Though they’re all woven the same, the New York Knicks have the heaviest jersey in the NBA. And each year it gets heavier.
Some have crumbled under its weight. Others dare not even put it on.
That brings us to last Friday at MSG Training Center, where Joakim Noah smiled broadly and spoke boldly as he held his No. 13 up for the cameras.
“This jersey,” he said, “means everything to me.”
Noah, the native New Yorker, wasn’t the only one beaming. Brandon Jennings, the dude from LA who bypassed college to play a year of professional basketball in Europe to circumvent the NBA draft rules, couldn’t even cover his excitement with his usual West Coast swagger.
“I always wanted to be a Knick,” he said.
Seven years prior, the Knicks passed on him in the draft after losing out on Steph Curry. Jennings admittedly carried the grudge for a few years. Now, after an Achilles injury put some doubt in his career, Jennings comes to New York when he needs it most: When his love for the game has come into question.
“How can you not be excited to play in The Garden every night?” he said. “It’s always sold out. The energy’s crazy.”
That’s the message Noah sent to Courtney Lee, two nights before the free agency period even began and three days before Noah agreed to terms with the Knicks. Noah locked in on the Knicks after the Derrick Rose trade and then Noah locked onto Lee, a good fit at shooting guard, to join him.
“He was so passionate on the phone,” Lee recalled. “He said, ‘We could do something special playing in this city. It’ll be like playing for no other city, ever.'”
Carmelo Anthony, he of Brooklyn roots, has already shown his loyalty. He’s bore the burden of this jersey and often said this is the only place where winning a championship would mean more than anywhere else. Remember the phrase he used when he announced he would re-sign with the Knicks in 2014:
“My City. My Heart.”
Kristaps Porzingis had only one franchise in mind when he entered the draft: the Knicks. His agent, Andy Miller, did everything to dissuade the 76ers from taking him at No. 3.
And then we come to Lance Thomas, another native New Yorker, who came up like so many of us do in this city: Resiliently battling traffic, naysayers and the odds. Thomas, despite his Duke pedigree, went from a 10-day contract two years ago to a four-year, multi-million deal that he signed to stay with the team. He represents this city in a way no other Knick has since the likes of Queens product Anthony Mason.
“I wanted to be a Knick,” he told ESPN.com. “I grew up a Knicks fan. This is the team I grew up watching.”
After two years toiling through seasons that were piled up among the many forgotten over the last 15 years, Thomas couldn’t walk away now.
“I didn’t want my legacy as a Knick to be a loser,” he said.
Outsiders will tell you this is all rhetoric. They came for the money, they’ll say. Even new coach Jeff Hornacek pumped the brakes on the hyperbole.
“They always tell you, ‘We want to win. We’ll do whatever it takes’,” he said. “Now they’ve got to follow through on that.”
This just feels genuine and if you’ve been paying attention around here, that’s a start.
Phil Jackson needed to lay the groundwork for a resurgence of an entire franchise. This may not be the structure of a championship-caliber club — and make no mistake, that is the only standard to set — but it is, at the very least, the makeup of a team that will be competitive again.
The key, of course, is that this provides the launching pad towards greater success in the future. That we look back on this season when Porzingis retires and say this is when it finally turned around for good.
It is up to these players to show the heart they spoke with in regards to this opportunity. To put on that jersey, feel it’s weight and understand the expectation — no, the desperation — that comes with it.