Last fall, The New York Times ran a pretty much perfect feature on Forlini’s, an unexceptional Italian place near the criminal courthouse in downtown Manhattan that, by virtue of its Instagrammable maroon booths and its old-timey uncoolness, had become one of the party spots. The Times piece describes the silly juxtapositions that had become standard at the restaurant: bemused, schlubby Forlini’s regulars digging into their veal marsala while social media influencers flitted around them, contorting to catch the best selfie angles.
I got to thinking about Forlini’s over the past few days as I watched NBA players interact at the All-Star Game. The annual weekend featured a young Buck going wild, an old man going ham, and a busted-up aircraft. But the most lasting memories took place away from the sanctioned competitions. There was LeBron James in the locker room, edging ever closer to the inevitable Trip McNeely stage of his life, eyeing a scuba-suited Anthony Davis in a meaningful way and not letting go of his hand. There was Bradley Beal talking tragically about his dutiful, doomed strat for recruiting top guys toward the abyss that is the Wizards. And then there was the smirking, multiday romp between noted upcoming free agents Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Durant and Irving, both NBA champions who have already switched franchises once in their careers to both great fanfare and some rancor, and who very well might choose to do so again this summer, competed against one another in giggly games of one-on-one and jersey footsie. They mugged big time while pretending not to notice themselves being noticed, moving with the air of two SoCal teens in the vicinity of MTV cameras. This all culminated in a hallway exchange after the All-Star Game that some online zoom-and-enhancers interpreted to include the phrase “two max slots.” Two max slots!!! It didn’t matter that many others believed that the sound bite in question was actually the far less interesting “back-to-back,” perhaps in tribute to Durant’s two Finals MVP awards. The conversation was enough to pique the interest of a great many NBA observers, especially the New Yorkers.
When the Knicks abruptly traded their big baby unicorn, Kristaps Porzingis, to Dallas on February 1, I felt tender disbelief that gave way to righteous fury, and then I noticed that for many of my fellow Knicks fans those emotions were yielding to a new one: a sort of wild-eyed, flailing optimism, based on the realization that the franchise had effectively turned itself into a blank slate. (Or, as The Onion put it: “Knicks Confident They Have The Cap Space To Ruin 2 Or 3 Promising Careers.”) The Knicks unloaded pricey players Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee in the Porzingis trade while acquiring a pair of soon-to-expire contracts; this summer, the team may have nearly $75 million in open cap space, enough to sign Durant and Irving. What’s more, the Knicks—current holders of the NBA’s second-worst record—could soon find themselves with the first overall pick in what is essentially the 2019 Zion Williamson sweepstakes. This should be great: New York’s hottest club could soon have everything! Which is what leaves me feeling a little bit cold.
In the old Jerry Seinfeld bit about being a sports fan, he observed, in his affronted and incredulous way, that “you’re actually rooting for the clothes, when you get right down to it.” For the last two decades, Knicks fans have cheered for/despite a whole lot of dirty laundry, from the Isiah Thomas era to the exasperating Carmelo Anthony trade, from the Phil Jackson fiasco to the Eddy Curry contract, from the clunky banning of a Knicks legend to the clunky banning of a Knicks beat writer.
On a broader level, recent trends across the NBA have made it increasingly risky for fans to invest in the name on the back of the jersey, rather than the one on the front. (Stat and Melo was so very, very long ago.) The high-stakes, legacy-defining free-agency circus is nothing new. (Just ask early-aughts Shaq.) And players banding together to Voltron their way to success isn’t novel, either. (Thanks for the memories, Miami Heat!) But over the past few years, top players have grown even savvier about their power and more vocal about their boundaries, and have been willing to apply some serious torque when it comes to dictating the next phase of their careers.
Kawhi Leonard got himself bounced from one of the most stable, successful franchises in the league. Porzingis made the unusually bold move of distancing himself from the Knicks while still on his rookie deal, a new escalation in the modern “pre-agency” trend (and one that New York decided, optics be damned, to immediately nip in the bud). It took all of four months between when Anthony Davis first hired agent Rich Paul last fall and when the league fined Davis $50,000 thanks to Paul’s public trade demands, a unit of time known as an Arli$$. And Irving’s is a particularly rich journey: He made it known that he wanted out of Cleveland. He waxed preemptively nostalgic about how his jersey might hang in the Boston rafters someday. And then when asked recently about this aspirational fealty, he pointed out that “I don’t owe anybody shit.”
It’s inspiring to watch top players clap back at the ownership class this way, although it’s probably logistically nerve-wracking if you’re one of the Kyle Kuzmas or Kevin Knoxes of the world, those fine young stockpiled assets just waiting to be packaged for an Anthony Davis. (“The trade deadline is over with. This is our squad,” LeBron James coolly insisted a week after it was rumored that most of said team had been on offer to the Pelicans. “I love our squad.”) Many of the blueprints for NBA success call for wholesale dismantling before any building can begin. Small rosters allow organizational changes to be sweeping and swift.
But as a Knicks fan, it’s strange to realize that the main appeal of the franchise these days to free agents like Durant or Irving is, in many ways, its bleak emptiness. And it feels like slapstick-level whiplash to go from that position of total irrelevance, to mourning over Porzingis, to impassioned, hypothetical debate about whether the team should trade the Zion pick for Davis this summer—you know, now that New York is in win-now mode, what with the additions of Durant and Irving and all. Wait, what?!
Obviously, when the Knicks lose the lottery and wind up with no big free agents, this blog post will be a humiliating artifact from a bygone era. But it’s worth noting that, even in a bestest-case scenario, so much still seems a little bit off about the team’s potential insta-future. A Knicks roster so suddenly composed of someone else’s already-proven, A-list talent has an uncanny valley weirdness to it, like one of those AI machine-learning outputs, or Elijah Wood being a creepy romantic mimic in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and totally freaking out Kate Winslet. It is hard not to picture the looming, dueling visages of Frank Isola and Marc Berman absolutely licking their chops every time Durant bristles at a foreseeable question from the Golden State media. It’s hard to know what to make of Irving’s … sincerity? mission? solemn edgelord commitment? … when he sports, postgame, a New York Times shirt about the importance of truth on the same day he got pissed off about New York–adjacent questions. Are the Knicks just the NBA player’s semi-ironic version of Forlini’s: a lovely, kitschy, empty vessel, to be filled up however you like, a sweet backdrop for your most viral life? (If so, LeBron’s Frankenlakers are the Fyre Festival.)
In the Times story about Forlini’s, a professional surfer and male model from Australia named Jordan Barrett offers a telling glimpse into the psyche of slummin’-it scenesters like him:
“I’ve never heard of this restaurant before,” Mr. Barrett said. He had been there for the celebration at hand — the birthday party of a social-media influencer and creative consultant. “I am only here for Jenné Lombardo. This restaurant only matters because of Jenné Lombardo. This restaurant did not even exist before tonight.” He stepped into an SUV with his crew and disappeared into the night.
I can see it now: The year is 2022. Jenné Lombardo is Kevin Durant, and Kevin Durant has just disgruntled his way into a trade to Seattle’s new franchise. Outside the MSG loading docks, Irving issues one final cryptic salvo before getting in his own SUV and embarking upon some four-month quasi-injury mostly holdout. Everything will seem wrong with the Knicks again, and order will seem restored to the world. The next rebuild will begin—an umpteenth existence, the latest clean slate—and 2019 will seem like so long ago.