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Why the Knicks are worth watching on Christmas

Sit back and enjoy the game, because the team is relevant and exciting

During a brief trip to New York a few weeks ago, my friend Raoul invited me to a New York Knicks game at Madison Square Garden. As the drinks flowed, the fans cheered passionately and the Knicks overcame a slow start on their way to an eventual win, I asked Raoul — a fellow longtime Knicks fan who has been a season-ticket holder for the last 15 years — the difference between going to games this season as opposed to the previous 14 years.

“This is the first time since I’ve had season tickets,” Raoul told me, “that I actually have hope.”

To quote the great Smokey Robinson: I second that emotion.

As the Knicks open the slate of five NBA games on Christmas Day against the Philadelphia 76ers, there will be many fans who’ll turn on their television with one question:

Why?

Before the season, many news outlets described the New York-Philly contest as the day’s worst game.

My colleagues at The Undefeated and ESPN took that a step further, saying the Knicks weren’t worthy of a Christmas Day appearance. Part of the reason being “Melo won’t be walking through that door.”

(Although I’ve heard more than a few Knicks fans say they really weren’t sorry to see Carmelo Anthony leave — as well as former team president Phil Jackson and his triangle offense.)

Kristaps Porzingis, in my mind, has the potential to be the most transcendent Knicks player since Patrick Ewing.

I appreciate the toughness of Enes Kanter, the hustle of historically black college product Kyle O’Quinn and the confidence of guys such as Tim Hardaway, Courtney Lee and Doug McDermott.

A promising rookie like Frank Ntilikina can develop and thrive in an organization that’s now free of drama.

Because we all know that since the turn of century, when the Knicks last reached a conference finals (one year after losing to the San Antonio Spurs in the 1999 NBA Finals), the Knicks know drama.

Here’s what Knicks fans have had to deal with since playing the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals in 2000:

  • One playoff series win (in four playoff appearances).
  • Ten seasons where the team has failed to win at least 35 games.
  • Nine straight losing seasons (from 2001-02 to 2009-10).
  • The worst team in franchise history (the 2014-15 team that won a franchise-low 17 games during a season when Anthony shut it down for knee surgery after playing in the 2015 All-Star Game).

It’s not that the Knicks lacked talent.

Anthony won an Olympic gold medal and went to All-Star Games in each of his six years in New York.

The 2012-13 team that won the Atlantic Division with 54 wins was stacked with Anthony, Marcus Camby, Jason Kidd, Tyson Chandler, Amar’e Stoudemire and Kenyon Martin.

Some of the big names who passed through New York in the last 18 years would make up a nice All-Star team: Rasheed Wallace, Derrick Rose, Metta World Peace, Mike Bibby, Tracy McGrady, Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis, Anfernee Hardaway, Dikembe Mutombo and Latrell Sprewell among them. Unfortunately for the Knicks, most of those players collected checks in New York well past their prime.

It’s a franchise that has turned fans off with both its dysfunction and embarrassing headlines ranging from the repeated poor decisions by owner James Dolan to the sexual harassment scandal during the Isiah Thomas years that led to an $11.5 million payout to a female executive to the disastrous era of Jackson (who, among his many missteps, made bad deals for Rose and Joakim Noah before eventually being fired for threatening both Anthony and Porzingis).

What’s happened in New York for the last 18 years is a far cry from the Knicks team that I watched for the first time: the 1969-70 squad featuring Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, Dave Stallworth and Cazzie Russell. The unselfish play of that championship team made this then-7-year-old kid fall in love with basketball.

I’ve been a diehard Knicks fan ever since.

I raced to the corner bodega to get my copy of the New York Daily News the morning after the 1973 Knicks (with Earl Monroe) won the NBA title.

I was excited by the rare occurrence when my mother took me to games, even if she could only afford the 400-level blue seats in the nosebleed section that surrounded the entire upper bowl of the arena.

I got a chance to see my favorite Knicks player of all time, Bernard King, scream out loud the afternoon the Knicks got the draft rights to Ewing and was thrilled when the Knicks reached the 1994 NBA Finals in my first year covering the NBA as a journalist.

During a time when players and fans easily jump ship and change allegiances, I’ve been faithful.

Despite the bad first round picks (remember Frederic Weis, Mike Sweetney).

The bad luck (Jordan Hill was the ninth pick of the 2009 draft, just one player behind the players the Knicks wanted, Stephen Curry).

And the stench since the turn of the century, which included the arrest of Charles Oakley, one of the most well-liked players in team history. You have to be really screwed up when former NBA commissioner David Stern has this to say about the team: “It demonstrates that they’re not a model of intelligent management.”

The Knicks will take an above .500 record into Christmas Day. Porzingis is the ninth-best scorer in the NBA. And the team ranks 10th in the league in assists (23) and seventh in field-goal percentage (47.2).

Yes, the Knicks are one Porzingis injury away from being a bottom-rung team. And, yes, after Christmas the Knicks begin a stretch of playing 16 of 20 games on the road (including a killer stretch of seven straight road games over 12 days).

But on this Christmas, the Knicks are relevant and exciting.

You might equate the Knicks playing on Christmas Day with opening a stocking filled with a lump of coal.

Knicks fans see the further unveiling of an emerging diamond.

A hope diamond.

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.