It's odd to think of the always-ubiquitous New York team as the underdogs. After all, being a team representing the largest city in the United States and the financial capital of the world doesn't bring a whole lot of sympathy. Teams there are designated as The New York Teams, and they're expected to reel in megatons of worldwide fans through hype and league favoritism at worst, and at best, they're the Yankees: A team which is old and overflowing with some of the sport's greatest stories and history, and with so much success that outsider fans who adopt the Yankees are questioned about why they chose them.
Forget the newly-minted Brooklyn Nets, the big-time team from the Big Apple for the NBA is the New York Knickerbockers, better known to the casual fan as the Knicks. You would think these guys, being one of the crown jewels of the NBA, would have a half-dozen titles to their long and storied history, but nope! They only have two, and both of them were won during a single era: The 70's dynasty, when the team won three conference titles in four years to go with the actual NBA Championship in 1970 and 1973, with that second one being the Knicks' most recent league victory. The Knicks did have a couple of other eras of greatness: in the early years of the National Basketball Association, they reeled in three conference titles in a row from 1951 to 1953, and after those smart-passing 70's teams stopped winning the conference championship, they won two more during their bridesmaid years in the 90's: 1994 and 1999.
With me, though, championships are only part of the attraction to teams. I am, just as much, enthralled by a deep history replete with the stories that live on in fame or infamy. And, once again, I must remind you that the Knickerbockers are The New York Team, in case you've forgotten. In basketball's case, they're The ORIGINAL New York team, which means what they lack in championships, they make up for in a history and a series of stories that go back, Back, BACK! All the way back to 1946, which is the year the Basketball Association of America was founded. Basketball was a growing sport back then in New York City, and a few owners of hockey arenas began wondering what would happen if their buildings - Madison Square Garden and Boston Garden among them - were to stage basketball games when the hockey players had the day off. In 1946, some businessmen gathered in New York City and founded the Basketball Association of America - the BAA - to find out. Immediately at the founding, those same folks gave a college basketball promoter named Ned Irish a team, since he was running Madison Square Garden and teams always have to be in the Big Apple. Ned named his new team the Knickerbockers, which was once just a fancy way of saying someone was a New Yorker. The Knicks first played on November 1, 1946 in the BAA's first game. They beat the Toronto Huskies 68-66.
The Knicks were forced to play a lot of their earliest games in the 69th Street Armory because of MSG's crowded schedule. Their first season ended with a 33-27 record and a playoff birth, in which the Knicks dispatched the Cleveland Rebels before getting swept by the Philadelphia Warriors in the semi-finals. The following season, the Knicks became the first team to sign a non-white player when they added Japanese-American Wataru Misaka. In 1950, the BAA merged with the older, more small-town-oriented National Basketball League, and together they became known as the National Basketball Association, or the NBA. In the following years, the Knicks signed the league's first black player, Sweetwater Clifton, and took off an a run of conference titles. They were denied championships in all three years, though, by the Rochester Royals in 1951 and the following two years by the Minneapolis Lakers. They did dominate throughout the decade, though.
Things went south from the late 50's to the early 60's, and the team only made the playoffs once during that span. They had their heroes during that span, especially Richie Guerin, who was the first Knickerbocker to break the half-century point mark in 1959 when he dumped 57 on the Syracuse Nationals in a single game. In 1962, the Knicks were etched into the league's lore again for one of the most incredible moments in league history: On March 2, 1962, the Knicks played against the Philadelphia Warriors in Hershey, Pennsylvania, in front of only 4124 spectators without any cameras, since the NBA was on the pro sports fringe and nobody really gave a shit back then. Only two photographers were there. While the Warriors began the game with only the idea to win, their big man, a dominating center named Wilt Chamberlain, wanted to break the record for free throws during the game. But once Wilt had put 41 on the board by halftime, a Warriors player suggested just getting the ball to him to see how many points The Big Dipper could get. Philadelphia's team concept broke down, and the last ten minutes of the game turned into a farce when all the Warriors players kept handing off to him. With six minutes left, the Knicks tried desperately to keep the ball away from Chamberlain, and in the last few minutes, the game turned into a parade of fouls as both teams used intentional fouls against each other. Although the fact that the Knicks were a bad team at the time and the ridiculous go-to-Wilt technique the Warriors used that day kind of mar the moment, nothing can be said that change the fact that Wilt Chamberlain posted a whopping 100 points in that game.
After a decade in the doldrums, the Knicks brought in Red Holzman to coach in 1967, and he took the team to its absolute peak. They drafted Willis Reed, whose impact was immediate, in 1964. He was Rookie of the Year. In 1967, rookies Walt Frazier and Phil Jackson (yeah, THAT Phil Jackson) were named to the league's All-Rookie Team. Smart drafting and shrewd trading earned the 70's Knicks recognition as one of the smartest teams in the NBA while Holzman, Reed, Frazier, and Dave DeBusschere guided the team to four 50-win seasons, three conference titles, and Championships in 1970 and 1973. From 1967 to 1975, the New York Knicks were a force, and every other team knew the way to the title took them through New York. With six players who eventually had their numbers retired, seven Hall of Fame members, an 18-game winning streak in 1970, Willis Reed playing injured, and classic playoff series against the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, fans still regard that nine-year stretch as the team's finest hour.
After that, Reed retired, and then Holzman was let go when the team made a desperate ploy to keep Reed by making him coach. When they saw what a mistake that was, they rehired Holzman, but the damage was done. The Knicks had a few good years - they won 50 games in 1981 and followed that up with 44 and 47-win years, but were back on the bottom end for the 1985 season, which got them a place in the league first-ever draft lottery. The Knicks have the dubious honor of being the first-ever draft lotto jackpot winner, and in 1985 the million-dollar prize was a Georgetown product named Patrick Ewing. From 1988 to 2000, the Knicks made the playoffs every year with Ewing at center, and to a point, he's considered the best individual player to suit up as a Knickerbocker. He was drafted with the expectation that he would be the next step in the evolution of the defensive center, an idea pioneered by Celtics legend Bill Russell. Unfortunately, while many of his individual achievements are something to behold, Ewing was never able to transcend his role the way Russell did, and he only made the Finals twice, in 1994 and 1999, losing both times. In his defense, that's not entirely his fault. He had the misfortune of peaking in the prime of Michael Jordan's era, and the Jordan Bulls spent the decade tormenting the Knicks and keeping them out of the Finals completely. (This will become a recurring theme.)
In spite of that, the Knicks did rule in the 90's as one of the league's elite teams. The legendary Pat Riley was hired to coach while Ewing was given a strong-enough supporting cast with players like Charles Oakley, Derek Harper, and John Starks. They fielded some tough-as-nails defenses, and although they kept getting their asses handed to them by Chicago, they always came at the Bulls with everything. The rivalry between the Knicks and Bulls is still one of the most pronounced rivalries in the league. It hit its zenith in the 90's, and while it produced a share of memorable games and moments, if I'm being honest about it, the Bulls were definitely better. The only year in the midst of the chaos when the Knicks were able to get the better of the Bulls was 1994, when Michael Jordan was trying his hand in the Chicago White Sox farm system. And the Bulls still dragged the series out the whole way. In 1999, Jordan was past his prime and out of the league again, so both those conference titles came without Jordan standing in the way.
Both teams experiences a real dropoff in the millennium. Jordan retired and ran the Washington Wizards into the ground. Ewing, around for 15 years, was traded after the Knicks decided he had outlived his usefulness and given them all he could. As for where the Knicks went... God, do I really have to write about this? Shit. Good lord, what became of the Knicks for much of the time makes the head spin! I recently created a list of sports teams that have become so monumentally embarrassing for their fans that I could grant fans a free pass for defecting. ( http://www.lunch.com/BaronSamedi3-Monumental...heir_Backs_on-3121.html ) The Knicks ran on fumes for the first few years, but rebuilding was clearly needed. In 2003, they decided Detroit Pistons legend Isiah Thomas was the guy for the job. Unfortunately, Thomas failed to understand the salary cap, drafted poorly, forgot the team-first secret which made him such an outstanding player in Detroit, got sued for sexual harassment, and oversaw a load of really bad personnel decisions. Larry Brown, one of the greatest coaches of all time and a guy who managed to beat a Phil Jackson team in the Finals with a real dearth of talent, coached and totally blew it. Thomas himself was given the coaching position, and let's just say he was as good a coach as he was a team President, plus he oversaw a brawl in 2006 against the Denver Nuggets.
The Knicks are currently in the post-Isiah rebuilding phase, and despite looking a lot better, they're frustrating to follow because between Amar'e Stoudemire, Carmello Anthony, and Tyson Chandler, they have real talent. Over the last year, a player named Jeremy Lin emerged and gave the team a lift, producing consistently solid performances as a guard. The Knicks have the pieces, but can't make them fit.
The Knicks are known as one of the league's most popular and influential teams. As their arena, Madison Square Garden, is a brand name, so are the Knicks. As for the team itself, they've retired eight numbers and have ten players in the Hall of Fame. Most of these names, though, aren't among the most transcendent names of the league. Patrick Ewing is definitely transcendent, but despite holding most of the team records, he's also widely seen as overrated, and as a guy who reached the heights of basketball fame mostly because he was with The New York Team at a time when players like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, and Michael Jordan were becoming their own brands. Willis Reed and Walt Frazier are probably the two most notable names on the New York all-time roster besides him. The Knicks have also had five Hall of Fame coaches, though only one - Red Holzman - won titles with them. The others are Larry Brown, Lenny Wilkens, Hubie Brown, and the great Pat Riley (who guided them to their 1994 conference title).
You know what the best part of cheering for The New York Team is? The rivalries! Everyone wants to kill The New York Team. The big one is with the Bulls, and I already covered that one in some detail. Although its mostly been dormant for most of the last ten years, it's undergoing a new resurgence as both teams are reshuffling and restocking and turning into contenders again, New York with Stoudemire, Chandler, and Carmello and Chicago with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah leading the way. As a person who spent significant portions of his human development in both New York and Illinois and therefore roots for both teams, I'm excited to see what direction this old rivalry goes in. The Knicks also famously feuded with the Miami Heat, who they've met in the playoffs five times since 1997, the series going the distance every time except the last. The Knicks are 3-2 in those series, but Miami won the last meeting 4-1. They also shared a huge war against the Indiana Pacers back in the 90's because their star, Reggie Miller, kept beating them up and the Knicks never figured out how to answer him. And now, with the recent emergence of the New Jersey Nets, the Knicks have to deal with them, too. The fanbases never got along, with Jersey being resentful of the overshadowing that comes with playing across the Hudson River. And now with the Nets in Brooklyn, there's gonna be some old-style dustings-up, because this is the first time since the New York Giants warred with the Brooklyn Dodgers that a team called New York will be regularly playing against a team called Brooklyn.
One of the things I really appreciate about the Knicks is that despite the flash and dash image of being The New York Team, they play very hard, defensive, physical basketball. They also based a lot of their historical game on passing and fundamentals - Red Holzman's teams won because of this! Knicks teams tend to play down-low, hard, gritty games and win through hard-ass defense.
I have to dock points for media overexposure. It's true that Knicks fans, having not seen a title since 1973, are long-suffering. But the Knicks have had a lot of chances and near-misses. A lot of other teams in NBA history have had a moment of glory, taken a title, then withered and died. If they've been lucky, they've won one or two conference titles, but for the most part, teams like the Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers, and Seattle Supersonics aren't primed and ready to explode like the Knicks always have the potential to do. I feel for the underexposed like that, being from Buffalo and doomed to wonder if the Sabres, despite all the hockey talent swarming in the area, will ever hoist Lord Stanley's Cup in my lifetime. The Knicks are considered long-suffering because they have the most fans moaning and groaning about it.
Only two titles, but in spite of everything, it's good to be a New York Knicks fan. They have a long and deep history replete with some of the league's greatest stories, and no matter how bad they can be (and we do credit owner James Dolan for destroying them right now), we know there are forever people attracted to the lights and cameras of the Big Apple. On that alone, the Knicks will recover and ascend to true true greatness in the league again. It's New York City. It's the city's true team. The New York Knickerbockers won't stay down for long.