I moved to New York City from the Great Midwest in January 2000. Like any floppy-haired corn boy, I was nervous about how I would fit in in the big city, and considering that, almost 13 years later, most of friends joke I live as a walking Midwest Embassy, I suppose I still am. One thing I immediately felt self-conscious about -- sports being the universal language and all -- was my sports teams: I didn’t cheer for a single NYC-area team.
Now, my love for the St. Louis Cardinals, Arizona Cardinals and Illinois Fighting Illini is immutable and non-negotiable. I’d be more likely to change my gender, my skin color or my social security number than my affection for those teams. But I wanted to fit in; I wanted to have a local team. Which led me to the Knicks. Growing up with St. Louis teams, I had no logical NBA team -- attempts to pretend I liked the Hawks because St. Louis used to play there never quite took. I mostly just enjoyed the game aesthetically without any specific or genuine passion, which is no way to enjoy sports. I figured the Knicks, a likable team in January 2000 with up-and-comers Kurt Thomas and Marcus Camby on the roster, would do just fine. I was entranced by the Garden, by the team’s history, by a fan base whose loyalty toward its team rivaled, I thought, Cardinals fans to theirs.
Besides, the Knicks had made the playoffs 14 consecutive seasons in January 2000. The Cardinals had made the postseason just once in that time. It’d be nice to root for a winner, for once.
Nearly 13 years later, the Cardinals have won two World Series and a total of 46 postseason games. Since the Knicks lost a first-round series to the Toronto Raptors in May 2000, they have won a total of one playoff game. So that worked out well. But still: I have stuck with the Knicks ever since signing up, through every wretched year of the Jim Dolan era, which roughly began right before I started cheering for the team. As any Knick fan can tell you, it’s been pretty awful: This summer, I worked with Bradford Doolittle at Basketball Prospectus to actually quantify the Dolan era, putting a numerical value on what each Knick had “earned” over the last decade, as opposed to what they were paid. (As it turns out, Jerome James, in a perfectly efficient universe, owes Knicks fans about $2 million. I’d argue it should be more.) But I couldn’t exactly come late to the Knicks and abandon them because they were losing. That is precisely what sports fans aren’t supposed to do. I had to wait for them to get good again, and then reap the benefits. Then, I would have earned my Knicks fan card. It’s not until you’ve suffered pain for your team that you’re really bonded.
Last February, I got my payback. Linsanity, almost nine months later, remains one of the most exhilarating and joyous sporting phenomena I’ve ever witnessed. It made you feel special just to be a part of it. It came out of nowhere, but even when it was happening, it never felt like a fluke; it was just pure sporting bliss every night for two weeks. This was what I’d been waiting for.
But this is the Knicks, and of course they were going to screw it up. The details of the Knicks’ baffling decision to let Lin go are still mysterious, to Knicks fans, to me and even to Lin himself. We don’t need to rehash those now. The point is: This was the last straw for a lot of Knicks fans. Not all of them, of course. The Garden is still going to be full this season, and the Knicks are still going to be good (better than most people are giving them credit for being, if you ask me). But after 10-plus years of being punched in the face by their favorite team, Knicks fans then watched the one viral, organic thing to happen with their team in a decade sent away without an explanation. It was a move that felt aggressively antagonistic to the core audience.
One of those was Alan Sepinwall, one of the best television critics working , who wrote an impassioned, pained explanation as to why, post-Lin, he would no longer be a Knicks fan. Sepinwall and I are longtime Twitter compatriots, and when the Lin news was made official, we went back and forth about that very question: Would I stay?
Complicating matters: the Brooklyn Nets, who had three major selling points:
1. They were putting their best foot forward from the get-go, assembling a likable, talented team wrapped in the best sports marketing plan I’ve seen in years.
2. Their star is Deron Williams, a former Illinois star, who I started watching when he was a slightly tubby high school junior. He might be my favorite Illini of all time.
3. Their new home, Barclays Center, is a 10-minute walk from my apartment. This is a big one. It’s not every day they just plant an NBA team, like, right next door.
I spent a long time thinking about it. Sepinwall argued, considering the above factors, “As a Jerseyan, I don't think I can root for Brooklyn, but I think destiny is telling you to.” Two friends of mine, one of whom I’d shared Knicks season tickets with for a few years, bailed as well. Lin was all they had wanted from the Knicks for so long, and taking him away was too much to withstand. And the new team, with its cool uniforms and Jay-Z and superior food options and, “Hey, I can be home 15 minutes after the game’s over” … it sang a tempting tune.
But, ultimately, I just couldn’t do it. I’ve never left a sports team before, ever, and I couldn’t bring myself to do it this time either. When you pick a team -- or, more often, when geography, parents and fate combine to pick a team for you -- you have to stick with them, the way you have to stick with your family. Sure, I adopted the Knicks late in my life, but they’re my family nevertheless. Leaving them for the nouveau riche Nets would feel like a betrayal of who I am, of who I became when I moved here.
I thought I'd be forced to face this head on, when the Knicks and Nets were to play at Barclays Center Thursday night. I was going to walk over there and watch the game, then walk home, convenient, easy ... but still not where my heart was. But Sandy came. So there's no game, and New York City will avoid the interborough bloodsport that, all told, it might have really enjoyed right now. But I've already had my battle, and I know what side I'm on. Our family breaks our heart, but we always come back. That’s the only thing that makes any of this important; it’s the only thing that makes it matter.
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I won’t lie, though: I’ll be keeping an eye on Rockets scores all season. Thoughts, concerns, grousing, future column ideas? Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you’re yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you’re pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I’ll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.