What did you do when the great Knicks WojBomb of 2019 hit? I screamed and threw my phone across the room. Your mileage may vary.
In my 20-plus years of Knicks fandom, there have been three Knicks I have loved unconditionally. The first was Anthony Randolph, a 6-foot-11 marvel of impossible length and infinite potential in whom I invested all my hopes and dreams during the Mike D’Antoni–Donnie Walsh rebuilding era, but who, alas, turned out to be a terrible basketball player. (He appears to be rattling around Spain these days.) The second was Jeremy Lin, whose fortnight of Linsanity remains the single most joyous event I have covered in my professional lifetime. (Spike Lee once told me he’d never heard the Garden louder than it was during Linsanity, though I’ve never been entirely sure he meant it as a compliment.)
And the third — and the one I loved the most, and for the longest — was Kristaps Porzingis. New York sports fans are always portrayed as irrational and desperate, in gasping, undignified ways, for a championship, and I suppose that perception is mostly true. But really, we’re just like any other sports fans: We want to win, but we mostly want our guys to win. We want Discovery. It’s why Yankee Stadium was louder and more raucous when Aaron Judge and all the young kids first emerged two years ago than it was when Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira were bloodlessly winning a World Series in 2009. It’s why the Garden flipped for Lin. Winning with expensive, flashy free agents is fun, sure; it definitely beats not winning. But there’s nothing as thrilling and inspiring as our guys — guys who have only played for our team — winning.
Kristaps Porzingis was, from the first time we saw him, our guy. When that bratty kid pined for his television time and got it when Porzingis was drafted, Porzingis took it in stride (“I hear he already has my jersey,” he said), and then immediately went about dismantling every misconception we had about him. Euro players are soft? Not Kristaps: He was scrawny — at first, anyway — but he banged around with whoever he could and showed he didn’t take any crap from anybody. He was too tall to be a consistent shooter? The guy had Steph Curry range from his very first game. He wouldn’t understand the NBA game after playing in Latvia and being so young? Get that shit out of here. He was goofy, relaxed even: The supposed cauldron of pressure that was big-time New York sports didn’t seem to affect him at all. What is love, anyway?
There was nothing like him: He was, in every way, The Unicorn — singular, mythical, even mystical. And more important, he was our unicorn. The Knicks hadn’t had a star like Porzingis since Ewing, and, really, not ever: Porzingis didn’t come bearing the impossible burden Ewing — who seemed to carry every slight and expectation on his slowly sagging shoulders — did when he came to New York, and he seemed to exist outside of the dumb, perpetual back-page tabloid war, almost rising above it. If you didn’t like Porzingis, you didn’t like NBA basketball — you didn’t like fun. Sure, being a Knicks fan was a series of painful kicks to the chest, an endless slog that’s was always destined to end in just more pain, but none of that ever stuck to Porzingis: No matter what was going on with this perpetually terrible team, that he was here at all meant the future couldn’t be all bad. Every team in the NBA wanted a Porzingis. And we had him.
And now, we don’t. Following the initial rage that ensued after the Knicks abruptly traded away the only thing that’s made their team watching over the past four years — our special unicorn — there has been a bit of a reconsideration of the actual terms of the trade. You don’t have to squint hard to see the reasoning behind it. Sports Illustrated’s Andrew Sharp neatly summarized the argument: The Knicks needed to clear out space for Kevin Durant and/or Kyrie Irving this summer; they brought in two first-round draft picks (usually the Knicks are gleefully tossing them out the window like burnt cigarettes); Dennis Smith Jr. is a better fit in New York than in Dallas; and perhaps most importantly, Kristaps was a restricted free agent and had reportedly demanded a trade, leaving the Knicks little choice anyway. The Knicks had little hope of getting Durant or Irving (and no chance at all of getting them both) before they made the trade; sending Kristaps off gives them a puncher’s chance. Even seasoned NBA reporters, who have dined out on mocking the Knicks for decades, have had to admire the risk of it: Maybe the Knicks know something about Durant’s and Irving’s plans that we don’t.
If Durant and Irving do end up signing with the Knicks this July, this will have all been worth it. (And I’ve got some tweets I’ll need to delete real fast.) But, of course, Knicks fans have been through all this before: this magazine ran a whole cover story with LeBron James Photoshopped into a Knicks uniform, for crying out loud. But instead of LeBron and Chris Bosh, the Knicks got a gimpy Amar’e Stoudemire and a terminal case of Carmelo Anthony lust. Right now, the Knicks have given themselves an opportunity to get Durant and Irving (or Anthony Davis). But it’s just an opportunity. And they are still the Knicks. There is a cold, gambler’s logic to the whole trade, a wonky, hedge-funder’s, push-your-chips-to-the-middle gambit that nevertheless — salary-cap machinations aside — looks like another Knicks Hail Mary that will end with Jim Dolan trying to convince two proud NBA champions at the peak of their powers and influence that, seriously, baby, he’s changed, it’s gonna be different this time.
And it cost us Kristaps. The joy of Porzingis was not just that he was great and was only going to get better. The joy of Porzingis was that he wasn’t like anyone the Knicks had ever had around before: He was a walking representation of the future, a world in which the Knicks’ past mistakes and ongoing incompetence wouldn’t matter, because they had him. Not even the Knicks could screw this up.
Yet here they are: they’ve traded him away for another dream, another heedless leap into the void, another spate of impatient Knicks lust for what they could someday have rather than what they already do. Maybe it’s going to work. Maybe in a year the Knicks will have a starting five of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Kevin Knox, Zion Williamson, and Mitchell Robinson, and they’ll have taken over the whole damned NBA. We’ve all had these visions before. But I say it’s Photoshop.
Meanwhile, Kristaps, our unicorn, really will be wearing that Mavericks uniform, and the rest of the NBA is laughing at us, again.
Maybe this will all turn out well. Except it never does.