I can safely say that I now know three people who are fans of the NBA. Not necessarily fans of a specific team, but people who can sit down and watch a random NBA game for more than five seconds. I’ve grown up as a Knicks fan and the last couple of years have really taken the wind out of those who follow the team. At my age (26), Patrick Ewing is the greatest basketball player we’ve ever seen in the city. We lived and died with every John Starks shot (and man were there lots of them). We remember Charles Oakley’s intensity and his knack of always reminding people that HE was the toughest guy on the court. And who could ever forget Larry Johnson’s four-point play? We also know that even though Allan Houston won Game 5 of the Miami Heat series in 1999 on a last second runner, he was also the reason the team has been crippled ever since (6-years, $100 million?????).
Lately, the Knicks have been the joke of the NBA. Isiah Thomas has become a running punchline and the only time he escapes this position, it’s quickly filled by his boss Jimmy Dolan, who runs the company that owns the team. The demise of the Knicks is only a small part of the reason why the NBA is struggling so much now, but it’s important to include it in any conversation. Knicks games used to be fun, exciting, a place to be seen (for celebrities who care at least). They were the only team in the biggest city and the top media market in the country. When the Knicks were good, they carried the city.
These days, no one cares. Well, maybe not no one, but fewer people watch the Knicks now than they ever did in my lifetime. There is no more Patrick Ewing; a real face of the franchise who could get 20,000 people to stand up and scream whenever he wanted, simply by raising his arms. Gone is the excitement that comes with having a truly competitive team that proves night in and night out that they are the toughest team in the league and you are going to have to play your best to beat them.
Today, games at the Garden are never full, something that I wouldn’t have ever been able to imagine ten years ago. As each season brings more losses, ticket prices continue to climb. At this point, the average fan simply cannot afford to see the Knicks in person. How the team is able to charge more for fewer wins is beyond me. The courtside seats are still taken, but it’s clear that the fans of the 80s and 90s aren’t the ones sitting there anymore. It’s become too corporate, somewhere to take clients, which is fine except that none of them really care about being there. They see it as sitting courtside at a basketball game, not at a Knicks game.
Sexual harassment cases aside, I think the biggest problem these days is that the team isn’t defined by a single player anymore. The idea that individual performances aren’t as important as team play is a nice idea, but every team has a face of the franchise (or sometimes two). Cleveland has LeBron, the Lakers (for now) have Kobe, Miami has Shaq and Dwyane Wade. The Knicks try to say they have Stephon Marbury, who should be the perfect face of the franchise because he was born and raised in New York, as a Knicks fan. Everyone who plays basketball growing up pictures themselves playing for their favorite team and Marbury actually gets to do that. Unfortunately, the team is in such disarray that he can’t take advantage of this amazing opportunity.
Philosophically, Isiah Thomas has given the franchise to a man who never went to college and was drafted into the NBA because of his potential. Though only 24 years old, he is entering his seventh season on the professional level. He is 6’11” and has never averaged more than 8 rebounds per game despite playing a position that REQUIRES rebounding skills. Even worse, at that height, his career high in blocked shots for a season is 1.1 per game, which he did four season ago.
I bring up the college factor for a number of reasons. Clearly college isn’t for everyone who plays in the NBA and many have become superstars without a single game as a college player. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett have all thrived on the NBA level and there are plenty who are ready to follow in their footsteps, namely Dwight Howard and Amare Stoudemire to name a couple. The NBA recently instituted a new rule where players must have at least one year of college experience before they enter the NBA; this was mainly in response to those who did not take the steps of those listed previously.
Going back to the Knicks, the offense has, and apparently will continue, to revolve around 24 year old Eddy Curry. Curry set career highs in points per game and rebounds per game last season with 19.5 and 7.1, respectively. Head Coach Isiah Thomas has repeatedly said in the media that Curry is the focal point of the offense, which is a philosophy shared by many in the NBA. San Antonio runs their offense through Tim Duncan, Houston runs theirs through Yao Ming. Heck, going back a little, the success of the Knicks in the mid 80s through the 90s was based on the fact that the offense ran through Patrick Ewing. Unfortunately for Knicks fans, Curry still has a long way to go before he can even be included in the same breath as the previous three mentioned.
It’s clear that Curry missed a large piece of the learning process when he decided to bypass college for the millions of dollars that NBA teams were dangling in front of him back in 2001. He doesn’t rebound with two hands. He rarely jumps to block shots. He plays defense with his arms instead of his feet. These are all basic techniques that are learned in high school and perfected in college that he never picked up in the NBA. Great players are those who are able to learn in their new surroundings. It’s why Kobe, KG and LeBron are on the level that they are. They knew that they missed important instruction in college and worked hard to make up the difference. It has become obvious that Eddy Curry did not take that necessary step.
So while the Knicks continue to struggle, New York has all but given up on the NBA. Not only is there no Patrick Ewing on the team, there doesn’t appear to be one on the horizon. Acquisitions such as Zach Randolph, Jerome James and Jared Jeffries aren’t exactly reviving the eight million potential fans who call New York home. Plus, thanks to the Eddy Curry trade, the Knicks have been without a top draft pick for a number of years, despite playing simply well enough to get out of the cellar (which is usually followed by a high spot in the draft).
As much as I want to believe that each new season brings a renewed possibility of greatness, I am far from convinced that my hometown team can deliver. Instead of buying tickets to see the Knicks beat LeBron James and the Cavaliers, I am simply buying them to watch LeBron. I don’t even consider the idea that the Knicks could win. Unfortunately, the simple step of going to the game is more than most people are willing to do these days. You used to buy tickets for Knicks vs. Rockets to see Patrick Ewing face up against Hakeem Olajuwon. Or maybe be lucky enough to land Knicks vs. Pacers playoff tickets to see Reggie Miller up against John Starks (and Spike Lee really). These days, we’re buying tickets to see how many points Kobe will drop as the Lakers beat a Knicks team that looks ready to roll over before the opening tipoff.
Look, I love the NBA and I think I can honestly say I know a few others who do too. The problem is that now so many people just hate it. New Yorkers refuse to watch the Knicks because of how bad the team is and as a result, they discredit the league as a whole. TV ratings are the worst they have ever been, mostly because small market teams have found a way to succeed in a way that bigger market teams can’t lock down. NBA Finals match ups of San Antonio vs. Cleveland (combined population of roughly 1.78 million) aren’t bringing in any New York viewers, even though Cleveland has the most dynamic player in the league since Michael Jordan. Without the Knicks in the hunt, there is no reason to watch. People used to tune into an Indiana vs. Detroit series because they could get a look at who the Knicks would play later in the playoffs. Now, there are more jokes about the Knicks playoff chances than there are women who had sex with Wilt Chamberlain (about 20,000 for those counting at home).
Whether they know it or not, the NBA needs the Knicks. Without a following in the largest city in the country, the NBA is missing out on millions of viewers. Though there are significant efforts being made to “internationalize” the game, what the NBA is really doing is alienating the fans that the league was built on. Unfortunately for the league as a whole, the Knicks aren’t helping the cause.