In Knicks’ rebirth, New York fans got something to say
Die-hards have waited eight years to see New York back in the postseason
It’s June 1994, and I’m in Houston about to cover my first NBA Finals. I remember a friend suggesting it was bad timing for me considering I was a year late to covering the Chicago Bulls’ first three-peat.
But I was ecstatic.
Ecstatic because the 1994 Finals featured the New York Knicks, my New York Knicks. I would be attending my first NBA Finals game and writing about the team I fell in love with in 1969-70 when the Knicks won their first championship.
Over the years, my devotion to the Knicks has remained strong. It was tested in the 1980s when the Knicks failed to win 25 games for three straight seasons. And it’s been tested during the struggles of the past two decades when one of the NBA’s most storied franchises lost its relevance, while others such as Toronto, Cleveland, Dallas and Miami managed to raise their first banners.
But after winning a combined 38 games the past two seasons, the Knicks will host a playoff series this weekend after ending an eight-year postseason drought. No one could have seen this coming. Julius Randle became an All-Star. Second-year guard RJ Barrett and rookie Immanuel Quickley made an impact. Derrick Rose, Alec Burks and Reggie Bullock provided veteran leadership and scoring. Coach Tom Thibodeau got through a season without working the nerves of his players.
And Knicks fans are rejoicing again.
Some might say that Knicks fans, like the current crop of 17-year cicadas, are emerging from their holes.
The reality? True Knicks fans — the real ones, the day ones — have been hiding in plain sight. I tracked down a few to gauge their euphoria on the eve of the Knicks’ first playoff appearance since 2013.
In the summer of 2017, Shadrika Ferguson boarded a bus headed for downtown Brooklyn when she received a glare from the bus driver. Ferguson was wearing a black Knicks shirt, a Knicks hat accentuated by rhinestones and a pair of sneakers incorporating the team’s dominant blue and orange colors.
To the driver, it was an odd tribute to a struggling team that had recently ended a 31-win season.
“You’ve got to be crazy as hell,” the driver said, “or the most die-hard Knicks fan I’ve ever seen.”
Ferguson’s response: “I’m both, OK?”
That response earned her a comped ride.
How die-hard is Ferguson? The gear in her closet — from the Patrick Ewing socks to the expansive collection of Knicks jackets, hats, shirts, bonnets and even a dress with blue and orange horizontal stripes — resembles a team outlet store.
Then there’s her bedroom, which underwent an extensive quarantine makeover. Her desk is painted blue and orange, topped with a signed Knicks basketball and a figurine of her favorite Knicks player, Carmelo Anthony. There’s a Knicks rug on the floor. And throughout the space, there are Knicks playing cards, a blue and orange basketball phone and a trash can resembling a rim and net.
The capper: two neon lights on the wall – one over the desk that reads, “Mrs New York Knicks,” and another over the bed that signifies her husband’s devotion to the same team that reads, “Mr New York Knicks.”
“Did it big, because I’m extra,” Ferguson said. “It’s all about the Knicks. A space for me to feel comfortable talking about them or watching them.”
That love for the Knicks came from being born into a household of Knicks fans. “My mother took us to games when we were young, and her favorite player was John Starks,” Ferguson said. “From the seats she’d buy we could see Spike Lee, and I’d get excited. The Knicks have always been in my blood.”
Even the way she met her husband, Travis Kearney, came through her devotion to the Knicks. Kearney followed her Instagram account, @mrs_newyork_knicks (“My account name from day one,” she said), and online conversations about their team led to a meeting and eventually the two getting married (with Kearney changing his Instagram name to @mr_newyork_knicks).
Scanning Ferguson’s Instagram page, I noticed a post on the day preseason began that “I’m not the slightest bit excited about seeing Knicks basketball right now.” Which prompted me to ask, based on the team’s recent losing history, “Have you ever been tempted to …, ”Ferguson cuts me off. “No, sir, and I know what you gonna ask, no, sir,” she said. “I’ve had friends switch over to the Nets, but I’m not about to lose faith. I’m from Brooklyn, and I’m happy we have a stadium here. But that’s just another stadium that we Knick fans fill.”
Ferguson was pregnant with their daughter, Mary, when she boarded that bus in Brooklyn, New York, back in 2017. Just months before she turned a year old, Mary took her first steps rocking a Knicks shirt.
“She was born into this Knicks life,” Ferguson said. “Just like me.”
My search for Knicks fans prompts a phone call from a guy I know only as “John from Long Island.” When I explain to John what I’m searching for — people who are hardcore Knick fans – he responds right off the bat: “You’re talking to the right guy.”
“John from Long Island” eventually shares his real name, John Wotczak. He’s a 23-year-old from Long Island, New York, who grew up surrounded by generations of relatives dedicated to the blue and orange.
“A fan from the second I was born,” Wotczak explained. “It started with my grandparents, worked its way to my parents and now down to me. I love basketball and the Knicks, a match made in heaven.”
Wotczak’s grandparents followed the team during the Knicks’ golden era, when Clyde Frazier — styling and profiling — sat on the throne as one of New York’s biggest sports stars.
“They told me the Garden was heated back then, that from the 1970s through the 1990s it was rocking,” Wotczak said. “It was great to hear them reminisce about the great times the Knicks had before I was alive, but there was a little jealousy not having experienced that.”
Wotczak’s too young to remember the 1999 team that lost in the Finals to the San Antonio Spurs — one of just four winning seasons that have occurred in his lifetime before this year. “We had that one good season, that Melo season in 2013,” Wotczak said, recalling the Knicks team that won 54 games and reached the Eastern Conference semifinals. “Besides that, I can’t tell you one great feeling I’ve really had about the Knicks.”
Asked whether that frustration ever had him close to changing his allegiance to another NBA team, Wotczak quickly shuts that down.
“Even when the Nets got Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, and now with Kyrie, KD and Harden, I was never tempted to flip,” said Wotczak, whose favorite Knick of all time is David Lee. “I’m a Knick fan, through and through. I bleed orange and blue.”
While his allegiance to the team has never swayed, his frustration came to the surface publicly when he and his cousins attended a game at Madison Square Garden last season before the pandemic shutdown.
Frustrated by a lackluster effort by the Knicks against the Utah Jazz in March 2020, Wotczak and his cousins decided to bounce after watching the Knicks fall behind by 20, chanting “sell the team” on their way out of Madison Square Garden.
“We were perpendicular to James Dolan, and he did look up,” Wotczak said. “The ushers came over and didn’t give us a warning, they said, ‘We want you gone right now.’ ”
The group, upon reaching the concourse, was met by uniformed New York Police Department officers. A report that quoted a Knicks official following the game stated that no one “was ejected or escorted” out of the building. “They kicked us out,” Wotczak said. “It was the game after they wouldn’t let Spike Lee get into the arena through the VIP entrance. We actually were escorted out of that entrance.”
That, for Wotczak, was his lowest moment as a Knicks fan, and he didn’t enter this season with much in terms of expectations for the team. The competitiveness of the team this season has generated a spark in Knicks fans that Wotczak has never seen. “My grandparents are thrilled,” he said. “It’s must-watch TV for me, my friends and my cousins. If we’re not watching together, we’re constantly texting throughout the game.”
Excitement for a team that no one expected to be playing this late in the season.
“We’ll either be in a bar or at one of our houses watching this weekend,” Wotczak said. “We’re in the playoffs. The Knicks are back. New York City is back. What a great day it is. What a great feeling.”
You’d have to go back to the 1990s when the Knicks were last competitive on a consistent basis, a decade when the team reached the playoffs each year while making two trips to the NBA Finals.
For Christopher Dinkins, it was also the decade that yielded some of his biggest heartache.
Just mention the name Charles Smith, and you can hear the agony in Dinkins’ voice as he recalls the finals seconds of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals when the Knicks forward had a chance at a go-ahead basket to beat the Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
“The legend has it that it was three misses, then four, then 12,” Dinkins said. “Charles Smith is a good brother, an excellent brother. But at that moment, when he missed all those bunnies, I wanted to reach through the TV and snatch this dude. At that moment, he was public enemy number one.“
For Dinkins, the frustration of being a Knicks fan would only get worse the following season.
With Jordan retired, the Knicks were finally able to vanquish the Bulls in the conference semifinals and survived a seven-game series against Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals to reach the team’s first Finals in 21 years. Only the Houston Rockets stood between the Knicks and the 1993-94 NBA championship.
What happened over the two weeks that followed left Dinkins scarred physically and emotionally.
The physical scarring occurred while Dinkins was in his apartment watching Game 5 of the series, aka the O.J. Simpson chase game.
“My Knicks are in the Finals, Bob Costas cuts in with a special report and they put that chase on the entire screen and the game in a small box in the corner,” Dinkins said. “I slammed the TV with my hand, and broke my finger. They had that chase on every channel, they didn’t have to show it on [NBC] during the game!”
The emotional scar resulted from watching Game 7, when John Starks hit just 2 of 18 shots as the Knicks blew a 3-2 series lead.
“What was Pat Riley thinking?” Dinkins asked about the decision to ride with Starks. “That’s still my lowest moment as a Knick fan.”
Dinkins became a Knicks fan as a child when he’d sit at the foot of his grandfather’s living room chair and listen to tales of Red Holzman, Willis Reed and Frazier. He had the Knicks Starter jacket growing up and a poster of Bernard King on his wall. With the Knicks back in the playoffs, he looks forward to one day experiencing the highest moment as a fan: Attending a title parade.
“Who knows, I might be 85 years old when it happens, but I’ll be on the corner of Barclay and Broadway waving my Knicks banner,” said Dinkins, who has attended several of the New York Yankees ticker tape parades in lower Manhattan. “You think this city was lit when the other teams had their parades? When the Knicks have theirs, it’s going to be next level.”