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Why do you follow the Knicks?

What does fandom (and hatred) mean in a lost season?

Joe Camporeale, USA TODAY Sports

At halftime of the Knicks/Nets game Wednesday, I was a little full of beer and joy. The Knicks were up 25, on their way to just their second win at home against a +.500 team in 2 ½ months (The 2014 Knicks: where statistically aberrant joys happen!). The good times have been few and far between in a season that’s been the biggest year-to-year drop-off I’ve seen in 25 years. So, some admittedly innocuous comments by Deron Williams and Joe Johnson earlier in the day about wanting to beat the Knicks had stirred up my orange & blue blood. Wanting to kick my heels up and enjoy some schadenfreude, I posted this to the P&T game thread:

" that's a halftime score! Maybe the Nets should wait till they win a playoff series for the first time in almost a decade or rise higher than 5th in the conference before they start running their mouths."

Reaction was swift and negative, mostly along the lines of "Not a good look from 9th place, yo" and "Misinterpreted quotes are the heart of this so-called ‘rivalry.’" I was a little disappointed. A tad confused. A bit hungry (thanks to the beer). What was this logic-fest raining on my parade? What do logic or fairness have to do with being a Knick fan? I follow this team for a lot of reasons. Reason is not one of them.

A month ago, the Knicks lost to Detroit to fall to 21-40. I wrote them off then: not only did the playoffs seem a lost cause, but making them meant Miami or Indiana in the 1st round, which was as likely to work out as Mike Woodson diagramming a last second shot. After three years of progress—making the playoffs in 2011 after six years away; winning a playoff game in ’12; winning a round last year—I felt no feelies at the thought of regressing. Phil Jackson’s hiring allowed me to stop thinking about the present and pretend I had any reaction to Steve Kerr, Derek Fisher, Steve Fisher (Michigan Fab 5 coach), Kerr Smith (Jack on Dawson’s Creek), or the Fisher King taking over as the team’s new head coach.

Of course, the Knicks then won 12 of 15 while Atlanta pulled a Hindenburg. Following a 21-40 dullard of a team is nothing like following a 33-43 problem child. My hopes resurrected. I broke every promise I’d made to myself and began to consider thoughts I’d long banished. Indiana’s been slumping for a while; the Knicks'll be more motivated to win off last year’s series—which, hey, went 6 games--that’s practically a toss-up!; unlike the Pacers, they’ll be under no pressure ‘cuz no one thinks they can win. Miami looks weaker than they have since the Big 3 came together; STAT’s ready to eat Bosh alive; Shump can play Wade as well as anyone, right?; J.R.’s been Gallant rather than Goofus for months; if Melo can semi-equal Lebron’s production and the Knicks steal a game in Miami, where the Heat have no homecourt advantage…You see where this is going.

I suspect most Knick fans follow the team not as an isolated exercise, but as part of a larger sports-fandom ecosystem. Depending when and how you first started following them, who your other rooting interests are, who you are as a person, and where you grew up, the Knicks fill a different niche for everyone. Being a fan means being one on multiple layers.

The Knicks used to be good. Really good. Every year. So my sports season used to orbit around this given: from November till May/June, I followed the Knicks. After the Rangers won the Stanley Cup, they became like a stress ball during Knick playoff runs: if a game with the Bulls or Pacers or Heat was angrying up the blood, I’d flip over and watch the hockey for a few minutes till I settled down. Baseball didn’t begin for real until after the Knicks’ season ended. Football was a two-month coming attraction until we got to the feature presentation.

At its worst, fandom invokes the worst aspects of tribalism. But it’s a safe worst-aspect, and probably healthy. I didn’t hate the New Jersey Nets. I hate the Brooklyn Nets. Irrationally. Because ever since they moved, they’ve been overrated and gotten a free ride from the media. After all the noise and hype and bravado and money spent the past few years, the Nets, once again, are not going to win 50 games. They probably won't win the division. They very well may fail to win a single playoff series. Again. What would the response be if the Knicks brought in a bunch of ancient past-their-prime dudes who hadn’t beaten a good team in years, and who didn’t change their new team’s ceiling any from before they were brought in (2nd round, at best)? What if, in bringing these guys in, the Knicks pissed away 5 years of 1st round picks and had the highest payroll/luxury tax in history? How would the media respond?

The Nets are like a little sibling who never dealt with any of the crap you did. But that’s not what you resent. You resent their ignorance of their privilege. It makes them seem snotty, even when they’re not trying to be. Deron Williams and Joe Johnson didn’t say anything out of line. They pointed out that they wanted to beat the Knicks, that it wasn’t just another game, that there was something special about winning that game. Totally reasonable. I don’t care.

I hate the Nets because it feels good to hate a team. I hate them because I can, because, as a Knick fan, I can look down on them. Who else can I look down on? Not the Celtics—I hate ‘em, but history’s always going to be on their side. Not the Heat— I hate ‘em and always will, thank you very much Riles & P.J. Brown. But that’s a hate born of injustice, and that rivalry’s been more balanced over the years. Heat hatred is the best of tribalism: it’s memory and bloodshed and great vengeance and furious anger.

I moved from Long Island to upstate New York when I was 10. There was a lot of bias upstate against anyone and anything having to do with "up in the city" (First: no matter how often I clarified I wasn’t from the city, people decided I was. Second: I’ve never understood how Rochester is north of almost everywhere, yet everything south of there is described as being "up" from there). There were dark days and tough times. I was jumped. I was ridiculed for my "accent," for being from "the city," for my family speaking Spanish.

When Pat Riley came to the Knicks and made them into what they would become, my pride went beyond wins. The team, the toughness, the way they played— these became attributes I could point to with pride as being NYC-specific. Obviously they weren’t, but like Batman, the Knicks were the hero I needed. I could adopt their bad-assery as my own. They became a source of strength. They became my back-up. Patrick Ewing didn’t truck no shit. Neither did Charles Oakley, or Xavier McDaniel, or John Starks, or Anthony Mason. I didn’t have to, either.

My father grew up a Knick fan. He captained his H.S. team in Harlem and played at MSG; he loves to tell the story of sitting on the baseline and watching Phil Jackson brick a shot so hard he "thought the backboard would break." My father grew up to be, among other things, a minister. There was no cursing in my home. God help me when profanity escaped my lips (which it did, and God must have been too busy listening ‘cuz God was no help in those moments). But my father played sports, and watched sports, and I learned then that, somehow, cursing was OK, as long as it related to sports.

In ‘92 the Knicks were blowing a late-season division lead over the Celtics. There was a critical game late in Atlanta with the Knicks down 1 in the closing seconds. John Starks took and missed a 3. As soon as the shot went up, my father let the expletives fly. I learned two things in that moment, only one of which registered at first: my father had reacted to the shot that was taken, not whether it went in or not, a lesson I began to apply to my own viewing. The other lesson took longer to sink in.

As I’ve grown older and my life’s grown more complex, my fandom has evolved. The Knicks don’t dominate my attention the same way they did when I was 13 and proudly went to school wearing a Knick jersey over a Knick T-shirt and Knick shorts or sweatpants and Knick socks and my dope-as-hell black Ewing sneakers…but the relief they offer these days, the escape and the entertainment and the drama, is more meaningful now than their centrality was back then. I can understand why that game in Atlanta mattered so much to my father, who grew up hating the Celtics and had just lived through their dominance in the '80s: you cherish opportunity more as you age because there’s less and less of it. When you’re young, the future seems built out of inevitable opportunity. As life moves on, you realize how precious and rare opportunity is. No matter whether the odds feel in your favor or weighed against you, all you can ask for from life is a chance. Chance is rare enough.

That’s why the world goes topsy-turvy somewhere between 21-40 and 33-45. That’s why whupping little brother never stops mattering to big brother. Because after 10 years of embarrassing play, maybe the high point of this era will be beating the Rondo-less Celtics, and Melo scoring 62, and the Knicks not letting the Nets move in and get the best of them. Is that everything Knick fans dream of? No. We all know what the dream is. But we’ve seen darker days than this. We keep watching and keep rooting for too many reasons to count. Sometimes, a beer, some shit-talking, a home win and some schadenfreude is all you need.

Why do you follow the Knicks?