It was tough being a Knicks fan this week. Even before it happened, Miami fans were insufferably smug about the Heat’s victory over the newly ascendant Knicks. On the ugly morning of that ugly day, February 23, the Miami Herald published this snotty editorial from sports columnist Greg Cote, in which Cote ascribed the international excitement recently generated by Knicks point-guard Jeremy Lin to some kind of elite-media flimflam:
The wrong team will be getting most of the national attention when the New York Knicks and sudden-sensation Jeremy Lin visit here next. So will the wrong player … While America (or at least the media) is throwing parades of adjectives at Lin and weighing the gravity and sociological impact of it all, Mr. [LeBron] James and Mr. [Dwyane] Wade have been decidedly more dominant players.
Well of course they are. Mr. James and Mr. Wade hold contracts some 10,000 percent more lucrative than Mr. Lin’s arrangement with the Knicks. Everyone knew two years ago they’d be dominant — if there’s anything novel about the Heat’s ascendancy it’s that it took so damned long. To complain about the media’s failure to gawk at something foreordained is ridiculous.
But it’s an understandable ridiculousness. I lived in South Florida for 21 years, from 1990 ’til 2011, and I know well the state’s terrible power to transform good, reasonable people into bitter, juiceless idiots. If I was Greg Cote, I’d be bitter too. He must know that Miami could never produce the phenomenon known as Linsanity. Although Linsanity is (of course) the product of Jeremy Lin’s skill, character, handsomeness, ethnicity, and the fact that John Hollinger pegs him as the eighteenth most effective player in a league from which he was to be cut four weeks ago (he was eighth before the stomping in Miami), it’s also uniquely a product of New York City.
On February 3, I was sitting in a half-empty bar in Brooklyn’s Park Slope with my boyfriend. There was a large-screen TV against one wall, showing the Knicks v. the Boston Celtics. We watched. Nobody else in the bar did. Both teams played well. It seemed for a moment that there would be an overtime, so we ordered extra beers. We did this on a lark, because we are not people who ordinarily care about sport — we were just two dudes who were briefly obsessed with basketball in our childhoods, enjoying a moment of tipsy nostalgia. But there was no overtime. The Knicks lost by two. We shrugged, chugged our beers, went home. We’d never really cared who won, anyway.
On Monday, February 6, my boyfriend and I returned to the same bar with the express purpose of watching the Knicks kick the shit out of the Utah Jazz. This time, we were wearing Knicks beanies. But there was no room for us in the bar. The bar, the sidewalk outside the bar, and the street beyond the sidewalk were all jungles of drunk, happy people in Knicks jerseys. Fully half of them were Asian-American.
That was 72 hours in New York City. The difference between indifference and Lindifference. News travels fast here. Enthusiasms spread through vectors nonexistent in Dade County.
The day after the Knicks-Jazz game I took the subway to 14th Street in Manhattan and walked to Union Square. There were Knicks jerseys everywhere. Beneath Henry Kirke Browne’s statue of George Washington on his horse, a guy who usually sells charcoal sketches of Liza Minnelli and Justin Bieber sold nothing but Lin likenesses. Walking up Broadway, I heard Lin’s name repeated in a hundred accents. I went to an appointment uptown, returned home to Brooklyn, and in my favorite bodega found a tipsy local hustler arguing with the clerk about the upcoming Mavericks game. I weighed in, engaging a stranger in a conversation about athletics for the first time in my adult life. We agreed that, yes, Lin’s Knicks could beat the Mavs, and to reward my thinking the hustler allowed me my choice from his pocketful of Jeremy Lin buttons. He told me he’d been selling them on the street, outside the bars in Clinton Hill. The button disappeared from my room the next night and reappeared the night after that on the leather jacket of my roommate, Kat Yen, a young Chinese actress who went to her first professional basketball game three weeks ago. She’s been to two more since.
This is how it happens in New York; how a cool basketball story becomes an event, an opportunity for communion. People talk to each other. Passing each other in public space, each soul contributes its own little spark of excitement to a general conflagration that becomes so big so fast that it can be seen and fretted over by constipated columnists all the way in Miami. That conflagration is the organism of the city, a collaborative, crazy, beautiful, and terribly addictive exercise in group consciousness — which is why I, a guy who hadn’t watched a full basketball game since Magic’s first retirement, felt compelled to spend two hours last Thursday screaming invective at the Heat through a television screen, and why I have somehow developed opinions on the playing styles of every player on the Knicks’ roster including Mike Bibby – a man I’ve never seen off the bench in a live game.
Never in 21 years did the Heat have this effect on me. Not when they got Alonzo or Wade. Not when they got Shaq. Certainly not when they got James. These things excited people, of course, but those people were excited in isolation. They were excited in their cars, in front of their television sets, in the sports bars to which they drove, in the arena — in all cases in the sealed universe of sports fandom. They weren’t excited in the street, with shoes on the pavement, spreading a bug in the city air. Jimsanity is a lonesome ailment.
Which doesn’t mean the Knicks will win the NBA championship. The Heat will most likely do that, and they’ll probably deserve it. But even in the ecstasy of victory, Miami won’t have anything like Linsanity. If Florida was prepared to go apeshit over a basketball team, it would have. It didn’t. It won’t. And if the Knicks ever live up to the potential of their roster — if Lin develops as he should, Carmelo gets moving like he did, and Stoudemire stays solid at the post and Novak keeps hitting those deadly threes — and should the Knicks get a ring next year or the year after, the scene in Union Square will be beyond anything the most ardently Jimsane Heat fan can imagine.