A strange thing has been happening at Madison Square Garden. The New York Knicks are becoming the most likable team in town — while losing. They have given up three in a row, but they’ve been a thrilling three in a row. This included their epic loss to the Miami Heat, featuring a bleeding Dwyane Wade; it was the type of game people will talk about for years. How many games from the last few years of Isiah awfulness do you remember?
The Yankees can’t make the back page without A-Rod, and all the Mets news is about the perilous health of Johan Santana. The Knicks are winning dunk contests, jumping over Biff Henderson on Letterman, hugging movie stars, and thrilling crowds even when they’re in the midst of a three-game losing streak. They’re even getting celebs courtside; Jeremy Piven might not show up on Broadway, but he’s showing up to Knicks games. And they’re 24–35!
This is not how it’s supposed to work. New York’s fans aren’t usually attracted to noble failures, or scrappy underdogs. It’s the Steinbrenner doctrine: Any season that doesn’t end in the bloody corpses of those who dare oppose us is a total waste of time. Anywhere other than here their appeal would be obvious. The team is young, running up and down the court, chucking the ball with little regard for human decency or discretion, just having a grand old time. These are not legends in the making. David Lee has matured into one of the more consistent players in the league, and Nate Robinson has blossomed into a hammy semi-celebrity, culminating in his embrace of Will Ferrell courtside last week, after the diminutive guard single-handedly dismantled the Indiana Pacers. But they’re not All-Stars. (Fittingly, that Pacers game was the Knicks’ last actual victory.)
The Knicks have the feel of upstarts from Portland, or Kansas City, or Oakland. They lack the gloss and shimmer we usually require — that Masters of the Universe surety — and we love them for it. The Garden hasn’t been full every night; it takes a while for a decade of wounds to heal. But it has been vibrant and goofy, awash with fans gleefully reconnecting with an old friend. As with my beloved Arizona Cardinals, every win feels like an upset. Every loss feels like a silly ride. This is as close as we will come to having our own Bad News Bears.
But I doubt this will last. According to ESPN’s stat guru John Hollinger, the Knicks have a roughly 10 percent chance of making the playoffs, and even if they sneak in, they’ll surely be pounded by Boston or Cleveland. Next year, we’ll be more demanding; you only get to be the likable underdogs once in a generation. It will be kind of sad to see them go. So lift a $10 MSG beer to the 2008–09 New York Knicks, enjoy the time we have left … and then get back to hoping they’re making progress on bringing LeBron James and Chris Bosh to town.