There are, of course, varieties of Jewish experience in this strange country we’ve found ourselves in. My grandfather was a soft spoken electrician with coarse hands. His son, my dad, is a generally easy going and well adjusted lawyer in a Borscht Belt village upstate. But I am not like either of them. I’m the Jew you would recognize from pop culture over the course of the last 50 years. I’m the guy you might’ve overheard complaining about day-old bagels in a diner with Jerry and George, or haggling over the price of an eighth in Washington Square Park in a Larry Clark film. This archetype presents the New York Jew as a neurotic schlub. And what can I say? Some stereotypes exist for a reason.
Freud tells us that neurosis is a coping mechanism we build in the wake of traumatic experiences we are trying to repress. For Jews, at this point trauma is in our blood and bone marrow, woven into our DNA. So the next time you catch a snippet of a scruffy, pear shaped guy with the bridge of his glasses taped, complaining about the density of his aunt’s matzo balls on the train, understand that what you’re actually listening to is the flinch of a beaten dog, 5,000 years of discrimination, oppression, and state sponsored violence manifesting itself in utterly banal shit no other group of people would think about, let alone build their entire identities around.
The Jew is raised to understand fear and disappointment are natural states of existence. It is our earliest and most essential lesson, a coping mechanism to help us understand that in moments of peace and prosperity, with nothing but hope and tranquility on the horizon, the state can come for you in the night and burst through your front door, armed and in uniform, to rip you from your bed and take you thought belonged to you. And so we fret over being late to the airport and our cab driver taking a circuitous route and getting overcharged on a light dinner bill to distract us from our inherent knowledge that this is all fleeting and everything can and will go away. That our material circumstances have changed in the last 50 odd years here in New York means little. Some wounds are ancient and never heal.
I’m 37 years old and I’ve been a Knicks fan for 32 of them. As long as I can remember. So perhaps I was born like this, or perhaps there was some other inciting incident, lost to the past, that shaped my neurosis and made me the walking stereotype I am today, but I can trace my first memories of pain and disappointment, the twin pillars of the Jewish psyche, back to sports.
For the last 30 years, the Knicks have been a team sponsored by the Old Testament, specifically the Book of Job. In the 90s, we were a Greek tragedy, Achilles or Icarus, poetic in death, written by Shakespearean quill as Charles Smith is blocked over and over again, Hakeem’s outstretched fingers get a piece of a championship-winning three-point shot, Patrick’s finger roll finds the back of the rim. These moments are indelible, written on a holy parchment we keep wrapped in colorful felt, revisiting often as we beat our chests, locked for eternity in the ornamental chambers of our hearts and minds. For the Jewish Knicks fan, it’s confirmation of the inevitable truth we knew the day we were born. To live, to love, is to suffer.
In the Jewish faith when someone you love dies, you sit “shiva” by reciting the mourner’s kaddish. You wear torn garments. You cover the mirrors in your home. You don’t listen to music, watch movies, or attend social functions, and you can only sit on uncomfortable chairs and wear crappy shoes. According to custom, you are meant to sit shiva in the house of the person who passed, so you could argue for two decades, Knick fans have been sitting shiva for those 90s teams in the Garden.
The minute we traded Patrick to Seattle, our narrative shifted from Greek tragedy to farce. The 90s died along with those great Knicks teams, and we were left with an open casket, a comedy of errors, a lineage of prodigal sons, coming home to attempt to revive the corpse sitting on the funeral floor of our arena, each attempt more hopeless and comical than the last.
The one blip on the EKG came in 2012-2013, a season young Knicks fans now hold close to their hearts, like the Maccabees with a night’s worth of oil that burned for eight days. There are many reasons that explain all the things that went right that season and never happened again, that I won’t relitigate here. But as this great preview from that era shows, even that season’s success, like last year’s, came unexpectedly. And this was our curse and gift, that we’ve had 20 odd years largely freed from the burdens of hope and expectation. Knicks seasons have existed in a kind of purgatory, a low stakes journey for those uninterested in ideas as tangible as destination, a Sisyphean exercise of living in the now, appreciating the pure and context free beauty of a Ronaldo Balkman offensive rebound on a meaningless snowy Tuesday night of the spirit in Minnesota. It’s been the texture of a majority of our rooting lives as basketball fans.
What’s different about this year, is the Knicks fan base, who has wandered the desert for decades as penance for some ancient sin I at least am not aware of, arrive at this fateful juncture with more actual hope than we’ve had going into any season since the outset of this century. This is no clumsily thrown-together amalgam of mercurial faded names, five years past their prime. This is something we haven’t seen in a long time. Something many of us thought we may never see again, or at least for as long as JD & the Straight Shot keep getting gigs.
We have a front office with a coherent vision aligned with its coach — a culture, a style of play, a core of young and exciting, and crucially, excited players. We are in the honeymoon stage of team building, exceeding expectations, warming up to new faces, cherishing our older, established relationships. There’s no bickering, no buck passing, nothing but the God fingers of merciful light shining down on us, cutting through the gloom of the past as we trudge closer to what has remained a shimmering mirage in the distance: the promised land of a deep playoff run, and maybe, just maybe, one sweet day, *deep breath* a championship.
Many pundits believe last season’s success wasn’t unlike 2012’s: a blip. A sudden peak followed by an inevitable return to the mean. I’ve minted a saying: that all New Yorkers are at least a quarter Jewish. Our food, our culture, our style of debate, has infiltrated this city from sewer to penthouse. Bagels and complaining about them are the “hum”, the “energy” that newly arrived transplant Pratt students rave about when they go home after their first semester.
If you want proof of this, consider my timeline, and the largely gentile Knicks accounts kvetching over semantics, with talmudic intensity as they rant, and rave at the conventional wisdom that the Bulls may end up finishing this season with a marginally better record than we will. We are wronged, we are aggrieved, we Knicks fans are all Jews. What many of us seem to be missing, is that finally having a team worthy of having their honor besmirched, a team to get your lather up over, rejecting takes that are anything less than unqualified praise like soup served at room temperature, is a miracle of biblical proportion in and of itself.
It is the very sort of hope and promise an old Jew such as myself has spent their whole lives mistrusting, living in fear of. So I decided, before allowing optimism into my heart this season, I had to investigate this new life, these new Knicks, in person. So on Wednesday, I found myself flanked by two lifelong Knicks fans, against the Celtics, at the world’s greatest Synagogue, praying to the cold, vengeful basketball deities to at long last, allow for an end to all of our suffering.
The Knicks were playing the Celtics on an unseasonably warm late October Wednesday night. Like all unseasonably warm days now, signaling the eventual extinction of life on Earth as we know it, the air carried the hot breath of unease in the upper bowl of the Garden. My good friend and associate Jayson Buford secured us absolutely miserable seats with a partially obscured view in the 400s, so we snuck up to the 300 section catwalk, the Garden’s equivalent of the standing room only section in Yankee Stadium, to take in the proceedings from on high. The Garden was nearly at capacity, but not quite.
The Celtics had come to middling projections in a suddenly contentious Eastern Conference from the opposite direction the Knicks had. In the early 2010s, they executed the heist of the century at the expense of the newly minted Brooklyn Nets, allowing a Russian oligarch to put the screws to his GM, Billy King, and force a few miserable “win now” trades for the corpses of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Gerald Wallace to attract Park Slope transplants who wanted to “get into basketball” on a purely passive level. This cost the Nets Dame Lillard, and also gave the Celtics many bites at the apple over the course of the last decade. They suffered some bad luck with their treasure trove of assets over the years, but it netted them two young superstar wings in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
So the match presented a Rocky like clash of styles. The two stars on a hallowed franchise essentially born on third base over the past five years, vs. the Knicks, a crew of Expendables, damaged assets, late draft picks, players that have been cast off and doubted their entire careers, who have improbably banded together under a coach many saw as an out of touch anachronism, and came into this season yet again under the pall of “Nobody,” (but us) “believing in them”.
Evan Fournier is included in this characterization. He played most of his career for the Orlando Magic, the NBA’s premier nothing burger franchise. I’ll be honest, I’ve watched Magic-Knicks games throughout his career and can’t remember a single moment from one of them. Then the Celtics traded some low level assets for half a season of his services and let him. We signed him, against Tom Thibodeau’s wishes, to replace Reggie Bullock. The only thoughts I’d really had about Fournier before Wednesday night was he was French, he apparently is terrible in the playoffs, his fourth year is a team option, and he can dribble and shoot, which is enough for me to celebrate the signing. He was nothing more, in my mind, than a value add over Reggie, who should be a nice back of the bench rotation piece, but was given a way too large role last season due to our lack of depth and Thibs psychosis.
But Wednesday night was either the product of divine intervention or the pleasure of low expectations. Fournier was electric. He dribbled the ball more in the first quarter than Bully did all last season. He doesn’t “just” have a reliable shot. He can pull up, he can catch and shoot, he absolutely has to be marked by a defender, and he is a surprisingly adept creator. He puts the ball on the floor and has this shifty, chaotic energy as a ball handler, with this quick reverse layup that is difficult to anticipate and impossible to block that I instantly fell in love with.
The Knicks were hard charging in transition. Obi Toppin finally found his place in the NBA ecosystem, and it’s as a downhill silky wrecking-ball finisher on the break. Randle, as always, was our instant offense when the waters grew choppy and we needed iso stuff, but with Obi out there we didn’t really need that, and it was hard to justify taking him out whenever it happened.
And what can I say about Mitchell Robinson that hasn’t already been said about the Hudson Yards travesty on the west side? He was enormous, unwieldy, gauche, rich, sucked up everything in his orbit, he was devastating. 17 rebounds, each the equivalent of pantsing a kid at recess in front of his girl and all his friends so the class can point and laugh at his manhood. He only had two blocks, but with his ability to intimidate and contest it felt like 20. He was everywhere.
The majority of the game felt like a coronation, a joyous affair, a validation of the rosiest projections of this season by our most biased, fervent, die hard believers on Knicks Twitter. The brilliant Jaylen Brown and Jaylen Brown alone went nuts, everyone else on Boston stunk. RJ Barrett had Jayson Tatum in hell, and not entry level hell, the ring a few floors down where they keep the sickos and Nets fans. They labored for buckets in half court, they scratched and clawed while we ran free in space and dunked with inspired authority. Or at least that’s how it felt in the building, drunk from the catwalk.
With the game all but secure as the seconds melted off the clock in the fourth, we began making plans for a post game bacchanal when the Celtics snuck back in to force overtime. More heroics from Brown, and then the inevitable. A late break, a defensive lapse from our newly returned hometown hero, and a remarkable shot from Marcus Smart, the guy every NBA fan hates unless he plays for the team you root for, the guy who somehow is only good when it matters and sucks the rest of the time. Breen gave it a double bang and I haven’t heard this, let alone confirmed it, but I’m pretty sure he was immediately fired by the MSG network.
And all at once the ghosts rushed back into the building. This is the team I’ve known my entire life, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, losing the un-lose-able lead, blowing it with the chips down and everything on the line. The most Jewish team in the NBA once again reaffirming all our doubt, insecurity and pessimism. My shoulders slumped, I was mute and inconsolable, I watched in a pained state, like a British criminal in a dystopian reeducation session with my eyelids taped open, prepared for the abject horror about to unfold.
But life deviated from the script. Fournier redeemed himself for his lapse with a series of incredible 3s, which the Celtics matched in stride. It became a heavyweight match in the first overtime, Ali and Frazier trading haymakers. The second overtime was more fraught and tense, the offense more scarce but each point a great release. In the end, we sealed the game by committee, first with Randle, then with Fournier, then Rose. And at last, we danced.
It was the kind of game the Knicks have lost with crushing consistency over the last 20 years. But the fight in the building, the lack of fear, the absence of neuroses was palpable. It was something new and different. We didn’t feel like that beaten dog, that historical loser. We felt like a team without a past, too dumb or foolhardy to know we were supposed to fuck this up. And freed from the shackles of that historical record, we got a glimpse of what the future could look like for this team, a real and lasting change, a freedom from ourselves. But there is no escape from doubt, from fear. Is this another mirage? What’s the difference between a disaster and a miracle? How close is this team from the precipice of disaster, from falling back into the inevitable suck of mediocrity? An injury? A poorly timed loss that reminds us who we were, who we are, and who we always will be? I pray. I pray, this time it breaks differently for us. That this time change is real and lasting, and we’ll be free at last.
And maybe that’s what hope is. A cocktail of desire and pragmatism, a dumb bravery that allows us to erase our ingrained neural patterns sculpted by our traumatic past lives. It’s the things we want from reality and the things we actually receive from life that we have to make the best of, manifested in a simple wish, that what we’re eating tastes like whatever we want it to be.
When the Jews spent their forty years wandering the desert, they subsisted on what the bible refers to as manna from heaven. It was a white flaky substance that is described as tasting of honey wafer in the book of Exodus, but I’ve also been described as being a kind of blank slate foodstuff, it can taste like whatever you want it to taste like, it can be whatever you want it to be. It has a quality not unlike the future, a projectable nothing you can affix any dream you’d like onto.
There’s a theory that manna wasn’t just a biblical invention — that the flake, the substance like frost on the ground in Sinai, as described in the Old Testament, was actually the secretions of two types of insects that inhabited the region, feeding off the tamarisk tree. So this miraculous wonder food that the Jews worshipped, and thanked God for, for thousands of years, was actually just crystallized droppings that had collected on the ground and local fauna. The question the Knicks will answer over the course of the next 81 games is whether our belief and hope in an absent basketball god is well-founded. Is our faith divine? Or are we eating bug shit?