BERLIN — As he watched the New York Knicks play on TV in the middle of March, Max Thümer explained why he had, weeks before, vowed to stop watching the team.
It was the Kristaps Porzingis trade.
“I’ve just been thinking about why I spend so much of my rare leisure time to watch a franchise and organization that’s totally full of shit,” said Thümer, a 35-year-old who runs local kindergartens, as he turned back to the screen. “It didn’t make sense to me.”
In January, shortly after I moved to Berlin, a friend and fellow American expat mentioned she had stumbled across a Twitter account called the New York Knicks Nation Germany/Austria. We loved it. Excluding a few weeks when German and American daylight saving times vary, a 7:00 p.m. game would tip off at 1:00 a.m. in Berlin. Were there really Germans choosing to stay up all night to watch crummy Knicks basketball on League Pass when even geographically tethered New Yorkers were willing to abandon this pitiful team?
As it turns out, yes. The New York Knicks Nation Germany/Austria has more than 90 members, preceded in Europe by a slightly older and larger organization, Knicks Nation France. Born out of a Facebook group, the German organization became a legally registered supporters club in 2017. Last summer, members chatted with Porzingis at a Berlin meet-and-greet. They say they sensed a lack of engagement from the former franchise player, who was shipped to Dallas in February. (On March 30, shortly after this story was reported, the New York Post broke the news that a woman had accused Porzingis of raping her in his Manhattan penthouse in February of 2018. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Mavericks knew of the accusation before the trade; two anonymous “league sources” told the Dallas Morning News that the team was only told of an extortion attempt, not a rape.)
This year, the club organized a trip to London to see the Knicks blow a 19-point lead and lose to the Wizards on a last-second goaltend. Members share memes in a WhatsApp group chat, wear club paraphernalia, and pay €10 a year in dues for various administrative fees. “In a perfect world, [the Knicks] would pay you,” Thümer said.
I wanted to learn more about what international, voluntary Knicks fandom looked like, so I sat down with Thümer and three other club members on March 17 to watch a meaningless game against the Lakers and probe them for their spiciest Knicks takes. It’s not easy to find a Berlin sports bar willing to put on NBA games, so we met at Checkpoint Basketball, a clubhouse and event space for a local pick-up league.
We had plenty to teach other. For example, I had no idea that in the ‘90s, German NBA fans kept up on the league through a regular sports update on CNN. In contrast, this group had never heard of New York radio goon Mike Francesa.
Thümer, along with members Ivan Stevanovic and Robert Ogrodowski, grew up in Germany and had similar origin stories for their rooting interest. In the ’90s, their friends loved Michael Jordan, so they chose to support the scrappy, Ewing-Starks Knicks instead. Vinod Krishnamurthy, a flight attendant for a German airline, said he was actually an Orlando Magic fan, drawn to the team in that era because he shared a birthday with Shaquille O’Neal.
As we prepared for tipoff, the Porzingis trade still weighed heavily. “It’s the first time I felt something,” said Ogrodowski, a 38-year-old IT worker originally from Cottbus in the former East Germany. “In the past I was like, ‘It’s a business.’ [But] we watched him grow up in the NBA.”
“[Porzingis] was skeptical after Phil [Jackson left the team], and the new management never established a connection,” Thümer said. “I think that’s the biggest failure of the last five years. Now we have shipped him for hope and nothing more.”
Stevanovic, a former dancer who works in sales for an e-cigarette company, said he went into the season with low expectations, but “once we won three or four games in a row everyone [in the group]—or some of them—were talking about the playoffs. Then they got torched again. I’m not emotionally involved anymore. I’m excited to have [Dennis Smith Jr.], Mitchell Robinson, who can really jump. I got keen with Kevin Knox. I didn’t like him in the beginning, but now I can live with him.”
Like any group of Knicks fans, members of the Germany/Austria group have differing opinions about what management should do this offseason. The team has positioned itself to bring in two stars with max contracts.
“Please don’t get Kevin Durant,” Stevanovic said.
Ogrodowski agreed. “I don’t want him either. I think they have a young core and they should stick to it. They have the chance to get at least one good player in the draft. If you give [Durant] a four-year contract, he will be 34. Something could happen to him.”
Thümer argued that the Knicks’ future rests on praying for the first pick and Durant. “Before the KP trade, I was pretty sure that when [Durant] talked to LeBron 15 months ago and LeBron decided to go to the Lakers, maybe [Durant] wants to write his own story and he wants to revive an old franchise,” he said. “The only one that’s left is the Knicks, but that’s a hell of a reviving job. Honestly if he would just make two conference finals they would make a statue for him.”
What about impending free agents Klay Thompson or Kyrie Irving? “Klay would be great,” Thümer said. “It won’t happen though. Nobody will come. It will be like DeMarcus Cousins, maybe, and Jimmy Butler. That might be the harsh reality. You know what, two years ago, I would talk myself into it. ‘Yeah, DeMarcus Cousins, he’s healthy again. Jimmy Butler, he’s still got four or five years.’ Same old, same old.” (Later, Thümer amended this prediction to Cousins and Kemba Walker, and said he’ll still find a way to talk himself into it.)
“The sad part is that in the summer, when there are rumors and then there’s the lottery in May, I will be watching my Twitter timeline the whole time, and I’m going to be very excited,” Thümer explained. “In the end, I know I’m going to be disappointed, and disgusted in myself that I again got that far. Then it will be time for training camp to start. Whoever has come, I will be excited, because there’s another new year of [Damyean] Dotson, another new year of Knox, another new year of Robinson, and I will again talk myself into it just to be miserable in December.”
For Ogrodowski, the goal for next season is to make the playoffs. “Let’s say they got the number one pick, and we got Zion [Williamson]. I would say in that case, they should acquire Klay Thompson. We would finally have a sharpshooter from outside at the 2.”
“We have so many assets,” Stevanovic added. “Our backcourt is so deep. Just let them develop. Kevin Knox is a future All-Star to me.”
But if they differ on long-term strategy, they are united against at least one thing: owner and thin-skinned megalomaniac James Dolan, who recently bounced a fan who had correctly and harmlessly suggested from the stands that he sell the team.
“He couldn’t care less about the development of the team, as long as he gets the money,” Stevanovic said. “I think it’s an object of prestige for him.”
“Carmelo [Anthony] was Dolan’s fault,” said Thümer, who is also a fan of the Dolan-owned New York Rangers. “With the Rangers, he stayed out at the right time, and then they rebuilt, and were a good team.”
“We are already joking,” Stevanovic later said. “If we get the first pick, Dolan will trade it for the 10th pick and some other injured guy.”
The takes flowed freely as the game progressed to what I hoped, for the sake of this story, would be a very Knicksy conclusion.
“The last eight seasons, it was very interesting to see that players who were very good on-ball defenders came to New York and then became bad on-ball defenders,” Thümer observed.
Krishnamurthy noted that LeBron James was sitting alone on the bench during a timeout. “I think after the Anthony Davis trade talks, he’s a little isolated now.”
During the game, there was a chance for the crew to support a fellow countryman. “Moritz Wagner! The German guy!” Stevanovic rejoiced when the Lakers forward, who played a total of four minutes, scored.
With just a few seconds left, the Knicks were, somehow, winning 124-123.
“There’s that blink of hope again,” Stevanovic said. “There’s still time to lose,” Ogrodowski chimed in.
On the last play, LeBron drove to the basket in hopes of delivering the game-winner, only to be stuffed by Mario Hezonja. It was the Lakers’ turn to be embarrassed; the worst team in the NBA earned its 14th win of the season.
Four thousand miles away from Madison Square Garden, Robert, Ivan, Max, and Vinod seemed happy, or at least not despondent, about the victory. I was reminded of something Stevanovic said when I first asked him about living as a Knicks fan in Germany.
“There’s an expression: ‘Zuckerbrot und Peitsche,’” Stevanovic said. Literally meaning “sugarbread and whip,” the German phrase is perhaps most similar to the “carrot and stick” idiom.
“On one hand you get the sugarbread, and you are pleased, and on the other hand you get torched. That’s the feeling that every Knicks fan has. When we have our WhatsApp member group, and we talk about it, you can always feel the pain with every word.”
Steven Perlberg is a reporter based in Berlin, Germany. Follow him on Twitter @perlberg.