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Thursday, December 20, 2007
The bigger the stage, the harder the fall

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

This article is taken from the Dec. 17 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

We've already seen Britney go off the deep end in 2007. You know who might be joining her for the holidays? Every single Knicks fan!

After four years of enduring Isiah Thomas and James Dolan's screwing up their beloved franchise, a seedy sexual-harassment trial and a Marbury-Isiah feud have pushed the collective venom and hopelessness to a new level. Stuck "rooting" for another expensive, unlikable lottery team, Knicks fans have morphed into a loony hybrid of pre-2004 Red Sox fans and PETA members protesting the latest fur-ridden fashion show. They don't just hate what has happened to their team, they actually hate their team.

You can't overstate the level of passion and frustration here. I have rational, thoughtful friends sending me e-mails like, "I turned down courtsides tonight because I would have ended up walking over to Dolan's seat and punching him in the face." Across the board, Knicks fans believe this is an unthinkable turn of events -- the deliberate slaying of basketball in the NBA's signature city -- with the implication being that such abject dysfunction should never be foisted on them. It can happen to other franchises, but not to the Knicks. Not to their Knicks.

Talk to a long-suffering Knicks fan over 40 and before long he'll be waxing poetic about the Willis Reed game and those Bradley-Frazier teams. They'll spin Bill Brasky-like tales about Bernard and Micheal Ray and drop a few f-bombs as they rehash the Charles Smith game and John Starks' 2-for-18. They'll tell you how much they loved Pat Riley's tougher-than-nails teams and tell you where they were when LJ hit his four-pointer. They'll tell you how much they miss hearing those electric crowds at MSG and how that's the biggest shame of all -- the deader-than-dead crowds at the World's Most Famous Arena.

And all of it will be genuine. Still, it's a stretch to assign the phrase "long-suffering" to Knicks fans, no matter how fervently they believe it fits. So they've had lousy teams for the past few years. It happens. They're not Pacers fans, who had to endure the damaging and incomprehensible Artest Melee, which derailed a potential championship season and set the franchise back 10 years. They're not Sonics fans, whose team is bolting within the next three years. And they're not T-Wolves fans, whose franchise wasted the prime of a beloved icon and traded him too late for too little.

Just look at what's happened to the Blazers since they won the 1977 title. They saw a potential dynasty implode when Bill Walton's fragile feet couldn't carry them. They drafted Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan, for heaven's sake. And although they won 179 times from 1990 to '92 and made the Finals twice, they infamously self- destructed in countless close games. During Game 7 of the 2000 Western finals, they mailed in one of the mammoth choke jobs in NBA history. In this decade alone, they've suffered through the much-despised Jail Blazers era and a prolonged rebuilding project that was capped off by having Greg Oden fall into their laps, only to have his rookie season derailed before it began. Imagine if the timeline in the previous paragraph had been the Knicks'. We'd never hear the end of it. So why haven't the previous three decades of Blazer woes received as much attention as the travails of the Knicks have? Because they don't play in New York, that's why. The Knicks have the most fans, the most writers, the most people dissecting the team ... I mean, how many Blazers fans have you met in your life? Two?

You cannot understate the ability of a swollen fan base and a swollen media corps to distort the peaks and valleys of a big-market team. Just look at the 2004 Red Sox compared with the White Sox of a year later. Both last won a Series during WWI, both battled a "curse" (Babe Ruth; Black Sox) and both had generally tortured fans who never imagined their boys could ever turn it around. Yet when the big day finally arrived, Boston received significantly more attention. Why? Red Sox Nation.

Consider these two indisputable sports truths:
Truth No. 1: The most agonizing baseball moment since Bill Buckner's gaffe was Francisco Cabrera's series-winning single for Atlanta that killed Pittsburgh in the 1992 playoffs. Not only did the Pirates blow a ninth-inning lead, not only did Cabrera, a no-name, deliver the final blow, not only did comically slow Sid Bream somehow beat a Barry Bonds throw home, not only was it the Pirates' third straight October defeat ... but Bonds signed with the Giants a couple of months later, banishing the Pirates to small-market hell. They haven't been heard from since. The franchise was effectively murdered by one play.

Truth No. 2: Over the past 40-plus years, no sports city has had it rougher than Buffalo. It doesn't have a baseball team. Its NBA team fled west to become the Clippers -- a double whammy. Its greatest and most famous athlete is O.J. Simpson. It has suffered three of the toughest losses ever, all of which are so infamous they can be described in three words or fewer: "wide right," "no goal" and "Music City Miracle." Its beloved Bills lost four straight Super Bowls and currently have the second-longest NFL playoff drought (eight years and counting; the Cardinals haven't gotten in since '98). Is any under-45 American sports fan more scarred than the one who lives in Buffalo?

The reason Cabrera's hit hasn't been mythologized like Dave Roberts' steal and no great book has been written about the desperate Buffalo fan is a simple matter of numbers. The Red Sox and Knicks have more people who care about them, talk about them, write about them. (People like me: I was only one of about 60,000 writers who pumped out a post-Series Sox book.) That constant chatter and attention contribute to the illusion that big-market teams are more important than they are. Without anyone to carry the mainstream torch for teams like the Blazers, Pirates and Bills, they and their fans toil in relative anonymity.

Which brings us to the difference between suffering and insufferable. When Celtics fans like me were pulling the woe-is-us routine after last May's NBA lottery, outsiders found it distasteful that any fan base that had been fortunate enough to have enjoyed the Russell, Havlicek and Bird eras could complain about anything. In our defense, it was almost worse to have lived the high life (16 titles) before falling on hard times (14 mostly terrible years) than never to have lived the high life at all. We knew what we were missing: big playoff games, the sound of a sold-out crowd, rooting for a franchise that meant something. And because there were more of us, our suffering made us loud -- and, yes, insufferable.

Same goes for Knicks fans now. In a sports world that is increasingly defined by big money and big markets, the Knicks play in the richest, biggest market of all. You can't drown out their fans and can't reason with them, so don't even try. They will just have to figure out for themselves that they're lucky they don't live in Buffalo or Pittsburgh, where nobody hears you at all.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available in paperback.