Open Letter: My Knicks Have Sucked For Four Decades

June 27, 2014

knicks_suck

We (NY Knicks) Suck (logo off t-shirt), May 26, 2014. (http://nyill.wordpress.com).

I wish that I could be much more positive than this. But to think that the New York Knicks, once one of the NBA’s great franchises, haven’t won a title in forty-one years! They used to be a great franchise because of their two NBA championships (1969-70, 1972-73), or at least, because they regularly competed with the LA Lakers, the Boston Celtics, and the Milwaukee Bucks for a title. The only reason people who follow NBA basketball still see my Knicks as a great franchise is because they’re in New York, or more specifically, Manhattan (since the Nets are in Brooklyn now). But the simple fact is, my Knicks have sucked for forty-one of the forty-four years and six months I’ve been alive.

You can talk about Micheal Ray Richardson, Bernard King, Marc Jackson, and the great Patrick Ewing. You can bring up our ’94 run to the NBA Finals against the Houston Rockets, or our miracle run to the finals in ’99 against the San Antonio Spurs. You can even consider the coaching chops of Hubie Brown (overrated), Rick Pitino (overrated), Pat Riley, Don Nelson, Jeff Van Gundy (unbelievably overrated) and so many has-beens and never-weres over the past four decades. Diehard fan as I’ve been and am, my Knicks, my childhood franchise, has sucked more than the oldest running oil well in Texas. Period.

Even the New York Rangers have won a Stanley Cup since the last time the Knicks have won a title. Matter of fact, the Philadelphia ’76ers, Houston Rockets, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, San Antonio Spurs, Washington Bullets (now Wizards), Seattle Supersonics (now Oklahoma City Thunder), Portland Trailblazers, Dallas Mavericks, and Miami Heat have all won at least one title since the Knicks with Red Holzman as coach and Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, et al. as players won their second. The Watergate scandal was still in its infancy, and the last American troops had withdrawn from Vietnam just months before we’d beaten the Lakers (again) in the ’73 NBA Finals.

Indiana Pacers great (and NBA Hall of Famer) Reggie Miller giving Knicks, Spike Lee the choke sign, Game 5, Eastern Conference Finals, Madison Square Garden, New York, screenshot, June 1, 1994. (NBC Sports).

Indiana Pacers great (and NBA Hall of Famer) Reggie Miller giving Knicks, Spike Lee the choke sign, Game 5, Eastern Conference Finals, Madison Square Garden, New York, screenshot, June 1, 1994. (NBC Sports).

Our best teams were essentially a bunch of bruisers, a team of low-percentage shooters ringed around Patrick Ewing in the ’90s. The Knicks were so anemic offensively that we had to foul and beat up the other team in order to hold them under ninety points if we were going to win consistently. Still, after have a 3-2 lead in the ’94 Finals, we choked at the end of Game Six in Houston, and barely had a chance in Game Seven (thank you, John Starks!). The following year, we made the Indiana Pacers’ Reggie Miller an even bigger star in Game One of the second round (eight points in 8.9 seconds – ridiculous)! Two years later, we brawled our way out of the playoffs in the middle of the first round against the Heat. A good team for its time — yes. A championship-caliber team — absolutely not. We overachieved, riding the rickety knees of Ewing and Starks’ streak shooting.

From the moment Ewing fully ruptured his right Achilles tendon in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Finals in June ’99, we have been in full-on suck mode. A few playoff appearances, a win or two in fifteen years? When we’ve drafted talented players, we didn’t keep them or they end up cutting their careers short with big-time injuries. When we’ve gotten great talent as free agents, our coaches and front office have driven them away, as was most recently the case with Carmelo Anthony. Most of the past forty-one years, though, we’ve drafted like a gambling addict on a binge in Las Vegas. And we’ve picked up free agents the way an ignorant and inebriated gold prospector hunts for fool’s gold.

"Drainage! I drink your milkshake...I drank it up..." scene/ screenshot from There Will Be Blood (2007), with Daniel Day Lewis and Pano Dano. (http://klipd.com/)

“Drainage! I drink your milkshake…I drank it up…” scene/ screenshot from There Will Be Blood (2007), with Daniel Day-Lewis and Pano Dano. (http://klipd.com/)

Reggie Miller was absolutely right in June ’94 when he gave my Knicks and Spike Lee the choke sign. But he should’ve directed the choke sign at ownership, at the front office, and at a presumptive, arrogant fan base. Whether Gulf+Western or James Dolan, or Dave Checketts, Ernie Grunfeld, Isiah Thomas or Donnie Walsh, all have assumed and still assume that because we’re the New York Knickerbockers, that players would want to play for the franchise. We’re New York, we’re a great city, and so the Knicks should always be great. So wrong, so wrong we’ve been!

I will now and always be a Knicks fan. But that doesn’t mean that I have to watch bad basketball year after year after year. And bad drafts, and free agent pickups like J.R. Smith. For the foreseeable future, I’ll watch basketball played by teams who know how to score, pass and/or defend. Teams with front offices smart enough to draft at least two quality players and surround them with a solid supporting cast. Wake me up the day the Knicks can manage to do what the best franchises in the NBA consistently do.


Bernard King and The Knicks of ’84

May 26, 2014

Bernard King, one of the all-time greats, 1984 NBA Playoffs. (http://www.totalprosports.com/).

Bernard King, one of the all-time greats, 1984 NBA Playoffs. (http://www.totalprosports.com/).

I usually keep it kind of heavy on Memorial Day. Between what Memorial Day is really about — America’s fallen soldiers, sailors, marines and pilots — and the abuse and domestic violence I’ve seen and experienced on Memorial Day ’82, I consider any Memorial Day that’s incident-free a good one.

Earl "The Pearl" Monroe driving for a layup, May 26, 2014. (http://i.cdn.turner.com/).

Earl “The Pearl” Monroe driving for a lay up, May 26, 2014. (http://i.cdn.turner.com/).

But in light of the running theme of this year — that being a look back at the world in which I lived in’84 — I wouldn’t be providing a complete account if I didn’t talk about my Knicks at least once. To think that it’s been forty-one years since they last won a title is just, well, atrociously pathetic. It’s like being a New York Rangers fan in ’94 — oh yeah, that was me, too! I actually do have a few memories of the Knicks of Walt “Clyde” Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, Willis Reed, Bill Bradley and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe (my Mom and Uncle Sam gave me “Earl” as a middle name because of him back in ’69), but they’re very vague memories, almost snapshots. I was three and change, after all, hardly old enough to appreciate great defense, the midrange J, the turnaround J, or setting up defenders off the dribble to beat them to the hoop like these guys did.

I came into my own with basketball in ’83, just after the Knicks and Micheal Ray Richardson parted ways (that’s an understatement!). At that point, my Knicks had only sucked for the better part of a decade, but now with Bernard King as their superstar, and the coke-snorting Richardson gone, things were going to allegedly get better for the team. At least, according to the New York Post and New York Daily News. With disciplinarian Hubie Brown as head coach, we’d have a serious chance to compete with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and the rest of the hated Boston Celtics.

I loved watching King play. He could nail a J from anywhere. Off the dribble, double-teamed, facing the basket, off a screen, top of the key, with his back to the basket. He could also drive to the hole with ease. King could score at will, and back in ’84, probably in his sleep, too. He wasn’t by any stretch a great defender, the big knock on King throughout most of his career. Between Reggie Jackson and Dwight Gooden, though, there was King for me.

New York Knicks favorite and Mont Vernon great Ray Williams, circa 1983 (died March 23, 2013). (Dick Raphael/NBAE/Getty Images via http://espn.go.com/).

New York Knicks favorite and Mont Vernon great Ray Williams, circa 1983 (died March 23, 2013). (Dick Raphael/NBAE/Getty Images via http://espn.go.com/).

Not only did we have the Brooklyn native as the Knicks centerpiece for ending the Celtics’ dominance of the East. We had Louis Orr. We had Rory Sparrow. We had Bill Cartwright. We had Trent Tucker. We had Mount Vernon, New York’s own Ray Williams (may he RIP). We had just drafted Darrell Walker, known to defend with ferociousness. We even had Ernie Grunfeld — once the all-time leading scorer in the University of Tennessee’s Men’s Basketball history — coming off the bench. Yeah, it was going to be playoffs and contending for championships for the foreseeable future.

Really, who was I kidding? What was the New York sports media snorting and injecting? Outside of Williams, Cartwright and Walker, no one on the team defended consistently enough to stop Mike Gminski on the Nets, much less Bird, Parish or McHale. But boy did they entertain! King scoring 50 or more in games on WOR-Channel 9 (before MSG got their own channel and broadcast all of the games themselves) was such a treat! I actually enjoyed it when Walker and Danny Ainge got into a fight during the second round of the NBA playoffs in ’84. Those were pretty good teams with King as a scoring machine. Pretty good, but hardly good enough.

I actually cried after the Celtics slaughtered my Knicks at the Boston Garden in Game Seven of that May ’84 Conference Semifinal series, 121-104. I cried even more, though, after King tore up his right knee’s ACL in a game against the then Kansas City Kings in March ’85, in the middle of an already miserable season. It lead to the Knicks in the first-ever NBA Draft Lottery, them getting the #1 pick, and Patrick Ewing in the process. But King and Ewing would never play a game together, both with injuries throughout the 1985-86 and 1986-87 seasons. It would be nearly another decade before my Knicks were strong enough to be part of any serious championship conversation.

Failure is a part of life, but so is hope. And back in May ’84, all I could do as a naive fourteen-year-old growing up in basketball’s mecca was hope. As I hope that someone will end the insanity that has been James Dolan and the Knicks on 33rd and Madison soon.


Virtual Linsanity

February 25, 2012

Jeremy Lin (Knicks) beating Matt Barnes (Lakers) in the paint for a layup, Madison Square Garden, February 10, 2012. (AP).

As a New York Knicks fan since my mother’s third trimester with me (the fall of ’69, the season the Knicks won their first of two NBA titles) here hasn’t been much to be excited about since Patrick Ewing popped his Achilles’ tendon in between Games 2 and 3 of the ’99 Eastern Conference Finals.

Enter Jeremy Lin, the sensation that’s sweeping the NBA Nation. When he scored 28 points in his first game as a starter nearly three weeks ago, my only thoughts were, “Finally, we have a real point guard who can get the ball to Stoudamire and Carmelo.” Beyond that, I thought of one of my high school students from the JSA-Princeton University Summer Program in which I taught in ’09, because they have the same first and last name. My former student, though, is still in college, and not at Harvard, either.

Patrick Ewing raising the roof after a dunk in Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers, June 5, 1994. (AP).

Leave it to ESPN, the New York media and the motley crew of naysayers, though, to raise Lin to celebrity status faster than the USS Enterprise-D could reach maximum warp. The fact that Lin plays for the Knicks, a franchise in a decade-long search for respectability, and decades-long search for its lost glory, is reason enough for me to see their perspectives on the point guard as more than slightly skewed. I mean, New York’s the reason why sports fan still think the sun shines out of every Yankees’ behind, even Don Mattingly’s.

Not that Lin’s good and often very good play didn’t warrant attention. But if you could dig deeper into all the attention, it was as if the sports and entertainment worlds were shocked — actually shocked — that Lin could start and play with all the precision and poise of an above-average NBA player. What would bring this kind of outpouring of skepticism wrapped in somewhat exaggerated hype? The fact that Lin went to Harvard? The fact that he’s just under six-foot-three? What, pray tell, has been the key to this burst of attention?

Could it be, could it possibly be, about race? Really? After two decades of international competitions between Chinese and American basketball players? Really. By the time some of the shock jocks and uncouth commentators began to spread their versions of Lin-adjectives, Lin-verbs and Lin-phrases, it was obvious that the shock went something like this: “Oh my God! An Asian guy from Harvard can play professional basketball? Bring on the MSG!”

It all crystallized in one stupid, and yes, racist tweet on the part of a “journalist” I used to respect, Jason Whitlock. “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple of inches of pain tonight,” Whitlock tweeted while Lin scored 38 points against the Lakers on February 10. At the very least, this is a sign of some deep-seated insecurity being pushed upon Lin as a proxy for two stereotypes rolled into one. At worst, Whitlock was merely expressing what many White and Black folks feel about some Asian American guy excelling in an allegedly “Black” sport. Either way, it’s almost as disgusting as ESPN’s “Chink In The Armor” headlines from

Jay Kay in Jamiroquai's "Virtual Insanity" (1997) music video screen shot, January 6, 2006. (via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of picture's low resolution and relevance to blog post.

the Knicks’ February 17 loss to the New Orleans Hornets.

I don’t understand the exaggerated hype and the subsequent race-baiting, playa hatin’ comments in mass and social media around Lin since the middle of Black History Month. I played tons of pickup games at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon when I was in graduate school, and a good portion of the folks I played with were Asian or Asian American. Like the Whites, Blacks and Latinos I played with, some of them could really play basketball, and some couldn’t dribble three steps without bouncing the ball off their foot. Some could shoot from seventeen feet blindfolded, and others had the accuracy of a Scud missile.

Lin, as good as he is now, can and should get better. How good is anyone’s guess, but we shouldn’t be comparing him to Steve Nash or Magic Johnson quite yet. Nor should we write him off when he faces a team like the Miami Heat and turns the ball over five times in a three-minute span. We shouldn’t celebrate a media that apparently has bipolar disorder when it comes to anyone whose body of work cuts against stereotypes.

Lin’s success shouldn’t threaten anyone’s Blackness, sense of manhood or intelligence or the world view of American sports journalists. At least no more than my having a PhD or being a writer on race, education reform and diversity should threaten higher education or anyone’s Whiteness. But, then again…


A Casually Uncasual Fan

June 12, 2010

Fans in the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Munich, Germany. Source: René Stark http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/

Something’s happened to me that I can’t explain. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe it’s the beginning of my youthful decline. Or maybe it’s the fact that none of my teams did very well in the regular season or playoffs this year so far. Whatever it is, I find myself not caring much about American sports these days.

I haven’t watched a single minute of the NBA Finals this year, and don’t plan to either. I care only slightly more that the Celtics win only because I can stand Kobe Bryant and the Lakers even less. I didn’t watch a single minute of the Stanley Cup Finals, didn’t watch the French Open, haven’t watched baseball in years, and have tired of the 2010 NFL season three months before it starts. What’s wrong with me?

The thrill is gone, as BB King would say. I used to live and die by my teams, especially the Knicks. With them playing three Game 7s in the ’94 NBA Playoffs, my emotions were on a roller-coaster ride with every game. There were games back then that left me hoarse from screaming at officials, with my jaw clenched after a loss, in orgasmic euphoria after a win.

The last time I felt that way about anything in any sport was when my Steelers won the Super Bowl last year (2008-09 season, that is). Even then, I felt so bad for Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald and the Arizona Cardinals. They gave their all to win that game. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have felt anything for any opponent like that twenty years ago.

I think that it’s not so much that I’m getting older or have become more mature. It’s that I no longer need the spectacle of sports to jump-start my imagination or get me off the couch to exercise. I prefer the sound of my long-distance two swishing through a net over the sound of it on TV. I prefer the dread and challenge of a three-to-four-mile-run over sitting on the couch and figuring out what defensive scheme is being run before most quarterbacks do. I have become, sadly, a casual fan of spectator sports.

So, where do I go from here? It’s not as if the NFL’s going to become dynasty driven again, or that there are a bunch of teams in the NBA with enough talent to challenge the — yawn — same old teams that compete for rings almost every year. The baseball ship sailed for me years ago, and I’d probably have to go see a Capitals game in person before I’d enjoy watching hockey again. Maybe it’ll be the World Cup, or the US Open (golf), or watching Noah knock down an eight-footer. I’ll bet on that last one waking me from my slumber.


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