A few hours before a bunch of ping-pong balls divine the future of both the NBA’s top prospects and its most desperate teams, New York radio host Mike Francesa stands in a WFAN studio in Tribeca that is named in his honor. He’s biting into an apple, and he’s in a chipper mood. CNBC is on a nearby TV, there’s golf at Bethpage Black out on Long Island this weekend, it’s horse racing season, and he knows he’s still got it: “The other day I said that Game of Thrones was fine, but not as good as Sopranos,” Francesa says. “People really took umbrage!”
This isn’t the only recent Francesa take to elicit strong reactions. A few days earlier, when I asked whether I could stop by WFAN on the day of the NBA draft lottery, colloquially known as the Zion Williamson sweepstakes, he gave me a heads-up about another opinion of his that has been making waves for months. “I don’t know if it hurts your angle,” he wrote in an email, “but I am the rare person who thinks Zion will not be an automatic superstar. That is on the court. Off the court is a given.”
With a 6-foot-7, 285-pound frame and an unfathomable combination of grace and heft, Williamson is an 18-year-old one-and-done Duke phenom and the most anticipated draftee since LeBron James was an Akron teen. He’s the kind of talent who’s expected to improve his new team immediately and with authority, altering its trajectory as if the entire NBA franchise were an alley-oop pass served up in his direction. Having finished 17-65, the worst record in the league, the New York Knicks have the best odds of earning the top pick and becoming that team—although the best odds are still long, and the Knicks’ chance at no. 1 is just 14 percent.
Francesa’s Zion take may be a hot one, but he’s been in the business long enough to know what the people want, and he knows that this is the kind of day when most callers are less interested in arguing than they are in blowing off some nervous energy and publicly daydreaming about the Knicks finally winning something in May. “I’m not saying he’s bereft of talent,” Francesa assures one caller, his tone more conciliatory than combative, “but remember, people are calling him generational. I don’t see that.”
The Knicks have appointed Patrick Ewing, the most recent player the organization took first overall, to be their representative at the draft lottery, a move that is so on-the-nose it feels almost oppressive. (What if he tries the finger roll?) But it gives Francesa the chance to bring up one of the NBA’s most enduring tinfoil-hat theories: that the league fixed the 1985 draft, through the use of “the bent tip or the frozen envelope,” to ensure that the Knicks would get the Big Fella. An independent auditor oversees the process these days, but surely that doesn’t mean much, muses Francesa. “Why are they beyond any funny business?” he asks listeners. “They’re not!”
Over the next few hours, Francesa asks each caller where they think the Knicks will finish in the lottery. “They’re getting Zion,” one declares. “You know I got number one, Mike!” yells Roscoe in Brooklyn. “After 20 years of this, Mike,” says Vin in Babylon, “I think it’ll be number five,” the lowest point to which the Knicks can fall. Someone makes the obligatory Jason Giambi–related prank call. “I knew that was coming,” mutters Brian Monzo, the show’s producer, in the control room. Monzo says he himself wouldn’t mind the Knicks picking fifth: The resulting malaise would be good for the show.
After his show ends with a “good luck, good night,” I ask Francesa what his own gut prediction is. That morning, the cover of the New York Post featured a picture of a priest and the words “Pray for Zion! Post enlists priest, rabbi, witches to break Knicks curse, pages 6-7.” Now the Sports Pope is trying his best, too. He’s wearing a dark suit and a tie dotted with light purple flowers that match his pocket square, but as he ponders my question he takes on the air of a man wearing a robe and wielding a gavel.
“First,” he finally rules. “I just have a feeling. I do. I just got a feeling that something good’s gonna happen tonight.” He says this with oddly tender conviction, almost certainly jinxing the franchise. That night, the New Orleans Pelicans hit the no. 1 jackpot, and the Knicks finish third.
Somewhere in the depths of time, the Knicks were perennial championship contenders, their seasons stretching longer and the Garden growing louder as, outside, the midtown daylight faded later. But in the past 19 seasons, New York has advanced past the first round of the playoffs just once. Here in the present, there is no real choice but to look toward the future. In a Knicks fan’s wildest dreams, the Zion sweepstakes would have been just the start of a wild and wonderful summer of lottery jackpots and free agent signings and blockbuster trades and the Knicks being back, baby.
Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Kemba Walker, and Klay Thompson, as well as a number of players who weren’t seemingly named by Kris Jenner, are among a group of high-profile pending free agents. New York is expected to have more than $70 million in cap space, enough to pursue two max deals. The Washington Wizards might consider trading guard Bradley Beal. The New Orleans Pelicans are listening to offers for the disgruntled Anthony Davis, and the Knicks actually have multiple first-round draft picks and young assets they could try to package to get him. (New Orleans has already rejected a pretty rich offer from the Lakers during the season, though the front office may now be wishing for a mulligan.) The Atlanta Hawks reportedly have interest in trading two of their late lottery picks for New York’s no. 3. The Zion door may have been slammed shut in mid-May, but a good dozen windows remain thrown wide open, and everyone is already starting to feel the draft. It’s been a long while since the New York Knicks remained this relevant this late in the spring, poised not only to disrupt the NBA’s current power structure, but also to finally fix their own team. Somehow, that second goal seems much loftier than the first.
New York neither won the top pick nor fell far enough in the lottery to make for the hilariously emotional sports radio talk that Monzo not-so-secretly hoped for, but there will definitely be no shortage of Knicks chatter in the coming months, both on local stations like The FAN and in the more general-interest national sports world. And the majority of it will probably focus on players, both the professional and the soon-to-be, who do not currently play for New York. This includes the cornucopia of pending free agents, and it includes draft prospects like R.J. Barrett, the Duke (and Team Canada) forward most likely to be selected third, and it also includes, more implicitly, Kristaps Porzingis, who this season went from being a unicorn to being the elephant in the room.
When the Knicks abruptly dealt Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks in late January, it felt like one more misstep by a clueless franchise, and was a confusing jolt to a previously envisioned Knicks future. But the transaction took on a different light as more context emerged in the months that followed. In February, Knicks coach David Fizdale said that Porzingis had threatened to return to Europe rather than play for the team. In late March, a neighbor of Porzingis accused him of raping her 13 months earlier, on the night he tore his ACL. Porzingis’s attorney said that before the trade he had already reported, to both federal authorities and to the NBA, what he characterized as “extortionate demands.” Porzingis has not been charged with a crime.
Knicks management did not speak publicly for two months after the trade, but in April the team broke its silence in a letter to season-ticket holders that contained some magic words: “We have created a tremendous amount of financial flexibility, which has put us in a position to potentially sign up to two max free agents.” New York used the trade as a hard reset, and since then, the team’s defining feature has been its featurelessness. That may sound like something Phil Jackson might say inside a sweat lodge, but it is really the only way to describe a team that has, in recent months, been deliberately built to be blank. (“A glorified G League team” is how Fizdale described his guys in March.) There are other teams that in the coming months ought to be deeply involved in free agency too: both Los Angeles teams, Boston, and Brooklyn, New York’s increasingly fashionable outerborough cousin. But while those franchises are sorting through puzzle pieces to find the right fit, the Knicks are still more so in the process of dumping out the contents of the whole box, creating a situation in which all news feels likes Knicks news.
With the Toronto Raptors leading the Golden State Warriors 3-1 in the NBA Finals, for example, two of the top headlines from the series could technically be hashtagged #Knicks. Leonard’s tremendous impact on the Raptors in what could be his lone season in Toronto has highlighted the speed with which a well-placed superstar can propel a franchise right up to the brink of a championship, and has made the question of where he’ll wind up next season all the more compelling. (Leonard has made almost no indication that he’s interested in coming to the Knicks, but there’s lots of Silly Season ahead, right? Right?!) Durant’s mysterious injury and all the whiplashy ramifications thereof, meanwhile, have made for an unexpected new chapter in a story that has been unfolding since last offseason.
After Durant won his second straight NBA Finals MVP last June, his general manager, coach, and team broadcaster all began clowning on him about his future plans during the championship parade. He did not seem amused. He inked a one-year deal with the Warriors that mostly just re-upped speculation that this season would be his last with Golden State. And when he pulled up grabbing the back of his calf in the second round of the playoffs, after having averaged 34 points a game in the postseason, things got even stranger: Golden State swept the Trail Blazers in the Western Conference finals in his absence; Durant took affront to a Seth Curry remark that the Warriors were harder to guard without him; Chris Broussard pointed out that Durant’s “worst nightmare”—being perceived as inessential—was coming true; the two had a semiotic discussion about what constitutes a text. On Sunday, Durant returned to practice for the first time since the injury, though details from his workout were scarce. His official status for Game 5, questionable, also applies to his entire future with Golden State. If he has played his last game as a Warrior, it would be an odd (yet oddly fitting?) ending to a fascinating stint. And if he hasn’t, giddy-up! Either way, all of this is of outsized interest to the New York Knicks.
For a guy like Durant, who is as acutely and self-consciously aware of his image as any player in the league and/or any human in junior high, the Knicks would seem to be an alluring white whale: There’s no surer, and also probably no harder, way to prove one’s championship chops than by winning one in New York. But as Charles Barkley pointed out this week, the same self-consciousness that might drive Durant to want to optimize his legacy could also make the Knicks a fraught fit for him down the road. Still, there have been bread crumbs, however meager, that lead back to the Knicks: Durant’s manager and business partner, Rich Kleiman, is a born-and-bred New Yorker who sends intriguing gifts and tweeted a self-prophecy in 2018: “Imma run the Knicks one day.” Knicks GM Scott Perry was part of the group that originally drafted Durant in Seattle in 2007. Colin Cowherd dropped a vague yet definitive blind item, the best kind. A report from the NBA combine said that various team executives were treating Durant-to-the-Knicks as a “fait accompli.”
Even beyond the playoffs, there is Knicks news to be found. Zero Knicks this season received All-NBA votes, and yet when the awards were released there were numerous ramifications for New York. Walker made the third team, qualifying him for a supermax deal with the Hornets, which gives them a leg up on other NBA teams in terms of possible contract size. Knicks news! (The Bronx-born point guard told reporters in Japan that his top priority is staying in Charlotte, to the dismay of many New Yorkers who were hoping for some local talent.) Thompson and Beal were also both snubbed, which constituted Knicks news because it made them, respectively, less and more likely to remain with their current teams. “You’re going to find a lot more conversation about people moving,” says Bill Cartwright, the former Knicks and Bulls center, in a phone conversation, “than you’re going to find actual people move.”
It was Knicks news when Irving’s Celtics teammate Terry Rozier made things in Boston sound hectic, and when LeBron “liked” an online Photoshop of Irving in a Lakers jersey, and when Irving was “just spotted in New York walking into a townhouse on 72nd St between 2nd and 3rd wearing his biggest smile of the past year.” It was Knicks news when Davis ate breakfast productively and with respect. It has been Knicks news every time Durant refuses to log off, gets mad online, or limps. (Don’t worry, it’s still traditional Knicks news when owner James Dolan throws someone out of MSG.)
The organization has sought to stay out of the news itself, keeping mostly mum about the sprawling array of options and decisions it will face in the coming weeks and months. “I don’t want to necessarily hand out our cards,” Fizdale said on The Dan Patrick Show when asked how he would pitch a hypothetical 7-footer who lives in the Bay Area. This is prudent restraint: Even vague, benign comments have a way of causing a media feeding frenzy or, as Clippers coach Doc Rivers recently learned the hard way, of drawing league fines. Still, the Knicks’ omnipresence this spring has made the organization come across as some sort of nosy chaperone to everyone else in the league: They are in everyone’s business; they wave around lunch money; they leer in the rearview mirror at all the people having fun; and they try to keep Kawhi and the Raptors 6 inches apart on the dance floor, with little success.
Back in February, 23-year-old Ryan Gray, a file clerk at a law firm and a contributor to the blog The Knicks Wall, found himself bumming over the Porzingis trade and the drifting Knicks. “It got pretty dark for a second,” he says. “The team was terrible. We’d just traded our franchise player.” In hindsight, he says, he now likes the trade, but at the time he sought to distract himself from it by looking ahead. “The summer could go in so many different directions,” says Gray, sitting inside a food court next to Madison Square Garden with two other 20-something Knicks Wall contributors, Ryan Punzalan and Kyle Maggio, and wearing a blue sweatshirt bearing an image of John Starks’s famous 1993 dunk. (By my math, the play is older than Gray himself.) “It could either be the best summer we’ve ever had or it could be the worst,” he says. “I wanted to make something that would reflect that, so people could see just how crazy this can get.”
So Gray built the Offseason app, a little web-based machine on The Knicks Wall that allows users to choose their own Knicks adventure, from the draft lottery to free agency to the trade market, and then simulates the results of the coming season. Users can decide whom to draft; package essentially the entire Knicks future for Davis and still get rejected (I speak from experience); and even offer Porzingis a free-agent contract and unearth a real-talk Easter egg of a response: “Stop. Have some self respect.” Interest was so heavy that when Maggio tweeted out the link from the Knicks Wall account, the resulting flood of notifications and replies made his Twitter app crash.
“We knew what we had, that it was really good,” says Maggio, who along with Punzalan and Gray has just come from MSG Network studios, where they demonstrated the popular app on TV, “but we didn’t know how quick” it would spread. For Gray, who had spent a great deal of time working on the app in total solitude, “seeing hundreds of screenshots from the app everywhere I looked on Twitter that day was surreal.” Even some influencers began sharing the site on social media, like Jerry Ferrara, the Brooklyn-born actor who played Turtle on Entourage. “I’ve run it approximately 250 times,” Ferrara tells me about the simulator in a phone conversation on the night of the lottery, “give or take 20 times.”
After the machine went up, people started DMing various Knicks Wall–related accounts, asking if maybe the blog could put together a similar machine for other teams. “We got multiple Lakers fans,” says Punzalan. “Yeah, it’d be like, Would you want to trade LeBron?” Maggio says. “LeBron says no,” says Gray, laughing, “and that brings you back to the beginning.” But the Knicks already contain enough multitudes that there’s no real reason to focus on anyone else: Someone even had the idea to introduce a James Dolan mode. What would that look like? “A difficult mode,” Gray says.
The Knicks have been playing in James Dolan mode IRL since 1999, when he took over ownership of the franchise from his father during a lockout-shortened season in which the Knicks made a surprise run to the NBA Finals. Since then, the team has averaged fewer than 34 wins, employed 12 different head coaches, signed Allan Houston to a contract so gargantuan and unmovable that it led the league to develop the amnesty clause; traded two first-round draft picks (among other things!) for Eddy Curry; failed to get LeBron in 2010; doled out a combined $60 million in contracts to interchangeable humans Jared Jeffries and Jerome James; clung to a dying triangle; drafted a man most famous for being Vince Carter’s Olympic rag doll; and antagonized reporters. Unlike many other unpopular owners in pro sports, Dolan has always been willing to spend money on his team—although in his case, that’s often been a bug instead of a feature. The Knicks’ front office of president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry, as well as David Fizdale’s coaching staff, have lately been projecting less chaos and disarray than fans have been conditioned to expect after the underminery-go-round of the past 20 years. Perhaps there is stability still to come.
But it’s hard not to feel a little bit nervous: The last time the Knicks cleared the decks for a multiyear star-targeting plan, it led to the departure, in 2011, of meticulous GM Donnie Walsh, whom just about nobody believed when he shot down rumors that Dolan had meddled in the Carmelo Anthony trade negotiations to the detriment of the team. (“Ungainly Knicks Lose a Man of Elegance,” said a New York Times headline about Walsh’s exit, a truly debonair own.) And even in matters that don’t deal directly with the Knicks roster, Dolan’s past precedes him, from the flaming emails to fans to the ejection of Charles Oakley from MSG. The same Dolan who recently wrote a tortured song called “I Should’ve Known” in reaction to revelations about his old friend Harvey Weinstein’s proclivities for sexual assault was the Dolan who stood behind his old friend Isiah Thomas for years as the Knicks lumbered despicably through a sexual harassment trial brought by team executive Anucha Browne Sanders.
And so, like many struggling religions with odd leaders, the Knicks face a growing number of lapsed followers, few new converts, and the occasional guy looking for ways to monetize the whole mess. Living in California myself, I am part of a broader diaspora of wayward Knicks enthusiasts whose ties, thanks to Knicks Twitter and streaming talk radio and the centrifugal force of nostalgia, are somehow as strong as ever despite geography and also the team being so bad. Still, it’s invigorating to be back in New York City, with its driving rain and its stone-faced subway commuters and its chalkboards outside midtown bars that say things like “TIE ONE ON FOR ZION!” I travel around the city, pestering poor souls for their stories.
At a long-standing twice-weekly lunchtime pickup game run at the 92nd Street Y on the Upper East Side, a physical therapist named Kevin McLean takes a breather and says that, while he grew up a Nuggets fan in Colorado, he wishes the Knicks could be good because it would make the city more fun. The ownership makes him “skeptical,” though. (Behind him, a banner praises an under-14 boys team that won the gold medal at the 2017 Maccabi Games in Schenectady, boys who know nothing of Knicks glories.)
“This is the one chance where they actually made good trades to clear space,” McLean says. The Knicks unloaded the onerous contracts of Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee while picking up a pair of expiring contracts in the Porzingis trade, and enter the draft with only four players on the roster receiving guaranteed money next season. (Joakim Noah, on whom the Knicks used the waive-and-stretch provision last season, is also still on the payroll.) “They’re in a position where, wow, they could do it right!” McLean continues. “But I’m afraid they’re not going to get the big-prize free agents, and he’s going to reach for, like, DeMarcus [Cousins].” (Numerous Knicks fans I speak with, my own self among them, make a similar point that the biggest fear this offseason isn’t necessarily missing out on Durant, but on imagining how the Knicks might overreact if they do.) Another player, who identifies himself as “Brett, in sales,” says that recent unappealing iterations of the Knicks have left him with a gap in his sports viewing schedule. “Football season’s over and then you’re just waiting for the Yankees,” he says.
Over a breakfast of expensive granola and a plate of prosciutto, arugula, and melon, I chat with a quantitative money manager who grew up a Philadelphia sports fan but got hooked on the Knicks via Walt “Clyde” Frazier in the ’70s. These days, even if the Knicks were to sign Durant, he says, he would not be bullish: After annual visits to the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, he now finds it frustrating that in a league so clearly invested in innovation and analytics and in seeking out tiny competitive advantages, the Knicks mostly behave like a bull in a china shop. Impressed by Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey’s more enlightened basketball philosophies, he adopted the Rockets as his team, and recently flew to Houston with his son to see the Rockets fall in six games to the Golden State Warriors.
And I take the PATH underneath the Hudson River to Hoboken, where I have a drink with Evan Perlmutter, a 34-year-old former Madison Square Garden sales agent and current sports marketing manager who, fed up with the Knicks last summer, auctioned off his lifelong Knicks fandom on eBay in what was both a gimmick and a valid transaction. A vlogger from California paid $3,450 to turn Perlmutter into (in a tough turn of events) a Lakers fan; as part of the agreement, Perlmutter has to attend one home and one away Lakers game per year indefinitely. His hope was that the publicity from the deal would help “get the people’s voice heard” by the powers that be at the Garden, although he doesn’t specify to what end.
“To be able to turn MSG and the Knicks into, essentially, the Cleveland Browns for 20 years is astonishing,” Perlmutter says, explaining what made him snap. At this point, Knicks fans might actually be happy to be the Cleveland Browns of the NBA: At least that team has true stars in Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr., and Myles Garrett, and what appears to be some semblance of a plan.
Keeping the faith absent such players or such a plan takes some true devotion. Just before the draft lottery begins, I talk to Ferrera, who is the new dad of a 2-week-old baby and has all the wild, sleep-deprived thoughts about his son’s cosmic potential with respect to the Knicks to prove it. (He says all his L.A. friends are baffled about why he doesn’t just hire a night nurse.) “I’m like, maybe he’s the Messiah,” Ferrara says as the baby sleeps in another room of his Brooklyn apartment, “and maybe this kid is the kid that’s going to change their fortunes.”
The Knicks don’t get Zion, but who knows what that portends: The Messiah works in mysterious ways. When I speak with Ferrara again a few days later, he sounds both scattered—the words “I have about 15 different Knicks text threads going with various friends and all different versions of reality” are spoken—yet also extremely focused. “I keep whispering my mantra: Free agency is still the most important thing regardless of what happened,” he says. “Like, that is my ‘Accept the things I cannot control.’ Free agency is the thing that matters most. It’s way more important than the draft.”
On Parsons Boulevard in Jamaica, Queens, Freddy Avila stands inside Cutty’s Hair Studio, the barbershop he’s owned since 1986, sporting a Joakim Noah Knicks jersey and surrounded by personal treasures. Avila started preparing the place for the draft lottery hours earlier, placing clear boxes displaying autographed basketballs around the room with the practiced hospitality of an innkeeper arranging fresh flowers in a bright breakfast nook. And actually, he’s got the fresh flowers thing covered too: white baby’s breath and purple carnations spring from squat Patrón bottles that sit on the barber stations next to the scissors and combs.
One case holds a handful of tickets to the 1994 NBA Finals and an envelope bearing the old purple logo of Madison Square Garden. Freddy’s name is handwritten on it, along with the name of the late New York Knick who was his most famous client and longtime close friend.
PRINT GUEST NAME: Alfredo Avila
LEFT BY: Anthony Mason
There was a time when the Knicks were the toast of New York City, and Mason, who died in 2015, was a hard-nosed power forward with a reputation for taking no shit and for having, thanks to Avila’s artistry with a razor, the most dynamic noggin in town. (A 1995 New York Times Magazine article about Avila called him “the Rembrandt of Barbers”; a mural devoted to Mason, who grew up locally, is around the corner from the shop.) Behind Avila is a waterless fish tank housing one of his many collections, this one a metallic heap of vintage straight razors. The shop ceiling is covered in old street signs. There are so many plants—tall ferns on the floor, vines cascading down the walls—that the place feels al fresco. Ruby and Max, Avila’s red and blue parrots, do live outdoors, nibbling seeds in their ample cage on the sidewalk.
“Enter as Strangers, Leave as Friends,” says a sign on the wall near a Rey Ordóñez Mets jersey and a Buddha wearing Knicks-themed Mardi Gras beads around its neck. There are probably a dozen and a half people in the shop, and none appear to have entered as strangers. The conversation sounds like a game of Universal Knicks Fan Small Talk Topics Bingo. Guys gripe about Charles Smith missing putback after putback in 1993. A man named Pop reminiscences about J.R. Smith being spotted at various, uh, clubs around the city. (“Cityscapes, freakin’ Vanity … you NAME it!” Pop says.) Someone uses the nickname “Money Melo” to reference Carmelo Anthony, and someone else shakes his head and says that it’s not Anthony’s fault: The team failed him. Not everything is Knicks-related: At one point, as some men argue about whether or not Magic Johnson should have quit on Jeanie Buss, Grant invokes the Godfather. “Vito, don’t turn against the family!” he says.
Small cups of Patrón mixed with strawberry lemonade are dispensed, and a man named Avalon Daniels, who is wearing a Larry Johnson jersey and is there with his 12-year-old son, asks if I have rubbed the Buddha. Liquid courage and luck are needed right now, because the lottery is starting and the odds are long. Thirty-year-old McKenzie LeBranch sits in a barber chair, wearing a blue hat and looking at the nervous faces and restless pacing around him. “This is like the election, when Trump was about to win,” he says.
The crowd’s anxious buzz grows progressively giddy as the draft positions are revealed in reverse order, and the show goes to commercial with the top three picks remaining and New York still alive. Against all my better instincts and inner voices—the pessimistic fan, the theoretically objective journalist—I find myself physically shaking. What if I get to experience a great moment in Knicks history right here, in this place, on this night, surrounded by all these people who completely understand?
What if, still. On TV, as NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum announces the third pick and then calls New York’s name, Ewing looks annoyed to have to be there for this, one more small Knicks indignity. There are a few anguished cries inside Cutty’s, but mostly there is silence, which is worse, as the Pelicans celebrate their big Zion win on TV. The sound void reminds me of something specific: that welpy nothingness that sets in at a hockey arena when the away team scores an overtime goal. (When Showtime personalities Desus and Mero post a video of their own lottery watching, the joy-turning-into-nothingness cadences are exactly the same.)
But Knicks fans are nothing if not resilient, and before long the shop is filled with argumentative banter about whether R.J. Barrett, the probable third pick, is actually underrated, and about whom to target in free agency. (Everyone really likes Kemba.) The dream of Zion may be gone, but the night is young. Before I go to bed that evening, I watch a video of frustrated Knicks fan Stephen A. Smith screaming “dammit!!!!” into the post-lottery darkness, and the next day I learn it was the most-retweeted NBA content of the whole night, no doubt attracting both schadenfreude- and solace-seekers alike.
DAMMIT!!!!! Typical KNICKS!!!!! pic.twitter.com/rn0hDF0JdE— Stephen A Smith (@stephenasmith) May 15, 2019
Every day brings new rumors and reports and rumblings that pertain to the Knicks, all and none of it believable. Ja Morant, the Murray State point guard long considered a lock to Memphis at no. 2 in the draft, is undergoing a minor knee procedure that might cause the Grizzlies to balk, theoretically dropping Morant to New York. Irving is spotted at a Madison Square Garden fight night; Irving has also reportedly narrowed down his destinations to Brooklyn or the Lakers. “Per a contractor and verified by a UPS driver,” tweeted Philly radio personality Natalie Egenolf in mid-May, “Jimmy [Butler] has been seen in Horsham and is buying a house in Ambler for $6 mil.” (Horsham and Ambler are Philly-area towns.) The Knicks are considering trading down, perhaps turning their no. 3 into Atlanta’s eighth and 10th picks. For fans of a franchise that had zero first-round selections in 2010, 2012, and 2014, even being in the position to endlessly debate such a move almost feels like progress.
Gray has been busy tweaking the Offseason machine—which Maggio estimates has been used 80,000-100,000 times through the end of May, and which Ferrera tells me he’s probably used an additional 125 times since we spoke a couple of weeks ago—to account for some of these variables. Gray lowered the odds of Walker signing with the Knicks after the point guard was named third team All-NBA. He added free agents like Pat Beverley and Kevon Looney “due to popular demand,” and enabled Knicks fans to trade away some of their future first-round draft picks. After watching Brook Lopez have a huge season, he increased the assumed value of Lopez’s contract from $10 million to $13 million and “may end up increasing it again.”
But just as with the NBA itself, sometimes a little narrative overreaction sneaks in through all the hyperanalytical frameworks. Gray initially assigned odds of Durant coming to the Knicks at 80 percent, “because I was hyped up,” he says, but he lowered it to 55 percent. For one thing, it made the offseason simulator “too easy” if users could land Durant four out of every five tries. For another, it syncs up better with the current betting markets, which have the Knicks as slim front-runners. And then there’s the straight-up emotional hedging of it all: “Although a report came out saying [Durant] is in the process of buying a new house in New York,” Gray says, “I refuse to move them any higher, because optimism leads to disappointment.” Even behind a seemingly dispassionate online simulator lies the psyche of one more hopeful but damaged Knicks fan.
Punzalan laughs as he remembers what he was doing the last time the Knicks were in the hunt for such a big-ticket free agent as they are this offseason: standing with his parents at a bar at Disney World in 2010, storming out angrily when LeBron said “South Beach.” Perlmutter, meanwhile, had heard rumors that The Decision might take place at Allan Houston’s house. “So I remember, I’m buying stock in MSG,” he says. “I was all in, telling my buddies, ‘We got him, that’s it.’” He sighs. “You have high hopes, and you think something is gonna happen, and they Knicks it. Just like the draft this year.”
He sounds like someone who hasn’t truly let the Knicks go, despite having auctioned off his fandom; I suggest that maybe the Knicks still do hold a place in his dark heart after all. “The only thing I’ll say,” he responds, “is as long as Dolan’s at the helm, I’m not coming back.” Later, he mentions that “I do know that www-dot-sell-the-new-york-knicks-dot-com is available.”
New York City is a land of unlimited choices, enabling and undermining all at once. Whatever one’s obsession—food, the opera, nerding out about the subway, shitposting about the Knicks—there is so much more where it came from, and there are also so many people who couldn’t care less. Competition for local attention is as fierce as local competition for NBA stars. In a sort of worst-case scenario for Knicks fans, the Brooklyn Nets have emerged as major, credible contenders for players like Irving and KD and AD, even completing a trade last Thursday to clear enough cap space for two max deals, like the Knicks. There is more than one way to bring top players to New York, after all.
Because of schedule changes due to a Yankees rainout, a day has gone by before Francesa is back on the air after the NBA lottery, and in the interim the New York Jets have fired their general manager in what appears to be a palace coup orchestrated by a scheming head coach. Francesa sends me an email to warn me about what’s coming. “We won’t get a Knicks call all day,” he says. “It will be wall-to-wall Jets.” It may be the biggest offseason in two decades for the New York Knicks, but that doesn’t mean they can slack off in the drama department and expect to remain locally relevant.
Francesa has ditched the purple pocket square for a fit of black Under Armour pants and a black windbreaker bearing the North Hempstead Country Club (est. 1916) logo when he greets me in the driveway of his northern Long Island home, giving him a very leisure-don vibe. He warns my ride-hail driver about backing into his security code box on the way out, as is common: “They’ve taken it out like five times,” he says. “Our driveway takes a radical turn.” A half-dozen landscaping trucks are parked around the neighborhood, maintaining its almost explosive shade of green.
He walks into his house, which was once owned by a Pulitzer, and down into the basement. “That’s the Xbox room,” he says, pointing to the place where his three kids would be if they weren’t at school. Pictures of racehorses line the basement walls. A framed jersey is signed with a handwritten note: “MIKE, THINK 2001 SUCKED? YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHING YET! GOD BLESS, CURT SCHILLING.” There’s a framed photo of the first WFAN billboard, featuring caricatures of himself, Chris Russo, and Don Imus. “That was done by the guy from Mad Magazine,” he says.
His home radio studio has padded walls, a rug with an abstract pattern like the ones at the airport, and a sky-blue backdrop featuring his Mike’s On app logo. (Curiously, the logo does not have a mouth.) TVs show golf, the Mets, and the markets. Ranting about the Jets, Francesa refers to them as “the son you hide away.” At one point, talking about Adam Gase, he even breaks out his trademark growl. It’s kind of nice to be distracted by someone else’s problems and dysfunctions and hangups for a change.
A couple of Knicks mentions still do sneak in during his show, though. “If they come away empty when they have two max contracts to fill,” Francesa says at one point, before taking a call from Eddie in Rockland about quarterbacks, “if the Knicks, in this town, in the most historic building to play in for basketball in the world, cannot recruit big-time free agents to that building? Then I almost think that a depression could set in that would be hard to overcome.”
It’s a dismaying possibility, but I remind myself that the inverse is also true. For anyone under the age of 50 who didn’t experience the team’s titles in 1970 and 1973, being a Knicks fan has meant celebrating players and games and moments that almost never actually end well but can mean something all the same. The highs of Linsanity led to a jealous Anthony, and it wasn’t long before Knicks executives were literally hiding from the whole situation in Las Vegas. S.T.A.T. and Melo feels like a fever dream, but often I miss the brief window of time when it actually worked. The most celebrated era of recent Knick history, the ’90s, helped define the rooting interests and even the personalities of an entire generation even though, year after year, those teams failed to win a title, typically in some sort of scarring manner. But at least they were in the mix, playing the part of the beating, broken heart of New York; that’s all anyone wants.
“We now have two dysfunctional teams in town,” Francesa says, meaning both NFL franchises, but he pauses to reconsider his math. “And listen, we didn’t even bring up the Mets yet! Or the Knicks. Back after this.”