Harvey Araton has a new book out this month: “Our Last Season”, a joint biography of Michelle Musler, longtime Madison Square Garden mainstay, and of Araton himself.
Araton discussed their relationship, what 2020 and beyond will mean for people like Musler, and much more, in our Q&A. Take a read. And preorder your copy of the book here.
1. There are so many threads to this story, but one that I found particularly notable was how universally Michelle found ways to connect to people throughout her life. Do you think she’d have managed to create a life this full of meaning in any era, or was this at least partially a question of time and place for her?
Michelle was clearly someone who dealt well with opportunity—and limitation at different life intervals. So while she managed to become the sports editor/reporter of her high school newspaper, and fancied journalism in her future, she also recognized there wasn’t much of a path in that direction for a young woman. As much as she was a progressive thinker, she was also an avowed pragmatist. Hence, she suspended personal ambition; marriage and five kids in less than a decade connected her to the social benefits of semi-affluent suburbia. Then her marriage dissolved, and she no longer fit in that world, precipitating the most remarkable part of her life. The climb into corporate America in itself was an inspirational story of women’s empowerment that would have made Billie Jean cheer. But also fascinating was the recasting of her social life at the Garden, without formal connection or introduction. Time and again in the book, we find Michelle literally stepping forward from her seat to create a relationship. I once asked her, how the hell does a half-Jewish teenager from Hartford with developing women’s-lib values wind up in college at St. Mary’s (at that point a sister school to Notre Dame?) And how did she survive there? She laughed and said, “I don’t know. I just did.”
2. Much of this book centers around your own struggles to define yourself around and beyond your own work. How’s that going in 2020, when none of us can travel to cover much of anything these days? How has quarantine changed your thinking on this?
As I say in the book reveals, I haven’t even been able to use semi-retirement to describe my departure from the Times’ full-time staff in 2016. But that decision had already enabled me to devise different ways to occupy my time, working mostly from home (writing a book) or close to it (teaching as an adjunct at Montclair State U). Another example: since 2016, and especially since last March, I’ve done a fair number of advance obits on aging basketball icons—granted, not the most upbeat vocational exercise during a pandemic, though a safer one that being out there. Yet I was also envious of colleagues and friends like Marc Stein, Scott Cacciola, Adrian Wojnarowski and Shaun Powell when they were covering the NBA restart in the Disney bubble. I’ve had my share of events that were historically challenging (the 1989 Earthquake World Series) or enjoyably memorable (the Dream Team summer of ’92). At the point of life I am at, I can be fairly certain that, as difficult as it was for those folks to be away from families (albeit not exactly in Baghdad or Kabul) for so long, they will look back on the experience as career-defining.
3. It is hard not to think of how much better off the Knicks would have been with Michelle in James Dolan’s role, given her corporate expertise in precisely the area of his failings. Did you ever discuss it with her, and what would the Knicks have accomplished with Michelle in that seat?
No question that Michelle enjoyed her brief times in the spotlight—having an occasional voice in my column or someone else’s, speaking out against corporate insensitivity to consumers (if I could have one wish granted it would be for her to come back and ask the likes the Dolan, just how badly do you want us to renew? But I don’t think she ever saw herself as anything more than the CEO of her own one-person company. Michelle mostly loved learning by listening and observing, and derived the most pleasure from helping. That’s why Jeff Van Gundy’s wonderful story of how she occasionally would step up from her seat before games to fix his crooked sport coat collar and, without a word, sit back down perfectly captured her courtside persona. The chapter titled, “Dolan and the Death of Hope” finds her musing in the final year of her life on how as an executive trainer she would have approached working to make Dolan a more effective owner. Call it what it was, frivolous or fantasy, but that was how she ultimately saw herself: as a fixer.
4. What was your favorite memory of Michelle that didn’t make it into the book?
In July 2014, my bucket-list novel miraculously made its way into print, courtesy of a wonderful publisher in Texas, and my wife helped arrange a book party at a local bookstore in our town. As I wrote in the book, Michelle ordered copies for family and friends—and may have accounted for half the damn sales. Left unmentioned was her call about a half-hour before the party began: she had failed to leave enough time to account for the weekday evening drive from Connecticut. She was stuck in traffic and was clearly not going to make it. Looking back, to four years before her passing, I can wonder if age had begun to creep up on someone I had only known to be meticulously competent. I also knew how much she’d been looking forward to the event as a social night out, but more to the point: she sounded near tears on the call, as if she was failing me as I celebrated a book that had taken me almost 20 years to publish from the point of conception. That level of commitment and care in friendship is so rare. The emotion in her voice on that call was a gift, perhaps even more than her presence that night would have been.
5. So much of this book laments the end to what is a neighborhood feel in The Garden. Do you think that can ever return, given the changing arms-length ways sports in 2020 separates fans from the actors? Or will it simply require a change in ownership to, as some writer once put it, feel like “Eden” again?
What the Garden—or any professional indoor sport—will look like going forward in the age of Covid is going to be interesting and possibly sobering for owners like Dolan, who has managed to hang onto his subscriber ticket base despite bad basketball and horrendous organizational behavior. That, I imagine, is a tribute to the strength of the N.B.A. product in a city with an esteemed basketball history, but also the result of the unyielding and depersonalizing trend of corporate gentrification. Or simply: fewer lifers like Michelle in those astronomically priced courtside seats and more dudes-nights-outs, reflecting the business perks of the game. For a book-themed essay I recently wrote for the Times, I asked Spike Lee how eager he might be to plant himself on Celebrity Row in a world where the virus is more controlled, but not eradicated. He’s 63. He said he had absolutely no idea and left me with the notion that in order to convince people to take any risk, and pay prodigiously for the privilege, teams like the Knicks had better at least be offering their high-end fans something really good. Dennis Smith Jr. and free soggy fries delivered to their seats will probably not cut it.