New Yorkers Forget Troubles As Sports Teams Take the Lead

Winning in basketball, hockey, and basebell makes the Big Apple a bit nutty

STOCKBROKER Mark Boutote was supposed to take a client out to dinner, but had to cancel when his wife insisted he come home that night.

``She has suddenly become a die-hard Knicks fan and wanted us to watch the game together,'' he says.

Glen Paporello's wife was due to have her first baby. But Mr. Paporello had something else on his mind: He had a ticket to the final game of the New York Rangers-New Jersey Devils semi-final series. He proudly displayed a celluar telephone he had brought to the game.

``I can call between periods,'' he announces with pride.

Wall Street brokers skipping a night out on the town. Husbands pacing Madison Square Garden instead of delivery rooms. What's going on here?

What's happening is that New York teams are winning, giving the Big Apple a sports-crazed look.

For the first time since 1979, the Rangers are in the Stanley Cup finals, this time facing the Vancouver Canucks.

And, at the same time, the New York Knickerbockers have kept their fans on the edge of their seats as they defeated the arch-rival Chicago Bulls in seven games and went to a seventh game in the semifinals against the Indiana Pacers last night.

For New Yorkers it's been a long time since this kind of season. In fact, the Rangers have not won a Stanley Cup - the ultimate hockey trophy - since 1940. As a result, newspapers usually use the word ``long-suffering'' when referring to Rangers fans.

Outside Madison Square Garden, Rangers fans, wearing the jerseys of their favorite team members, are more than happy to tell you about their years of suffering.

Having gone through 25 years of Ranger's season tickets, Mike Kushner says he has lived through ``all the peaks and valleys.''

Last year was a deep valley since the Rangers did not make the playoffs. Two years ago, the Ranger's goalie, Mike Richter, let a 62-foot shot - very long for hockey - get past him.

The shot demoralized the team, which went on to lose the playoff round to the Pittsburgh Penguins. And, there have been years of losses for the New York Islanders, whose fans love to taunt the Rangers by chanting ``19-40,'' the last year the Rangers won the Cup.

But that's all history.

Now the fans are optimistic that this is the Rangers' year. In fact, outside the Garden, Larry Gordon announces he has bought his ticket to travel to Vancouver for the games.

``You have to have priorities,'' he tells fellow Ranger fans.

The Rangers are a priority on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, where trading recently slowed when a pair of visiting Canuck players showed up on a tour. ``We started chanting, `LET'S GO RANGERS,''' says Steve Schnibbe, a clerk.

The sports craze is affecting New Yorkers in different ways. Lawyer Bruce Garrison, a longtime Rangers fan, couldn't sleep after the Rangers lost the first game of the Stanley Cup playoffs. ``After listening to WFAN [an all-talk sports radio channel], I realized what I needed was a hockey support group - someone to call and talk to after the games,'' Mr. Garrison says.

In fact, hockey chatter is ``overwhelming'' WFAN, says executive producer Steve Cohen. On a late night show, a woman who is an Islander fan calls in to say she is married to a Ranger fanatic. The radio emcee says he is doubtful the marriage will survive.

Computer programmer Bob Jeraci - a fan of both the Knicks and Rangers - now believes he may be spending too much time in front of the television set.

``I'm happy they are winning but it has occupied too much of my life,'' he remarks.

But Nancy Lemann, author of a book, Sportsman's Paradise, says such sports loyalty is normal. ``This is how sports-crazed guys relax,'' she explains.

And, some New Yorkers have started to shift their attention to baseball. With glee they note the Yankees, despite losing their third straight game on Saturday, are in first place. This is their strongest start in decades. Outfielder Paul O'Neil is batting over .400. Is it too early to talk about a World Series?

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