A Knicks banner was raised to the rafters on Dec. 27, enshrining a glorious achievement. It was placed next to the one that reads 1972–73 WORLD CHAMPIONS. Another banner went up on Dec. 28. And another on Jan. 2, Jan. 3, Jan. 4, Jan. 6 and Jan. 19.
The sheer mass of celebratory tapestries would be enough to make the Garden girders sag … if they were in fact embroidered cloth, rather than mere pixels on a computer screen. Alas, neither the banners nor the triumphs hold much weight.
“Knicks somehow beat the s--- out of the Bucks,” proclaimed the Dec. 27 banner, a dashed-off digital replica of the real thing. “It’s January and the Knicks don’t have a losing record!!!!!” the Jan. 2 banner exulted. “The Super Bowl is tomorrow and the Knicks are the 6-seed today,” noted the Feb. 6 banner.
Sure, the feats are modest and the banners are photoshopped, but the joy and the optimism (albeit a pointedly wry optimism) is quite real. The New York Knickerbockers—for years the NBA’s most hapless franchise, a perpetual font of dysfunction and controversy, the butt of a thousand late-night jokes—suddenly appear, well, competent. Respectable, even.
The Knicks of 2020–21 play defense. They compete consistently. They win games they’re expected to lose. They surprise. They delight! Immanuel Quickley, their rookie point guard, at times looks electric. Julius Randle, their journeyman forward, is playing like an All-Star. RJ Barrett, their second-year swingman, is, um, evolving. Under the gravelly guidance of new coach Tom Thibodeau, everyone looks a little sharper, more focused, more organized.
As of this writing, the Knicks are 11–15, occupying ninth place in the Eastern Conference. No, they are not a great team. They are not even a sure bet to make the playoffs. But something good is happening. And you, dear reader, are going to hear about it from Knicks fans—especially if you, dear reader, spend any time at all perusing Knicks Twitter, where Randle is royalty, Quickley’s floaters are high art and every Knicks victory is venerated as if it were Game 7 of the Finals.
You will hear about it because Knicks fans, like the bustling metropolis they represent, are bigger, bolder, louder and brasher than any other NBA clique. And because Knicks Twitter, rooted as it is in the nation’s media capital, is so heavily populated by blue-checkmarked writers, actors, comedians and creatives with outsize influence and massive followings.
The Knicks won? Comedians Desus and Mero will be crowing, possibly profanely and in ALL CAPS. The Knicks lost? Alan Sepinwall, the chief TV critic for Rolling Stone, will be kvetching. The Knicks did something inane? Jason Concepcion, the creator and star of The Ringer’s ultra-popular (and, after his departure for Crooked Media, now-defunct) NBA Desktop, will dutifully smack his beloved team for its stupidity. The Knicks did something wonderful? NBA Twitter star Rob Perez, the ubiquitous @WorldWideWob, will be pumping it out to his 660,000 followers.
And Tommy Beer, a staff writer for Forbes, will be pumping out fake banners to commemorate every apparent sign of progress, no matter how trivial the accomplishment.
On any given night, this incisive (or derisive) Knicks commentary could be coming from actors Ben Stiller and Michael Rapaport; writer Brian Koppelman (who’s responsible for Billions and Rounders); directors Josh and Benny Safdie (Uncut Gems); former presidential candidate Andrew Yang; ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith; or any of a litany of other New York-based writers who bleed blue and orange—because, well, bleeding and pain is part of being a Knicks fan.
It’s a stubbornly, irrationally hopeful Twitter tribe—but also an acerbic, funny, fatalistic, self-aware and self-deprecating one. There is nothing else quite like it. “The baseline emotion for Knicks Twitter is cynicism,” says Desus Nice, the Bronx-born comedian and co-star of Showtime’s Desus & Mero. “Because it's like, yo, we know, we understand what the Knicks are. We know, but we are ever-optimistic.
“Knicks Twitter is kind of like a digital fever dream, where it's like, The Knicks are great! It’s like a cult. And we all enable each other to believe that the Knicks are the best team in the NBA.”
In normal times, this group enabling would happen at the corner barbershop or the neighborhood bar. So, while Knicks Twitter was thriving long before a pandemic changed our lives, it’s become ever more vital now.
Says Desus: “It's as close to what it felt like being at Madison Square Garden back when the Knicks were good in the ’90s or the ’80s.”
All sports fandom is emotional and inherently irrational, requiring ample doses of wishful thinking. This is our year. This time is different. The new kid’s gonna be a star. The new GM will fix this. The new coach has the answers. Knicks fandom, though, requires a higher level of faith, approaching willful self-delusion.
New York has the NBA’s worst winning percentage (.400) since 2000, coinciding with James L. Dolan’s reign as owner, and fans have witnessed a staggering 980 defeats in that time. Over the last two decades, the Knicks have collected more head coaches (a league-high 11) than playoff wins (nine). They’ve changed front-office leadership eight times, also a league-high, including two separate stints by Steve Mills, who was fired in February 2020. They haven’t made the postseason since 2013, the NBA’s third-longest active drought, behind the Kings and Suns.
Throughout, every 12 to 18 months, a new designated savior arrives—a charismatic GM, a marquee coach, a glitzy rookie, a veteran star—only to be fired or traded or dismissed, ultimately departing a diminished figure. It’s happened to Isiah Thomas and Larry Brown, Mike D’Antoni and Phil Jackson, Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis and, well, too many others to name.
To be a Knicks fan is to endure endless taunts, to see your team dismissed as “a windshield smear,” to have your pain mocked in a Pixar movie, to get dissed by a smack-talking Bulls fan who once resided in the White House. “You definitely were not born the last time y’all won [a title],” Barack Obama, with a wicked grin, told Desus and Mero in December.
“There's got to be some level of magical thinking going on in order to stay a Knicks fan after the last 20 years,” says Sepinwall. “It's not just loyalty and it's not just masochism; there has to be a part of you that year after year is able to convince yourself, O.K., now we're turning the corner, now we're turning the corner, now we're turning the corner. And, you know, so far we have ample evidence in every previous regime that that was not the case.
“This,” Sepinwall says, alluding to the current season, “seems a little different.”
Different, as in: better, more promising, perhaps even sustainable.
It should be noted that Sepinwall made this observation back when the Knicks were 5-3, fresh off victories over the Hawks and Jazz, inspiring ever-higher degrees of confidence among the base. Asked how he felt, Sepinwall responded, “Joy”—but it sounded more like a question. The Knicks promptly lost their next five games, prompting the critic to question the wisdom of this entire conversation, and its karmic implications.
And yet, there’s reason to believe that things are, at long last, different. Meaningfully so. The Knicks rank fifth in the league in defensive efficiency, a clear reflection of Thibodeau’s influence, and a massive leap from last season, when they finished 23rd. And though their offense is mired in the bottom third of the league, there’s promise across the roster.
“I hope it's real,” says Concepcion, somehow conveying both hope and dread.
Hope begins with Randle, a legitimate All-Star candidate who’s averaging career bests in scoring, rebounds and assists. (Sepinwall says he’s “starting to talk myself into the idea of him as a long-term piece, which doesn't feel healthy to me.”) Then there’s Quickley, a late-first-round gem who has mesmerized and tantalized fans with his crafty pick-and-roll game, his heads-up playmaking and his silky midrange floater. And Barrett, a former No. 3 pick who’s showing glimpses of progress after a lackluster rookie season. And Mitchell Robinson, the pogo-stick center, is fouling less, rebounding more and defending with verve. He’s still just 22.
Knicks fans have even fallen for Austin Rivers, the feisty, well-traveled guard whose palpable swagger sometimes exceeds his shot-making ability, like a modern-day John Starks. He made an early mark by exploding for 14 straight fourth-quarter points in a Jan. 6 upset of the Jazz, prompting Desus to propose renaming the Hudson River in his honor. “Austin Rivers is legitimately my favorite Knick right now,” says Concepcion, “which is a shocking development for me.”
Rivers amped up the lovefest after the Utah win, declaring this a new Knicks era while acknowledging the hard work yet to be done. “And that's much different than in the past,” says Desus. “Sometimes, after a four-game losing streak, you’d see Raymond Felton just sighing, and Melo has got an M. Bison hat in the locker room, looking frustrated. The Knicks looked lost. … Like, We tried. That's all we got. This team looks hungry.”
Credit, too, Thibodeau, the hard-driving, raspy-voiced coaching curmudgeon, who demands full effort and accountability, and whose Knicks pedigree (as a former assistant to Jeff Van Gundy) and edgy New York persona instantly endeared him to fans. Mero was sold with a single barked profanity during a game early this season, when the coach called a timeout, pulled his mask down and bellowed, “What the f---?!” at the nearest referee, loudly enough that TV microphones picked it up in the near-empty arena.
“I was like, He's a New Yorker,” says Mero. “He’s officially a New Yorker. Build a statue now.”
Those early wins fueled the bravado and sent Knicks Twitter into hyperdrive. “Julius Randle hit a shot, and I saw like five tweets that just said, Julius Randle is better than [Kevin Durant],” says Desus. “I had to retweet it, because that's what you do as Knicks Twitter. You're terrorists on the timeline, and you make people upset. Like, I'll compare Randle to LeBron, no problem—and I sincerely will believe it for like five minutes. Then I come back to reality.”
Desus often leads his tweets with an acronym, YKTMFKV (“you know the motherf------ Knick vibe,” he laughs), which he does his best here to explain: “[You get] your joy out of making other people upset that you’re a happy Knicks fan. Like, the fact that you, as a Knicks fan, are happy with your life—that upsets Net fans and it upsets Lakers fans and it upsets Heat fans.”
It’s psychological warfare, New York style.
In this NBA fever dream, recent lottery picks Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina are starters, Barrett’s an all-star and Obi Toppin (the No. 8 pick in 2020) is making a run at Rookie of the Year. Alas, Knox still looks lost, Ntilikina is injured, Barrett is so far merely solid and Toppin has been either injured or just stuck behind Randle in the frontcourt rotation.
It’s too soon to judge the Toppin pick, but it’s hard for fans not to wince every time they see the Kings’ Tyrese Haliburton, drafted four spots later, carving up defenses with his smooth shooting and playmaking. Sepinwall, for one, can recall from memory every Knicks draft misfire—Knox over Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Ntilikina over Donovan Mitchell—and says, with a mix of hope and dread, “We'll see if Toppin vs. Haliburton is another one.”
Yet on balance, the Knicks’ latest braintrust, led by team president Leon Rose, is winning praise for not only the moves they’ve made, but those they haven’t. The Knicks didn’t splurge on Gordon Hayward in free agency, or trade all their assets for a pricy, aging vet, like Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook. They made modest additions—Rivers, Alec Burks, Taj Gibson, Nerlens Noel—and used their salary-cap room to first acquire, then flip, veteran big man Ed Davis, netting three second-round picks in the two deals. It’s the sort of creative use of cap space that rival franchises have employed for years, but which had been foreign to prior Knicks regimes. Getting Quickley with the 25th pick looks like a steal.
Of course, Knicks fans in the last 20 years have had their hopes crushed many times over. There was the momentary rush of Amar’e Stoudemire declaring, “The Knicks are back,” and leading a brief renaissance before his knees gave out. There was the trade for Anthony, a true superstar—though the deal cost the Knicks so many young players and picks that they never could build a contender around him. There was the 54-win season in 2012–13, which ended with a second-round flameout. There was Linsanity, that magical thrill ride in ’11, when Jeremy Lin burst into stardom and electrified the city. There was Porzingis, the so-called unicorn from Latvia, taken with the fourth pick in ’15, who made New Yorkers swoon with his rare combination of size, shooting and shot-blocking.
It was all ephemeral, though, every glimpse of glory ultimately sabotaged from within. Dolan refused to pay Lin, who left for the Rockets. Anthony was alienated by the front office and ultimately traded to the Thunder. Porzingis quickly grew disillusioned by the mayhem and was shipped to the Mavericks. Which is why, even now, Knicks realists find themselves bracing for the next pratfall, the next headline grab, the next impulse buy.
“My fear, especially with the winning, is that James Dolan will be like ‘Ooh! We’re a move away!’ ” and decide to trade all the youth and draft picks for a veteran, says Concepcion. “That's always a danger.”
For Sepinwall, it got bad enough, after Dolan bounced Lin, that he briefly renounced his Knicks fandom in an angry Tumblr screed. (He was back a year later. In New York, 54 wins will do that.) Yang, the former Democratic presidential candidate, a self-described “very hardcore Knicks fan” in the 1990s, dumped the team, too, after the Lin saga (“broke my heart,” he says), redirecting his passion to the Nets while becoming a vocal Dolan critic. And yet this promising start for New York has even him intrigued.
“I'm pumped for the Knicks,” says Yang, who’s running to be the city’s mayor. “I’m pumped for New York; I’m pumped for fans. But I still have an arm’s-length relationship with the Knicks because, like, I just couldn't handle it anymore. And, I will say, not being a fan over the last number of years has been generally a really positive thing for my mental health.”
With that, Yang lets out a nervous chuckle that would surely feel familiar to every Knicks fan scarred by the past two decades. It’s been a long time since Patrick Ewing owned the Garden paint, eons since Walt Frazier and Bill Bradley raised real championship banners to the real Garden rafters.
There is considerable pride in that team heritage, but pain in the present, which helps explain how that Knicks joke ended up in Soul. Kemp Powers, who wrote and directed the animated film, released in December, is a Brooklyn-raised Knicks fan who was born in 1973, the same year as his team’s last title.
“I've literally got to live in a world, my entire life, in which the Knicks have never been champions,” says Kemp, who now lives in Los Angeles, surrounded by preening Lakers fans. “The Ewing years were great for me. Enjoyed the Pat Riley era. Enjoyed Allan Houston's shot to knock the Heat out [in 1999]. But for the past 20 years, it has been an embarrassing team to be devoted to.”
In Soul, a mischievous celestial being boasts about “messing with this team for decades,” as an animated Knicks player badly blows a dunk, punctuated by the voice of ESPN’s Doris Burke declaring, “And the Knicks lose another one!” Some Knicks fans, weary of their team being a punch line, howled in protest, prompting Powers to tweet the ultimate defense: “I am a diehard, lifelong Knicks fan.”
Thereon, “it was overwhelmingly positive from Knicks fans,” Powers says of the response. “There were, of course, a few who were just like, Go f--- yourself—you know, which, it's Knicks fans! So, whatever.”
In that sense, Knicks fandom is like being in any family: If the joke comes from an outsider, it’s taken as an assault on the whole tribe; if the same quip comes from one of your own, well, that’s just what families do. “You've got to have a little bit of a sense of humor about it,” says Powers. “And I think generally speaking, we kind of do.”
Really, what choice do they have? The record is indisputable. The jabs, inevitable. And so when Obama strafed the Knicks with the timing and flair of a seasoned stand-up comic, Desus and Mero could only laugh and concede the point.
“People thought that was funny,” says Mero. “But as Knicks fans, yo, that was a bit excessive, Obama. And so now Knicks fans, we feel reinvigorated this year. We're not taking crap from anybody. We got Nets fans trying to say that this is their city now. We got former presidents dunking on us. We got Pixar movies dumping on us. … No, we are going to take our shirts off and we're going to be proud to be Knicks fans.”
Fans like Concepcion and Sepinwall started this season figuring the Knicks would be awful, positioning the team for a high pick in the talent-rich 2022 draft. They dreamed of Cade Cunningham in orange and blue. Now they find themselves rooting for a playoff appearance, draft odds be damned.
“I'm going to enjoy it for as long as it lasts,” says Sepinwall. “And then, when they turn bad again, that is when I will dip into my huge file of gifs of tanks, rolling through streets, and start posting them on Twitter and watching the Cade Cunningham highlights again.”
Which begs the question: Is this new Knicks era actually, you know, legitimate? Is the progress real? Sustainable? Or is this just the latest cruel tease in a 20-year psychodrama?
“Knicks fans, we’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop,” says Mero. “In the back of your mind, that Knicks-fan cynicism is lurking, and it’s like, Listen, it's looking good now. But at some point, something’s gonna happen. There's always that existential dread.”
For now, it’s enough that New York seems competent and competitive, part of the NBA conversation for something other than its fans’ being banished or a star’s demanding a trade. Knicks fans are relishing the relevance. They’re side-eying the star-studded Nets, waiting for them to collapse under the weight of their egos. And with the Knicks owning the Mavericks’ first-round draft pick (via the Porzingis deal), they’re cheering every Dallas loss.
So what is success in the near term? Maybe it’s the young players developing, as Concepcion says. Maybe it’s the eighth seed. (“That’s an NBA championship,” says Desus. “We’re having a parade.”) Maybe it’s making the play-in tournament. (“Manna from heaven,” says Mero.) Maybe it’s getting that Mavs pick.
Or maybe, as Mero suggests, the season is a win “as long as the Nets don't get a championship.” YKTMFKV.
“We come up with our own little lies that we tell ourselves to justify still being a Knicks fan,” says Desus, “but the team looks different this year. And you know, you got that little hope. And that's all the Knicks fans need, is just a little bit of hope.”