It was the 1998-99 season, and this young teenage basketball fan – residing thousands of miles away from the superstar NBA players that he admired – searched desperately for a team to identify with, a team to be addicted to, a team to call his home, even if he may never be able to relate to that home city.
Michael Jordan – the ubiquitous favourite of basketball fans around the world – had made the Bulls a team bigger than Chicago itself; he’d made them a global team. Now, Jordan’s retirement had left behind a void. The first signs of recovery PJ (Post Jordan) weren’t good. The NBA went into a lockout for six and a half months. When the league finally did return to action in early 1999, there was only time for each team to play no more than 50 games in the regular season.
Nevertheless, this young fan soaked it all in, every single moment, every emotion, and every highlight reel he could. By the time the playoffs began, all eyes were on the league-best San Antonio Spurs, led by the twin towers of David Robinson and Tim Duncan. But an underdog team in the East – a team that had enjoyed a lot of postseason success without the championships earlier in the decade – began to make an unlikely run. Jordan’s retirement had shifted the balance of power away from the East, and in a suddenly weakened conference, the New York Knicks turned regular season mediocrity into playoff dominance. The Knicks became just the second eighth seed in history to upset the top seed (Miami). Behind the talents of Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell, Marcus Camby, and Larry Johnson, this team boldly blazed its way to the NBA Finals, becoming the first (and only team since) eighth seed to make a Finals appearance. This young fan was enamoured. He wanted to shoot corner turn-around fadeaways like Houston, play with the passion of Sprewell, and grab rebounds like Camby. Even when the team ended up losing to the Spurs 4-1 in the Finals, his fan identity was secured.
He chose the New York Knicks.
Unfortunately, things went downhill after that.
The Knicks lost in the Eastern Conference Finals the next year. A year later, they were ousted in the first round. For the next decade, they only made one more visit to the playoffs, another first round loss. For a long decade, the Knicks were a team with passionate followers but no rewards. Between Howard Eisley, Stephon Marbury, Keith Van Horn, Tim Thomas, Jerome James, Jalen Rose, Steve Francis, Penny Hardaway, Zach Randolph, Larry Hughes, Darko Milicic, Eddy Curry and many more, the Knicks couldn’t find the winning combination, on or off the court.
But this young fan – who is not-so-young anymore – remained faithful. From investing on Marbury jerseys to voting for David Lee to the All-Star Game, he wistfully hoped for better days ahead.
Luckily, those days are finally here: it took a major overhaul for the Knicks to clear cap space for Amar’e Stoudemire, and another major haul to bring in Carmelo Anthony to Madison Square Garden. The addition of Tyson Chandler followed, Linsanity came and went, and although the Knicks were back in the playoffs and becoming an exciting team again, they weren’t good enough to crack the first round.
New York, a team that hasn’t made it past the first round since 2000, finally has the best chance to break its 13-year-curse. Under Mike Woodson this season, they won the Atlantic Division for the first time since 1994 and finished with their best record (54-28) in 17 years. They earned second place in the East and finally boasted a superstar in Carmelo Anthony of a calibre that the team’s faithful fans have deserved. Anthony was an MVP candidate this season and one of the top three players in the league, leading the NBA in scoring for the first time in his career. Surrounded by a core of Chandler, JR Smith, Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, Iman Shumpert, and more, the Knicks have been the NBA’s best three-point shooting team and have improved vastly on the defensive end too. In their balance of star-power and depth, they may be the closest competitors that the Eastern Conference has of unseating Miami from their throne.
But first, they must get past the first round, where they meet their old foes, the Boston Celtics. For the Knicks, the first round will be their Finals, a surge to get the 13-year monkey off their back. Without much previous playoff success for a talented and accomplished player like Anthony, the pressure falls on him to deliver. In the regular season, he did. But the playoffs are a whole different beast.
I am that long-suffering fan, and I can now dream again. Dream of my team winning a playoff series and playing meaningful basketball in May. Dream of big shots, big blocks, and big wins. Dream of another deep playoff run.
And even if the Knicks don’t win it all, this generation of stars in orange and blue are sure to leave an imprint on their fans, and perhaps, spawn another young fan somewhere in the world looking for an identity, for a team to call his or her own.