By Jason Keidel
There’s a certain irony to having the NBA All-Star game in New York City. For more years than we New Yorkers care to admit, both NYC and MSG have been basketball mausoleums, places where hoop dreams go to die.
Despite all the fluff and pomp and propaganda, assertions that Madison Square Garden is the World’s Most Famous Arena, the meat-hook reality is that the Knicks haven’t won a title in over 40 years and haven’t challenged for one since Bill Clinton was president.
The Nets became slightly more relevant by moving to Brooklyn, but they toiled in the Meadowlands swamp for decades, and couldn’t even draw when Jason Kidd was running the fast break with Matrix precision, leading them to two NBA Finals.
Then there’s the irony that the Nets play in the exact spot where Walter O’Malley wanted to move the Brooklyn Dodgers, but was rebuffed by Robert Moses, who cared far more about causeways than causes. The Nets have always been an NYC stepchild, even when they’ve been way better than the Knicks.
And there’s the most delicious duality of having such terrible teams showcase their homes on Valentine’s Day. While Cupid pulls back his amorous bow, Gotham trots out two teams with no NBA rings since 1973. Pretty hard to get in the mood when our two clubs are a combined 42 games under .500.
There’s also the surreal contrast between NYC’s fertile basketball soil and its woeful pro teams. Our parks spawned Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Billy Cunningham, Larry Brown, Kenny Smith, Kenny Anderson, Mark Jackson, and Chris Mullin. Dr. J is from Long Island and honed his acrobatic skills at Rucker Park. Even Red Auerbach, the patron saint of Boston, is from Brooklyn.
But no basketball royalty makes its way to Broadway. (7th Avenue, if you prefer to be precise.) Carmelo Anthony, born in Brooklyn but raised in Baltimore, was hailed as the returning son, the savior, the scoring savant who would restore order to the Garden.
Peter Vecsey and yours truly are two of the very few natives who trashed that trade the day it happened. There was nothing in Melo’s history to suggest he would win more than one playoff round in any given year. Those of us who pointed this out were branded hacks, morons, losers, and other, unprintable nouns.
Now, at 10-42, the Knicks are even worse than we predicted. But we don’t expect any apologies. Not even the Zen Master, Phil Jackson, with more rings than Liberace, can make sense of this mess. Jackson learned his trade at the altar of Red Holzman, when the Knicks actually knew how to play Dr. Naismith’s game.
A lot has happened in the decades since the Knicks were the basketball core of the Big Apple. Patrick Ewing came and left. Pat Riley got the Knicks within a whisker of a title, then left to visceral chants of “Pat the Rat.”
But after Y2K the whole thing collapsed. Between the Allan Houston contract and Isiah Thomas signing borderline subs to All-Star money – Eddy Curry and Jerome James, anyone? – the franchise has never recovered. Many blame James Dolan. And that’s probably right.
Not that it has stopped the masses from attending. Indeed the Knicks could go 0-82 and still sell out the joint. It’s still freckled with celebrities, from denizens like Spike Lee to Woody Allen to Jerry Seinfeld to part-time imports like Taylor Swift. But no star power can align the stars for the Knicks. No one with reasonable self-interest or self-esteem wants to migrate to Manhattan. Between the taxes, cost of living, and losing there’s no inherent pull to play here.
Our local sports stations are forced to talk around our hardwood creations. But the Yankees aren’t the Yankees anymore. (You can decide If that’s a good thing.) The downtrodden Mets have hope, especially if Matt Harvey returns to form, but no one expects playoff baseball in Queens. The Jets and Giants are long-term projects in a league that lives in short-term realities. Hockey is supposedly booming here, but only a microscopic portion of our nation even knows it.
February has always been a black hole in the sports calendar. We lose football, long for baseball, and lament the frosty dungeon we live in. Indeed, the thermometer read seven degrees when I woke up, with a comical wind-chill. Our city is covered in ice and there’s no warmth to be found on our endless string of cable sports stations.
There was a time when we could duck into MSG for comfort, to watch a team that didn’t always win but often played hard. Now the only solace we can find is in Walt Frazier’s voice. Frazier sustained the bejeweled era of the Knicks, and he’s no less cool now than when his fur coats and furry sideburns were the toast of New York.
But it’s been a long time since the Knicks were relevant. So long, maybe not even Clyde recalls.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.