You know what’s almost as much fun as watching a team you love win? Watching a team you hate lose.
Hate — and we’re talking sports hate here, not the toxic real-world version — powers the engine of sports. It’s the lifeblood of rivalries; part of the joy of being, say, a Bears fan is watching the Packers lose. Hate’s as essential to the life cycle of the sports fan as tailgates, T-shirts and old ticket stubs. Love for our teams lets us dream; hate for our rivals helps keep us grounded.
With all due respect to the Milwaukee Bucks, Tampa Bay Rays and Tennessee Titans of the world, there’s nothing quite like hating an old-school legacy team. The Yankees, the Cowboys, the Lakers, Alabama, Duke, Notre Dame … every team and every fan circles them on the schedule each year, and for good reason. A victory over them can change the tenor of an entire season.
To that list, we welcome a long-absent champion: the New York Knicks, who won their ninth straight game on Saturday.
LeBron James has had quite an interesting week on Twitter, but he hit upon some bedrock truth on Thursday when he noted that “the league is simply better off when the Knicks are winning.” He’s exactly right.
If you were a basketball fan prior to 2000, you remember the Knicks of yore, the teams of Willis Reed and Clyde Frazier and Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley. The grab-and-grind Knicks of the Pat Riley/Jeff Van Gundy era were a blue-and-orange crime against the sport of basketball, but they did win games. They weren’t always champions — hell, they were rarely champions — but they were always a tremendous pain on the court. A victory over New York was a statement win.
Since then, though, New York’s been awful, and not the kind of awful you can really laugh at, either … the kind of management-driven, misbegotten-coaching awful that honestly makes you feel sorry for the franchise and its fans. A win over the Knicks in the 2000s wasn’t a statement, it was a line on a to-do list.
That’s not how it should be. Any time you play a legacy team, you’re not just playing them, you’re playing their history. You’re not just playing today’s Lakers, you’re playing Kobe and Shaq and Magic and Kareem. A win over Duke is a necessary blow against Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley and JJ Redick and all the rest of those cursed Blue Devils.
That’s why it’s so frustrating, on an aesthetic level, when these legacy teams fall short. It was always a little disappointing that the Dallas Cowboys spent the entirety of the New England Patriots dynasty wandering in a 9-7 desert. This year’s NCAA tournament had its thrills, sure, but without Duke and Kentucky in the mix, something essential was missing.
Now, in the interest of fairness to the many people who truly love these legacy teams, let me also add that having teams like the Knicks play well also summons a groundswell of joy from a long-dormant fanbase. When a legacy team starts to return to glory, their fans get a little louder, a little prouder. They pull those Starter jackets and snapback hats out of the back of the closet, dust them off, and wear them with pride. Which is great! New York’s a fun team again, at long last, and every fan deserves several good runs out of their team in their lifetime. (On the flip side: we’re about to find out just how loyal Patriots fans really are, aren’t we?)
There’s also evidence, both statistical and anecdotal, that legacy teams help raise the profile of an entire league. You could make a case that the simultaneous incompetent performance of both New York football teams has had a measurable impact on the NFL’s declining ratings. And the atmosphere — at least, when fans are in attendance — at legacy teams' classic venues is high-voltage exultation. Whether because of generational fandom or latecoming bandwagon-jumpers, these legacy teams boast outsize fanbases, fanbases which can tilt the entire feel of a crucial game or playoff series.
Which brings us back to this year’s Knicks. New York has won exactly one playoff series in this millennium. The last time New York made it out of the second round, Zion Williamson wasn’t even born.
This year ought to be different. This year, the Knicks might be able to push, shove and shoot their way into uncharted territory, a conference finals or … nah, let’s not even suggest it yet. Even if they flame out in the first round again, this team appears built for a long run.
Either way, welcome back, Knicks. We’re happy we can hate you again.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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