Bad Basketball, Good Times, And Knicks-Nets at the End of the World

What kind of person would willing attend a midweek game between two of the most depressing teams in the NBA? Someone who really needed it, it turns out.

by David Roth
Feb 3 2017, 5:50pm

Photo by Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

In sufficiently complicated times, everything takes on a veneer of easy metaphor. The woman on the subway with two large and very pink smoothies who will not hold onto anything as the 2 train rattles violently downtown—what does she mean, really? Is this society, or some disbelieving tranche of it? How about the train that has thoroughly conked out at Rector Street, and which is borking the commutes of people all up and down the line? Is that train Phil Jackson? Is it Carmelo Anthony? Is it THE MEDIA? The wan man with the dry cough and the necktie emblazoned with Gatorade-green cleft-notes—in what ways, specifically, is he me?

This is how it goes, when you live in a moment that cannot be parsed. Ominous times live on omens, and if you are looking for them you will find them. They can even be rote and bloodless algorithms, which is a thing I know because I looked at some ticket-selling sites to see how much it would cost to attend the game between the New York Knicks and the Brooklyn Nets on February 1 and because the guileless bots in charge of blaring ads at us as we move through the internet took it upon themselves to keep me apprised of those prices. Just in case.

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There was nothing to this, nothing deeper than blunt code. This was just the internet doing what it does, which is remind you whenever and wherever possible that you could at that very moment buy some shit you don't strictly want. If those first searches were the result of morbid curiosity, the way they haunted me seemed more morbid still. No pressure, the little boxes on Facebook and everywhere else wheedled, but you can watch two of the most depressing teams in the NBA play each other, on a weekday.

And so the prices followed me wherever I went, in pop-ups and interstitials and anywhere they would fit. I saw that those prices fluctuated in precisely the same way that the Titanic could have been said to fluctuate. It was already clear, when I looked, that this would be the bleakest basketball game on that night's schedule, and for many nights in either direction; it eventually became clear that it would also be affordable. Between 4pm on Tuesday and 4pm on Wednesday, ticket prices fell by more than half. This was the free market and the nasty reality of life in the Eastern Conference's bilge-creature division at work, but it felt, as the algorithm chased me around the internet, like something more. A sad but persistent ghost, a pale shade in a John Starks jersey pocked with stains and a few sizes too big. "Remember New York basketball," the ghost said. "Eh?"

Let the elegance flow. Photo by Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

So when the tickets got to $20 for an upper-tank seat, I jumped. It was a deal, and it wasn't; tickets for the Nets' next game, against the Pacers, could be had for $11. For the one after that, a noon tip against the Raptors at which the first/only 10,000 fans will receive a Rondae Hollis-Jefferson bobblehead, you can get in for the same price.

All of which is to say that the algorithm that implored me to buy that ticket was helpless before a question that any sentient NBA-aware human would have had an easy time answering. The question, in this case, is "which of you people would like to watch the spunky but deeply bad Brooklyn Nets play the comparatively talented but excruciatingly dysfunctional and multiply haunted Knicks, in a basketball game that you have to pay to get into?" I answered the ghost and actually went because I wanted to learn the answer. Which it turned out was both obvious, and surprising. The short answer, I can report, is 17,732 people who very much wanted to watch those two teams play a basketball game. The surprising part was that, despite watching what was certainly one of the most appalling games played in the league this season, they absolutely got what they paid for, and maybe also what they needed.

You do not want to know about the basketball. I will tell you a little bit about the basketball, but before I do that I want to acknowledge that you are right not to want to know about the basketball. But about the basketball: folks, it was bad. The teams combined to take 52 three-pointers in the game, and made 11; they combined to miss more than 62 percent of the overall field-goal attempts. There was a moment, after Brook Lopez air-balled a wide-open three, in which a derisive "air ball" chant from the loud and predominantly Knicks-fan crowd was still going as a Carmelo Anthony miss bounded off the back of the iron and over the backboard. Anthony was ineffective and sat the entire fourth quarter, and Lopez played the sort of passive game that defined him before his breakout improvement this year; on the Nets bench, Jeremy Lin wore a high ponytail and a slim white suit with a black shirt underneath, the broad collar akimbo for a disco godfather look.

The talent level of the lineups on the floor for much of the game could accurately be described as D-League Game With A Flu-Afflicted Kristaps Porzingis In It, and the game itself was competitive along roughly the same beats as a game between two of the teams at the lower end of the Big East. Both teams played hard, and both teams handled the ball as if it was both scorchingly hot and coated in butter. The Knicks won, 95-90, which ended an implausible six game losing streak against the Nets. The Nets lost for the seventh straight time and fell to 9-40, which is the worst record in the NBA. At one point the video screen appeared to become confused and showed, where the Highlights Brought To You By Takis Rolled Tortilla Chips usually went, Sasha Vujacic scooping up a loose ball, which was both not a highlight and not a home team highlight.

All of which is to say that, play by play, the basketball absolutely delivered on the game's broader promise of doom. The Barclays Center, too, never fails to provide precisely the sort of brand-scarred avant-garde weirdness that defines what we might call the contemporary neoliberal basketball experience—the endless tiered suites and clubs, the synergies and sponsorships that extend more or less down to the Urinals Brought To You By Emblem Health level, the weird push-and-pull between the miles of velvet ropes blocking off this or the other exclusive guest experience and the massive flume of spilled ketchup near Boomer And Carton's Grill, the fucking $14 beers. The extra curlicues of Barclays weirdness—I found a Meditation Room, which featured messages of brotherhood on the walls, a tiny CD boombox, and a small rock fountain that was not in operation—all point in the same direction, which is away from the basketball court and back towards some sort of smooth and self-replicating Basketball Experience. The entropy was absolutely there, if you wanted to find it; every metaphor for the broader moment's broader anxieties and this specific one's particular pathos hung right up there in a chain of fat alley-oops stretching to the horizon.

They're not locked in there with you, you're locked in there with them. Photo by David Roth

And yet, on that night and at this game, that was not it at all. Every indicator was flashing red, every objective and measurable aspect of this particular game in this particular moment insisted that it was indeed the blasted waste that its blighted box score says it is. But I am telling you that it was not, and that this inexcusable basketball game between two teams too forlorn even to manage an intra-city rivalry was instead a scene of resurrection and redemption. It helped without a doubt that Knicks fans otherwise priced out of the team's home games in Manhattan were able to get into this one for something like a third of the price of the cheapest ticket; their inescapable presence transformed it into a de facto Knicks home game, right down to the fans in the upper tank substituting "Nets suck" for the desired hand claps when the P.A. prompted fans with the kindergarten classic "If You're Happy And You Know It Clap Your Hands."

But even the release of some old-fashioned pent-up partisanship doesn't quite explain the alchemy of the arena, or the way that fans on both sides of this sinus headache of a rivalry instantly and collectively caught a vibe that seemed to exist above the game's simple dreariness. Moment by moment, this was the usual stuff, and individuated; the people who like to jeer Melo jeered him, the vibrating hypebeast teens who preferred to take giddy Snapchat videos of themselves did that. But over all that was a sort of tacit agreement to enjoy this game on its own terms, and as the imperfect but invaluable respite from the rest of the world that it was. Vujacic converted his second four-point play of the evening, and a friend sitting in the lower bowl texted me "Sashophrenia!" Defensive stops that were strictly speaking more Nets Player Just Vigorously Knee-ed A Ball Out Of Bounds were applauded like dunks; dunks were received like winning scratch-and-win tickets. I struck up a conversation with an older man in an elevator and admitted that I had been sent there to watch what seemed like the most depressing game possible. "How can you say this was the worst game, though?" he laughed. "The worst game would be like if Golden State played either of these teams."

Enter, knight. Photo by David Roth

New York City is many cities, and does not ever feel just one type of way; it is, mostly, busy, and the intimations of shellshock in the streets and trains and the wary weariness ringing the people on the sidewalks like gray halos might just be the result of a bunch of ordinary, difficult days. But there is also a defiance that exists outside all that at work, a confused and searching leviathan of solidarity that heaves massively into view at the street protests that have marked the last two weeks before slipping back under the city's usual churning surface. It is unfinished and both powerful and powerless—big enough to claim the streets, to stop the city and wash it in noise, but not big enough, at least not yet, to do anything else. It is too new to name, and too protean to describe, but it seems safe to say that it is grounded in a refusal to accept things as they are, and in the belief that they could be remade in some other way with sufficient and sufficiently stubborn belief.

There was nothing explicitly political or even implicitly political about this particular bad basketball game or the component moments that made it up, although the words "violence" and "atrocity" do appear in my notes. There is, if I am being honest, the distinct possibility that the high energy in the building had more to do with ravenous Knicks fans finally getting to watch their team win and everyone involved unplugging from the rest of the world for a few hours. That is more than possible.

But also I have been to more meaningless basketball games in my life than I could possibly remember; stack all the listless 16-point losses I watched the New Jersey Nets absorb in their sepulchral old home in the swamp one on another and you will be looking down on every penthouse in Manhattan. I have been to games that meant a great deal, wins and losses, which I will never forget. But I have never been to a basketball game that scanned quite so much like a protest, not for or against any particular thing but against its own insignificance. The game was meaningless, it was ramshackle and bad, it was very much The Sasha Vujacic Game. The people that turned out, in defiance of all that, simply agreed to disagree. They decided it was something else, and then it was.