A View from the Bleachers
I’m a New York sports fan.
I’ve got a basketball jones. It’s lasted about four years now. My fandom goes through spurts, you see. As a child it was baseball. All Mets, all the time. I was born in Long Island in 1984, and was a cognizant baseball fanatic before the eighties ended. My dad had a VHS copy of 1986 Mets: A Year to Remember, which basically viewed as an hour long infomercial for the franchise. I’ve probably seen it, in full, about 300 times. I was also a stat nerd, and at the time baseball was the only accessible venue for stat nerds. We didn’t know about WARP, or OBS, or pythagorean expectation. We knew about wins, strikeouts, dingers, and ribbies. I made my family and friends quiz me on baseball trivia endlessly. I could tell you the starting five and batting order of every Mets’ World Series team. I started calling in to Mike & the Mad Dog when I was ten. I can’t tell you how many summer afternoons were spent playing wiffle ball games by myself in the back yard, one-man dramatic performances of Mets vs. Braves games. I didn’t have to live vicariously through my favorite players, because in my back yard they lived vicariously through me. My favorite players were always the ones that I could imagine myself being, middle infielders who didn’t look like Greek Gods. Wally Backman, Timmy Tueffel, and Rey Ordoñez, who couldn’t hit, but man was he something with the glove.
I played baseball all through high school, and then a couple seasons of semi-pro when I moved to Nashville in my early twenties. In my final season I tore my labrum pitching both games of a double header, but played out the rest of the schedule in the outfield, wincing with sharp pain every time I had to make a hard throw. Baseball had already begun to lose traction with me by then, though. For a lot of us, high school is when we begin to seek out a separate path for ourselves than the one our parents have taken. For me, this meant ditching the Jets, whom I had grown up rooting for, and embracing the Giants. This wasn’t a paradigm shifting decision, however. There were no awkward silences at the dining room table (although by that time my parents no longer lived together, and we never had a dining room table anyway). Unlike the beloved Islanders/hated Rangers or underdog Mets/evil-empire Yankees dynamics, the New York metropolitan area’s two football teams had always shared mutual embrace in my house. We rooted for them both. But somewhere in the late nineties, probably about the time they signed Kerry Collins (of my beloved Penn State), I jumped headfirst into Giants fandom. A string of Super Bowls entrenched the sport for me, but it was fantasy football that cemented it. I hopped on the bandwagon in 2004, joining a high stakes league of equally dedicated stat-heads. Fantasy football presented an avenue that allowed me to pour over stats again like I had as an eight year old, and to justify it under the auspice of trying to win a couple thousand dollars. Ten years later, the league remains largely intact, and its members constitute most of my closest friends.
I don’t want to give off the wrong idea. I’m still a Mets fan, I still read Mets blogs and pour over their box scores frequently. My love of sports is indentured for a lifetime. My focuses have shifted, however. The build up to the 2006 World Cup issued in a love of soccer, with the US Men’s Team, The New York/New Jersey MetroStars (later rebranded, wonderfully, as Red Bull New York), and Manchester City, in that order, capturing my heart. Man City only made the cut because they had DeMarcus Beasley, my adopted favorite player. I would wear his USMNT jersey (or kit, for the purists) to sports bars all over Nashville. I would visit yanksabroad.com to keep abreast of what our players were doing in Europe. I’d cheer on Fulham(erica) and their almost irrational predilection towards signing Americans. I spent the 2010 World Cup in Spain, adopting the local club as my team after the US was knocked out by Ghana (again!), and enviously but earnestly joining in the celebration when the Spaniards brought home the trophy.
When I left New York for Tennessee in 2007, I was presented with the almost ideal scenario: a new batch of teams that were both eminently root-able and didn’t interfere with my first loves. The Titans were mild mannered and affable, wore uniforms that begged me not to take them seriously, and had absolutely no rivalry with the Giants. Similarly with the Predators (whose die-hard fan base caught me off guard for a city south of the Mason-Dixon line) and Vanderbilt football, the lovable losers of the SEC who struck gold with James Franklin in 2010. But mostly the Grizzlies, who, even factoring in the gas from the three-hour drive each way to Memphis, were still much cheaper to see than the Knicks (case in point: I went to a Knicks-Grizzlies game this season, and I paid $24 total for three tickets). Memphis plays a style of ball that reminds me of the way the Knicks played in the nineties: hard nosed, grinding, physical defense. It’s impossible to root against Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, or Tony Allen. All that grit’n and grind’n really resonates. The Knicks of the nineties are so beloved because they embodied the spirit of New York at the time. They made you fight for every inch, and they valued substance over flash. They gave it their all, and they repaid our loyalty with their own. To this day, outside of the perpetrators of the World Trade Center attacks, there is no one more vilified in New York than Reggie Miller. Well, maybe James Dolan.
The Knicks of the nineties are also so beloved because they’re juxtaposed against the Knicks of the 2000’s. No team has been so spectacularly inept, so disastrously conceived, so sickeningly overpaid, as the Knicks of the past 14 years. And I’ve suffered through them all. Something I haven’t mentioned yet is that throughout my childhood with the Mets, my young adulthood with the Giants, my mid-twenties with soccer, there was always the Knicks. For so long they were so awful. I cringe every time I think of Stevie Francis running a pick-n-roll with Eddy Curry, or a Quentin Richardson iso-ing his way to a 25 foot brick, or Jerome James puffy body. I don’t even want to think about those years. The point is, when the Knicks became good a few years ago (okay, when the Knicks became mediocre a few years ago), I went all in. When they made it to the second round of the playoffs last year, I drove 9 hours round trip to watch them get decimated by the Pacers in game 3.
Listen, these Knicks are flawed. Really, really flawed. I understand that. But it doesn’t matter. Amar’e can’t jump or play 20 minutes a game? I don’t care. He gave us our Knicks back. Carmelo can score from anywhere but won’t make his teammates better? I don’t care. He’s from Baltimore and I’ve seen The Wire, so he gets the benefit of the doubt. They don’t have a point guard who can play defense or consistently get into the paint? Okay, that is sort of frustrating. They used their one-time amnesty clause, the clause that would be perfect to use on Amar’e right now, on Chauncey Billups just moments after they picked up his team option? That’s pretty maddening. They wasted the tail end of Tyson Chandler’s prime without giving him any defensive help at all?! They traded away Steve Novak and three draft picks (which smart teams horde like gold) for Andrea Bargnani, who is essentially a crappier Steve Novak?!? They gave Chris Smith a roster spot and a guaranteed contract because of nepotism?!?! They refused to play Carmelo at his most effective position in order to make sure he played alongside Barngani, whom advanced stats show to be the among the worst players in the league?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?
Sorry, I got carried away there. We’ve got Phil Jackson now, one of the few men on earth to have hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy in a Knicks uniform. We’ve got dreams of a triangle-based attack predicated on ball movement and spacing. We’ve got our least murky cap situation in two decades. There’s reason for optimism. I’m not saying that I am optimistic, I’ve been hurt too many times. I’m just saying you could make an okay argument for optimism if you didn’t know any better.
I’m a New York sports fan. It could be worse. Not a whole lot worse, but it could be a little worse.