Why Is It Gnawing on Arkansas?
Not so long ago, I was out at a party, and I met a Dallas Mavericks fan from Eudora, AR who closely follows NBA basketball. We shall call him Frank. Frank professes no extraordinary fondness for any other team, though he does hate Kobe Bryant. Frank is twenty-three, and he has spent his whole life in Arkansas, Tennessee, and Missouri. Frank turns twenty-four this fall, meaning that he wasn't yet nine years old when the New York Knicks lost to the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals, wasn't yet twelve when the Knicks and Heat first fought, and hadn't yet reached high school when the San Antonio Spurs' dynasty dawned at the Knicks' expense in 1999. By the time Frank had finished high school, the Knicks had begun their steady recession into functional obsolescence. As things currently stand, the New York Knickerbockers haven't been basketball relevant for almost a decade, or about as long as Frank has known enough to really know anything.
So, then, why is it that Frank and I could speak at length during our first conversation about seemingly every transaction, farce, dip, and rise that the Knicks have experienced this century? How could someone who has spent his entire life wholly beyond the East Coast media bubble, consistently amidst a television landscape from which the Knicks have been quickly exterminated, and generally insulated from a miserable foreign-market team know so much about a franchise so insignificant? The only memories of worthwhile Knick moments, to the extent which they exist at all, should come from a time of preadolescence that is often hazy and imprecise. More recently, through tests, high-school social drama, prom, and all of college, the decrepit Knicks were important enough to distract from the immediacy of that life? Even the most devoted Knicks fan, one who is blissfully absorbed in a New Yorker's unique geocentrism, would find this difficult to believe. Trust me. Not least of all because actual Knicks fans have hardly been able to keep up with all of it.
Maybe it's Frank. He is smart, and he has demonstrated impressive recall of sports-related information. He used to work as a radio broadcaster calling baseball games while in college. A self-proclaimed NBA fanatic, perhaps his lifelong passion naturally led to a special interest in the Knicks, even if not wholly conscious. This is somewhat reasonable: I recently made a reflexive reference to Beno Udrih based upon an obscure SportsCenter highlight from several years ago which I only recalled processing after I had invoked Beno's name. To the contrary, though, Frank is quick to admit that he remembers far more about baseball than basketball, and that he isn't always so good with the NBA minutiae of teams not from Dallas. On the surface, nothing about Frank suggests he should have a special affinity for the Brickers.
A more plausible explanation is that in an age of league-wide cable highlights, League Pass (which Frank has never owned, however), and internets, staying up on any team has become dramatically easier. Someone like Frank can follow the Knicks almost inadvertently, merely by seeking out basketball content provided by the leading sources which are now functionally ubiquitous. Further, despite its on-court decline, New York enjoyed special notoriety during the Isiah Thomas years due to the ignominy of paying so much money for so little production, and due to Isiah's almost inconceivable incompetence as a coach and personnel merchant. Ardent NBA man Frank may have been forced to keep tabs on the Knicks, even if he weren't already titillated by the spectacle of an ongoing disaster.
Sex-scandal aside, why the Knicks, though? Other teams have been serially, comically mismanaged. Teams such as the Clippers, the Grizzlies, and, until recently, the Hawks. These are franchises which have served as league-wide jokes, their names mocked and transformed into code words among sports fans at times. Yet, Frank's recall of the macabre details surrounding those teams lags far behind what he knows about Knickerbocker basketball. And he is not alone. The number of sports fans, in general, and basketball fans, in particular, who have no discernable connection to New York but nonetheless speak at length about the team's fortunes and history always surprises me. Something about the Knicks appears to matter more.
New York City is among the older places in the United States. Like many American things, with age comes advantage. Harvard is Harvard, in part, because it was Harvard before other places were anything. Previously, higher education hadn't existed here. Same goes for today's rich people whose families have just always been rich--they got a much earlier start watching investment opportunities come along and interest compound, so they had some distance ahead of would-be equals. New York is no different. That's not meant to minimize Harvard's academic rigor, the hard work which served as the kernel for a family fortune, or, in New York's case, desirable factors including an inviting harbor. But being old has helped to amplify certain intrinsic benefits and conferred upon New York lasting relevance and a presumed meaningfulness.
As the financial industry is realigned and the general American economy is overhauled, New York may lose this rarified profile. For now, though, the presumption is strong: most people don't seem to question that New York is a special place. I was not a history major, but the United States can feel as though it grew up with this understanding, as though appreciating New York's importance were an inherited value.
Regardless of its beginnings, enough people seem to embrace this curious ethereal sense that New York is supposed to be special. And New Yorkers love feeling this way. The architecture, the culture, the shops, the restaurants, the fashion--everything must be the best because it is of New York, and, naturally, it is of New York because it is the best. Tourists have bought into this idea as though it were a marketing slogan; millions of people visit New York under the assumption that they will spend time among something different and largely better. Beyond lofty markers like marble columns and outrageous dresses (some of which connote elitism), pride in exceptionalism permeates even quotidian aspects of New York life, like riding in a subway car loaded with people of every ethnicity imaginable. For the most part, New Yorkers relish these sorts of things about themselves.
I grew up in New York, I lived there as an adult, and I always felt that a majority of the local sports culture was informed by fomented entitlement. The Yankees had always been good, and New Yorkers deserved for them to remain good was the rough reasoning which seemed to fuel the regular fits of Yankee hysteria. Any free agent in any sport was grist for the rumor mill because no person wouldn’t want to live in New York City. Escalating ticket prices to everything were collective validation that New York sports really were just that special. And so forth. The City’s preeminence as a media and commercial capital was wedded to self-satisfaction, and this consummation yielded the perverse climate of impatience and impulsiveness that is manically self-reinforcing. Everything has been infected by the corrosive notion that New York’s teams must be the best because New Yorkers won’t stand for anything less.
(One note: The NFL may have created a safe haven amid this storm, because the league’s ruthless insistence on parity has forced liberation from this lunacy upon the Jets and Giants. The culture of those teams, surely not without insane people, feels more universal, organically connected to the larger national football pastime that has supplanted seemingly everything else. Maybe that is the ultimate triumph of the Shield--it made New York relent.)
The Knicks have a special form of this disease. Unlike the Yankees and Mets, the Knickerbockers are impeded by a salary cap that magnifies mistakes. Unlike the Jets and Giants, the Knickerbockers do not benefit from a countervailing, nearly religious belief system that excuses failure, however disappointing, as part of the natural order imposed by its governing body. Unlike the Rangers, the Knickerbockers are important to more than just a dwindling niche audience. They’ve enjoyed none of these protections. Instead, they are left exposed to the ills of mismanagement; to the ill-advised insistence on mortgaging the future for a passable present; to the ill-tempered response from an expectant fan base. Knicks history in recent decades has been one full of questionable personnel, awful contracts, a strategy which eschews cultivating a sturdy foundation, and a group of fans left to seethe in anger. The Knicks have devolved into the worst of New York.
Underneath these many problems lies one other debilitating symptom: shame. And it’s a shame which stems from something else unique about New York that might help to explain why the Knicks resonate well beyond the area to which they might be--here’s that word again--entitled. Basketball’s home is New York, and the Knicks have desecrated the City’s game.
The Knicks haven’t won an NBA championship since 1973, the most unstoppable player on the planet grew up in Akron, and college basketball’s leading orbits lie elsewhere. It would be easy, upon cursory glance, to survey this landscape and disregard as hubris the claim that basketball belongs to New York. Only, that would be wrong. Almost every basketball institution--UCLA, the Celtics, Marv Albert--owes a debt to New York. Yearly, New York City’s high schools replenish the talent in towns like Storrs, Lawrence, and Chapel Hill. Madison Square Garden remains the most sacrosanct stage for the game’s great performers, all but demanding timeless efforts that can often feel supernatural. To sit among the crowd at a Knicks game is to be immersed in a level of basketball erudition uncommon to any other arena around the league. And then, of course, there’s the street.
Celebrating schoolyard basketball for its soulfulness has become almost trite. One could build a mountain out of the magazines, movies, books, paraphernalia, and web writings dedicated to definitively capturing streetball. The entire And1 brand may have forever destroyed this romance, and some point in our recent past surely stands as a moment of demarcation when the supposed innocence of grassroots hoops was lost. There really doesn’t remain much room for reverie. However weary we may be of this commodification, though, it is no less true that schoolyard games retain the quintessence of the sport. Without the hip-hop montages and corporate sponsorships, pickup games are still exercises in egalitarianism, athleticism, hard work, and determination, set on top of asphalt. The same is true of New York: look past the oligarchs who keep the tallest buildings smooth and shining to see the many other everyday folks who know the rough edges and confer upon the city its creativity and vitality by working jobs, raising families, and hoping to carve out some success.
In this way, New York is the true capital of basketball. Beyond the dizzying array of connections to the NYC that unite almost all of the game’s denizens, New York’s primacy as a streetball center keeps the sport anchored in the five boroughs. Basketball embodies New York’s spirit, and New York embodies basketball’s. Appreciating this dynamic explains why places like West 4th Street are hallowed proving grounds; why the history of the game was likely altered the day that Black Jesus came forth from Philadelphia, held court in Harlem, and dazzled Lew Alcindor; why a palpable chill descends on the building when Kobe shows up to drop 60.
Now, about that shame.
The Knickerbockers are New York’s most visible link to the sport with which it shares a soul; the Knicks are a proxy for the City. And the Knicks, of course, play in the National Basketball Association. NBA basketball is the best-known, best-played form of the sport. A sustained championship drought, therefore, has bedeviled New Yorkers because it has challenged a shared sense of identity. Even if this discomfort is not always articulated as such, the Knicks’ failures have struck at what New Yorkers are about. The place of basketball should field a team which can play it as well as just about any other.
The angst that has accompanied New York’s decades-long run of futility has built ever stronger as years have accumulated. Do not forget that more than any other area team, the Brickers are infected by the warped New York insanity. Patrick Ewing’s arrival in the 1980s was supposed to cure this disease, restoring order and elevating the franchise to its deserved place. That didn’t happen. Instead, he and his charges spent the 1990s annually gearing up for another assault on the title, always falling short, usually in spectacular fashion. A wounded host, Ewing’s teams attracted the illness and provided it with nourishment to grow. A tragic legacy of the Ewing Knicks is that they inadvertently perpetuated a sports culture they were intended to eradicate--or at least satiate--and unwittingly initiated the ugliness that followed.
As Frank can recount with disarming specificity, here’s what came next: foolish hirings, crippling sums paid to worn-out players, desperate attempts to cure the present by hurting the future, largely fruitless drafts, widespread mockery, and steady losing. Steady, outrageous losing--by forty; by accident; without offense; forever without defense; through suspensions; through fistfights on the team plane; through truck parties. All of it brought on by the warped New York reality that was closing in faster than ever and making demands even louder than before. And so, the shame. New York, a place of exceptionalism and basketball capital, was represented by a team which directly defied both.
One of the first questions Frank asked me when I shared that I rooted for the Knicks was, “Are you excited about Donnie Walsh and Mike D’Antoni?” I nodded and said that I was, however it was far from a ringing endorsement. I was being honest; I wasn’t entirely sure.
The new Bricker leadership has restored professionalism to the franchise, one of the many ironic deficiencies previously afflicting a team which has such an active corporate following. And D’Antoni offers the promise of a system which requires discipline and practice, but not at the expense of creative freedom or entertainment. It’s a daring concept that is exciting and engrossing, though not yet proven to be a championship schematic. That, honestly, is the cause for concern. NBA championships are won with defense, and D’Antoni has not yet demonstrated that he can teach it or, more importantly, get his teams to play it well. Further, Walsh and D’Antoni’s first trip to the draft lottery yielded an unproven European who may be too slow for great defense and too frail for great anything. Not exactly the dawning of a new day.
Walsh and D’Antoni’s next opportunity to prove themselves comes in nine days, when they’re back in the lottery at the Draft. Rather than the team’s current players or most recent season, discussion of the Knicks will likely be framed by LeBron James, who, of course, is a Cavalier. But there are few NBA topics as popular as the insinuation that LeBron will sign with the Knicks in 2010. Whomever is traded, or signed, or figuratively told to start looking for a new house, the media will speculate about LeBron. The Knicks took Stephen Curry because he is friendly with James. The Knicks want to trade up for Ricky Rubio because they like his potential alongside James and think that will appeal to LeBron. They took a big man to pair with James. All of this will be said even though there is hardly a preponderance of evidence to suggest that James-to-New York is an actual possibility. So, then, why does everyone keep saying it?
For the same reasons that Frank remembers the Trevor Ariza trade and that people pay so much money on Fifth Avenue for things they can buy at home: the Knicks matter more. The Lakers and the Celtics and the Bulls matter. So do the Pistons and the Spurs. But the Knicks matter more. They carry with them New York’s prestige and the soul of the game, two wholly unique qualities. National media, whose satellite and internets arms reach into the corners of Arkansas, recognize this, and so the Knicks remain a story even when they aren't. This may bother people, but it's the truth; if people didn’t care a little more about New York, the Today Show would spend far less time out in Rockefeller Center. LeBron is viewed as the man who can stand up to the New York insanity, if not cure it. He is viewed as the man who can restore the Knicks to the position which their city demands. And he is viewed as the man who will reward Frank for his continued attention and encourage it through the next drought. That's why everyone keeps saying it; in some ways it feels right.
Think about all of this and prepare accordingly, because the LeBron gossip is going to stop just as soon as New York stops being old, basketball leaves the City, and he signs anywhere else. Frank will surely keep track of that.