I’ll be the first to admit: I’m a New Yorker before I’m a sports fan. So the extent of my interest is typically predicated by which of our flagship squads plow into the postseason in any given year. This means I’ve spent autumns with the Yankees and winters with the Giants, but up until now I’ve only casually followed the Knicks.
This season has been different, for reasons I hadn’t quite anticipated. Though I’ve watched from the metaphorical nosebleeds -- a second half here, a phone update there -- I’ve been engrossed by the season’s narrative and how it’s resonating in a city like New York at a time as transitional and unpredictable as the present.
The Knicks have performed poorly, sure, but they still garner headlines and fill seats because they tend to fail in a truly engrossing way only the Knicks can: A-plus tweeter @desusnice refers to it, almost affectionately, as “Knicking.”
Defensive blunders, fourth-quarter meltdowns and the coaching equivalent of a crazed partner have added up to not only a difficult season, but also -- in a cathartic, primal-scream kind of way -- must-see TV. The Knicks are ABC’s “Scandal” for basketball fans: a dizzying, at times cringe-worthy guilty pleasure, best experienced with close friends and strong drinks.
The story arc bends wider every week -- Will Mike Woodson go? Will Melo stay? A Heat win? A gun charge? An MSG protest? Phil Jackson?! -- and every game feels like life or death. New Yorkers aren’t known for their sympathy, so it’s easy to imagine a city of the disgruntled throwing up their hands and remotes in exhaustion. But we don’t.
Folks tune in every night and talk, text and tweet through the pain. It’s not only because we know anything is possible and the numbers haven’t doomed them just yet -- as evinced by their current six-game tear -- but also because on some level, this year’s Knicks narrative fits New York’s current moment more accurately than any dramatized TV series ever could.
The Knicks' season has become symbolic of a city that has never been more relevant on the world’s stage and never been more conflicted within its own walls. Its creative output is bleak, compared to the artpop '60s, grainy '70s and experimental '90s. Its economy is one of the county’s most rigidly slanted, with staggering wealth gaps and neighborhood borders in constant flux. Mayor Bill de Blasio feels like the kind of guy who waits until he’s in front of the turnstile to fish out his MetroCard and gets the “PLEASE SWIPE AGAIN” display three times.
We are touted year after year as a city of innovation and creation, rebellion and dissent, revelatory mornings and chaotic, white-knuckle nights, where upstarts and outcasts from all over the world make their pilgrimage to incept their wildest dreams with wilder ones. But we’ve also overbranded and underdeveloped, selling a dream of boundless possibility but offering clear ceilings and shrinking walls to the same rooted communities that give New York its identity. Unlike the Frankensteinian Nets, a freak experiment that’s just feeling its way into the cultural fabric of the city, the Knicks feel more outerborough than ever, embodying the neighborhoods and blocks that also don’t win that often.
Despite their high profile, frequent broadcasts and tremendous net worth, the Knicks remain a fringe team compared to marquee clubs like the Heat, Bulls and Lakers, who have all been to at least the conference finals in one of the past four postseasons. And the franchise is one of the few remaining institutions of New York culture that hasn’t been wiped clean of the city’s residue. It’s no coincidence Spike Lee -- long a cultural loudspeaker for New York and an Madison Square Garden courtside staple -- was moved to vocally denounce the confusing, lopsided vision of “progress” that has descended on Brooklyn and beyond.
Lee’s courtside antics are a part of the show, of course, and the red-lined neighborhoods he highlights in his films and his rants have gone from isolated pockets of New York history to menu items for an increasingly predatory culture of expansion and development. As the “underdog” narrative has gained relevance in real-estate wars across the city, the Knicks can be seen as fighting to defend their legacy as fervently as these neighborhoods defend their facades -- well aware that history suggests their efforts may be in vain.
And then there’s Carmelo Anthony: an undeniable star player who has carried his team and produced record-breaking numbers this season, still left to shoulder the hefty weight of the Knicks’ futility. He plays the ever-tortured protagonist in this comedy of errors, and speaks to the frustration and despair that settles in when you realize, loss after loss, that even being the best in this city still isn’t good enough, as countless natives and transplants alike have learned the hard way. If anything, New York holds such prominence in our nation’s consciousness because it’s the one place you can truly discover your rank in the world, against your smartest, fastest, most capable peers.
When asked how he’d feel to bring a championship to the city, newly named president of basketball operations Phil Jackson said, winking: “You’ve jumped a long ways away. But we hope it’s going to happen” -- all but leaving out “tune in next week, same Knicks channel, same Knicks time.”
It’s the latest plot twist this season, cliffhanging on a vague promise of a “Zen front office” and a “competitive team.”
It isn’t easy to be a Knicks fan, and it isn’t easy to be a New Yorker. But it’s how you handle your big losses that define your stay here, whether for a season, or a lifetime.
“If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere,” Jackson evoked during his introductory news conference. Cliché? Sure. But that’s why it makes for great cable TV.
Matthew Trammell is a writer from Brooklyn. He subtweets and favorites from @trmmll.