I was three years old when the New York Knickerbockers last won the NBA title. I can’t say when, exactly, I first started rooting for the team. Is it possible it was back then, in 1973? I suppose. My father took me to games as a kid, Madison Square Garden stretching out as far as anything I’d ever seen with a roof before. The oldest game I have vivid memories of was in 1979 or 1980, when Bill Cartwright was still a young center; the Knicks won on a buzzer-beater, the crowd absolutely lost their collective shit, and I spent the better part of the next few months re-enacting those final moments on the Nerf hoop hanging on my bedroom door. There were games before then, and I was a Knicks fan before then, too. But it was moments like those, exhilarating moments where even in a mid-season game in a year where the team finished no better than third in the Atlantic Division that Madison Square Garden was still the Mecca of Basketball. It isn’t the Mecca anymore, hasn’t been for a long time.
My time as a fan of the New York Knicks is over. 197?-2014. Goodbye, good riddance, good luck.
The concept of a “real fan” is something people who get into sports take extraordinarily seriously. A “real fan” bleeds – one imagines metaphorically – their team’s colors. A “real fan” backs the team through thick and thin. A “real fan” doesn’t change allegiances. These are all perfectly noble concepts, but surely there has to be a limit.
A week ago, ESPN columnist Ian O’Connor opened a piece with the following…
“New York Knicks fans, you do not deserve this, and they most certainly do not deserve you.”
Yes, well. The column was written in the wake of point guard Raymond Felton’s arrest on gun charges, but was really about the terrible season the team is having. I took the message even further. I took it to mean the past few decades, a barren stretch of sorrow I’m perfectly ready to reference if anyone calls into question my credibility as a fan.
I’m not necessarily hitching my wagon to a winner, either. The Brooklyn Nets are playing well lately, but it took that run just to get back to .500 on the year. They’re in the sixth playoff position in the East, and given how terrible the conference is as a whole, there’s no reason to believe they won’t make the postseason. Still, they’re my team now, have been since they joined me in Brooklyn last season. The Knicks, miraculously, are still mathematically capable of making the playoffs. They won’t, but they could. Ridiculous.
It took the New York Knicks 24 seasons to win their first title, and they won their second just three years later. And that’s it. Since then, the team has made the NBA Finals twice, the first culminating in a heartbreaking Game 7 loss to the Houston Rockets in 1994. The last time the Knicks made the Finals was in 1999, and they got there as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. Patrick Ewing was on the decline, and an injury kept him on the sideline against the San Antonio Spurs’ formidable front line. That the team shouldn’t have even been there made it remarkable, but so was their collective will, their drive. This was a team that gave a shit. Latrell Sprewell, for all his highly publicized, overly-magnified issues, played each possession like it was his last. I wonder what he thinks of the New York Knicks today. I wonder what any of those guys think.
The Knicks have been awful for a long time, undeserving of my dedication. Their owner, a fat, spoiled little blues fan named James Dolan, doesn’t know a thing about basketball, and he shows it every time he opens his mouth, every move he makes with his checkbook. There were the wilderness years of Isaiah Thomas and Stephon Marbury, and before that the undignified flirtations with coaches Lenny Wilkins and Larry Brown, and since then the Mike D’Antoni years, which though a predictable dysfunctional mess, at least sort of felt like things were moving in the right direction.
There was a sliver of hope last season, when the team went 54-28 and won a playoff series for the first time since the 1999-2000 season. Pause to consider that for a moment: That’s well over a decade, and most of those seasons the Knicks didn’t even make the playoffs at all. And I was a fan all that time.
O’Connor’s article came out a week ago when the Knicks were 21-36 and on the ass-end of a three-game losing streak. They’ve since dropped four more, extending their losing streak to seven and falling to 21-40 overall. They’re three games behind the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers, for fuck’s sake, and seven games back of both Atlanta and Charlotte for the final spot in the playoffs. So, yes, mathematically still in the hunt. But realistically, no. That ship sailed a month or two ago after the team had a solid start to January, winning six of seven. It was an anomaly. So was their four game winning streak to close out the month. And so, it turns out, was the team’s 2012-13 season, when it looked like they finally had their shit together.
The Knicks have lost 13 of their last 15, and during that stretch of gutless, pathetic basketball, the players have given numerous interviews talking about how they’re not playing with heart or passion, like they’ve got it all figured out. And Mike Woodson, their spineless coach with a goatee as dense as the vanilla shortbread at SCRATCHbread, follows each loss with the empty rhetoric that they’re trying to find the right combination to get the job done, the kind of thing a team works on in training camp, which let’s face it, was really the last time the Knicks had a shot at making the playoffs, when no team in the NBA had played a game that actually mattered. It was then that the team’s owner, James Dolan, proved how out of touch he was by claiming the team had all the pieces in place to win the NBA title.
There is no hope for the future for the New York Knicks. None. At the All-Star break, Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks’ only player who genuinely seems to care even when he continues proving he’s incapable of playing team basketball, said he’d take less money in free agency next season if it meant New York could sign someone else of quality to play alongside him. It’s a tantalizing prospect, and it makes for great copy in this hype-mad metropolis. But it’s meaningless. The Knicks have won just once since then, and in their losses have played with so little life it’s a wonder the trainers haven’t held mirrors under the players’ noses during timeouts just to make sure they’re still actually breathing.
The Knicks aren’t one good player away from being great. They’re several. Former Knick coach Jeff Van Gundy said this week that the Knicks should dump everyone but Anthony, Tyson Chandler, Tim Hardaway, Jr., and Jeremy Tyler. It’s a nice idea, though they’re stuck with some of these other chumps thanks to awful contracts. Who is going to take Amar’e Stoudemire off their hands? How about Andrea Bargnani? Or J.R. Smith, or Raymond Felton?
When Carmelo Anthony approaches free agency at the end of this season, he will begin with two choices: Return to the Knicks, this dysfunctional nightmare, for $129 million, or sign with another team for $33 million less. If he cares only about money, he’ll be back with the Knicks. If he wants to win, he’ll go elsewhere. New York City is mad for basketball, and being in the middle of the team’s first NBA title in decades must be a tempting notion. But the reality is, it’s not going to happen whether Anthony returns or not. The Knicks are finished. They’re poison.
I’m never comfortable agreeing with Stephen A. Smith, one of ESPN’s notorious loudmouth blowhards. But when Smith called the Knicks “a flat-out embarrassment” and “an atrocity,” well, he’s right.
I’ve been a fan of the New York Knicks for something in the neighborhood of four decades. I’ve seen them play at Madison Square Garden more times than I could ever calculate. I’ve shown my allegiance at games in Los Angeles, Golden State, Atlanta, Charlotte and elsewhere. I’ve bought t-shirts and jerseys, caps and books, videotapes (!!!) of former glories. I’ve metaphorically bled orange and blue. And I’m done.
“New York Knicks fans, you do not deserve this, and they most certainly do not deserve you.”
O’Connor was right. I’ve been wrestling with this for a while, but especially this season, and especially during this pathetic run of losses. The Knicks have been awful before and I stuck by them. From ownership on down to the players, the whole rotten organization has been infuriatingly terrible so often during my long history of fandom that it can sometimes blur together. But sitting there, watching the Bulls so thoroughly dismantle the team on Sunday, I found myself getting angry. I found myself wanting Woodson to fucking act like he’s in charge, like he’s as ashamed as he should be. I wanted him to leave the starters in during garbage time. It was their fucking fault the team was down 20 at home. Well, theirs and Smith’s. And Woodson’s. And Dolan’s. The whole sorry fucking lot of them, they should all hit center court and soak up the boos. They should cut out the bullshit about lacking heart and just apologize. Of course they won’t, and it wouldn’t matter even if they did. I’m done.
In the unlikely event they’re halfway decent one day, I’ll cheer for them in the same way I cheer for any New York team. I like the excitement that crackles through the city when a team is doing well. I don’t care if it’s blind regionalism. I’ll pull for a New York team in sports I don’t even give a shit about. I’m a fan of this city, and that’s never going to change.
As for the Knicks, I’ll always love the old guys, the footage of Willis Reed taking the court in Game 7 back in 1970, of Walt Frazier’s sideburns. Even though it never ended how I wanted it to end, I’ll remember fondly how much that mid-’90s team meant to me, how I loved Ewing and Oakley and Mason and Starks, how that loss to the Rockets left me in a deep funk on my dazed walk home from the Three Dollar Cafe, where I’d watched every single playoff game that season, drinking the same beer and wearing the same stinky Patrick Ewing jersey. I’ll still thrill to Marcus Camby’s block on Dikembe Mutumbo which led to a glorious fast break in the 1999 playoffs. Those were the New York Knicks. Those were my New York Knicks.
For many fans, you’re not a “real fan” unless you’re with the team for life. I appreciate the sentiment, and there was probably a time I might have felt that way myself. I’m still a New York Yankees fan, and I have been for maybe even longer than I was a Knicks fan. And though I’ve been on board for only around eight years, I’m still with Aston Villa, too, even though they kind of stink. But I think I’ve earned the right to give up on the Knicks. After all, they’ve given up on themselves.
So long, Knicks. Goodbye, good riddance, good luck.