In NYC, basketball is part of our DNA. Yeah, the Yankees team and their stars are quite possibly the greatest team in all of sports, setting a standard for championships and expectations across the board. The Giants, Jets and Rangers compete for attention in the Big Apple also, usually existing somewhere below the rarefied atmosphere that the Yankees habitually reside.
That being said, make no mistake, New York City is a basketball town. From the Bronx to Queens, high school to the pros, basketball stars are icons; as acclaimed in many circles as (some) movie stars, gangsters and rappers. NYC has long carved out its station in the world as the place where ballers earn their stripes.
Before I was born, there was Lew Alcindor of Power Memorial High School in the Bronx. One of the first players to be subjected to a major recruiting battle, Alcindor left the Bronx for UCLA and began a dynasty there, forever changing how the game was played, how players were recruited, where they played and their visibility on the high school level.
When I moved to New York, Kenny Anderson was the star of the moment; an All-City hotshot from Lefrak City who set the city record for most points in a high school career among other accolades. Since Kenny Anderson, there have been many others; Kemba Walker, Ben Gordon (of Jamaican descent) Malik Sealy, Mark Jackson, Chris Mullin (who preceded Anderson,) Felipe Lopez, Rod Strickland and the one who was considered by many to be the best NYC player since Lew Alcindor, the enigmatic Lloyd Daniels. All of them prep stars that made their name on the blacktops and hard courts on New York City.
Proof of the status on basketball in the city pantheon can be seen in the publicity basketball gets in NYC on all levels: before Felipe Lopez (R) ever played a game for St. John’s he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, hailed as the next Jordan, and was as recognizable as any celebrity. Manny ‘Hit Man’ Ramirez was arguably the best high school baseball player to come out of New York, a .650 hitter his senior year and likely a Hall of Famer when he retires. And unless you were a scout, member of his family or a hard core fan no one could point him out in a crowd when he was building his legend in the Bronx.
It’s against this backdrop that you have to consider this unmistakable fact: the only professional basketball team in NYC, the Knicks, has not won a NBA title in almost four decades.
And despite that run of failure, the Knicks are the only team that can challenge the Yankees for popularity in and beyond the boroughs.
It’s not just because they are the only professional basketball team in New York (at least till Mikhail Prokhorov brings the Nets to Brooklyn.) It’s because they represent the city in the city’s game. You want to see the surest sign that the annual iron grip of winter is loosening? Listen for the sound of a basketball bouncing on the asphalt. That sound tells you one undisputable fact: Spring in NYC is coming with summer right behind it. Kids and adults playing pickup games in playgrounds all over Gotham.
The Knick teams of (Jamaican born) Patrick Ewing, Mark Jackson, John Starks, Anthony Mason and Allan Houston were scrappy teams that fought, elbowed and beat other teams down physically and mentally. They appealed to the average fan, and though they couldn’t close the deal (Hey, an entire generation of Hall of Famers couldn’t close the deal in the Jordan era!) they were respected in their town.
St. Johns University, similar to the Knicks, was for a very long time the only team repping not just NYC but the entire metropolitan area. That has changed over the last twenty years; Hofstra, UConn, Seton Hall and others vie with St. Johns to keep the best local talent close to home. Call it the curse of the name change (old time Saint John’s fans know what im talking about.)
The arrival of Amare Stoudamire and Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks this season has reenergized Knicks fans and put them in playoff contention. The resurgence of the St. Johns basketball team has likewise created a buzz and those events confirm one thing that purists and experts have said as the city teams floundered over the last decade: Basketball is always more fun when the New York teams are competitive.
You don’t have to be a winner to win over the hearts of New Yorkers, you just have to always hustle hard and if you talk the talk, you better walk the walk.
That blue collar ethic is why Derek Jeter is revered and that swagger is why Mark Messier (below)
is forever loved but Patrick Ewing (R)
creates feelings of ambivalence in many fans. Messier talked brash and won it all. Ewing, as great as he was and as respected as he is, will forever be remembered by many fans for his empty guarantees of a championship.
Realistically, the chances of either the Knicks or St. Johns winning titles this season are slim, but they have reemerged and become the one thing that you have to be in New York-relevant. And as the chill of winter recedes, all one has to do is go to the nearest park and watch kids and adults, wealthy and poor, all races, religions and ideologues playing the one game that defines New Yorkers. And ask the question that never gets old: Who’s got next?