It is quite possible, over the last two decades, that no consumer group had been used and abused like Knicks fans. Those fans not only were forced to watch loserville basketball one mind-numbing season after another, but also they were forced to watch while knowing the game’s greats would love to perform regularly on their stage.
If only the Knicks had a roster, coach, front office and owner worth signing up for.
The proof? The two best players of all time, Michael Jordan and LeBron James, are each on record describing the Garden as his all-time favorite gym.
“It’s because of the knowledge of the fans,” Jordan said. “They’re basketball enthusiasts, so you want to play great there.”
James: “It doesn’t get better, man, than to be playing in the Garden in front of these fans. They know the game of basketball.”
Yes they do. And they know the difference between a real basketball product and, say, the counterfeit goods that were sold them by the likes of Phil Jackson and Steve Mills. Knicks fans have been waiting forever for the genuine article to return — Carmelo Anthony’s 54-win season in 2012-13 aside — for the first time since Jeff Van Gundy bailed in December 2001. Sunday night, they can finally say their long regional nightmare is over.
The Knicks are actually hosting an honest-to-God NBA playoff series, starting with Game 1 against the Atlanta Hawks in front of 15,000 fans.
Fifteen … Thousand … Fans.
How sweet does that sound?
Knicks fans deserve this moment, and this program coach Tom Thibodeau is just now starting to build. He is one of them, of course, an old Knicks fan from Connecticut who doesn’t need much prompting to reminisce about the 1970 and ’73 championship teams of his youth. On a Zoom call with reporters Thursday, Thibodeau started rattling off the names of Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley before running a fast break to Patrick Ewing, Oak, Starks, Allan and Spree — the players he coached with Van Gundy in the 1990s. But in the end, with the old Knicks, it always comes back to the fans.
“We know what basketball means to the city,” Thibodeau said, “so hopefully we can give them something to be proud of.”
They already have, by going 41-31 in a season the oddsmakers figured would end at 22-50. The Knicks did it with the kind of grit New Yorkers show in their everyday lives, connecting team and city even as the pandemic cut the Garden crowds down to size. Thibodeau’s team is as likable as any that Van Gundy or Pat Riley put on the floor.
Why? The time was right to have a Knicks fan answer that question. So I asked the most passionate one I know, a 47-year-old Manhattan resident named Peter Storm, whose father took him to his first Garden game at age 2, what made this team and this season so special to the fans.
“First, this season is like a bonus because you never expected it,” Storm said. “When they hired Thibs I thought they would go from 21 to 30 wins — I thought he’d be good for nine wins. But I never thought 41 was possible.
“They’re easy to root for because they’re the hardest-working team in the league. What I love about Thibs is that he’s always prepared. My issue with the Derek Fishers and David Fizdales and Jeff Hornaceks was that their Knicks never looked prepared. So for me, to plan my life around watching Knicks games again is a really nice feeling, because for the last 20 years I haven’t been able to do that.”
Storm’s father was such an obsessive Knicks fan, he put his son in nursery school where the team practiced at Pace University, just so they could occasionally bump into Frazier and Earl Monroe. Storm attended Ewing’s Game 7 victory over the Pacers in the 1994 Eastern Conference finals, and some Linsanity games, but the loudest he ever heard the Garden was May 16, 1997, when the Knicks barely had enough bodies to play Game 6 against Miami after the suspensions of Ewing, Allan Houston and Charlie Ward, and still pushed the Heat to the brink.
Thibodeau was there that night, in his first season with the Knicks. Nearly a quarter century later, this time as head coach, he has handed the fans another golden opportunity to roar.
“The Garden is such a special place,” he said, “not only to us but to everyone in the NBA. … We want to make sure we’re giving [the fans] everything we have.”
Those long-suffering men and women have sure as hell earned it. Sunday night belongs to them.