To people who live in New York City, the stereotype of New Yorkers is almost poignant, because that stereotype is both so goofily out of tune and so much more colorful than actual life in the city. New York, every borough of it, is wildly stratified and anxious and often cruelly expensive and, mostly, difficult -- like anywhere else, in other words, but also with some very good restaurants and above-average mass transit options, which is maybe enough to justify the prickly superiority that's probably the most accurate part of the New Yorker stereotype. New York's is a complicated and fluid equation: Katz's Delicatessen cancels out Donald Trump, the cool mastery of Matt Harvey cancels out the aggro-bro hellscape of the Lower East Side on a weekend night (Matt Harvey is really good), and so on unto equilibrium.
And yet there are all these alternately smart-mouthed and Woody Allen-ishly stammering and otherwise stereotype-adherent New Yorkers loose in popular culture, all so much bigger and brighter than the people you'll actually find here. In the New York that actually exists, the brash, cunning masters of the financial universe reveal themselves in restaurants as graceless Botoxed sexagenarians in starched shirts, avoiding eye contact with their wives and eating veal. The foxy patricians of "Gossip Girl" are in fact chinless, tottering vanity cases with drug problems. The arch hipsters of imaginary Brooklyn are, in reality, just spicy-smelling, vulnerable 22-year-olds who are probably drunk and definitely bluffing their asses off. The city, like every other city, is full of people, and people are people.
The one thing that is broadly true about most New Yorkers is not a part of the stereotype. That's the urge to romanticize and sentimentalize and actually, gnashingly mourn a New York that isn't really missable. New York's Times Square is one of the lousiest places in the nation at the moment -- a Disneyfied s***scape of random (and sometimes randomly insane) costumed cartoon characters and plodding tourists and lousy overpriced restaurants and dour cops on horseback. But there's still no reason to mourn the old, harrowing Forty Deuce of "Taxi Driver," or even the more prosaic skeevery of 25 years ago. And yet there are New Yorkers -- mostly the overcompensatory kind, but this is a big city and there are a lot of those here -- who'll insist that they miss that old awfulness, who'll bleat from the safety of the sanitized present that they miss all that lost scuzz.
I do this, too, mourning the long-gone bars of my early 20s, bars I almost certainly wouldn't drink in anymore. But let's draw the line, please. Let's agree that this year's New York Knicks team -- which clinched a mostly unexpected Atlantic Division title on Tuesday night -- is the most likable Knicks team in many years. Let's not try to talk ourselves into something silly, just because this is New York, and there is some false and fatuous idea that everything was better back when it was worse. Let's try to enjoy the first really enjoyable Knicks team in… well, how long has it been?
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There have been some very good Knicks teams in recent memory, but they weren't much fun. In the 1990s, Pat Riley -- the slick godfather of Showtime, stuck with a roster of grunty, beefy human elbows -- and then Jeff Van Gundy built a pair of the least appealing title contenders in NBA history. There may be some results-oriented Knicks fans who remember Derek Harper's Humpty Hump-ian anti-swag and Anthony Mason's glowering as a high point in their basketball-watching lives, but even when the Knicks were making it to the NBA Finals (they managed it under Riley in '93-94, and then again under Van Gundy in the lockout-shortened '98-99 season) they were tough to love, or even to like.
This was doubly true when they were contrasted with the memory of the Knicks' 1970s championship teams, still the franchise's last real winners, which were teams that managed to be both cooler and better than the competition. There was a team diverse enough and stylish enough and rugged enough and talented enough to flatter the outsized New Yorker self-image -- better-dressed and tougher, more fun to watch and more difficult to beat. The unconscious grandiosity that's part of the New York stereotype is one of the more accurate parts: we do feel that, this sense that simply by managing to live in this rich, dumb, mean, difficult, diverse and spectacularly great city we are somehow accomplishing something great. It doesn't seem too much to ask -- at least, not to a New Yorker -- to have a basketball team that reflects that arrogated awesomeness.
And if these Knicks aren't at the level of those super-cool, super-good champions -- Walt Clyde Frazier isn't walking through that door, although he'd probably be wearing an amazing hat if he were -- they are, at least, a team that's easy to enjoy and not at all difficult to love. This, in itself, is a minor miracle, given the domineering, relentlessly self-satirizing meddling of clown-ulcer owner James Dolan. Two years ago, after a decade of loathsome basketball played loathsomely, the Knicks briefly built a sparky, endearingly goofy team around Amar'e Stoudemire, a bunch of gangly wing players and Mike D'Antoni's ultra-fast style; then they blew it up, at Dolan's behest, in the trade for Carmelo Anthony. Last year, the Knicks surfed the giddy tsunami of Linsanity and were the universe's most beloved basketball team for a month. That was still more basketball-related happiness than the team had seen since Bill Clinton was President, but in both instances it subsided in the face of NBA reality -- the Knicks just weren't quite good enough -- and Dolan's Long Island Vampire routine.
This season, though, the Knicks have something different. Coach Mike Woodson appears to have cracked the code with regards to Carmelo Anthony, a brilliant player who had somehow dominated without making an impact until this season. Stoudemire and the rest of the Knicks' veteran bigs have struggled, mostly unsuccessfully, to remain healthy.
"Veteran" may not quite be sufficient, here: The Knicks are old enough to, improbably, currently employ two frontcourt players who played heavy minutes for that '98-99 NBA Finals team. The rest of the team is similarly hodgepodge and polyglot -- all-over-print gunner J.R. Smith; lanky, defense-averse three-point shooting bigs Chris Copeland and Steve Novak; Pablo Prigioni, a 35-year-old Argentine rookie point guard who looks like an unusually distressed Modigliani; Jason Kidd, downshifted by necessity into an avant-garde old-man game at age 40, if still creakily beautiful to watch. Guard Iman Shumpert has a high-top fade last seen on a backup dancer in a Big Daddy Kane video; center Tyson Chandler will rock a cape as an accessory and somehow pull it off. And Melo, playing more and more in the post and with a precision and generosity he's never previously shown, has been better than ever, and better than most any other player in the NBA.
The team plays fun, fast basketball and -- perhaps just as importantly for fans after a decade of flubby, ill-tempered drudgery -- seems to enjoy doing it.
The truth of it is that this Knicks team is probably not a championship team. At the moment, it's hard to imagine any team winning a championship without LeBron James on its roster. But it's equally true that this Knicks team measures up perfectly to the other, weirder inchoate expectations of New York fans. These Knicks may or may not be good enough to beat the Miami Heat or the Oklahoma City Thunder or the NBA's other elite teams. There are too many creaks and holes and limps and aches, too much of too little. But they are, whatever their postseason fate, a team that New Yorkers have wished for --as interesting and multiply virtuosic and organically weird and fun as New York likes to imagine itself to be, and a team every bit as good as New York believes it deserves.