By Jason Keidel
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Even in sports — well, especially in sports — the volcanic fervor with which we root for our teams can only be matched by the equally electric vitriol we feel for another team. For a Yankees fan, watching the Red Sox lose can be as euphoric as watching the Bronx Bombers win.
So keeping in line with the secret, sinful glee of watching the enemy toil in purgatory, we have the New York Knickerbockers, perennial losers, losing yet again. They are 35-45 with an absurdly high payroll, a coach about to get canned and a conflicted star player who must decide if he should leave for greener hardwood pastures or stay for the greener contract.
My secret, sinful, springtime joy is eulogizing New York’s native basketball team, which plays in and desecrates The World’s Most Famous Arena. Allegedly. Expectations are so subterranean that last year was considered a resounding success, winning one playoff series for the first time in over a decade.
They say you don’t want too much MSG in your food. You certainly don’t want it in your sports teams. Despite the cosmetic refinements, Madison Square Garden is a graveyard for New York City sports and a turnstile for more competent clubs on their way to actual achievement.
And, of course, the answer for the Knicks and their fans is to make Carmelo Anthony their primary priority. Yes, re-sign the man who presided over this disastrous season, who toiled through every game and every minute of this plunge down the standings of a dilapidated Eastern Conference, perhaps the weakest cluster of clubs in league history.
Forget, for a moment, our public and vitriolic disagreements on Anthony. Truly transcendent players don’t lead their teams to 35 wins, no matter the roster. Magic Johnson didn’t. Larry Bird couldn’t. Michael Jordan wouldn’t. LeBron James led the 20-win Cavaliers to 60 wins multiple times and, when he left, they resumed their 20-win ineptitude.
After a while a player is what he is. And Anthony — a sublime but stubborn talent who has yet to blossom in any area beyond scoring — is essentially a me-first gunner whose game translates into the team-wide mediocrity we’ve seen throughout his career, which has seen only one trip to a conference finals.
And it’s hard to imagine Phil Jackson — the new Knicks Czar/Messiah whose task is to tap into the energy of the halcyon years, retrieve and replicate a time and town that is 40 years removed — making Melo his top offseason directive. (Well, after they sign Lamar Odom to a monster, minimum-wage deal.)
Anthony is the inverted version of the Jackson player. Anthony is not about ball movement, unless it ends with said ball in his hands. He averages a putrid three assists per game. The Anthony Apologists, and there’s still an alarming number of them, hate bromides like “making teammates better.” And while such a quality can’t be measured like points or rebounds, it’s obvious that certain, select players have that innate gift and others don’t. Melo is clearly the latter.
There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, and Anthony can indeed win an NBA title, like anyone else. But he cannot do so as the main nerve of the movement. He’s been typically coy about his future, musing romantically about the flirtations that come with free agency.
But he wants to stay, if for no other reason than the extra $33 million the Knicks can pay him. All stars are expensive. But what kind of return does Melo bring? They’ve had a few years together and they remain a forlorn franchise with just one playoff series under their bejeweled belts.
So Jackson must make a choice that will shake the corporate ladder for years. Commit a max contract to Anthony and wipe off a third of the payroll in one stroke, or let him walk and detonate the whole thing, make next year a mulligan and clear copious cap space for 2015.
Even if they re-sign Anthony, they are looking at a lost season. Jackson, the high priest of the hardwood, will find quite a chasm between coaching a team and building one. He will find it’s a lot harder to reach June intact when you’re not starting with Jordan and Scottie Pippen or Shaq and Kobe Bryant.
And what if James would migrate north in 2015 if Jackson were the one conducting business on the bench? Jackson’s had nearly every joint on his endless limbs replaced. Does he have the body and soul for one more run?
No matter what happens, the Knicks are a fascinating experiment. They sell their seats as must-see theater, knowing they won’t get a whiff of a title. Their courtside seats, lined with movie monoliths like Woody Allen, Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks and Spike Lee are quintessentially style over substance, like their beloved Knickerbockers.
A night at MSG is an illusion, the glittering promise of glory with way too much gory. The Knicks are way more Lindsay Lohan, a mass of conflicting impulses that always land them in the bowels of Page Six.
Yet Knicks fans will watch. Just as Jets and Mets fans toil through interminable seasons, watching the months and years flip by on the calendar, while their hair gets gray, their guts bulge and their wallets get sucked dry. All that time and money lost on a lost cause. If you are around 40 and aren’t a Yankees or Giants fan, you’ve had an agonizing life in the bleachers.
Where else but sports is masochism so celebrated? Where else but New York City is defeat so expensive? There are no price cuts based on production. Even the Yankees, the most successful franchise in the history of sports, are seeing swaths of empty seats beyond the velvet rope of corporate greed. Turns out we won’t pay $2,500 for ringside seats in April against the Royals.
We can’t be sure if our teams will ever change, but we are sure we can’t change the teams we root for. When we made that vital, prepubescent choice to worship sports, we made a tortuous deal of some gain, lots of pain and loads of uncertainty. Especially those poor souls who took the largely orange and blue path of Knicks/Mets/Islanders, with a splash of Gang Green.
But we are sure of one thing: The Knicks are eulogized every April, a yearly ritual as natural as the Asters popping pink in Central Park. Everyone has spring fever — even the Knicks, who can’t wait to leave their job, either, for the fresh air of a New York City spring, far from the pungent dust of another lost season in MSG, the Mecca of basketball. Allegedly.
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