Being a fan of a team that hasn’t won a championship in your lifetime is generally seen as a circle of sports hell. You use words and phrases like “fatalistic” and “long-suffering” to describe the experience.
Now and again, a person might ask themselves, why do I do this? I think not irregularly about my adoption of Sunderland as an English soccer team to support, back when I was in college, and then later learning that the club is the inspiration for a fanzine called It’s the Hope I Can’t Stand. Sunderland, currently in the third tier of the English pyramid for the fourth year after back-to-back relegations, hasn’t won a top flight title since 1936, hasn’t won the FA Cup since 1973, and only this year won at Wembley Stadium for the first time since that Cinderella run.
Sunderland is having a nice enough season in League One, and for all the struggles, I don’t regret having become a fan 20 years ago, but it’s another team for whom 1973 looms large, one that I’ve been a fan of since childhood, that I’m thankful for this year.
The New York Knicks.
This has been my favorite year as a Knicks fan since… I don’t even know, possibly ever. Certainly, the lifetime of watching them fail to reach the top plays into that. Will it happen someday? Maybe. But I’m also not bothered that, as it stands, they’re a playoff team but not a real championship contender.
I want to see a team that plays hard. With Tom Thibodeau coaching, you’ll always have that.
I want a team with players I can root for. Julius Randle worked his ass off to get to another level. R.J. Barrett is a home-grown potential superstar in the making. Obi Toppin is a hometown guy who brings energy and is visibly improving every time he steps on the floor. Immanuel Quickley is the kind of instant offense player I’ve delighted in since the days of Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson in Detroit. Up and down the roster — Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel, Kemba Walker — it’s guy after guy who grabs you by the heart. And they’re 100% vaccinated, which is fantastic!
I want a team that connects with New York and brings back the kind of energy that only the Knicks can create around here, and from WE HERE last season to BING BONG this season, well, yes, that’s happening.
Actually, as much as the BING BONG guy went viral, the one who I really connect with here is the guy who said, after one (1) game of this season, “we had de Blasio, we had Cuomo, it was rough shit, but WE HAVE THE KNICKS!”
Sometimes they win. Sometimes they lose. They’re almost a quarter of the way through the season and I don’t think they’ve had a game yet where they were legitimately good from start to finish. There was a really long time, most of the past 20 years really, when it didn’t feel like we had the Knicks. With all due respect and love for Al Harrington and Iman Shumpert, a lot of these seasons have been not much more than going through the motions.
But because of the players on this team, because of the connection they’ve made with me and so many others in New York, because of the attitude from the coach all the way through the roster, I’m watching every game. I’m actively looking forward to tip-off during the afternoon. I find myself fist-pumping when Quickley drains a 3-pointer, some kind of muscle memory from when I was younger and more emotionally invested.
It’s not that I’m not emotionally invested in the Knicks now, but part of what I’m thankful for about them is that it’s a healthier relationship now. If things go well, fantastic. If they don’t, it’s okay, there’s always more basketball. Maybe it’s a release from pressure that comes with being 40 and never having seen a championship: I don’t really expect to ever see it now. If it ever happens, I’ll be right downtown for the parade. And if they ever get back to the Finals and lose, yeah, it’ll sting, I’m sure.
Right now, I’m enjoying the heck out of their games, which are usually rollercoasters because of how inconsistent they are from quarter to quarter.
This month alone, the Knicks have…
- come back from 21 points down to beat the Bucks
- erased a 24-point deficit but still lost to the Bucks
- blown a 25-point lead but finished strong to beat the Lakers
Sometimes it feels like a test of whether my new outlook in fandom is sustainable, and so far, yes, I’m able to enjoy the good and not be too bothered by the bad. It’s not a matter of pretending that the failures and shortcomings aren’t there, but simply not letting the experience as a fan be consumed by it.
The Knicks have reminded me that I’m a fan because I want to cheer for them, and they’ve provided the opportunity to cheer for them. And maybe, just maybe, someday I’ll be thankful not only for simply having a team to love, but one that can celebrate a championship.
For now, I’ll just also be thankful for how little of the Knicks experience in 2021 has involved the team’s owner. What a difference it makes when the main character of the team you root for is the players you like instead of the guy you’d like to forget writes their checks.
Maybe that parade can also be the next time we see James Dolan.