With Knicks into second round, New Yorkers are back and brash as ever

New York Knicks fans cheer in the second half of Game 4 in an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — LeBron James for years professed his love for Madison Square Garden, then declined the chance to make it his home.

Kevin Durant not only passed on the New York Knicks, but he chose the other team in their city, allowing him to torment them from a few miles across the river.

The 2000s have been a mostly miserable time for the franchise and its fans. Losses piled up like rush hour traffic on the bridges and tunnels, and the most painful defeats sometimes followed the seasons. Lottery luck would elude the Knicks and so would the marquee free agents, ensuring that the Knicks could never win for losing.

The ineptitude would occasionally quiet their fans – even Spike Lee briefly gave up going to watch them – but never completely drive them away. Not when they always held the belief that New York was the epicenter of the basketball world, where Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Julius Erving honed their games at Rucker Park, was home of the most special arena, and that someday everything would come together — even though it’s now 50 years since it last did.

“The most amazing thing about Knick fans, to me, is they come and support and treat every game like it’s a Game 7, and there’s a fanaticism with Knick fans and also incredible optimism,” former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy said. “They may get down in the season, but come the offseason, they pump themselves back up to see a pathway toward success.”

Maybe it will finally come again now.

With the Knicks into the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 10 years, their fans are back and as brash as ever. Forget just winning a series. They see top-seeded Milwaukee gone, regular-season success against all the other teams left in the East, and are thinking about the NBA Finals — even if their odds on Fanduel Sportsbook are behind both teams in the Boston-Philadelphia series.

Just as cocky as ever.

“That’s just New York for you and I’m just happy to be a part of it,” Knicks guard Jalen Brunson said.

Fans poured out of MSG onto Seventh Avenue, halting traffic, on Sunday after beating Cleveland in Game 4 of the first round. The Knicks wrapped up the series on the road Wednesday, and later that night learned their opponent would be the Miami Heat, their fierce rival from the 1990s, when the Knicks always felt they would have a shot at the title. They were a game away from winning it in 1994 and got back to the NBA Finals again in 1999.

Those Knicks fought for everything and were willing to fight anybody – especially someone wearing a Miami uniform – and the fans watching courtside on celebrity row all the way up to the cheapest seats dreamed of seeing Patrick Ewing and his teammates march up the Canyon of Heroes in a championship parade.

Then the 2000s arrived and it turned into a nightmare.

After reaching the Eastern Conference finals in 2000, the Knicks would make the playoffs just twice more in the next 10 years. They became a league laughingstock, the East Coast Clippers, with 50- and eventually 60-loss seasons becoming the norm.

Hall of Famers such as Isiah Thomas and Phil Jackson were given the keys to the franchise, only to wreck it. ( A train wreck, specifically, tennis champion and longtime Knicks fan John McEnroe called Jackson’s last season as team president in 2017).

The Knicks never got a break in the lottery when a difference-making college player was available. They started aiming for free agency, only to have James pass in 2010 — picking the hated Heat to make it worse — and Durant opt for Brooklyn along with Kyrie Irving in 2019.

To Knicks fans, those players who were supposed to be saviors became cowards. Too scared of the challenge of being the leading man on Broadway, too weak to lift a franchise onto their shoulders.

Durant never lost to the Knicks when he was in Brooklyn, but that didn’t stop Knicks fans — polite in public — from talking trash on social media.

“Imagine the tweets I’ve been getting since I decided to come to the Nets from Knicks fans,” he said after one Nets victory at MSG. “I mean, they’re still (ticked) off about stuff I say and little jabs here and there.”

The summer of the Durant disappointment began the Knicks’ turnaround. They hoped to get the No. 1 pick and draft Zion Williamson but ended up third and took RJ Barrett, who had fans chanting his name during a strong finish to the Cleveland series. Julius Randle became their top get in free agency, and he has been an All-Star two of the last three seasons.

Lee, McEnroe and plenty more famous fans are back in the building, and the crowd will be roaring on Sunday from the moment the Knicks come out for warmups.

“Knicks fans are remarkable, amazing,” Brunson said. “I can throw so many adjectives about them, how great they’ve been.”

Imagine if the Knicks keep winning.

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