For fans of the New York Knicks, Kristaps Porzingis is so much more than the one who got away. After nailing the 2015 draft by picking the sweet-shooting, high-upside big man at #4, the Knicks traded him to the Dallas Mavericks in early 2019 for an underwhelming package of draft picks and cast-offs. Now he’s a 7’3” symbol of the inescapable despair their favorite team has created for the past 20 years.
That despair has only intensified over the past week, as Porzingis has looked like a star next to future MVP Luka Doncic: In his first two bubble games, he finished with 39 and 30 points. I knew I had to check in with well over a dozen Knicks fans to find out how it feels to watch the lanky Latvian flourish.
For the past decade, SB Nation’s Seth Rosenthal has been able to articulate Knicks fandom with a humor, pragmatism, and commitment to torture that I’ve long admired. He was the first person I reached out to, and his response made me legitimately sad:
“I ignore the Mavericks. I’m so bitter and so deeply broken that I deny myself live Luka action just to avoid watching Kristaps. My only exposure to the Mavs is the occasional Luka highlight video. I genuinely didn’t know Porzingis was flourishing in the bubble until you just told me. This is also how I dealt with a bad college breakup. I’m not proud of any of this.”
The Ringer’s Jason Concepcion, also a long-suffering Knicks devotee, reached for a different relationship metaphor: “To me, the Knicks are like a family member that has substance abuse problems or some kind of problem in their life, and you love them so much. You love them dearly. But you know they have to go off and get their shit together, right? And so you're just kind of waiting for that to happen. And even when there’s a good sign, like, ‘Hey, I haven’t had a drink in two weeks.’ Great. That’s positive. I’d feel much more secure if that was two years or four years, but that’s fine. So you’re just waiting for it to get better.”
There are Knicks fans who, while bummed, understand why Porzingis felt he couldn’t achieve his goals with the team: “In what universe would you believe that if you were him?” The Ringer’s Dan Devine texted. “I wish the Knicks were a different franchise than they are. But as my dad used to say, ‘Wish in one hand, shit in the other, and see which one fills up first.’ ”
Others have succumbed to the bottomless dread that whacks them across the face every time Porzingis drills a contested three. “You expect it to get worse,” my Manhattan-native college roommate, L.J., explained over the phone. “It’s self-defeatist. It’s like Arsenal in the Premier League. Their players that leave always win the Premier League. Samir Nasri went to Man City, won the Premier league. Cesc Fàbregas went to Chelsea, won the Premier League. This guy Ox Chamberlain went to Liverpool, won the Premier League. The Knicks, same thing.”
Emotions drift from anger and bereavement to the fantasy of what might’ve been. It’s torture for any Knicks fan who has the strength to think about how Porzingis would fit on their current roster.
“It would have been great to have him with R.J., maybe move Robinson with this year’s pick to get a proven star and you have the makings of a real team?” Harrison Abramowitz, my wife’s bridesmaids’ high school friend, wrote in an email. “Instead we are just praying to land a whale in free agency next season and not fuck this draft up.”
Or, as Bobby Tournas, one of Abramowitz’s friends, puts it, “The Knicks could really use a stretch 4 with unlimited range that can slide to the five when Mitchell Robinson has 2 fouls 30 seconds into the game.”
But some fans are like Rosenthal, refusing to peek behind the curtain to see what they can’t have. It hurts too much. “Watching the Mavs play, knowing Dallas paired him with his ideal basketball partner, takes a piece of my soul every time,” says Jonathan Macri, who runs the Knicks Film School substack.
Anthony Donahue, 36, has a Knicks tattoo on his left leg, wears a Knicks chain wherever he goes, and has been to almost every Knicks home game since 2001. Four years ago, he started a Knicks podcast called 33rd and 7th. Porzingis was the first guest. “The love I had for Kristaps Porzingis was out of control. I don’t know if I’ll ever love an athlete again like I loved Kristaps Porzingis.”
The two developed a relationship. When Porzingis tore his ACL, Donahue dropped off a giant get-well card at his apartment. A few Christmases ago, the Porzingis family gave Donahue a batch of Latvian cookies.
“I’ve been devastated every day since the trade. I think about him everyday. I know Knicks fans hate him and I guess as a fan I’m supposed to, but it broke my heart. I don’t wish anything bad to him, but it’s tough to watch. If the Mavericks are in the Finals and it’s Game 7, I don’t know if I can watch. It hurts that much,” Donahue says.
Every fan has embraced their own defense mechanism. Some pretend KP doesn’t exist. Others maintain that things could always be worse. “I’m friends and colleagues with Kings fans who just can’t even watch basketball anymore because of the Bagley over Luka pick. They legitimately are just like ‘my life is ruined I can’t enjoy this sport.’ That could be where I’m at,” says Concepcion. But “I understand why the breakup happened between Kristaps and the Knicks. And therefore I feel less pain about it.”
Others take a more aggressive tack. Jonathan Schulman, a Posting and Toasting (the must-read Knicks blog that Rosenthal founded) contributor for the past eight years, emailed me a clip of Porzingis repeatedly getting Swiss-cheesed up by Terry Rozier.
Schulman, who used to call Porzingis The Flamingo because “he's tall, thin and pink,” is not a fan. “Everybody hated that nickname and told me to shut up,” he emailed, “but those fools want that bird to get clipped these days. So who's laughing? In the end I remember him most as a guy who had no chance to score on Marcus Smart,” Schulman continued. I generally don't hope players fail, even Porzingis, so I wish him well. But New York made a deal. I begrudgingly saw the logic then, I clearly see the logic now.”
Concepcion is confident that Porzingis would’ve dominated in a Knicks jersey for the next seven years. But caveats are needed by those who want to keep their sanity. “He certainly looks great now and I think he would’ve been great in a Knicks uniform, too. And before the injury he was—except for the fact that the anemia kicked in and he was tired down the stretch of certain games,” Concepcion said. “He’s anemic! Make sure you put that in there, Mike! He’s got anemia and it fucks with his energy levels!”
The Knicks are a catastrophically corrupt traveling carnival, while Porzingis will likely spend the entirety of his prime competing for championships beside one of his generation’s most prodigious talents. That’s a bitter pill to swallow for the millions who were once tantalized by their former franchise player’s limitless potential.
But at least one fan has been able to overcome his grief over Porzingis’ good fortune. “It’s almost like ‘Good for you. You made it out, man. And you’re flourishing,’” my old roommate LJ said. “‘You were a tree growing in Brooklyn. Now a tree grows in Dallas.’”
Originally Appeared on GQ