How do you guard someone who is not just 7'3, but who can also shoot, and who can also drive, and who also has touch both falling away from and running toward a basketball rim? Since he is so comfortable on the perimeter and in the air too, and moving backwards, how do you score on him? Twenty-two-year-old, post-Melo, fully emboldened Kristaps Porzingis—even more so than the frightening Milwaukee Bucks sensation Giannis Antetokounmpo—ushers the NBA into a new era of evolutionary-strategic quagmires and wonders. He has also made a proud basketball city able to shuck self-loathing for once, and forget for at least one halcyon moment the depraved dysfunction that has sunk its franchise for most of this century.
Porzingis is joined by an almost unbelievably endearing cadre of sprightly and liberated multicultural youth. The common denominator for Porzingis, startlingly effective French-Rwandan rookie point guard Frank Ntilikina, the politically exiled anti-fascist Turk Enes Kanter, heartland college star Doug McDermott, and journeyman guard Jarrett Jack? They are making something new and cracklingly so, freed from the shadows of over-mythologized celebrities of the sport like Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose, and Russell Westbrook. There is a story New York City and devotees of its folklore tell themselves—one only occasionally true, and even less so in the late-capitalist days that make it impossible for most people to both live there and love what they do—and it is about splattering beautiful human paint all over the tabula rasa that America supposedly is.
That tale has always been fraught; propped up by the underlying moral lies of conquest and gentrification, of colonization and oligarchy (represented here by James Dolan, who has stumbled into gold while producing nothing but crap) but for the first time in a long time the New York Knicks stand as a basketball product that’s cohesive with a pie-skyed, post-everything, Kumbaya dream of excellence. The city that so many immigrants from everywhere strive to, at a time when their acceptance in this country is so imperiled, is now represented by a team that has convened from quite disparate places onto happy style and rising victory.
This may not last. The long NBA season disproves plenty of conjectures made within its first ten contests. The Knicks’ 6-5 start could be the thing of forgotten time capsules—a brief, especially finite respite the tunnel of organizational garbage that its fanbase has long required the city’s known sardonic streak to survive through. At his physical height, with his grace, and his ability to convert that grace into sudden competitive violence, Porzingis seems to almost taunt a tortured fanbase with how experimental he feels. He is a test run of both science and metaphysics. Can bodies really do this? Can professional New York basketball be a place of aspirational happiness? The projections of what the Latvian center—once so dazed by Allen Iverson’s version of American success as a pre-teen, thousands of miles away in the Baltic states, that he adopted cornrows—can achieve are perhaps dubious against the backdrop of reality.
We can have nice things, though. Times like these, for the Knicks, might be even more impermanent and fleeting than national harmony—but it hasn’t been since Jeremy Lin’s dizzying month in 2012 that the Madison Square Garden has felt like such a mecca of fresh possibility. Lin then, like Porzingis now, was surrounded by a collection of unused and unproven parts that suddenly took on meaning. Lin’s truncated era of glory ended when Carmelo Anthony came back from injury and his Entitlement Reign resumed, with Porzingis arriving four years into it. A perhaps overdone metaphor involves the recently traded Anthony, struggling with Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder that Kanter and McDermott came from, as avatar of the oppressively overpriced, unachievable, entrenched and overprivileged status quo of Manhattan, and Porzingis as the new torch-carrier of the vestigial myth of self-made New York nowhere men, Dick Whitmans all of them, that Lin once represented. The New Knicks, shot through with novelty and surprise, feel like they are playing for everyone.
Everything about this soaring cultural moment is as fragile as Porzingis’ body is supposed to be—through his first two seasons, he has missed just 26 games for a tanking team with lots of cause to sit him in a nurturing hole of milk. Things don’t tend to work out for the Knicks, who—due more to Dolan and his hires, than anything—usually function as a cautionary tale for how quickly New York-sized expectations can quash development and nuance. The third-year star seems to understand his place in the canon, though: he took it in stride when he was booed by his fanbase on draft night in 2015, and he has said all the right galvanizing words in this, his blossom year. He referenced “New York grit” after a 40-point performance with six blocks in a 19-point comeback victory at home against the Indiana Pacers. “We’re finally representing the city the right way,” he said, inspiring cheers. The sport’s most storied Garden is his now, and in this moment, regardless of when it may terminate, his Knicks are giving it back to the American narratives that make it most sing.