April 01, 2011
"Hey, kid," I called out to my fiancée. "Want to see what it looks like when the Garden goes nuts?"
I'd turned on NBA TV just as Rick Kamla and the boys were readying their toss to New York. Carmelo Anthony(notes) was about to make his debut as a member of the New York Knicks following the much-debated trade that kickstarted the next chapter in my hometown team's history, and I anticipated a mammoth response to the unveiling from the assembled true believers.
I wanted her to see what that looked like.
It's something I saw a lot growing up in the '90s, when Ewing's Knicks made the playoffs every year, advancing to the conference semifinals nine times and going to the NBA finals twice. But it wasn't a frequent sight during Whatever We're Calling This Millennium's First Decade, when the Knicks topped .500 just once and changed coaches seven times. We met during The Whatevers, which made explaining stuff like the way the Garden swells at moments that matter difficult.
Sure, importing Amar'e Stoudemire(notes) during the offseason and playing (Eastern Conference) playoff-caliber ball had sparked more exciting moments this year, but we haven't caught as many of those as I'd like, because we live sans League Pass in Boston. That, and she doesn't, strictly speaking, care about basketball that much.
She does, however, dig tons of people being happy at once, so I wanted her to see this. More to the point, I guess, I wanted her to hear it — the roar, the heartbeat, the connection, the hope. That sonic boom when an arena, when this arena, is on smash? That'd explain what it feels like.
Unfortunately, when she walked in, things started to go a bit sideways with the audio on the NBA TV feed of MSG's local broadcast.
She stood in the doorway, like most Knick fans have for 10 years, waiting for something worth watching. Then, underwhelmed by the muddled moment: "OK, I'm going to go."
The fear is that it's all an omen, right? That the truth is in your tea leaves and that the sound cutting out when the new slang exits the tunnel means the bottom's bound to drop out when the money's on the table. Or, even worse, that the hoped-for Big Moment won't ever come at all.
When the Carmelo deal grew legs and began wobbling toward completion, I started building a wall, stacking rational concerns and mitigated expectations to cover over the open-wide optimism that lay beneath. It was easy to do; it seemed like everybody was writing about how penny- and pound-foolish the move was, each column a new delivery of bricks and mortar.
"We're giving up three starters for two ... and Chauncey's 34 ... and this leaves us awful thin up front ... and I don't like the idea of giving Carmelo a max extension if we don't know what the world's going to look like with a new CBA ... and is Carmelo even really that good?"
He wasn't going to protect the rim when the Knicks' porous perimeter defense let slashers into the paint. He wasn't going to make up for the weak interior by clamping down on wings at the arc, and he wasn't going to become four quality bodies to improve the bench. I knew all that stuff.
But even though I knew the arguments against making the deal — even though swinging for the fences in the middle of the first post-freefall season felt like betraying the blueprint, even though I'd come to love the Knicks team that took the floor in the first half of the season — I wanted Carmelo Anthony to play for my favorite team.
I'm 28 years old; I was two when Bernard King averaged 32.9 a night. In my rooting lifetime, the Knicks have never had a player capable of filling it up like that, and they've damn sure never had a pair of them. I wanted the chance to root for something I'd never seen, something that could make my heart race, even if I was really, really skeptical that it will actually lead to a championship.
For the past five weeks, I've been having trouble figuring out whether that makes me a good fan, a bad fan, something in between or something else entirely. And I think the reason why might have some connection to the increasingly contentious split between people who prefer advanced statistics-based analysis and those who veer more toward traditional "eyeball test" evaluation.
(What follows is an intentionally oversimplified fly-by of the split, because you could go on about it for 20,000 words without saying everything that should be said. People smarter and more passionate than me about the matter already have, and I doubt they'll stop anytime soon. No attempt to be definitive here.)
On one hand, there's obviously something to the idea that statistical analysis has a place in sports and that it can be good for fans. It makes sense that collecting a bunch of information about players and teams and then studying that information carefully can teach you a lot, especially if you're trying to learn more about things that are hard to figure out and explain. There's some logic to the notion that if all that studying makes you better informed about the players and teams, you'll be a more knowledgeable observer when you watch them play, which could increase how much you enjoy what you're seeing.
On the other, though, there's also something to the argument that because metrics can't really account for some critical elements of sports, like team chemistry, the numbers themselves don't tell the whole story. Plus, the drive to measure and analyze every aspect of the game in search of ever more granular conclusions that bring you closer to knowing what will happen next runs counter, at least somewhat, to the alluring spontaneity, possibility and, yes, narrative that unscripted games provide many fans who view sports as a source of entertainment and a pursuit of passion. (Also, many people hate math and nerds.)
There's a longstanding stats vs. eyes disagreement on 'Melo, his offensive efficiency and whether or not he brings enough else to the table to be considered an elite player; that's what made me think of the parallel. But I'm less interested in that argument than in the overarching philosophical schism between analytics' quest for definitive answers and narrative's emphasis on/elevation of the process of finding them.
I know that adding Carmelo Anthony, in and of itself, doesn't make the Knicks a title contender now or in the future. I know that they'll only reach that level by making other moves, which will be significantly more difficult given the amount of money Anthony's extension will pay him over the next four years. I know that, as Dwyer wrote when the deal went down, "this moment doesn't promise anything beyond what it's already given" to fans like me.
But it's still OK to actually enjoy what moments like the trade itself — and the game-winner against the Grizzlies, and those third-quarter explosions against the Magic and the Nets, or any other specific instance of exultation that you might savor — do give us, right? To appreciate those moments without believing they'll ultimately be meaningless if they don't result in rings?
We can take it as read that successful sports teams, like successful ventures in any walk of life, are most frequently built by addressing needs rather than chasing wants, and by having the wisdom not to confuse the two. It's not a difficult concept to grasp, especially when you root for a team that's sucked for a decade pretty much entirely because it's been a case study in screwing that up and continually succumbing to ill-considered desires.
But while I understand that the point of being an NBA team is to win an NBA championship, it seems like the point of being an NBA fan is to enjoy watching NBA basketball — to revel in the myriad joys the league can provide, whether it's the big one that ends with a trophy being raised or the countless little ones along the way, like experiencing something fresh, watching unfamiliar elements combine to potentially create an exciting new thing, or even just seeing some great plays that make you jump out of your seat. It'd be a real bummer if we decided those things didn't really count without the validation of a title, and that the only real fandom is reducing everything to a championship-or-bust bottom line.
It's very, very possible that Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire will never win a championship as members of the New York Knicks. If that's what winds up happening, I will be all kinds of sad about it, and I will continue to hope that I'll get to see the Knicks win a title before I die. But given their talents and their flair for the dramatic, it seems to me a good bet that one, the other, or both will at some point — regular season, postseason, whatever — author a moment that makes Madison Square Garden explode with joy, a play that cuts to the core of our fandom and helps explain to people like my fiancée why we as fans care the way we do.
It'll be a moment worth watching. I just hope we can hear it, too.