In 2012, I interviewed Spike Lee for New York magazine about his career, the Obama-Romney election (he brought up the time he met Mitt Romney at an airport and Romney said, “What’s up, Spike?”) and, of course, his beloved New York Knicks.
The Knicks were actually good at the time — it was really the last time they were good until right now — and the big question was, “Can the Knicks actually win a title with Carmelo Anthony?” (Uh, no.) But when I asked him about the vibe at Madison Square Garden during that year’s playoffs, he surprised me with the moment that he considered the wildest he’d ever seen the Garden in his life — and it wasn’t in the playoffs.
Linsanity — a torrid stretch in February and March 2012 — “was as loud as I have ever seen the Garden,” Lee said. That’s saying something — he has been a Knicks fan since the 1960s, so he has witnessed action at Madison Square Garden from the legendary 1970s teams through the Michael Jordan (and Reggie Miller) and Kobe Bryant eras to the present.
Tonight, the Knicks are fighting to stay alive in a series against the Atlanta Hawks (the Hawks are up, 3-1.) Last week, when the Knicks hosted the Hawks, it was their first playoff games since the Carmelo era. For the first time since those days, I heard some truly roaring, raucous, blow-your-earpods-out sounds — because the current Knicks team has a touch of Linsanity.
I covered the Knicks for New York magazine during those weeks when Jeremy Lin took over the Garden, the city and the world. Lin came out of nowhere (he wasn’t even in the team’s media guide) and was for a few weeks the most popular and truly global superstar in sports (at one point he actually had to deny he was dating a Kardashian). Linsanity remains the most joyous, truly transcendent sports experience I’ve ever been so fortunate to witness in person. It made you feel like your feet weren’t touching the ground. I’ll always remember the awe with which Lee spoke about it: His eyes got a little dreamy just remembering it.
Part of the reason for this, it’s clear, was Lin’s race and its relative novelty in the N.B.A. (“The fact that I’m Asian-American makes it harder to believe, even crazier, more unexpected,” he said in late 2012, not without a little rancor.) That he was a Harvard kid didn’t hurt either; I knew a lot of media elites in New York who busted out their Crimson hats during the Linsanity madness.
But looking back at it now, I think the biggest reason for the breakout was the simplest one: He was doing it at the Garden. Lin had some great moments on the road during that run, including a buzzer-beater in Toronto, but the truest breathtaking moments happened in front of the home crowd at Madison Square Garden. It wasn’t his brilliance on the court, or at least it wasn’t just that. It was that the crowd seemed to be carrying him along: More than any Knick I’ve ever seen, Lin seemed, in an almost palpable sense, like one of us. And the reason for this, more than anything else, is the simple fact that he was an underdog, that he came out of nowhere.
New York Knicks fans are not like Yankees fans, an insight that the owner, James Dolan, still has not grasped. Sure, Knicks fans cheer on star players like Anthony, or Amar’e Stoudemire, or any of the other big-ticket free agents Dolan has been wasting hundreds of millions on throughout the years. But the “you better win a title for us or you’re a bum” fans’ mind-set is more of a Yankees one than a Knicks one.
Knicks fans, perhaps because they’ve been kicked in the face for 25 years, have much more of an underdog mentality. They embrace folk heroes and hopeful up-and-comers like, on the current team, Immanuel Quickley or Frank Ntilikina. These are always preferable to expensive retreads because they are theirs: Like fans of any team, they love to watch players grow and evolve.
Dolan has always tried to bring in players who have excelled elsewhere to try to save the Knicks, which is the perfect way to set them up for backlash: They play in the Garden, but they never feel from the Garden. Lin seemed born in the Garden, a folk hero who became a real one.
Part of the excitement about the current team is just pent-up energy, both from the Knicks’ playoff drought and the isolation of the pandemic: People want to get out, gather and make some noise right now. But the real glory of this Knicks team is that it, like Lin, has truly come out of nowhere.
The team is full of castoffs like Julius Randle (who was one of those expensive underachievers last year before blooming this year) and Derrick Rose; young emergent stars like Quickley, Obi Toppin and especially RJ Barrett; grizzled vets playing their appointed roles like Taj Gibson, Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel. Coming into the season, this team was widely thought to be one of the worst teams in the N.B.A., but under the cantankerous head coach Tom Thibodeau, it has turned into the most surprising team in the league, with a better playoff seed than teams with LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Zion Williamson and Jayson Tatum.
Surprise is what the Garden has always wanted more than anything. Sports fans want the joy of the unexpected, the giddy sense of discovery that comes with being the team that no one believed in, with being the fans that were here before it was cool to be here. That’s what Linsanity had, and that’s what these Knicks have.
It, like Linsanity, cannot last forever, or even that long at all. The Knicks may be good next year, but they won’t be new — they won’t be this.
At the Garden for Games 1 and 2, I watched Spike Lee on TV jumping up and screaming, joyous and floating above the ground like the other Knick fans. The otherworldly levels the Garden has ascended to, the heights of Linsanity, the heights of these playoffs, they’re not so easy to achieve. Linsanity was gone in an instant; this could be, too.
Will Leitch, the author of the novel “How Lucky,” is a contributing editor at New York magazine and the founder of Deadspin.
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