Last Sunday, the New York Knicks made the NBA playoffs for the first time in seven years. This month also marks the 10th anniversary of the Ward Affair. In 2001, Charlie Ward, then the team’s starting point guard, informed New York Times writer Eric Konigsberg, who was auditing a team Bible study class that “Jews are stubborn. … They had [Jesus’] blood on their hands.” Leading scorer Alan Houston produced textual evidence, and then Ward continued: ‘‘There are Christians getting persecuted by Jews every day.’’ When the story hit stands, Ward offered the following explanation: “My best friend is a Jewish guy, and his name is Jesus Christ.’’ He added that the Jews were stubborn, since, after all, they refuse to convert.
What made the Ward Affair especially jarring and sad was the team it involved. For reasons historical, allegorical, and even theological, the Knicks are without question the most Jewish franchise in American professional sports. It’s not just the New York City thing. It’s that the team, more than any other, represents basketball’s increasingly distant Jewish past, projected onto the present. This has been true both during the team’s greatest triumphs—most of all, its early-seventies run, which produced its only two championships—and during its lowest points, like that 2001 squad, with its casual anti-Semitism, or this year’s team, cosmetically enhanced but otherwise diminished, limping into the playoffs and a likely first-round departure.
Basketball was invented by James Naismith, a Presbyterian, in 1891 at the YMCA in Springfield, Mass. Yet in the first decades of the 20th century, Jews were the quintessential basketball players. As detailed in the documentary The First Basket, Jews gravitated toward basketball mainly because it was there, in the cities, and so were they. The game was as do-it-yourself as anything this side of stickball, which made it attractive to impoverished recent immigrants, and it reveled in nonstop, lurching activity and the exploration of tight spaces. As a sport still taking shape, it felt liminal and ever-evolving in ways that resonated with those immigrants: a validation not only of their environment but also of the experience that so often went with it.
And how did these Jews play? Their style was codified into something called—what else?—the City Game, a crisp, up-tempo, detail-oriented approach. The City Game’s epicenter was—where else?—City College, where the legendary coach Nat Holman constructed a dynasty by emphasizing speed, ball movement, and head’s-up defense (and in the process building the reputation of its home court, Madison Square Garden). When the New York Knickerbockers debuted in 1946 in the Basketball Association of America, the pro league that would soon morph into the NBA, its roster was dominated by Jewish players like Ossie Schectman (scorer of the titular “first basket” in league history), Sonny Hertzberg, Leo “Ace” Gottlieb, Ralph Kaplowitz, and Hank Rosenstein, all playing the City Game.
But the city would change, and so would basketball. College ball sustained point-shaving scandals. The NBA was moving up in the world. And the Jews were vanishing, both from the old neighborhoods and, concomitantly, from the game. By 1970, “urban” read as “black,” and New York’s basketball mystique lay not at the Garden but in playgrounds scattered across the five boroughs. Pete Axthelm’s The City Game, written during the 1969-1970 season, reflected this new reality: It’s split equally between the city’s playgrounds, where blacktop icons like Earl “The Goat” Manigault achieved citywide fame without ever setting foot on professional hardwood, and the ascendant Knicks team, on their way to winning their first NBA title.
This was the brief, wonderful burst of coexistence. If African-American playground legends-in-the-making represented the new city game (albeit one that could never claim those venerated capital letters), then the almost universally beloved Knicks of the early ’70s—they won the 1970 and 1973 championships—were the last gasp of Holman’s paradigm. Coach Red Holzman, who had played for Holman at City College, brought an updated, streamlined version of the City Game to the sidelines. The Knicks core of Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley, and Willis Reed internalized maxims like “see the ball,” “hit the open man,” and “help on defense.” It marked the peak of the Knicks’ basketball relevance, forever imbuing them with a nostalgia so deep that it spoke—still speaks, in fact—to fans already scattered outside New York City.
It’s when the Knicks became a symbol for something bigger than themselves. While all teams encourage blind passion, few rooting interests have proven as mystical, portable, and substantial as the Knicks’. It can’t be about winning alone; not when the Boston Celtics have taken home 17 titles and the Los Angeles Lakers 16. No, Knicks exceptionalism implies an awareness of the City Game, which started to die out around the time the NBA rose to prominence and returned in a more fully realized form only for a short, glorious moment. Or, to lend this story the Pentateuchian grandeur it deserves, there was Holman and his Covenant, the idealized Jewish basketball; then, wandering in the wilderness, the Moses of Red Holzman came upon Sinai and received the two tablets in the forms of two titles; then, the City Game never saw the face of God again, and its adherents are now the diaspora of Knicks nation. As large as this franchise looms, it has never managed to proselytize or inspire mass conversion à la the New York Yankees or Dallas Cowboys. Instead, Knicks fandom that is not assumed geographically is passed down from generation to generation, a birthright.
A quick, personal illustration: A good friend of mine gave his bar mitzvah speech about game five of the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals, in which Charles Smith missed four wide-open lay-ups that would have given the Knicks a 3-2 series lead over Michael Jordan’s fearsome Chicago Bulls. My friend wasn’t citing Smith as an analogy to the Israelites’ faith in God being tested; for him, this was the real thing. And my friend hadn’t been watching from the edge of his Garden seat, or his Upper West Side couch; he was born and raised in Maine. That he gave this peroration backdropped by the Western Wall only reinforced the sense of sacredness lost, and hopefully regained.
Which brings us to the present. Mike D’Antoni, an enormously influential coach who presided over some of the most expansive, fast-paced offenses in basketball history, came to town at the beginning of last season; one year later, this season’s team, with its young nucleus of Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Landry Fields, along with D’Antoni acolyte and imported superstar Amar’e Stoudemire, began to gel. On February 16, despite an abysmal start, the Knicks’ record stood at a very respectable 28-26. The team was a pleasure to watch. While the defense—the calling card of the ’70s teams—needed a lot of work, on offense the Knicks looked like themselves again, seeing the ball, hitting the open man, living, hustling links to the City Game. That Stoudemire had spent the summer declaring himself a Jew and traveling in Israel was a guilty pleasure and only cemented this connection.
Then, in February, right after the All-Star Break, the Knicks gutted much of their roster, shipping Felton, Gallinari, and Chandler to the Denver Nuggets in order to acquire Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups—respectively one of the league’s 10 best players and a onetime Finals MVP. The Knicks went from a smooth, balanced team to an occasionally stupendous but mostly gaudy one in which two superstars (Anthony and Stoudemire) have to figure out how to happily co-exist. They are still figuring it out: Since the trade, the Knicks have gone 10-12 and now seem poised to finish the season around .500, securing the seventh or eighth seed only by virtue of the Eastern Conference’s weakness. (And the Nuggets? Their record is 15-4 since the trade, the surprise team of the season’s second half.)
Despite his economical style and feel for the game, Anthony primarily excels at one-on-one play, and in his nine-year pro career he has been able both to dominate seamlessly, as part of the overall flow, and to kill possessions out of sheer frustration. His approach, glibly associated with playground ball, is the city game, not the City Game; it resonates with New York City, not Madison Square Garden. And yet the potential for salvation—one man’s city game that in a system becomes the City Game—is so bleeding obvious that one feels foolish not to hope for it, even as one braces for the inevitable broken heart. It’s the latest episode in the Knicks’ saga, painfully familiar to its fans, and, perhaps, to members of another tribe.
Bethlehem Shoals (the pen name of Nathaniel Friedman) is a co-author of FreeDarko Presents: The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History. His writing has appeared in GQ, the Nation, and McSweeney’s. He will be blogging about the NBA playoffs on GQ.com.