Jackie Jackson. Wilt Chamberlain. Connie Hawkins. Dr. J. Rafer Alston.
Rucker Park has seen it's fair share of legends over the years, but few have traveled as far to grace its hallowed asphalt than the group who came to play 3-on-3 pickup on a chilly Saturday afternoon earlier this month.
For the members of the New York Knicks German & Austrian Fan Club, Rucker Park was a necessary stop on a journey they viewed as far more pilgrimage than pleasure trip. It was part of a larger voyage to a homeland none of them were born in and some had never seen before - a sign of solidarity with a part of their lives that has given them both so much and so little in return over so many years.
The Germany-based club, whose dozens of members meet regularly to watch games halfway across the globe, made its first group outing to New York during the first week of March. The trip was centered around the matchup between the Knicks and Pistons on Sunday, March 8, a game which will likely wind up being New York's final home outing of the 2019-20 season. They had no idea at the time that their world, like everyone else's, was about to drastically change. Luckily, they made the most of every moment.
Daniel Jahn, vice president of the club and perhaps it's most fervent member (he owns 32 Knick jerseys), still had chills as he reflected back over a week later.
"A large group of German Knicks fans balling at the Rucker, imagine that!" He recognized how odd a sight that a group of grown German man acting like kids on Christmas morning must have been. He also didn't care.
For him, sharing the experience with his hoops-obsessed friends and four-year-old son was all that mattered. Similarly, it made no difference to him that one night earlier, when he and the group convened at Clyde Frazier's Wine & Dine to meet many of the Knick content creators they've long followed from afar, the team got pummeled by the Oklahoma City Thunder.
"The connection and passion we shared was more important than the actual game."
Like many fans, both at home and abroad, there hasn't been much for Daniel to enjoy about the Knicks on the court for a very, very long time. But off the court, they provide him with a sense of community that few organizations can equal, in the NBA or any other league across the globe.
He's also not alone.
Zach Horowitz was under no illusions about what awaited him.
Before the season even started - which is when his wife Chelsey booked them a trip from Alaska to New York so they could attend a Knicks game for Zach's birthday - he had a feeling the team would be bad.
"I knew deep down it would likely be another rough year." That was part of why they decided on a home date with the similarly ill-fated Chicago Bulls. "I knew we would likely be able to compete with them, even if our season was down the tubes."
Just like Daniel and the German club, Zach's trip was about more than just the Knicks. He and Chelsey are theater buffs and took in several shows, including Hamilton ("Hands down the best show I’ve ever seen"), as well as hitting up the usual tourist stops - the Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building and a Colbert Show taping among them.
But also like the German club, the trip was centered around one thing and one thing only. Well, two things actually.
"We had such a good time and the team played so well [against the Bulls], I got us tickets to the Rockets game our last night in town."
How was it seeing arguably the Knicks best win of the season, some 4,463 miles away from home?
"Between the RJ bucket to win and the Frank stop to hold the lead, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The youth coming out and doing that right before my eyes...[it] was a pretty magical evening."
So magical, in fact, that it had to end the only way Zach saw fitting: an inebriated walk to Papaya Dog to celebrate in style.
"It was OK."
Spoken like a true New Yorker.
As societies all over the world quickly descend into depths of uncertainty and fear that are rarely seen, the effect that sports have on our lives - both in the pain we incur when our favorite teams disappoint us and in the shared sense of unity we derive through good times and bad - has been put into proper perspective.
For the foreseeable future, the Garden will be empty. Fans, whether they be from Harlem or Heilbad Heiligenstadt (Daniel's hometown), will have to wait at least 30 days to wear the badge of honor that comes with supporting the Knicks at the appropriately nicknamed World's Most Famous Arena.
In all likelihood, the wait will be longer, and the world that basketball returns to will look quite different from the one it left.
Perhaps it was fitting, then, that the German club's trip took place immediately before the global lockdown began. Sure, they flew halfway around the world to see a team that wasn't very good, but it did reinforce a feeling of fellowship that is needed perhaps more now than ever.
For Alex Collins, who traveled from Ireland to meet up with his German brethren in New York after befriending many of them through the wonderful world of Knicks Twitter, the relationship between sports and crises is not a new one.
"I started playing basketball and following the NBA around the time of the 2001-02 season, after New York had just suffered the tragedy of September 11th," he now recalls.
Before 9/11, Alex's parents frequently traveled to New York and would bring him back newspapers from the city. He got into the habit of reading the sports section, which is where his interest in the team first piqued. September 11th just took it to a new level. "[My] sympathy for what the city was going through also played some part in why I rooted for the Knicks."
Like Zach, when Alex booked the trip back in November, he didn't expect much from the team.
"I had no expectations for the team to be good." His only wish - and one that was partially granted, although not to the extent he and most other fans would have liked - was to continue on the path that the organization seemed to be on before the year began.
"I wanted this season to be a rebuilding year, where the team prioritized developing their young core and collecting and maximizing their draft assets."
Knick fans are often accused of being overly optimistic about where the team is, with certain media members quick to point out the futility of waving orange and blue pom-pom's despite all of the losing. Alex's viewpoint would seem to indicate otherwise.
More importantly, the team's wins or losses aren't why he strategically schedules work shifts and vacation days so that he can sleep in after games that keep him awake until between three and five am across the pond.
"Is this a good Knick team? No. Am I completely on board with all the decisions being made within the organization? No. Seeing the Knicks play live was obviously a big factor [in coming], but more than that I wanted to meet fellow Knicks fans and friends. Meeting people who I know from Twitter and having the opportunity to talk to them face-to-face was the main reason I decided to visit New York. The Knicks game was just a massive cherry on top of that cake."
That's also not to say he's completely given up hope. "If the team is clearly laying a foundation around its core to have a competitive time down the line, I don’t mind being patient and watching growing pains for the next few seasons."
Daniel, Zach and Alex are just three examples of a phenomenon that is hard to explain. Being a Knick fan in New York is hard enough. Continuing to follow and support the team from several thousand miles away could be defined as sheer lunacy. This is, after all, an organization that has made the task of ranking the ten worst Knicks of only the last 20 years a near impossible exercise.
Sean Bridge, a UK-based Knicks fan who runs a website dedicated to covering the team from the United Kingdom, and who was also in New York earlier this month to see the Knicks defeat the Rockets in person, doesn't think being farther away makes rooting any easier.
"I think it makes it harder to deal with things, and that’s purely down to access to US television and the time difference." Sean says he spends a lot of time sifting through different media outlets and social media accounts just to stay informed.
Zach doesn't disagree, although he also offers a silver lining: "Being farther might make it easier to forget about hard times, but also, you’re the only Knicks fan most of your friends knows, so they feel the need to tag or share any bad news with you they hear on the mainstream sports cycle."
Whatever it is that keeps these diehards coming back for more, that part of their lives will be sorely missed over the coming weeks and months. As we all continue to grapple with these new, harsh realities, it's the little things that we'll start to miss the most, like the Frank Ntilikina crossover that brought Daniel out of his seat or the Elf-to-Mitch lob that Alex said was "probably the best dunk I’ve seen live outside of a Globetrotters game."
(Ed's Note: it was indeed that good)
Luckily, the friendships that have developed within this community will only help its members during this difficult time. As Daniel says, the best part of being a Knick fan unsurprisingly isn't the games, but "my friendship to all of these native New York Knicks fans that has grown a lot over the past years."
Thankfully, whether in person at the Garden or tucked safely inside of our homes, an arm's length away from the nearest human contact, that's one part of our lives that isn't going anywhere.