Letter from an Editor: The Power of Sports by Jake May ’19

My father has been a die-hard Knicks fan for his whole life. In the 1990s, when the Knicks were the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, my dad was a season ticket-holder. Unfortunately, the best team in the East at that time was the unstoppable Chicago Bulls, led by Michael Jordan. During the 90s, my dad routinely witnessed the Knicks lose big game after big game, never quite being able to overcome the Bulls’ greatness. While occasionally the Knicks brought my father joy, for the most part, they only brought disappointment.

Upon reaching the age when I was old enough to understand sports—which for me was six years old—it was only fair that I join my dad in his Knicks-induced sorrow. During my childhood, the Knicks were an aggressively terrible basketball team. But as a kid, I didn’t harbor the animosity toward the team that many older fans did. I remember going to games at Madison Square Garden and refusing to leave early even though the Knicks were being annihilated by their opponent. I remember being confused and concerned when the Knicks were being booed by their own fans. I begged my dad to get me the jersey of the overpaid, aging players for which the team had foolishly acquired. Back then, I thoroughly enjoyed being a Knicks fan.

As I’ve grown older, this recreational enthusiasm has morphed instead into a mixture of optimistic obsession and woeful obligation. I still care deeply about the success of the New York Knicks, and I am often optimistic about the team. For example, in 2015, the Knicks used their first-round draft pick on Kristaps Porzingis, a 19-year-old, seven-foot-tall Latvian. Many Knicks fans were dismayed at this decision, as tall European prospects have a history of being draft busts. Furthermore, the Knicks have a history of completely botching draft-picks, so the fans’ concern was quite understandable. However, for some reason, I chose that moment to be optimistic. On the night of the draft, I posted to Facebook: “I don’t care what you say, I love Kristaps.” If I remember correctly, the post received zero likes, as most did not share in my enthusiasm. As the 2015-16 NBA season approached, the doubts about Porzingis continued to fester among Knicks media and fans.

By the middle of the ’15-’16 season, everything changed. Kristaps Porzingis was proving through excellent play that, even as a rookie, he was a transcendent talent, more than worth the first-round pick we spent on him. Porzingis was challenging the equally impressive Karl-Anthony Towns for rookie of the year honors. He was making three-pointers from way beyond the arc. He was actually good! His success was hard for many Knicks fans to believe; our team’s drafting history is plagued with mistakes, misfortune, and missed opportunities. But finally, we had found our home-grown savior, not an aging superstar for which we traded, but a young, exciting player around whom we could build a team. At that point, the rest of the Knicks world—from the team itself, to the media, to the fans—had joined me in my Kristaps-inspired optimism. Everything seemed to be working out nicely.

Cut to early February of this year. Things were going fine for the Knicks; they were not quite good enough to contend in the playoffs, but also were too good to “tank” (a strategy in which a team accepts that they are bad and gladly loses as many games as possible in order to get an advantageous pick in the draft). This predicament was certainly not the most desirable; however, because of our great Latvian hope, Knicks fans remained optimistic.

Then, on the evening of Tuesday, February 6th, as I casually followed the Knicks’ contest against the Milwaukee Bucks while trying to complete a physics problem set, I received an ominous text from my dad: “Oh no…Kristaps,” the blue bubble read. I sat silently, stunned. That text could only mean one thing. A moment later, my dread was confirmed. An ESPN notification appeared on my phone alongside my father’s text; “Kristaps Porzingis Goes Down with Significant Knee Injury” was the gist of it. Later that night, it was reported that Kristaps Porzingis — our great liberator, our basketball shepherd, our deliverer of optimism—had torn his ACL. Porzingis won’t play again for at least 10 months, if not more, and even when he returns, it’s likely he’ll never be the same player again. We’d lost our savior.

As a Knicks fan, I am no stranger to tough losses. In the 2000s, I watched our inept general manager Isiah Thomas make bad deal after bad deal; in the early 2010s, I watched a team that could have been great devolve into a mess of in-fighting and ball-hogging. Since I have been following the Knicks, they have only won a single playoff series. I—along with all Knicks fans—have suffered my fair share of disappointment

But this disappointment was different. This was unfair. The previous plights could be explained—incompetent management, an aging team, an inexperienced team, et cetera. This time, there was nothing to blame. Porzingis simply landed awkwardly after dunking. It could have happened to anyone. But of course it happened to the Knicks; each time our team has been surrounded with optimism, the basketball gods find a new way to spoil it.

In that moment, as I read and re-read the ESPN notification, I wished I was not a sports fan. I wished that my dad had spared me and urged me to ignore the NBA. I wished that I could disregard my deep emotional ties to the Knicks and understand that it’s just a basketball team. Here, though, is where that woeful obligation side of my fandom kicks in. I have given too much to the Knicks: too much time spent watching games when I should’ve been doing homework, too many trips home from The Garden with a hoarse voice from cheering, too many Knicks-related phone calls with my dad. I can’t just turn my back on them now, even if I tried. One day, I believe, the Knicks will deliver their end of the bargain. When the Knicks win the NBA championship, my commitment, my fandom and my obsession will all seem worthwhile. But right now, it feels awfully worthless.

jmay19@amherst.edu

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