Knicks Represent Decline of a Culture in New York City

Paul SieversAnalyst IJanuary 19, 2009

What I love most about basketball is that the game allows for self-expression more than any other American sport. Iverson’s cross-over, Jordan’s fade away, Hakeem’s dream-shake, the list goes on and on. The sport demands a type of artistry that is unparalleled by anything else we see in American sports.

With art comes culture and make no mistake about it, basketball is a culture unto itself. The same way any city has a “music scene” or a “theater scene”, every city has a basketball scene that goes way beyond the success of the local NBA team.

A basketball scene is measured by the college teams. How many are there in the area and how well do they perform? It is measured by the high schools and AAU teams. How good are the local players and how well organized is the infrastructure that allows them to compete?

A basketball scene is measured by the number of children playing youth basketball and the number of parents playing pickup games at the YMCA. It’s the crowd of guys waiting to run on the courts in the city parks and the number of hoops hanging over the garages of suburban homes. Basketball at its best is part of our every day lives.

In New York, the sound of a dribble is more than just a thud against the floor, it’s the heartbeat of a city. This was documented brilliantly in Pete Axthelm’s The City Game, which is a must read for anybody who likes either New York, or basketball, or both.

Axthelm’s book was written at the height of New York’s basketball supremacy in 1970. New York’s basketball scene is still strong, but I feel as if Chicago and LA have probably passed us. A current look at the New York scene leaves one to wonder what Axthelm ever wrote about.



The game is still played with fantastic skill on courts like Rucker Park and West 4th Street. Unfortunately, the business of basketball has diluted the playground game to a large extent.

First, NBA players realized they had too much money on the line to come to New York during the summer and mix it up with the playground legends. In the 70s, Dr. J used to be a regular at the Rucker Park tournament. Today, a few pros will make a guest appearance once or twice during the summer while their agents and general managers cringe in fear of injury.

Secondly, the And 1 mixed tape tour came along with good intentions which as we know, pave the road to hell. Showcasing playground legends was a great idea, putting a camera in front of their faces and allowing them to drone on about not being in the NBA wasn‘t. As the tour grew in popularity, it became less about streetball and more about becoming famous. Streetball was inadvertently bastardized on a national stage.


High Schools

New York can still go toe to toe with any city when it comes to high school hoops. Anybody who was lucky enough to catch Lincoln vs. Boys and Girls last Sunday knows this. However, much like street ball, the high schools are falling victim to the business of basketball.

Many of the top high school players in New York are ushered into prep-schools along the east coast. Next season two New York products, Omari Lawrence and Dante Taylor will do battle in the Big East. This year, they are playing their high school ball in Connecticut and Maryland respectively.

These days, the best high school basketball is played on the other side of the Hudson as three Jersey prep schools. St. Patrick’s, St. Anthony’s and St. Benedict’s will all fight it out for the mythical national championship. While these schools draw players from all over the world, they certainly look in their own backyards first. This trio of high school basketball superpowers has undoubtedly stolen some of the thunder from the NYC Catholic and public leagues.



New York has seven division one basketball teams within city limits, not to mention at least a dozen more in the suburban areas. The most important team is clearly St. John’s of the Big East conference. The St. John’s basketball program ranks 7th nationally in all time wins and, along with the Knicks, plays their home games in Madison Square Garden, the game’s highest church.

St. John’s has been awful lately with only one NCAA tournament appearance since 2001. Former head coach Mike Jarvis is largely to blame. I already documented his St. John’s tenure in an earlier article. St. John’s certainly isn’t helped out by the prepschool phenomenon but even the elite high school talent that stays in New York looks to leave for college. St. John’s used to be the first option for the city’s top players, now it’s a last resort.

College basketball is a game where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. St. John’s decline on the court has resulted in a drastic decline in attendance. On Thursday night, St. John’s hosted the Connecticut Huskies at The Garden. When I was growing up in the 90’s as a St. John’s season ticket holder , this game was always a sell out. I will cut the fans some slack. The weather made travel difficult but that doesn’t completely explain a recorded attendance of 7,545, about 40 percent of the Garden’s capacity.

In order for St. John’s to ever return to prominence, they need to keep the local talent at home. Selling elite basketball players on staying at home to play in an empty arena is tough, even if that arena is Madison Square Garden. There are many people close to the program that wonder if St. John’s will ever be back. Their doubts are well justified.


The Knicks

Wednesday night I was at my local sports bar scarfing down hot wings and watching my beloved alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh take on the South Florida Bulls. Like most sports bars, the décor was a mix of sports paraphernalia crammed into any space that wasn’t occupied by a television. The bar is equipped with about six big screens, all tuned to a college hoops game. For a college hoops junkie like myself, the whole scene is my definition of heaven.

As I sat at the bar immersed in my wings, my beer, and my game on a big screen, a man tapped me on the shoulder. He asked, “Are the Knicks on any other TV aside from the one on the corner?” I turned my head and saw a small TV that had to have been twenty years old, mounted in the upper corner of the bar. That TV was in fact the only one showing the Knicks hosting the Wizards.

That exchange more or less sums up the relevance of the Knicks to New York sports right now.

When the Knicks contended in the 1990s, they owned New York. I spent the early years of my childhood shooting hoops in my driveway pretending to be John Starks. At night I would gather my Knick figurines, turn out the light in my bedroom, grab a flashlight and reenact the Knicks’ starting lineup. “At center, seven feet, from Georgetown, tri-captain, PAT-TRICK YOU-ING!”

Just about every Knick home game was a sell-out that decade. By the time I reached middle-school in 1996, I started to gravitate towards St. John’s as my classmates who had well connected parents went to Knick games. My jealousy made me turn my back against the NBA altogether. I would get pissed off when all of my friends talked about the Knicks and nobody had any idea what Ron Artest was doing at St. John’s.

My arrival at high school in 1999 coincided with the Scott Layden era that began the decline of the Knicks. By the time I finished high school in 2003, the Knicks seemed to be a nostalgic memory of the 90s, much like POGs and Coolio.

And then came the Isiah Thomas era. Let’s just say he made the Knicks newsworthy for all the wrong reasons. I don’t think irreparable damage has been done to the Knicks, they will bounce back eventually. Hopefully, sooner rather than later.

The New York basketball scene depends on the NBA. The Garden can still be magical. We see it every year during the Big East tournament.

The Knicks have to deliver that kind of magic on a nightly basis and bring the fans back. When Knick basketball is going well, the city gets basketball fever and tickets become hard to get. When Knick tickets are in high demand, people who can’t go to Knick games will go to St. John’s games because its basketball and it’s the Garden.

Now, all of a sudden, St. John’s isn’t such a bad place for a local high school kid to play his college hoops. It all trickles down from the Knicks. When the spotlight shines on the Garden, every court in the City gets brighter.