There is something I do almost every night that causes me great shame. Most of my friends know nothing about it. My wife caught me red-handed once or twice and looked at me with pity and disgust. I can no longer keep it a secret: A few times each week, I wait until my kids are asleep, take off my pants, and settle onto the couch to watch the New York Knicks play basketball.
Have you been following the Knicks lately? If not, let me be the Virgil who walks you through this purgatory: As of this writing, they’ve fumbled 14 games in a row, the worst losing streak in franchise history. Of their last 23 appearances on the court, they’ve managed to win only one. As Jason Gay noted in the Wall Street Journal this week, “It is really hard to go 1-for-23 at any human endeavor.” Still, the Knicks find ways.
You could fret about their terrible defense, their lackluster offense, or virtually any other measurable criterion. But there’s only one statistic about the 2014-2015 Knicks that is truly shocking: This sorry excuse for a professional sports organization has managed to sell out 197 of its last 199 games.
Others may scratch their heads or wonder out loud about the depravity of the species or man’s propensity for self-inflicted suffering, but not me. I’ve lived this drama before, and I understand its sinister appeal. There’s no elegant way to put it, so here goes: In many ways, including some that are far from trivial, watching the Knicks is a lot like witnessing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Yes, basketball is just a game while the conflict claims lives. Sure, comparing the two in any practical way is ludicrous. But some issues are so thorny that they call for a simpler frame of reference to make us help sense of their intricacies. Contemplating my sadly unwavering devotion to the Knicks in the face of so much misery helped me understand something about the inexplicable dedication so many people—Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, Europeans, and others—have for the peace process, a phenomenon that may be as much of a fantasy as the playoffs are for my home team.
Stop, then, and reflect about the Knicks and about the conflict, and the fun begins right away. Both hopeless narratives revolve in part around a large man with white hair and folksy charm, a consummate politician accustomed to getting his way, a master builder of winning teams. In one scenario he’s called President Bill Clinton; in another, president Phil Jackson. In both cases, the president’s good work is overshadowed by a far more divisive figure, criticized both for those with whom he chooses to engage and disengage: It’s owner James Dolan hiring Isiah Thomas and, later, firing Jeremy Lin; it’s Benjamin Netanyahu dismantling his coalition only to force an election that will likely result in a cabinet that looks much like the one he has now. There are colorful disruptors in this story, men like Mohammed Dahlan or J.R. Smith, who challenge the system by doing things like operating a private army in the Gaza Strip or operating on their own samurai code that includes untying the shoelaces of rival players mid-game. For these reasons, both got exiled from their respective teams. And there is the tragic spirit of squandered hope hovering above it all: It’s the superstar Carmelo Anthony, averaging 23.9 points per game with nothing to show for it; it’s Start-Up Nation, producing miraculous creations yet still mired in terror and bad politics; it’s the young men and women in Ramallah and Tulkarm and Nablus, educated and ambitious yet felled by their leadership’s flight from responsibility; it’s the feeling that we ought to be superstars, but instead we’re a laughingstock. It’s a tough feeling to take.
And yet, we take it. Celebrities crowd the front rows at Madison Square Garden just as they jump into the conflict with tweets, letters, condemnations, boycotts, embraces, and declarations. And each of the two disaster stories has its own scrum of professional mourners, men and women who’ve been following the collapse closely for decades and yet, at each turn, look up sweetly and declare that maybe, just maybe, this will be the year—the year that ushers in new and promising players; the year to figure out the flaws in defense; the year to break through in talks; the year to win.
But those of us watching at home or from the bleachers know better. We know it’s not about winning but about something deeper and more primordial. Both the Knicks and the conflict are impossible to ignore because they suggest what so many of us suspect to be true: that, as mortals, there are some problems we just cannot solve, and that some conflicts burn on not just to vex us but also to guide us, to give us an Archimedean point through which to view our place in the world. Herein lies the profound grandeur and strangeness of it all.
I watch the Knicks as a fan, and, as one, I root for their success. I watch the conflict as a proud Israeli, and, as one, I pray for an end to violence, for peace and prosperity to all. But what keeps me—and, I suspect, so many others—coming back again and again is the instruction I receive from watching human beings make sense of a senseless situation. A coach trying a new starting line-up even though more than a dozen have already failed, a negotiator toying with a new strategy even though scores have already fizzled—that is where true hope lies. There is wild bravery in knowing that, for reasons largely out of your control, you will soon be battered and yet suiting up and taking the court and playing until the clock runs out.
An approach like this one is often called existentialist, but there’s also something strongly Jewish about it. Ours is not a religion of answers and solutions; it’s a religion of questions, and the ones we love best are the ones we know we can never answer, beginning with the strange conundrum of just why we, small and insignificant, were chosen by God, and just what is it that we’re expected to do with that divine designation. Because we can never arrive at a definitive answer, because we can never grasp God’s true intentions, we’re left with nothing more than intricate guesswork.
And guesswork is what I watch the Knicks do every night. Not footwork or blocking, no feats of athleticism or bouts of discipline, but the more human, and infinitely more fascinating, ordeal of a handful of guys trying to extricate themselves from despair. As I watch, I feel a little bit better. I know that I will probably never see anyone wearing a blue-and-orange jersey crowned champion in my lifetime, and, as a fan, I lament that greatly. I would love to see my side crush its opponents. But moments of great and clarifying victories are not how human beings are measured; we’re judged for how we handle the same disasters that, just because we’re human, we cannot possibly avoid. Every few months, this truth is starkly evident in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. Every few nights, it’s on display at Madison Square Garden. All we have to do is watch.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.