Fandom and the New York Knicks
09 Jan 2016
“History has just been made. The New York Knicks are the first 8th seed to ever make the NBA finals.” Tom Hammond, NBC play by play announcer - June 11th, 1999
The players storm the court in jubilation, hugging and screaming. Their star player Patrick Ewing, injured and out for the season, limps around in an ill-fitting gray suit, celebrating to the best of his ability.
The camera cuts to the crowd, the coach’s wife is in tears.
After years of vexation at the hands of their nemeses, Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller; after years of frustration and disappointment, the Knicks finally had another shot at a championship. It was bedlam in New York on June 11th, 1999.
The Knicks did not finish their Cinderella run, losing in the Finals series to the San Antonio Spurs. But the feeling amongst New Yorkers was that it was time for the Knicks. The coach was competent, the players had the desire to win and the fans were behind the team. Jordan was gone, and the team proved that Miller could be beaten. Little did anybody know that this would be the peak of Knick basketball for the next 15 years and counting.
It remains the last great day in Knicks history.
“What we got to see was, without question, the worst quarter in Knick history… if you are the Knicks, how can you possibly show your faces after that game?” Mike Francesa, WFAN sports radio - March 26th, 2015
In professional sports, winning is paramount. It mirrors the most base philosophy of American life: the race to the top, to prosperity, to winning. People will go through years, even decades of mediocrity, to eventually reach what they define as success. If they do, the journey takes on even more significance. In New York, the pressures of this race for sports teams and individuals is amplified multiple times over. The expense of living in this city and the intense competition for jobs and opportunities are all stacked upon the legendary impatience of New Yorkers to get it done and win now.
In the case of the New York Knicks, this journey is entering its 44th year: 44 years of toiling away, trying to make it work. They have not won a championship since 1972, and have not been to the Finals since 1999. From 2001 to 2012, the Knicks did not even win a single playoff game. At this point, why are the fans sticking around and supporting this team, especially in a place like New York?
The real question is who and what are these fans really rooting for? Is it the individual players? Well, not really; the players on a pro team change often. If they are rooting for a constant, is it the ownership and management group? Probably not, as no one attends a sporting event out of a sense of loyalty and fandom towards some mega rich suits in a luxury box. The closest explanation is one that is actually quite simple. The fans are rooting for the uniform and the logo; they are rooting for “the laundry.”
Knicks fans are not in denial. They know that the team has been a disaster for the past 15 years, yet the support, when there is even an inkling of success, is palpable. The Knicks take full advantage of this loyalty in an almost manipulative way. From time to time they will throw the fans a bone with a blockbuster signing or publically discuss how they are dedicated to building a winning team; all while knowing that these fans have pledged allegiance to the laundry and will not be jumping ship to support another team any time soon.
The role of the fan is to be critical. The passionate feedback given in response to the creative product is essential to the fan experience. It is part of what drives them to continue to patronize the performers. Remaining a critical fan during a rough patch will only make the eventual championship that much sweeter. The problem here is that the Knicks never win and are stuck in rut that is going on 45 years.
The Knicks fans’ loyalty comes at a detriment to themselves; if the Knicks were a person, they would be that person your mother warned you to stay away from. If only to avoid extreme disappointment.
“He does what he wants, when he wants. No one can stop him. He seems to get more joy out of his decisions when others despise them” John Schmeelk, Knicks reporter for CBS Sports - May 6th, 2015
The best owners in sports are those who more or less stay out of the way. They know that they are not sports experts, they are just people who invested money into a sports franchise. Knicks and Madison Square Garden owner James Dolan is not a brilliant basketball mind; even saying he has any sort of a basketball mind would be extraordinarily generous. Instead of taking a backseat and hiring people who know about basketball, he, instead, takes a hands-on approach to team management and personnel.
Dolan is the dictator of the Knicks, unchecked and unchallenged. From his rise to power in late 1999 to the current day, the Knicks have fallen from a respected perennial championship contender to arguably the biggest laughing stock in American pro sports. Dolan’s body of work in basketball failure and embarrassment is unmatched.
The mystery of Dolan really boils down to this: does he actually care about winning? It is insane that this should even be a question. The goal of any sports owner should be to win as many games and championships as possible. However, Dolan knows that no matter how mediocre the Knicks are, no matter how lackluster the product is, people will still flock to his building in the heart of midtown Manhattan. The World’s Most Famous Arena™ and The Mecca of Basketball: both ad-speak nicknames created by Dolan.
Dolan’s whole presentation of the Knicks revolves around marketing them as a great New York institution. Dolan seems to care more about the celebrity exposure, social scene and culture of his brand, not good basketball.
The conflict with Dolan stems from the clash of wanting the Knicks to be a signature part of New York’s culture while continuing to roll out a losing team. Dolan loves being a part of Knicks history and maintaining their status as a beloved franchise amongst New Yorkers. He is forced to care immensely about the laundry because he voluntarily maintains it.
What Dolan does not understand is that a franchise like the Knicks is timeless; it will always be part and parcel with New York City. His beloved institution will never suddenly crumble into irrelevance. The fact that people have still shown up to watch the team play between 2003 and now has proved this point.
The fans remain stuck in this dilemma of supporting a team that does not win. Their loyalty and intense fandom trumps any urge to simply stop caring. Dolan has the power to change things and get on a winning track but his obsession with being the guardian of the Knicks as a New York institution, as well as his desire to make as much money as possible has blinded him.
“This fall I’m going to take my talents to South Beach… not only just to win in the regular season or just to win five games in a row, I want to be able to win championships” Lebron James - July 8th, 2010
The first half of 2010 was spent, by most NBA teams, wooing basketball’s signature star, LeBron James. Owners knew that the addition of James to their roster of players would instantly transform even the most lowly of teams into a perennial contender for a championship. Knicks management spared no expense trying to impress and convince James that New York was the place to be, recruiting celebrities such as James Gandolfini, Chris Rock and Spike Lee to star in a video about the wonders of being in New York. They even commissioned a study to show how in New York, James could become a billionaire.
As we know now, James did not sign with the Knicks, rather, he signed with the Miami Heat, where he went on make the finals for four straight years, winning twice. His motivation was simple: win and keep on winning. James was already the biggest star in basketball; for him now was the time to start winning championships. His brand and off-the-court ventures would naturally establish themselves and the money would come. He saw first hand, like everyone else, that the Knicks do not care about winning, and justifiably, stayed far away.
Dolan was bitter after losing the James sweepstakes. He saw the attention and money that Miami was attracting with their new star and desperately wanted a piece of the action. He wanted a superstar of his own.
Dolan set his sights on Carmelo Anthony, a star in his own right who had been playing in Denver since his debut in 2003. It was an open secret that Anthony desperately wanted to have the star and brand power of James, to be an athlete that transcended sports. If the Knicks did the LeBron presentation for Anthony, he would have signed up almost immediately. Dolan told his general manager to move heaven and earth to get Anthony in a Knick uniform, and a deal was announced in February.
Unlike James, Anthony was not purely motivated by an intense urge to win. It was to become something greater: a business, a brand, a star. Going to the Knicks ensured Anthony the role of being the face of New York sports. He wanted the sneaker deals, the endorsements, the commercials, the celebrity treatment. And if he did win a championship in New York he would become a legendary figure, amplifying his celebrity and wealth immeasurably.
Anthony first and foremost is a basketball player. He needs to perform on the court. In this sense he excels, he puts up the points, plays a ton of minutes, and rarely gets into trouble. However, unlike LeBron James, Anthony could not just play and watch the money roll in; he is not the talent or personality that James is. James was hailed as a once in a generation talent, a basketball prodigy, “the chosen one.” He was drafted by his hometown team, and almost overnight became the biggest sports star in America. Anthony wanted a piece of this for himself.
He needed to position himself in a high profile location to become a star.
People who come to New York City come with a sense of purpose. They believe that coming to the big city, the big stage, will enable them to achieve their goals. Not just in a monetary sense but also in a more metaphysical way; they want to have a sense of purpose, to put themselves in a position to succeed. Anthony did exactly this in coming to the Knicks. Does it really matter
whether or not his strongest motivation is winning basketball games? Anthony came to New York to become a celebrity and a star, and while nowhere near the celebrity of James, has succeeded in becoming more than just a basketball player.
The 2014-15 Knicks season was an unmitigated disaster, and the worst in the team’s history. Shortly after its conclusion, they re-signed Carmelo Anthony to a monster contract, almost guaranteeing he will retire a Knick, and turned over essentially the entire roster. Dolan, by firing everyone and hiring Phil Jackson, the best basketball mind of the past 30 years, to run his team, may be starting to get serious about winning.
In June of 2015 the Knicks drafted Kristaps Porzingis, a young Latvian player whom by many was called “a project,” accepting that he would not be effective for at least a few seasons. The fans booed his selection heavily at the nationally televised draft in Brooklyn, NY. A little kid in the stands was seen sobbing at the pick.
Cut to December and Porzingis is now being hailed in New York as the second coming. He is quickly becoming a star as well as the Knicks best player at only 20 years old. This may very well be the beginnings of the elusive championship run fans have been waiting for.
The nature of being a fan requires loyalty, not to Dolan, not to Anthony, but to “the laundry.” If Porzingis turns into a superstar player that finally leads the Knicks to a championship he will become an almost god like figure in New York. He will in effect become part of “the laundry”; a lasting symbol of the team that will finally stand for something other than just the laundry itself.
Help us Kristaps, you’re our only hope.