I Couldn't Help But Notice Your Pain. Share It with Me!
We're off and running with this season. Few truths have been settled upon, but among them are that the Knicks are horrible and the Warriors are dysfunctional. Again.
Ty Keenan and I decided to share our self-loathing as we embark upon the newest version of the same old suck. (Pause?)
I think it's important to establish a context for how depressing the Warriors are, so let's start at the top. Outside of the two-year apex of the We Believe era, Chris Cohan's tenure as owner has been extremely depressing. For the second half of the '90s and most of the '00s, seasons begin with no hope and little to get excited about. The organization once tried to sell acquiring an aged Mookie Blaylock (for a pick that became Jason Terry) as a move that could bring a playoff berth. The team has typically drafted towards the middle or end of the lottery, and the top picks they've earned have typically flamed out (see Mike Dunleavy and Joe Smith). Their best pick of the last 20 years, Gilbert Arenas, left because of an eccentricity in the collective bargaining agreement. To a certain extent, fans accept that things probably won't work out, and we adjust our expectations accordingly.
This has a few consequences. First, we never really get our hearts broken, because the expectations are never high enough to cause genuine frustration. The closest we've come was in 07-08, when they won 48 games and missed out on the playoffs. But then Baron left for the Clippers and they brought in Corey Maggette, and only the blind optimists expected much of anything from the team last season. This lack of expectations can be seen as either a positive or a negative -- we never experience highs, but we also don't feel much pain.
But that eternal expectation of failure means that the franchise has a toxic brand, the kind of thing you can only change with a new ownership group and the culture it brings with it. Cohan essentially torpedoes any chance the Warriors have of becoming a perennial success: even if a new coach or star rookie were to come in, bullshit business practices and backroom dealings would spell everyone's doom before long. Yes, James Dolan has his obvious problems, but the Knicks will always be the Knicks; the team can attract respected names like Donnie Walsh and Mike D'Antoni in a way that the Warriors can't. Maybe they'll fail too, but at least you live in the hope that things can better. That beats being perpetually downtrodden.
Of all the people I have never met and never will, John Wooden is by far the most influential. I talk about and think about him almost every day of my life. That's weird. Him and Tony Soprano. I internalized so many of his aphorism (Wooden, not Tony), in no small part because my dad always treated Wooden as some kind of deity. Among these enduring lessons is that you should never confuse activity for accomplishment. When they make a DVD about the Knicks over the past decade, the cover should have a picture of Dolan and the title should be "Look How Much We've Accomplished."
You're right that a total absence of hope is a unique sort of losing and misery which Knicks fans haven't experienced. Zealots, myself among them, may dramatically proclaim that all is lost, the team will never win, and numbness has set in as the ineptitude proceeds unabated. But to some extent, that's posturing. It is New York, New York does matter in a unique way (even though most people hate this idea), and there will always be the credible notion that things can turn around quickly. That brings me back to my original point: a Warriors fan will never appreciate the excruciating frustration that arises as a team with such vast resources and so much perverted self-awareness regularly makes grand gestures that only make things worse. I would argue that this brand of losing is far worse, because Knicks fans not only know what they're missing, but also know how often they've failed to recapture it.
The amount of money wasted on has-beens is embarrassing. (I typed that sentence eight times because I wanted to see if I could do so without cursing.) I am disgusted by it. The loose decisions and yearly radical realignments have reflected zero cohesion or ideology. The basic chemistry of basketball evades the organization as an institution. The Knicks are always--ALWAYS--a macabre amalgamation of spare parts. Never once in all of the modern rebuilding has any person with the authority to do so embarked upon a plan to assemble a true nucleus. The Knicks' draft history probably stands out as the single worst in the NBA. No one in the organization appears to understand what differentiates good decisions from bad ones. That may change with Donnie Walsh and Mike D'Antoni, but the former did anoint the latter despite D'Antoni's poorly masked contempt for defense. That's not a championship philosophy, so I am not sure SSOL is anything more than driving a Ferrari into a dead-end wall and creating a spectacular explosion. And this all happens in "The World's Most Famous Arena," underneath championship banners, and in front of fans and media who will never forget the model clubs that authored the Knick legacy which taunts the franchise as it simultaneously grows larger but recedes further away.
Being a Knicks fan has come to resemble illness. I have never had meningitis, but it's been described to me as an inflammation of the membranes that run along your brain and spinal cord. Other parts of my body have been inflamed. It can be awful--the pulsating pain, the swelling, the knowledge that something deep down is horribly wrong (at least for a moment). That's what it is like to be a Knicks fan--the anger and incredulity painfully gnaw away, and the root causes seem so remotely situated that you are left hopeless. You feel powerless to do anything which might alleviate the distress. And it just hurts so fucking much all the time.
I'm not going to argue that the Knicks have been put together with a plan beyond "LeBron probably likes tall buildings," or that the sins of Isiah are somehow comparable to those of other failing teams. That's a unique sort of pain that Warriors fans will never experience.
But there's also something unique about the experience of watching a team with legitimate young pieces and knowing it will never work out. Discounting the ownership situations, there's not that much separating the Warriors from the Nets -- both teams have solid young cores worth building around, and the Nets' far superior cap situation isn't a huge advantage when you consider both teams have histories of failure and roughly equal chances at nabbing a quality pick. The contexts are wildly different, though: the Warriors have Chris Cohan and Robert Rowell, and the Nets have a Russian oligarch and Jay-Z, one of the most recognizable faces on the planet. There is a sense of continual progress.
Monta Ellis, Anthony Randolph, Andris Biedrins, Anthony Morrow, and Stephen Curry (yes, Shoals, I mentioned his name in a positive context) are nice young pieces with skills that contribute to winning teams. But any joy I take in their game happens almost entirely within the moment, which isn't terribly different from the way I watch a great dunk or block or fastbreak from a team I don't root for. In fact, it's almost more enjoyable to watch someone like Kevin Durant play well, because I allow myself to see a brighter future for him. With the Warriors, I know Monta will continue to resent the management, or Randolph will be back on the bench in two minutes, or Biedrins plays for a coach who will never fully appreciate him.
This is no way to live. Positives deserve to be considered positives, not illusory highs on the way to more disappointment. If rooting for the Knicks leads to anger, then being a Warriors fan is something like the stereotype of depression: I know failure is right around the corner and would rather sleep all day.
Sorry, but you queued up a true dork for this one: Rooting for the Knicks leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering. That's the path to the Dark Side. Maybe that should be the title of my proposed Knicks retrospective DVD.
You're right that Knicks fans have no idea what it's like to watch a team with promising young pieces. The Warriors have, and have had, enough talent for a legitimate NBA starting lineup. The Knicks have not. The Knicks' best young player is on the Rockets, and his name is Trevor Ariza. Maybe you also could consider LaMarcus Aldridge and Jo Noah Knicks, as each was chosen with a Knicks draft pick after the Brickers decided that they just had to have Eddy Curry. Utah will enjoy a similar privilege this coming year because the Marbury trade was so good that the Knicks continue to be haunted by it. Their other best recent draft pick is the starting center for the Nuggets. He, of course, was traded for Antonio McDyess before Antonio became an amiable, productive elder statesman and was still just a walking knee problem. Look at this drafting!
New York's best homegrown players of recent years are David Lee, Nate Robinson, and Wilson Chandler. Lee is either an ideal companion for a dominant center or a perfect leader for a team's second unit. Robinson is a carnival attraction. Chandler, like Lee, should be a star on a second unit or the final starter on a loaded team. Instead, those three, Danny G, Jordan Hill, and Toney Douglas comprise the closest thing the Knicks have had to a young nucleus since, like, 1985. Pardon me for my restrained enthusiasm. Some Knicks fans like to make a big show about Douglas's potential or Danny's shooting, but let's be real--these aren't players whose presence and production augur for real contention in the future. Unless LeBron and Chris Bosh show up in July.
(Don't even get me started on how dumb that plan seems given the lowering salary cap and the paucity of attractive prospective teammates.)
What this Knicks fan shares with you, though, is that empty, episodic excitement. Like when you're hopped up on caffeine but otherwise running on empty. When the Knicks manage to successfully come back from one of their usual twenty-point deficits, I am, as you wrote, excited in the moment. I cheer for Al Harrington's black-hole routine or Danny's quest to make more threes than two because it can be cool when it works. These glimpses of functional basketball are fun but perpetually undercut by the knowledge that the success is fake, though. The team never builds toward anything. One comeback is followed by another string of blowouts or dooming first-half lethargy. My briefly felt joy also immediately summons my resentment as I have the meta experience of knowing that the happiness I am feeling will inevitably be replaced by the usual cocktail of frustration and disillusionment.
And yet, I soldier on. You wonder, why do we keep rooting for these teams if they're so flawed, and if the experience feels like an affliction. For me, some of it is stubbornness. I've already invested so much for so long that I don't want to walk away now. Much like waiting on Michigan football's resurrection, hoping for a Knicks revival carries along the promise of elation amplified by the suffering I've committed to the franchise. Some of it is my worship of routine. Rooting for (while loathing) the Knicks is just what I do. Liberated fandom has taken on new tangibility in an era of League Pass and internets. I could easily ride with Oklahoma City (Russy!) or New Orleans (Julian!) or New Jersey (CDR!) In some respect, I do. I follow those teams closely. Same with Portland, which has the man I discovered, Brandon Roy. And yet, the Knicks are my constant. They are a piece of my constitution.
Also, my deep cynicism has yet to extinguish the flickering flame of hope. Though I am deeply ambivalent about Mike D'Antoni, I appreciate his professionalism. I appreciate his sense of humor. I have witnessed the kind of exciting basketball he can cultivate when given the right players. Even if he, as the head man, can't deliver a championship, he can nonetheless implement a new culture to be inherited by a successor coach. Guided by this optimism, no matter how weak it is, I embrace the Danny G experiment and wish for the best. I convince myself that a real point guard is just one lucky trade or draft away. (Why they didn't take Ty Lawson last year I'll never know.) I regard Jordan Hill as a second-rate Amar'e in training. Generally, I just talk myself into it. That might be the essence of sports fandom, and it might be the most reverent and traditional part of my NBA experience. No matter how much the Knicks abuse me, I'm wedded to them, and I can never fully avoid thinking that tomorrow could always be better.
(That might be an offensive analogy. Sorry if it is. I don't support domestic violence.)
I love that you are upset about their drafting Hill over Lawson but don't even mention Brandon Jennings. A telltale sign of the broken fan: you get upset about your team passing over competency and don't even deal with the lost star.
I'm surprised you're even able to get excited about comebacks. I was talking more about single plays, the kind of moments that, in a sane world, would show promise for the future. But the Warriors are so bad at the end of games that I assume any moderately close game will result in a loss. I've never seen a worse halfcourt offense in my life, and the sad thing is that it'll only get worse if/when they trade S-Jax.
I'm unable to talk myself into anything GSW does, likely because 1) I've seen so little success over the years that it seems like a waste of time and 2) the team's strategies and goals are so unclear that I don't even know what I'd be talking myself into. So what could possibly keep me watching? I suppose the familiarity is comforting in itself, but were it not for the Mavs series, I could definitely have seen myself becoming less and less interested in the team and treating them like the Thunder or Hawks. I'd almost say that whatever liberated fandom I have arose from my Warriors fandom -- they were so boring for so long that I had to find the good in other teams if I wanted to keep watching the sport. (Incidentally, it's not a coincidence that Bob Fitzgerald and Jim Barnett are generally considered one of the best broadcast teams in the league. Years of wretched teams in Oakland have turned giving credit to the other team into a habit.)
But any time I feel like leaving them behind, I remember what it felt like to be in the arena during Game 4 against the Mavs. There aren't many other circumstances in which I'd hug random people and feel genuine euphoria without being self-conscious about it. There are other kinds of makeshift communities in my life -- synagogue, crowds at shows, blogospheres -- but I don't think any is quite as welcoming as a sports team. Maybe this would all be easier if I were more religious.