New York City: You know it. You may or may not have ever been there, but you know all about it, and for good reason. New York City, like London, Paris, and Tokyo, is a place that transcends its geography. It has become a brand name which is synonymous with everything chic, cool, and modern in the United States and in other parts of the world. Brands that come out of there tend to be associated with popularity and success. That being the case, the same reputation is frequently applied to the professional sports teams that call New York City their home.
That being said, one of the NBA’s regal alpha teams is the New York Knickerbockers, who are better known by their shortened stage name, the Knicks. The Knicks play in the center of everything, the legendary Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. Every professional sports team that plays in New York City, of course, has to qualify itself using “the.” The New York Team! They have money, worldwide fans, and oodles of trophies, right? Look at the classic teams there: MLB has the Yankees, who have won the World Series 27 times, which is more than any other team has ever played in it. They’ve also had 13 additional years in which they’ve played in the Fall Classic but lost. The NFL’s Giants have generally had to deal with more parity than the Yankees, but they’ve still reeled in eight total Championships. That’s more than every team except the 13-time champion Green Bay Packers and nine-time champion Chicago Bears. If you want to factor out the pre-Super Bowl Era titles, the Giants have won four of those, which is still damn impressive. And the NHL’s Rangers are an Original Six team with their name engraved on the Stanley Cup for four years. Even the outcast rebel expansion teams don’t fare as badly as they’re joked to: The Metropolitans are MLB’s most successful expansion team, with five Pennants and two World Series titles. The Jets have only been in one Super Bowl, but they won it, and it’s considered to be a fulcrum game among most NFL buffs which brought respectability to the AFL. And hockey’s Islanders actually spent a full decade one-upping the Rangers as the area’s top dog.
It goes to figure the Knicks would be a storied, decorated team which is always among the best and most dangerous teams in the NBA, right? Well, they’re definitely storied. But as far as decorated goes, fans are going on a wait of 45 years for the team’s next title. If and when the Knicks bring it back home… It will be their third in what is perhaps the most unbalanced professional sports league in the country. Their two titles has them tied with the Houston Rockets. If everything goes right for them and wrong for a lot of other teams, the Knicks can soon boost their Championship numbers to even and surpass at least some of the teams that have more: The Miami Heat, Detroit Pistons, Philadelphia 76ers (three each), Golden State Warriors (four), San Antonio Spurs (five), and Chicago Bulls (six). Just don’t expect them to catch the Los Angeles Lakers (16) or Boston Celtics (17) anytime soon. Or, you know, like, EVER.
The NBA is the kid of the big four professional sports leagues plus MLS. College basketball was getting to be popular in New York City in the mid-40’s, so sportswriter Max Kase started kicking around the idea of starting a professional league so post-graduation college stars could keep on showing off. While professional basketball was around already, what came from Kase ultimately turned into the Basketball Association of America, which today’s NBA traces as its immediate lineage. Of course, starting up a professional sports league required placing a team in New York City, and Kase intended to take the reins there himself. When it came time to start handing out the teams, though, a college basketball promoter named Ned Irish made a separate presentation for a New York City team that even Kase admitted was better than his. Kase relented and the team was given to Irish.
Irish wanted a good, distinct, New Yorkey name for his new team, and since professional basketball wasn’t much of a thing back then, he couldn’t just throw a big fan contest. So he got his staff together and had them all cast their personal votes in a hat. When all the votes were tallied up, Knickerbockers was the winner. The name, a literature reference, came from legendary American author Washington Irving. He used the name Diedrich Knickerbocker as a pseudonym for his book A History of New York in what was basically an early version of a viral advertising campaign. The name eventually caught on as a way of describing the upper class of New York City, and later as a coverall term for any and all New Yorkers.
The BAA officially presented its product for the first time on November 1, 1946, and it would figure that its first-ever game featured The New York Team. The Knicks took out the Toronto Huskies 68-66 at The Garden, with Leo Gottlieb leading the team in scoring with 14 points. The Knicks finished the season 33-27, made the playoffs, and beat the Cleveland Rebels in the quarterfinals before getting done in by the Philadelphia Warriors in the following round.
The next year, Joe Lapchick took over as coach. He brought a quick-passing style with him, along with six new players. Those players included the first non-caucasion basketball player in the league, Japanese-American guard Wataru Misaka. The original Knicks teams made the playoffs nine years in a row, and in 1950 they made basketball history by signing the first black player: Sweetwater Clifton. Clifton was only the second black player to actually appear in a game because the Knicks waited until four days after another black player, Earl Lloyd, appeared in his first game with the Washington Capitols to debut him. While the Knicks were busy storming racial barriers, they were also turning into a damn good team. With guys like Carl Braun, Dick Holub, and Bud Palmer, the Knicks appeared in three straight Finals starting in 1951. In their first Finals, they fought like hell to pull themselves out of the 3-0 series hole against the Rochester Royals. But like every other basketball team that let themselves get cut up and fall into the 3-0 series hole, they blew it. The next two years also tallied two more Finals losses, both to the Minneapolis Lakers.
Lapchick walked away in 1956 because of health-related concerns, and the dynamic quick-passing style that served them during the BAA and NBA’s infancies pretty much walked out with him. The Knicks spent the next decade or so sort of existing from game to game to let other teams fatten their winning percentages. Their luck and quality of play during those years was perfectly summed up one night in Hershey, Pennsylvania in a game they played against the Warriors. The Warriors had center Wilt Chamberlain, who was a one-man Army that whole season. He was averaging 50 points per game FOR THE YEAR. That’s beyond a video game number. He spent the season going into the half with 30 points on the board already most of the time, so the 41 points he put on the board wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. So it seemed like a random, offhand joke that a pair of Chamberlain’s teammates suggested they just keep passing the ball to him to see how many points he could get. Chamberlain gleefully played along, and he was well over 50 before too much longer. The Knicks gradually woke up to what the Warriors were doing, and by the last quarter, the game turned into a farce. The Knicks started using hard fouls to try to distract The Big Dipper, the Warriors’ coach pulled all his starters except for Chamberlain, and the game ended in a weird foul brawl. The Warriors ended the game with 25 personal fouls while the Knicks had 32. Chamberlain himself had put 100 points on the board in a 169-147 victory while also setting records for field goals attempted (63), field goals made (36), most points in a quarter (31), and most points in a half (59). The Knicks were humiliated after that. The next night, Chamberlain got permission to go back to New York City with three Knicks players. Drifting in and out of sleep, he managed to retain a sense of humor about overhearing the New York players hissy-ing about the “SOB who scored 100 points on us.” The next time the two teams met, the Knicks got a standing ovation at Madison Square Garden when they held Chamberlain to “only” 58 points.
It wasn’t until 1964 that the Knicks were able to grab a true big man of their own and start back on the path to glory. Willis Reed was drafted, and the league felt his impact right away. The Knicks finally made their grand return to the playoffs in 1966, where they… Lost in the semis! And with the Knicks starting the following year by pissing the first half away, they made their biggest, best change yet by firing their coach. That was when they nabbed a little man named Red Holzman, kickstarting what is still the Golden Era of the Knicks. Holzman introduced a brand of intelligent small ball and successfully salvaged the season, made the playoffs, and got promptly vanquished by the Philadelphia 76ers. But Holzman had a technique and a plan, and he would be damned to let a little setback like that overtake his team.
Before much longer, Holzman was guiding players like Reed, Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, and Dave DeBusschere and the Knicks were a force. In 1969, the Knicks finally made it through the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 1953. Although they got knocked off by the Boston Celtics like everyone else on Earth, their time was about to come. At one point during the 1970 season, the team won 18 straight games, which was the record at the time. The Knicks went 60-22, burned the Baltimore Bullets and Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs, and met their old foes in the Finals: The Lakers! Or depending on whether or not you split the timeline, perhaps it was their new foes; the Lakers had moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles since their last meeting against the Knicks in the Finals. Either way, the Lakers made it a memorable series and took it the distance. With the series tied at two in the fifth game, Reed tore a muscle in the second quarter, but that didn’t stop the Knicks from rallying out of a 16-point deficit to win the game. Reed sat out game six only for his team to lose. He apparently got a little bit frustrated having to take in the game courtside, because he decided to fight through his pain in game seven and take the hardwood again. He put New York’s first four points on the board and then he… Did nothing else! Those four points were the only ones he scored during the game. The Knicks did take a hell of a mental boost from him, though, and won the game 113-99 for their first title.
The Knicks continued their dominance for the next few years, culminating with their second title in 1973. Reed retired in 1974. But when the team realized it had done all the damage it was gonna do when Reed was around, they brought him back – as the coach! Replacing Holzman was undoubtedly a difficult decision, but he spent his last three years hauling in losing records, and that saying in sports about how coaches are only as good as their last game applies even to unquestioned legends like him. Reed was signed for three years, and he can’t be called bad. The Knicks went 43-39 with him, went to the playoffs, and were swept in the semis by the 76ers. As for the following two years, Red Holzman won 70 games over the next two seasons. Wait, you ask, what happened to Reed? Yeah, about that. He started his second season 6-8 and was dumped and the Knicks brought back Holzman. Holzman only stayed for one more year after that before retiring, but in the 1981 season, he showed Knicks fans a flash of what his great teams used to be. 1981 ended with the Knicks at 50-32. They went back to the playoffs, but the Chicago Bulls swept them in short order.
The Knicks spent the early 80’s in that good-not-great territory. Yes, they posted winning records and made the playoffs. Yes, Bernard King was worth the admission price. But they were finally struggling by 1985 in ways that don’t get fixed by band-aids. Finishing 24-58, the Knicks were entered into the NBA’s first-ever draft lottery. It was like destiny; they ended up winning the first overall pick. And what a pick he turned out to be! This was the 80’s, and by now the NBA had shed its dark, uncertain roots and financial struggles. The league was finally putting its foot forward and establishing itself as an equal peer to the two other major American sports leagues, MLB and the NFL. They had a trio of transcendent athletes setting up shop as pop culture icons: The Lakers and Celtics continued their ongoing rivalry with a duo of stars, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird respectively, whose careers were parallel and nearly equal. Meanwhile, the Bulls had Michael Jordan, whose ungodly abilities were smashing records all over the place. But it was strange that the team in the center of the universe didn’t have one. But after the 1985 draft, they did. They used their first pick on center Patrick Ewing, who went on to become the greatest Knick.
Ewing finally had the Knicks on the right track at the end of the 80’s, but it was in the 90’s that the team finally emerged as one of the NBA’s best. The hiring of Pat Riley in 1991 was a boon, and the Knicks collected players like Charles Oakley, John Starks, and Derek Harper. Riley, unable to use that set of players to replicate his legendary Showtime Lakers teams, went a whole different way: He turned the Knicks into one of the most brutal defensive teams in the NBA. Led by Ewing, the Knicks became one of the league’s marquee teams, and were a constant favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals. There was just one problem: Michael and the Jordanaires over in Chicago kept getting in the way. New York/Chicago matches became must-watch basketball, but the Knicks couldn’t seem to bring themselves out on the winning end when it really counted. The Knicks gave the Bulls everything they had, but Jordan’s six rings speak for New York’s success in those days. The Knicks finally got a huge break in 1994: Jordan retired to pursue his passion for baseball. Ewing and crew took advantage of the situation, and while the Indiana Pacers – and their celebrated Knick-killer Reggie Miller – gave them a scare in the conference finals, the Knicks finally punched through. They ran smack into the Houston Rockets in the Finals, though, and in seven hard-fought defensive games, the Rockets prevailed. The Knicks returned to the playoffs the following year and were finished off by the Pacers in the second round this time. The next year, Jordan returned to the sport he was actually good at, and the NBA bowed to him again for the next few years.
The Knicks had to wait until Jordan’s second retirement in 1999 for another shot. In the lockout-shortened season, the Knicks crept into the playoffs by latching on to the last seed. This is normally a quick ride to the golf course, but with most teams a little creaky and out of shape that year, the Knicks were able to get through the window and beat the top-seeded Miami Heat. In the second round, they overtook the Atlanta Hawks. Another date with Reggie Miller waited for them in the conference finals, and the Knicks lost Ewing to injury during the series. Even so, they stifled Miller and became the first eighth seed to reach the Finals. They were easily dispatched by David Robinson, Tim Duncan, and the rest of the San Antonio Spurs in five games, but that they got that far was a hell of a thing.
That was the last thrill for awhile. In September of 2000, Ewing started the regular season as usual – not as a Knickerbocker, but as a player for the Seattle Supersonics. The Knicks decided they had extracted his best – and they had – and that they had gone as far as they could have gotten with him. So he was traded out. He spent that year in Seattle before going to the Orlando Magic the next year, then called it a career after 2002. The Knicks, meanwhile, had one more successful year to kick off their post-Ewing years. They went 48-34 with Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell leading the way, but that was it. The next year, coach Jeff Van Gundy (who was hired during the 1996 season) retired without warning. The Knicks compiled a losing record and missed the playoffs for the first time in well over a decade.
Things got pretty rotten by 2003, and the Knicks sought to smooth over their problems by hiring a new president. Enter Isiah Thomas, the former Detroit Pistons superstar. Did Thomas set out to hire a Chuck Daly to restore the vicious defense that defined the Pistons during their glory era? No! He did hire Lenny Wilkins, a coaching legend in his own right who had guided the otherwise nondescript Hawks to many of their best years, and previously won a title coaching the Sonics. But while Wilkins got the team back to the playoffs – albeit with a 39-43 record – he didn’t get along with Thomas, and resigned in a huff after a year and a half. While Thomas scored a major deal by nabbing Stephon Marbury in a trade, he also took the New York Yankees method of team-building: Pay, pay, and pay some more! Soon the Knicks had a fat-ass payroll and nothing to show for it. He also had a bad habit of not lottery-protecting his picks, which resulted in his forfeiture of two first-rounders. An effort to right the ship brought Larry Brown in to coach, but with the team in chaos and tatters, even the brilliant Brown couldn’t do anything. His lone season coaching the Knicks resulted in a 23-59 record and a firing – which he probably deserved as karmic retribution for walking out on the Pistons the way he did. (He tends to do that.)
Years of that entertaining suckitude hell followed; the Knicks were now a goofball organization. They hired Mike D’Antoni in 2008 to try and repair what Thomas did. Thomas himself was canned in April of that year, not for putting up a lot of bad records, but because the Knicks got hit with a sexual harassment lawsuit the year before due to a claim made against him by another team executive. It wasn’t until 2010 that the Knicks developed anything resembling a plan. They managed to sign Amar’e Stoudemire that year in free agency, and that was followed up in February of 2011 by a trade for Denver Nuggets superstar Carmelo Anthony. They got the Knicks back into the playoffs, and the following couple of years, the Knicks at least gave their fans a good time and a lot of thrills. Tyson Chandler was signed while Iman Shumpert, Jeremy Lin, and JR Smith all emerged. They even won the division in 2013. Sadly, the team coagulation was undone in rather short order. Phil Jackson was hired; not to coach, as you would expect a man who won 11 NBA titles as a coach would, but to be the president. Unfortunately, Jackson is proving to be a giant bust. He laments that the Knicks aren’t playing the Triangle – the offensive style he specialized in as coach – but people who know more about basketball than me all seem to believe the Triangle is long outdated. He is also a PR disaster. On the upside, they did manage to steal Kristaps Porzingas in the 2015 draft. He was named to the All-Rookie First Team and is looking like a keeper.
The Knicks have retired nine numbers; they’re for Walt Frazier, Dick Barnett, Earl Monroe, Dick McGuire, Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley, Patrick Ewing, and 613 for Red Holzman. That’s the number of games he won as coach. The best of those players depends on who you ask. A lot of people will vouch for Frazier or Reed, because they were the keystones of the championship teams. Others will throw their support behind Ewing, a dominant big man for years who never managed to actually close. It wasn’t entirely his fault – he was just another victim of Michael and the Jordanaires, but there’s a surprising number of people who hold that against him. It’s as if every superstar except Ewing managed to win a title, which isn’t true. Charles Barkley never won a title despite carrying some good Sixers teams and a couple of great Phoenix Suns teams. Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton never pulled it off with the Sonics; they put up 64 wins one year, which would ordinarily lead the NBA, but in the Finals, they had the lack of fortune to have to play against a Bulls team that put up an absurd 72 wins. Between 1980 and 1999, only the Lakers, Celtics, Pistons, Bulls, and Rockets won titles; the lone aberration was the Dr. J/Moses Malone Sixers who took home their only title in 1983. The Knicks also the the distinction of fielding Phil Jackson back when he was a player. Jackson wasn’t great on the court. He did contribute to the championship teams, but there’s a reason his accomplishments as a coach supercede anything he did as a player.
The idea that Ewing was a playoff choker became so dominant that popular sports pundit Bill Simmons created a formula called Ewing Theory based on it. He created it during the 1999 playoffs, after Ewing was injured against the Pacers and everyone wrote the Knicks off, only for them to make the Finals. Ewing Theory is the idea that teams become inexplicably better after losing their star. For it to work, two elements have to be there: The first is that the team has a star player who gets showered with media attention despite never winning anything significant. The second is that the team gets written off when he’s absent. Of course, many people who believe this fail to note that Simmons is a Boston fan, so his opinions really don’t count for anything, especially not when that thing is New York-related. There are a lot of holes in the so-called Ewing Theory. One is that before that injury took him down, Ewing missed all of 20 games total in the previous 10 years. So even if Ewing Theory was true, it’s not like Simmons was working with excess evidence in creating it. Ewing joined the Knicks in 1985, during a run where the Knicks had made the playoffs just four times in the last ten years. From 1988 to 2000, they went to the playoffs every season and were one of the best teams in the NBA. They had a shot at beating a Bulls team in 1997 which won 69 games. That year, they denied the Bulls their second straight 70-win year by beating them in Chicago during the regular season finale. And knowing Jordan’s obsessive competitiveness, are you going to insist he was resting himself for the playoffs and didn’t want that 70th victory? During the 1999 playoffs – which Ewing theory was invented around – the Knicks were 8-3 with Ewing and 4-5 without him. So yeah, Ewing Theory is utter bullshit and only a Boston sports fan would be dumb enough to believe it.
As for those other players, there’s no doubt they were all great. But they weren’t the transcendents you would expect The New York Team to have, either. Maybe Frazier and Reed are there – MAYBE – if we argue hard enough. You could say that the league didn’t begin to really have players who transcended the sport and became household names, cultural icons, who created interest until the 80’s. But that’s not true, or at least not as true as one making that argument would believe. Before the 80’s, the NBA had players like Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Rick Barry, Pete Maravich, Bob Lanier, Julius Erving, and Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Although a few of the current and recent Knicks – Stoudamire, Chandler, Anthony, and maybe Joakim Noah – have some kind of marketing power, Ewing remains the team’s undisputed king there. While the others are great players, a lot of their transcendence comes by merit of playing for The New York Team.
And that’s the real draw for the fans of the Knicks. The New York Team always gets attention. Not only are the Knicks a beloved civic institution, they’re also one of the NBA’s worldwide jewels, which makes them a tourist attraction as well. That’s why owner James Dolan can get away with being a dipshit who would rather be a blues musician than a good businessman – he knows the people will pay up. It’s also a draw for the many international fans of the NBA who love them – if they travel to America, there will be Knicks fans anywhere there are NBA fans. It’s the Knicks who are always getting national coverage and games. My personal NBA loyalties have drifted all over the place, but when I returned from Chicago to Buffalo and sank into the nastiest depression of my life, the Knicks were one of the diversions I turned to, and as a result, they’re the one NBA team I always find myself going back to, no matter how much they embarrass me. That’s unusual there – among basketball fans, the one team that seems to have the most upstate New York loyalties is the Celtics. (Of course, it helps that I have an unwavering loyalty to my sports heritage and therefore can’t say any team from Boston will ever be my team.) It was the Knicks they always showed on MSG, and the Knicks who always had their classic games on at some point during the days. So it was easy for me – as well as other fans – to notice them and have their imaginations captured.
That also makes the Knicks unique in that they have an army of fans more famous than their players. Yes, yes, the Lakers, but for every celebrity you see sitting courtside, the Lakers always seem to have one on their team. Everyone knows the Lakers players; a few of them are even one-name guys: Magic, Worthy, Kareem, Kobe, and Shaq. Most Knicks players – Patrick Ewing excepted – don’t seem to be quite as famous as people rooting for them. Spike Lee is a notable longtime fan who got into a few spats with Reggie Miller of the Pacers. Woody Allen is another one. Ben Stiller, David Duchovny, and Tom Hanks are all Knicks fans. Hell, Derek Jeter is a Knicks fan!
Be that as it is, the Knicks are also known as the NBA’s most valuable team. They’re also one of the NBA’s ambassador teams, so you can always count on them to visit other countries to play international games.
If the NBA has a version of baseball’s Chicago Cubs, it’s probably the Knicks. They haven’t won anything in what feels like eons, but they’re in that weird situation where they still attract tons of bandwagon fans and lots of loyals. And you know what? It’s still damn good to be a New York Knickerbockers fan. They attract talent no matter what. They usually put on an entertaining show. They’re easy to follow, and they have fans everywhere. And even though they’re having a nasty title drought, their ability to attract great players means they’ll always have the potential to explode. Or at least put on one hell of a show.
Extensive media coverage means they’re easy to follow; you won’t be accused of bandwagoning; they have fans everywhere; their name is one of the coolest literary references in sports; after a brief scare, they’ve proved to have far more marquee power than the Brooklyn Nets; overshadow the NHL’s New York Rangers, who play in the same building and are run by the same owner
Haven’t won a title in decades and aren’t exactly threatening to take their next one anytime soon; owner is deservedly known as one of the worst in sports – he would rather moonlight as a bad blues musician than run his team; worldwide fame is arguably undeserved; basketball tourists making their pilgrimages to Madison Square Garden will always act as a buffer against any fan rebellion
Should you be a fan?
Hey, like I said, it’s good to be a Knicks fan. No, they haven’t won anything in awhile, but the sheer number of intangible non-basketball factors they have going for them will ensure they stumble into one eventually. Even if they don’t, following them is fun enough to be satisfying no matter what.