Long-suffering Knicks fans get used to the sadness on the court, madness off of it

NEW YORK — He began to speak on Thursday evening in Brooklyn, and soon he had ushered the listener down a haunted corridor of affliction, all related to two basic questions that might be relevant even to sociologists:

What’s it like to be a New York Knicks fan as of the year 2017, in yet another lunatic week that introduced the idea of actually trading the 7-foot-3, 21-year-old, 18-points-per-game, seven-rebounds-per-game promise of Kristaps Porzingis?

And: Is it numbing to endure 17 seasons of scarcely interrupted nothingness?

“No!” he said passionately of the numbing question. “It’s like, all right, imagine this: You get run over by a bus, and then they give you some type of pill or something, and you’re all held up. And then, it happens again, and it just keeps happening. 

“Or, no, no, no, no: Forget they give you a pill. You know how Wolverine (the comic character) has the regeneration power, or whatever? You regenerate! You regenerate! And you’re good, but then it happens to you again, and it just keeps happening over and over and over. It’s like there’s a triangle, and I have a round peg, and we keep trying to put the circle into the triangle peg, and it’s not going to fit. This is what it’s like to be a Knicks fan.”

This was Elliot Banks, a 27-year-old bale of life who once played guard for St. Benedictine’s Prep in Newark, N.J., three years behind fellow graduate, NBA mainstay and former Knick J.R. Smith of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Banks spoke outside the Barclays Center, outside that festival of hope he and his father, Dennis, would attend: the NBA Draft. It probably speaks several academic volumes that he was even present at the thing. His father, 60, loved Walt Frazier during the NBA championship seasons of 1969-70 and 1970-73, but with the 13 losing seasons out of the last 16, all the splashy free-agent experiments, all the 32-50s and 29-53s and 23-59s and the 31-51 just completed, this generation has had an oddly long run of the bleak. 

The only Knicks playoff game Elliot Banks has attended his entire life was, almost poetically, was the one in 2000 where Miami Heat guard Anthony Carter won the game at Madison Square Garden with a preposterous shot from behind the backboard. He, Banks, was not yet 11 then. He embodies a reality about any Knicks fan in the mid-to-late 20s demographic: vague childhood memories of New York’s presence in the 1999 NBA Finals against San Antonio, and a prodigious flatline since: four playoff series and one series win since 2001, an overall record of 528-768 (.407).  

Yet they continue to care and that is, of course, in any human sense, devastating. Here they were at a draft, almost incredibly, and still. Some wore “Fire James Dolan” T-shirts, in reference to the owner. For many, their absurdly long series of absurdities just lengthened this week when team president Phil Jackson, with his 11 NBA titles as a coach in Chicago and Los Angeles, confirmed Wednesday night, on a show with the macabre title “Knicks Night Live,” that he would entertain offers for the excellent, promising and possibly fragile Porzingis, who played 66 of 82 games. Father and son, Dennis and Elliot, disagree on the trade, with the father saying, “You can’t teach 7-foot-3.”

Others reel.

“I can’t concentrate today on who the Knicks were going to draft,” said 26-year-old Knicks fan Jeff Kaiser of Manhattan, “because I was so worried about if we’re going to trade K.P. And this is our best prospect in the last 30 years, since Patrick Ewing. And if you go over the course of the years and lottery picks, we haven’t picked an all-star since Ewing. We’ve got by far our best prospect since Ewing, and we were going to trade him because he skipped” — and here his voice began to drip with mockery — “an exit interview. Unbelievable . . . He’s a huge asset. He’s untouchable. In any other organization, he’s untouchable.”

The Knicks did not trade him during the NBA Draft, but still . . .

“A clown show,” said 26-year-old fan Eric Pensky from New Jersey, noting, as did many fans, a report from ESPN’s reliable and responsible Jay Williams that a prospect said that during his workout for the Knicks, Jackson nodded off intermittently. “Builds character,” Pensky said of Knicks fandom.

“You just get used to it,” said Rodolfo Quiroz, 26, from Ozone Park in Queens after starting life in Brooklyn, wearing a Porzingis jersey. “It shouldn’t be like that. You see all these other teams, they’re winning championships, and they’re progressing, and we’re just a team that’s always just there.”

“It’s just, we don’t know what direction we’re going,” said Matt Smith, a 28-year-old fan from eastern Long Island. He said many of his friends and co-workers are Knicks fans but that, by nowadays, they tend to discuss that . . . “We’re just directionless,” he said. “That’s the hardest part, not knowing where we’re going as a team. Are we rebuilding? Are we picking up pieces and going for now? Are we going for the future?”

On a night when the Knicks used the eighth overall pick to draft a player with a fascinating background, the 18-year-old Rwandan-French 6-foot-5 guard Frank Ntilikina, the fans seemed to need to vent to anyone who might listen. There’s the exasperation that such a protracted malaise could be happening in New York, a place unaccustomed to irrelevance. There’s the point that the Knicks don’t even seem to tank properly, with vivid recollections of late-season games unwisely won, considering draft purposes. There’s a sense that the 71-year-old Jackson may be — how to put this gently? — foggy. There’s bafflement over Jackson’s hankering for the triangle offense in a league that seems to have surpassed it. 

There are old draft laments involving big fish that jumped away, from Minnesota’s outstanding young Karl-Anthony Towns to the renowned American artist Stephen Curry. Banks can tell a worthy story about working at a GameStop in a New Jersey mall on draft night in 2009, avoiding all draft news until going home, rewinding through ESPN’s ticker of picks, and, “I’m looking, I’m looking. Number seven, Steph Curry. Number eight, to the Knicks, Jordan Hill. Are you serious? Did you see his highlights? In the Pac-10 (at Arizona), he did nothing! Why was he even a lottery pick? I don’t know. But why didn’t the Warriors just pick him?!”

It seems that following the Knicks in the 2000s has meant such a pile of indignities that a casual bystander might have forgotten many. How many everyday people still bear in mind that in New York, a matchlessly cosmopolitan American city with a myopic sports mentality more similar to Southeastern Conference football, would have assumed they would get LeBron James before his televised announcement of 2010? Most of the country forgot even as New York fans, such as Banks, remember, and remember even that they invited friends and served snacks.

Said Quiroz, “Just one championship, in my opinion, would be the equivalent to four or five championships, you know?”

What’s it like, being a Knicks fan? “It’s like, it’s very entertaining, except for actually when you play the games,” Kaiser said. “In the off-season, there’s so much crazy crap that happens with this team. There’s so much drama. But in the season, the play is just rancid every year. I go to the games (about four or five per season). I shouldn’t go.”

Yet, here they all were, their puzzle represented in Banks’ Carmelo Anthony jersey, when he actually does not fancy Carmelo Anthony, but doesn’t like how Jackson has treated Carmelo Anthony. “You know what’s crazy?” he said. “I’ve accepted that (the pain won’t end), and I’m willing to walk along the road. I have to. I have no other choice. This is how I was born and raised. I made a commitment. I did the shake, what is it, what do you have to do, back in the day, the blood oath, whatever you call it.”

From that, he and his father went over to a stand to collect the tickets they had bought on StubHub, but the vendor printing the tickets had run across Atlantic Avenue, a reality Elliot Banks found fitting for 2017: When Knicks fans had readied for tickets, the printer had run out of ink. 

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