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It is hard to imagine a time when we needed this more, frankly, this flabbergasting, dumbfounding, out-of-the-(orange-and)-blue surprise of a Knicks season. Forget the way our world at-large has been upended the last year. Let’s just keep it to our little sporting corner of that solar system.
Let’s remember what these last few years have been like around here, an endless morass of underachievement and underperformance, summer to winter, fall to spring, one sporting calamity after another, an endless loop of failure, of frustration, of futility.
The Islanders gave a whiff of oxygen last summer, and maybe that was a harbinger. They share the Knicks’ colors, after all, and when they beat the Panthers, Capitals and Flyers in the NHL’s bubble, playoffs they reminded a faction of New York of the possibilities of hope.
But let’s be honest about something: Even that was different. What the Islanders did was salvage a season that, before interruption, was careening out of control, seven straight losses and 11 out of 13 before the virus shut everything down. Theirs was a tale of redemption more than revelation.
This? This is different. This is the shoebox full of mint baseball cards in your attic, found years after you assumed your mother had tossed them in the trash. This is the “Bank Error in Your Favor!” Community Chest card from Monopoly. This is the river card somehow completing your inside straight after you’d begun to mentally cash out for the night.
This is the gift that falls out of the sky.
And in sports, gifts don’t often fall out of the sky.
“Every game is someone else doing what they need to do to get the job done for us,” Julius Randle said a few nights ago, in the middle of this improbable, inexplicable eight-game run for the Knicks that has turned a feel-good story into a feel-great phenomenon, one whose grip has increased with every victory. “We know that there’s a bunch of guys who’ll step up when we need them to. It’s fun to be a part of.”
It’s almost as much fun to watch, and in a starving sporting city it is impossible to understate. It’s funny, too: By the time this basketball season ends, there is every chance the Knicks might be the No. 2 hoops story in their own city. The Nets, after all, remain loaded with promise and talent. They are still a good bet to run the table this summer.
For now, though?
For now the Knicks allow us to ignore the 2021 Yankees doing a hell of an imitation of the 1965 Yankees, allow us to overlook the Mets kicking the ball around Wrigley Field, allow us to forget that the Giants and Jets are still acres away from contention, allow Rangers fans to gloss over the fact that when the Broadway Blueshirts finally played a varsity game the other night on Long Island they looked like a pickup team.
For now the Knicks allow us to think about them in the same way we think about other unexpectedly joyous teams that have snuck up on us and invaded our imagination, as much for the astonishment of their achievement as for the success itself.
Around here the gold standard for that will always be the ’69 Mets, of course, 100-to-1 shots in spring training who’d never lost fewer than 89 games in their history and somehow charted a course to the Canyon of Heroes. The Knicks have a long way to go to match that gospel of implausibility. But there are others.
There were the 2015 Mets, a study in mediocrity through 102 games, a raging tire fire that somehow became a blazing inferno across the final 60, through the playoffs, and didn’t pause until they found themselves in the World Series. There were the 2017 Yankees, that rarest of sporting species — upstarts in pinstripes — who came within a game of the World Series (and who, given an even playing field, would almost certainly have gotten there).
There were the 2000 Giants, 7-4 and scuffling after back-to-back years of 7-9 and 8-8. Jim Fassel famously declared at a November press conference: “I am raising the stakes right now. If this is a poker game, I am shoving my chips right in the middle of the table. I am raising the ante. Anybody who wants out, can get out. This team is going to the playoffs.” The Giants promptly won seven straight and didn’t stop until they ran into the Ravens in Super Bowl 35.
There were the 2001-02 Nets, allowed to grow in anonymity before 4,000 fans a night at the old Meadowlands before blossoming into NBA finalists behind the genius of Jason Kidd; and the 2013-14 Rangers, who finished with the 12th-best record in the NHL yet wouldn’t leave the Stanley Cup Finals that year until the Kings had beaten them three times in OT; and the 2009 Jets, who Rex Ryan declared dead in Week 15 before receiving a gift from the Colts in Week 16, then riding that largesse all the way to the AFC title game.
You’ll notice a trend in those teams, too: None (besides the Miracle Mets) finished the deal. None won championships. All wound up being fundamentally flawed, which explains why nothing much was expected of any of them. And also illustrates why they all captured our imaginations so completely. Out of the sky they fell. Into our hearts they landed.
The Knicks are flawed, too. They aren’t winning a championship. And it won’t change how people feel about them. The ride will end at some point and when it does what will remain is the journey, and these nights of wonder at the Garden and elsewhere. Out of the sky. Out of the (orange-and)-blue.
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