Listen: the Knicks and the Mavericks have come unstuck in time. Vonnegut’s famous line from Slaughterhouse-Five is the only explanation that makes sense after three and a half years of the teams becoming inexorably intertwined, taking turns pilfering each other’s talent, exacerbating each of their worst collective qualities, and generally leaving one of two fan bases full of seething resentment and firing off recriminations.
But I’m not here to take a victory lap. Far from it. I’m a chronic and jaded fan of the perpetually hopeless Knicks, and I’ve written about them for places like The New York Times, Vice, and The Daily Beast. I’ve even co-authored a book about them. So you might think inking Jalen Brunson to a nine-figure contract should provide rare cause for celebration. In many quarters, it is. It can be difficult these days, what with [gestures at everything] to find nuggets of unadulterated exultation.
So then, you might ask, why not gather ye rosebuds, even if the plucked flower in question is an undersized-if-scrappy floor general who maybe tops out as the third-best player on a contender? No. Sorry. Not for me. My sense of unease isn’t pegged to any deep-bore basketball analysis or hours spent crunching salary cap data. It just feels terribly, horribly wrong. To put a finer point on it, it all feels the same.
If you’re not steeped in Knicks lore, here’s a brief primer: over the last two decades, ever since James Dolan stuck his grubby paws into the team’s day-to-day affairs, the Knicks have served as a reflection of his neurorses. They’re paranoid, defensive, reactionary (both in the literal and the political sense of the word), and prone to conspiratorial thinking. Whenever a basketball decision defied explanation, Occam’s razor suggested something sinister must be afoot. Up until 2014, one conspiracy dogging the Knicks was they were secretly being run by the ur-powerful agency CAA. Not only was this theory absolutely based in reality, but the Knicks had also subcontracted a few front office duties to yet another all-encompassing, all-powerful corporate entity, one with tentacles wrapped around every echelon of elite society, government, and commerce: the McKinsey Group. Those messy problems were briefly set aside when Phil Jackson was brought in, promising a return to the days of yore. Once he faceplanted, packing up his patchouli and leather-bound books, Leon Rose was imported to run the shop.
Naturally, Rose has never run a team before. Instead, he’d made his bones at CAA, scrambling back to the same incestuous, self-abnegating modus operandi that patently didn’t work. Also, he’s family. Again, literally. And “family is how we’re building this team,” shadowy power broker and current Knicks svengali William “Worldwide Wes” Wesley said, according to Yaron Weitzman at Fox Sports.
Brunson is their proof of concept. Rose repped Jalen Brunson’s father Rick (and Jalen himself). Rick recently was enlisted as an assistant coach. He’s been a Thibodeau confidant for a long time and reportedly lost his last NBA gig following allegations of sexual impropriety, a Knicks specialty), while Leon’s son, Sam, has taken over the task of negotiating contracts on Jalen’s behalf. Oh, and their other free-agent signing on June 30 was Isaiah Hartenstein, also a CAA client.
Over a long enough timeline, rooting for the Knicks can feel like a hackneyed avatar for other failing or long since failed institutions, ones that keep stumbling forward out of dumb inertia or habit. I am tired—so very, very tired—of having my escapist fantasy slingshotting me back to the meathook realities that abound in the real world. It kind of defeats the entire purpose, you know? If nothing else, I’d like to see the Knicks fail in a somewhat different way.
Mavs fans may sympathize with this sentiment, even if you’re already sick of me whining about vibes (which, contrary to what Jalen Brunson said for years, probably aren’t immaculate down there). I am not a Mavs Knower, but from what I’ve gathered, prized free agents have a history of jilting the team, often in hilarious and hilariously gut-wrenching ways while the purportedly deep-pocketed owner misplaces his wallet at the least opportune moments. There’s no use debating whether the Mavericks could have re-upped Brunson to a cheap-o extension or whether it permanently soured the relationship. It feels like, as with Steve Nash, they declined to pony up when the price tag reached a certain threshold, no matter how fervidly they insist no dollar offers were slid across the table.
Maybe the psychic bond was sealed in January 2019, when Dallas sniped Kristaps Porzingis. I loved that gangly 7-foot-3 dude, a potential homegrown star nurtured by a franchise that hadn’t figured out how to conjure one into being since Patrick Ewing trudged his bulky frame and bludgeoned knees up and down the court. I even schlepped upstate to visit his sketchy, extremely swole personal trainer while KP was rehabbing his own shredded knee joint. (A sordid bit of trivia committed to memory by true Knicks partisans: no Knick draftee has been signed to a multi-year contract extension since Charlie Ward, the utterly nondescript point guard, back when Bill Clinton was still in office.)
All of the blemishes in Porzingis’ game, all the readily identifiable flaws—the inability to stay healthy, his odd predilection for archaic, Melo-like post touches, the rumblings of diva-ish behavior—didn’t matter. He was ours, a rare source of unfettered joy amid all the laughably self-inflicted wounds.
That’s not counting all the misfit Knicks toys that floated to the surface on the Mavs’ shores: Reggie Bullock, genuine good guy and a huge cog in the Mavs’ spring to the conference finals; Frank Ntilikina, the NBA’s handsomest man and a source of unyielding frustration for residents of Frank Island (like me); Trey Burke, one in an endless series of former first-round square pegs MSG tried to hammer into its perennially gaping hole at point guard; and, of course, Tim Hardaway Jr., who’s already done two tours and seems destined to somehow secure yet another four-year, $78 million bag from New York.
I can’t shake the feeling New York, unconsciously or otherwise and probably not spoken out loud, sees the Brunson signing as some kind of payback. I don’t like that friends of mine, the sports editor of this site among them, may feel betrayed and beaten down right now. My desire to watch a slightly better basketball team can’t overcome the sense of it all being the same, regardless of whether it results in something resembling success. (LOL it won’t.) Especially when this doomed pairing shows no signs of decoupling. Will the Mavs try to snipe RJ Barrett next summer? What about a virtual Knick in the future NBA metaverse? Will Cuban try to convert him into an NFT in 2032?
And for what? As fans, we develop these parasocial relationships to athletes in ways that can seem floridly bonkers to anyone spared such afflictions. We weep. We gnash our teeth in frustration. We let out the occasional Whitmanesque yawp. All for nothing. Arbitrary bounces of imperfect spheroids, bone-crunching hits, signifying nothing. Players come and go, enmeshing themselves in our day-to-day lives like a piece of grit stuck in an oyster’s shell that, over time and with enough emotional pressure, eventually becomes as polished and precious as a pearl. And then they’re plucked away, transformed into another fandom’s bright, shiny object of value.
There’s a bit of fortune-cookie wisdom that could provide a way out of this Chinese finger trap, presuming I had the good sense to shut up and listen. Like a lot of hoary clichés, there are some pointed truths to be mined here, if you can get past the treacle. It boils down to this: hold on tightly, let go lightly.
I’ve got the first part down pat. The second is proving far more difficult.