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Great Moments In New York Provincialism

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Deadspin’s compilation of the year’s worst sportswriting contains some takes hot enough to warm even the coldest winter locations (if any.) But it definitely leads with my favourite, this little item from noted person really bad at arguing Liel Leibovitz:

Others may scratch their heads or wonder out loud about the depravity of the species or man’s propensity for self-inflicted suffering, but not me. I’ve lived this drama before, and I understand its sinister appeal. There’s no elegant way to put it, so here goes: In many ways, including some that are far from trivial, watching the Knicks is a lot like witnessing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Yes, basketball is just a game while the conflict claims lives. Sure, comparing the two in any practical way is ludicrous. But some issues are so thorny that they call for a simpler frame of reference to make us help sense of their intricacies. Contemplating my sadly unwavering devotion to the Knicks in the face of so much misery helped me understand something about the inexplicable dedication so many people—Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, Europeans, and others—have for the peace process, a phenomenon that may be as much of a fantasy as the playoffs are for my home team.

Stop, then, and reflect about the Knicks and about the conflict, and the fun begins right away. Both hopeless narratives revolve in part around a large man with white hair and folksy charm, a consummate politician accustomed to getting his way, a master builder of winning teams. In one scenario he’s called President Bill Clinton; in another, president Phil Jackson. In both cases, the president’s good work is overshadowed by a far more divisive figure, criticized both for those with whom he chooses to engage and disengage: It’s owner James Dolan hiring Isiah Thomas and, later, firing Jeremy Lin; it’s Benjamin Netanyahu dismantling his coalition only to force an election that will likely result in a cabinet that looks much like the one he has now. There are colorful disruptors in this story, men like Mohammed Dahlan or J.R. Smith, who challenge the system by doing things like operating a private army in the Gaza Strip or operating on their own samurai code that includes untying the shoelaces of rival players mid-game. For these reasons, both got exiled from their respective teams. And there is the tragic spirit of squandered hope hovering above it all: It’s the superstar Carmelo Anthony, averaging 23.9 points per game with nothing to show for it; it’s Start-Up Nation, producing miraculous creations yet still mired in terror and bad politics; it’s the young men and women in Ramallah and Tulkarm and Nablus, educated and ambitious yet felled by their leadership’s flight from responsibility; it’s the feeling that we ought to be superstars, but instead we’re a laughingstock. It’s a tough feeling to take.

Leaving aside how ludicrous and offensive the analogy is on its face, and how little sense the comparison makes even if we overlook the first two points, what particularly amuses me about this is the epic solipsism of a particular kind of New York sports fan. (Cf. also “The Brooklyn Dodgers, the only team anyone has ever cared about ever.”) I mean, sure, the Knicks are not a well-run franchise, and have fielded some really bad teams lately. But the competitive structure of the NBA is such that there are going to be a lot of bad teams with not much hope even in the medium term at any given time. Are the Knicks a uniquely bad team with fans that have had to put up with a completely atypical level of suffering? Obviously not. To find the last time the Knicks were a 50-win team who won a playoff series, you have to go all the way back to…2013. And, also, the team has been in the NBA finals as recently as 1999, and has two championship teams that are getting old but remain widely discussed. Knicks fans have had some rough times but Kings or Timberwolves fans, say, would laugh at the idea that Knicks fans are particularly hard done by, and that’s far from an exhaustive list. But a Hornets fan who tried to sell a story like this would be met with hails of derisive laughter even though they’d have considerably more cause.

Allow me to dramatize this with a brief epistolary short story:

My email to editor: “I hope you’ll consider my pitch, ‘The Seattle Mariners are the Climate Change of Major League Baseball.'”

Editor’s return email: “Look, I’m a busy woman.”

Me: “But, like global warming, the Mariners are the result of terrible decisions made by human beings, have never been to a World Series, are a uniquely horrible human tragedy, and for some reason those clowns in Congress won’t to anything about them.”

Editor: “Never pitch me again. Also, we’re deleting all of your articles from our archive in case Tucker Carlson ever releases this email to the public — we have some dignity to maintain.”

My hypothetical editor would have much better judgment, and if Leibovitz had been writing about a franchise located in any other American city I’m pretty confident Tablet’s editors would have shown better judgment too.

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