SOMETIME LAST WEEK, art enthusiast Carmelo Anthony, via Twitter, said the following: “The goal is to win a championship. I think about it all day long.” When combined with the photo which accompanied the tweet, of a shyly, or perhaps coyly smiling Melo gazing off into the middle distance, it inspired me to hum, for reasons shrouded in murk and mist, R. Kelly’s 1996 hit “I Believe I Can Fly.” Across my mental high def monitor flashed scenes of Melo standing in a cornfield with his arms stretched out in messianic beatitude, Melo shooting a 15-footer in super-slo-mo, Melo striving, Melo feeling, perhaps even a single crystalline tear rolling poignantly down his cheek.
Straight-up camp, right? Especially when you gnaw on the connection to the live-action/animated basketball romp Space Jam (to say nothing of R. Kelly himself, and his penchant for the unintentionally bizarre; see: “Trapped in the Closet”). But then, given that this is the New York Knicks that we’re talking about, camp is in fact probably the correct tone, the proper line of approach. Right on the money, in fact.
HOW I GOT MYSELF into this mess isn’t entirely clear, but the irreducible truth is stark: I’m a Knicks fan. After an inexplicable estrangement from basketball I returned to the game, hat in hand, and to the team I realized, though I might try to deny it, that was right for me. Ewing, Starks, Mark Jackson, Oakley, Charlie Ward, Chris Childs, et al, the Game 7 loss to the Rockets, those series against Reggie Miller and the Pacers, and of course all those Knicks-Heat street fights, those seven game, scorched earth, take no prisoners, leave no survivor wars that closed out the twentieth century and left me with a strong dislike for Alonzo Mourning. It didn’t hurt that the Beastie Boys’ Mike D wore that great Knicks ringer t-shirt in the video for “So Whatcha Want” (such things can carry great weight when you’re 17). These are the ingredients, I suppose, of fandom, or of my particular fandom, for this particular team. Love has been built on less, I’m certain, and survived worse. And there’s just something about the way blue and orange go together, don’t you think?
SO, HERE WE ARE, at the dawn of the 2012-13 season. Last year was a hell of a ride, what with Linsanity, and coach Mike d’Antoni’s exit, and Anthony’s play down the stretch hauling the team into the seventh slot in the East — probably undeserved, truth be told — and an eventual first round exit, listless and flat, at the hands of those same Heat (actually, a very different Miami team), the eventual champs (in case you forgot).
And how has GM Glen Grunwald set the Knickerbockers up to take that next step? By letting Lin walk, of course, placing faith in Melo, mainly as a small forward, and — who? Exciting young guard Iman Shumpert? Sure, once he returns from knee injury, in December at the earliest. Raymond Felton, back for another go-around with New York? Maybe. Likely it’ll be an incoherent puzzle with mismatched pieces like J.R. Smith (and somewhere way down the depth chart, his brother Chris), and the ancient Jason Kidd gobbling up a few minutes here and there. The scarier scenario has coach Mike Woodson leaning on Kidd to play heavy minutes and chip in real scoring help.
In the middle, Tyson Chandler will still be on hand to provide defense, and he’ll get some help from Marcus Camby.
Up front, Amar’e Stoudemire, whose knees still technically exist, but only just barely, will be backed up by Rasheed Wallace. Rasheed Wallace! Cue the video highlight montage, with def New Jack Swing backing beats.
So what I’m trying to say is that, while the Knicks won’t technically be the oldest NBA squad of all time (per the eggheads at Harvard), a goodly chunk of this unit has been in and around the Association since back when teal was first a thing. And what I’m really trying to say is: don’t expect too much, competition-wise, from the ‘12-13 Knicks. This is a team built to make the playoffs, but little more.
OH, BUT THE REAL VALUE of the latest incarnation of your New York Knicks will be of the entertainment variety, and it’s what I, having fully invested in the scenario laid out in the previous paragraph, am looking forward to most. It is, truthfully, a defensive tactic on my part, a matter of milking all I can from an old cow. If they can’t seriously contend with the Miamis of this world, I might as well view the whole thing as a season-long reality TV show. I mean, consider the zany cast.
The starting five:
Tyson Chandler, Centre: Enjoys wearing scarves. Hobbies include photography and collage. Recently mounted an exhibition of his own work in NYC. Teammates attended, shuffled around exhibit space, made jokes, took photographs. Chandler may be the Knick most likely to leave the team mid-season for a spiritual retreat.
Carmelo Anthony: The hinge. The Knick most likely to have his wax double installed at Madame Tussaud’s.
Amar’e Stoudemire, Forward: Has his own record label, writes children’s books, designs clothing (“George Clooney,” Stoudemire told Esquire, “that man can wear a tux.”), writes poetry. Endured dark times during recovery from career-threatening knee injury suffered while with Phoenix, emerged a more assured, creative, independent player and individual, albeit less explosive when headed toward the rim. The Knick most likely to become a basketball-playing ascetic, leaving the material trappings of this world behind in order to devote himself in monastic fashion to the game and his team.
Iman Shumpert, Guard: Young, fast, streaky. Injured, due to return midway through the season. Best. Hightop. Fade. In. The. League. Knick most likely to ask you who Kid’n Play were, even though he owes them a great stylistic debt (breezy, fresh, none too deep, unabashedly populist, with great cross-platform marketing potential).
Raymond Felton, Guard: “Better than Jeremy Lin,” by his own estimation. Former Tar Heel who has bounced around the league in search of a home. “NBA PG and Businessman,” according to his Twitter bio (@Mr_Felton02). Knicks traded half the EuroLeague to get him back for a second stint, and his arrival and subsequent extension made Lin’s departure all but official. As Lin’s nominal replacement, he is the Knick most likely to be booed by MSG crowds if the team struggles early.
Marcus Camby, Centre: Second overall pick by the Raptors in ‘96. Known as a good defender. Getting old. Hobbies include marijuana possession. The Knick most likely to possess marijuana.
Rasheed Wallace, Forward: Sheed retired from professional basketball in 2010 after a stint with the Celtics. Between his debut in ‘95 and that abortive retirement, when he played for the Pistons (twice), Blazers, and Hawks, he was known as an aggressive, passionate player. Is that the way to put it? How about this: Rasheed Wallace is the NBA’s all-time leader in technical fouls, with over 300. Will he add to that figure with the Knicks, or did retirement mellow Sheed? I’m betting the former, therefore: The Knick most likely to earn a technical foul.
Ronnie Brewer, Forward: Good defender, good shooter, albeit with an unorthodox style, apparently due to an injury suffered on a water slide when he was a kid. If you saw a kid shooting like that on the playground, you’d laugh at him. But then he’d shut you up by averaging 18 points a game at Arkansas, getting drafted in the first round by Utah, and going on to play with Memphis and Chicago before signing with the Knicks. Still, the Knick most likely to be made fun of by his teammates for his unorthodox shooting style.
J.R. Smith, Guard: Bad driver. Don’t let J.R. Smith drive your car; his hobby is crashing cars (including Melo’s, when they were teammates in Denver). Also impatient. Went to China to play with the Zhejiang Golden Bulls of the Chinese Basketball Association. In his haste, Smith failed to negotiate an opt-out clause in the eventuality that the NBA solved its labour crisis before the end of the CBA season. As a result, when his Association peers had a new agreement in place and returned to action on Christmas Day, Smith couldn’t join the fun. He was stuck in China until the close of the CBA campaign. Shockingly, his Golden Bulls missed the playoffs, and Smith promptly signed with the Knicks. The Knick most likely to total a car worth more than your house.
Jason Kidd, Guard: Old. Hobbies include catching DUIs and having front lawn chats with the po-po. Still an effective player, but when a guy’s 39 you have to figure the clock is winding down. Knick most likely to fall asleep right after dinner.
THERE ARE OTHER PLAYERS in the mix too, of course, including sharp shooting Steve Novak, and Kurt Thomas, the oldest of the bunch at 40. But if the team is to have any success beyond my tepid prognostication, it’ll be because of Melo.
CARMELO KIYAN ANTHONY is probably no more inscrutable or in any way more superficial than any individual who has had success in his or her chosen game. Such people are a special sort of human being, perhaps prone to rash acts, and given to such quirks as commissioning portraits of themselves to hang over a fireplace (as Anthony has a habit of doing). Whether their lifestyles and the delicate handling by parents, coaches and peers shapes their personalities or such compartmentalized psyches and transparent egos are intrinsic to the makeup of people who excel at sport is a futile, chicken and egg argument. You can get your head turned around trying to solve it. What is apparent is that Melo has in the past seemed both fragile and hot tempered.
Every fan is an amateur psychologist, and we can all cite well documented examples to support our diagnosis of a given player as troubled, or difficult, or just not worth the bother. The biggest red flag in Anthony’s file is probably his role in a brawl at Madison Square Garden back in `06 when he was a Nugget, and New York`s Mardy Collins collared J.R. Smith (then also a Nugget) and brought him down hard, and the benches spilled before the officials did their thing. But then Anthony swung a fist into Collins’ face and scampered down to the other end of the floor. In that sequence a lot of us found all the evidence we needed to brand Melo a hot-headed thug who runs from his problems.
Melo is a Knick now, and he does most of his talking with pull-up jumpers and quick drives. He’s married and deeply invested in his charitable work and seems to have settled into his nickname. He says most of the right things, and the Knicks’ offence is unquestionably his to captain. He’s the hinge — The Hinge — and in the biggest, most scrutinized sports market on planet Earth his performance will be extensively dissected, to say nothing of his personal life. But if he can handle that pressure (and the vast majority of human beings can’t), he has long possessed the sort of skills that make it possible for a person to carry an entire team — in this case, a collection of assorted creaky parts — on his back and will them deep into the playoffs.
But I really don’t see that happening this season.
THE QUESTION I’M TRYING to ignore but which is implicit in this discussion: don’t fans simply want their team to win? Well, yes. But then, fans are also realists (except when they’re not), and though my desire is to be transported by the epic narrative of sport, not since I was a kid have I been able to see through my favourite teams’ obvious shortcomings and off into the mythical mists of an improbable championship run.
So what do I want? Though a seemingly simple question, this is in fact a pretty a sticky one. The simple answer is that I want the Knicks to win a trophy. But given the above acknowledgements of their shortcomings, can I truly believe such a thing likely enough to warrant investing the sort of hope — as risky as that emotion is — in this collection of guys?
This is where I’m loath to go, thought-experiment-wise, because answering that would require getting more big picture, like What do fans really want from their teams?, and from there we telescope all the way out to Why do we watch? i.e. What is the essential nature of spectation? Drilling down into that question would necessitate asking something along the lines of Why do we play? or What is recreation and is it a necessary condition of living? From there, questions about the nature of humanity, and associated undergrad-toke-passing topics, the answers to which would threaten to pull us all the way back to the primordial soup, or possibly into scripture, depending on your bias.
So I’m not doing that. Instead, I’m going to focus on what I know I want, which is to say things with a great likelihood of occurring, and that’s a fun list. It includes one or more on-court meltdowns, heated press conferences, damage to property, Rasheed Wallace making gloriously inappropriate comments in the press, J.R. Smith totalling a Maybach, suspensions, internal strife, Woodson running out of excuses and finally refusing to give any, Amar’e tweeting cryptic, anguished messages, Chandler retreating emotionally and seeking refuge in his art and, yes, a few moments of sporting transcendence from Melo. Drama, in short, and comedy; entertainment.
This isn’t to say I don’t harbour some faint hope, like a tiny candle buried deep within my ribcage, that astronomical odds won’t be beat and Broadway won’t be choked with a celebratory blue-and-orange throng come June, but that, even in the absence of wins, I plan to wring pleasure from the Knicks this season. Like the grotesque thrill of watching one Real Housewife of Orange County rip into another, the Knicks will satisfy. Yes, in the absence of great expectations there can yet flourish great wonder, great excitement, great distraction. For this year, anyway, that’s all I ask.