“Oh, Knicks, you suck!”
The speaker was a second-grader, feet dangling from a seat in the 400 level of Madison Square Garden, shortly after tip-off of the Knicks’ game against the Miami Heat on Feb. 22. Four minutes into the first quarter—with the Knicks still scoreless—the tyke’s view was seconded and carried in a chorus of boos.
This was the season that the Knicks were supposed to turn things around. Coaching legend Larry Brown—Hall of Famer, miracle worker, Brooklyn boy—had abandoned his successful Detroit Pistons for the challenge of making something out of the nothingness that haunted the Garden. With brash Coney Island–bred Stephon Marbury at point guard and newly acquired young man-mountain Eddy Curry under the basket, Mr. Brown was going to bring back team basketball, the savvy, greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts brand of play that fans have demanded from the Knicks for decades.
But for half a season, Mr. Brown had tinkered and tinkered with the lineup—while team president Isiah Thomas had tinkered with the roster—as the parts remained a pile of parts. The listlessness and befuddlement spread like a fog out of the Garden, infecting the city’s mood. Mr. Thomas was named in a sexual-harassment suit by a Garden employee. Mr. Curry had a heart scare and never got in shape. The Knicks won only rarely and fitfully. Then, when Mr. Marbury went to the sidelines in January with an ailing shoulder, they stopped winning at all.
For the Heat game, hopes were cautiously raised a bit. Mr. Marbury had rested through the All-Star break and was returning to play. Mr. Thomas had announced yet another trade, which would produce the Knicks’ 33rd different lineup of the year: Orlando Magic guard Steve Francis, arriving for chronically injured Penny Hardaway and unformed forward Trevor Ariza.
Still, the home team looked coltish and spastic during warm-ups, while the visitors ran through militant shooting drills at the opposite hoop. When the lights went out for player announcements, though, there was the familiar thrill: The crowd went nuts for Mr. Marbury and obligingly cheered the announcement of Mr. Francis, who was not eligible to play.
The reaction to the Heat was more telling. There was warm enthusiasm for Shaquille O’Neal, the most storied name in the hall for either team. And there was good, hard booing for ex-Knicks coach Pat Riley and the aging Alonzo Mourning—the twin faces of the bitter arch-rival Heat teams of the 90’s, the Knicks’ foils in the physically ugly, fight-to-the-death battle for Eastern Conference primacy.
Those were the days of 433 consecutive sellouts, of playoff series going to the limit. Knicks basketball, then, was worth bench-clearing brawls—including the one where 5-foot-6 coach Jeff Van Gundy threw himself at the 6-foot-10 Mourning, wrapping his arms and legs around the giant and being dragged around the court. You could hold a grudge.
The second-graders booed dutifully, but they weren’t even born for most of that. They’re forming their own memories. Now, season-ticket holders are dumping their seats, even for games against Miami. “They suck,” said Scott, a 31-year-old native New Yorker who opted out of the Heat game.
“I’ve been a Knicks fan forever,” said jazz musician and guitar player Jon Pizzarelli. “My father pointed out a picture of Bill Bradley in the paper when I was 6 or 7 and said, ‘That’s who you are going to be.’ I grew up with those championship teams—I cried when Dave DeBusschere died.”
Mr. Pizzarelli sighed. “I thought maybe Larry Brown could have the magic wand,” he said. His own son is now 14 years old. “I have been waiting my whole life to have a son who calls me up to talk about the Knicks,” he said. “We went to a game in 2002, and I think the Knicks were down by 30 points at halftime.”
Against the Heat, the Knicks made it respectable for a few moments, with a flurry of scoring to tie the game halfway through the first quarter. But Mr. O’Neal, his hulking mass light on his feet, threw down back-to-back dunks, and Dwyane Wade, one of the league’s most talented players, began scoring effortlessly on the Knicks defense. The home team looked scattered, frantic and disorganized, swarming around the Heat with no discernable strategy.
The Knicks would go on to lose, 103-83. As the game turned into a runaway, the air in the arena turned ugly. Frustration and despair were palpable—and so was the sense of irrelevance.
“Yo,” the second grader asked, “where’s Shaq at?”
The following day, at the Knicks’ training facility in Westchester, a recording of the Heat game was playing in the pressroom. “Oh, it wasn’t enough for you to watch it the first time,” one of the regulars teased another.
Mr. Francis, still passing through the procedures to make him an official Knick, was the day’s main attraction. He ambled into the media room without fanfare, wearing a gray tracksuit. The Knicks are his third team, and while he has been a three-time All-Star, he has left a trail of complaints in his wake: bristling under coaching in Houston, refusing to re-enter a game in Orlando.
Mr. Francis seemed smaller in person than his listed 6 feet, 3 inches and 200 pounds. He spoke softly and kept his eyes mostly down on his Sidekick, which he continued to text-message on while answering questions. Of his new situation, he said he was “more happy than sad about it.”
“I woke up this morning and it was dark,” Mr. Francis said. “I’m used to waking up where it’s real sunny outside. I woke up this morning, and I don’t think the sun came out until—I don’t know. It felt different. But I knew that I was in New York when I woke up.” O.K.!
Most of the questions centered on the similarities between him and Mr. Marbury. The two are not only the same size and play the same position, but have matching histories of changing teams under a cloud.
Mr. Francis claimed never to have heard the comparison before the trade, and he stayed on message: He wants to help the Knicks start winning some games. He was eager to share a backcourt with Mr. Marbury, and though they were born only a day apart, he spoke of a wish to act as a “big brother” to the guard.
Earlier, Mr. Marbury had spoken slightly more plainly: “I’m almost positive everyone probably thinks it’s going to be a problem.”
Mr. Brown, looking weary, talked about how he hoped Mr. Francis’ experience would influence the other players. “Look, we only got one place to go,” he said. “We can only get better. We have hit about rock bottom.” Not so fast, coach. The Nets were coming to the Garden next.
The morning after the Heat game, Regis Philbin had declared on TV that “It’s always wonderful to be at the Garden.” Mr. Philbin then held up a newspaper with the headline “The Biggest Mess in Sports.”
“It’s just a matter of getting a few shots,” Mr. Philbin said. “They can’t get close.” With not much else to say about the game, he held up pictures instead: Regis with Olympic gold-medal winner Shaun (“The Flying Tomato”) White—“I kept calling him the Red Onion”—a photo of Spike Lee sitting glumly in his regular seat. When co-host Kelly Ripa spoke of a friend being a Nets fan, Mr. Philbin said, “I am, too.”
When the Knicks were good, the New Jersey Nets were an afterthought. But since the team acquired Jason Kidd in 2001—in a trade with Phoenix for Mr. Marbury, whom the Nets had grown tired of—New Jersey had run up a 19-3 record against New York going into their Feb. 24 meeting.
And this time around, the Knicks’ two point guards were no match for Mr. Kidd. With Mr. Kidd running the plays, the Nets passed and moved as if they could communicate telepathically. Wispy center Nenad Krstic found enough open space to shoot 11 for 11, while the Knicks scattered, each player seemingly working on a separate agenda. The Nets’ lead grew as big as 20 points. Eyes on the Knicks bench began to glaze over. Even the Knicks City Dancers—the nimble lasses who entertain the crowd during breaks in the game—appeared lackluster. Like Regis and play-by-play man Marv Albert, their creator and longtime choreographer, Petra Pope, has gone over to the Nets.
“I’m going to stab my eyes out,” a dejected fan announced in the endless-seeming third quarter.
“Does Woody Allen even come here anymore?” another wondered.
The scoreboard reminded fans that tickets were still available for the month of March. “Fuck that,” said a man in a Mets hat.
By the fourth quarter, the remaining fans were raising a chant of “Fire Thomas!” The rest had put on their coats and trudged out, sucking the energy—and hope, light and goodness—out of the Garden with them. The Nets coasted to victory, by a deceptive score of 94-90; Mr. Francis had hit a meaningless three-point shot at the buzzer to make it look respectable, while the Nets ignored him.
“We’re not going anywhere for a while,” Mr. Brown said afterward, dejectedly, to an almost sympathetic-looking roomful of press. “We have got to figure out a way to defend.”
The atmosphere in the locker room was even less analytic. “We’re just going to try to win some,” mumbled Mr. Francis. On the opposite side of the room, Mr. Marbury got dressed silently.
Twenty-four hours later, the script repeated itself, with a humiliating 110-89 loss to the Washington Wizards. Attacking the Marbury-Francis tandem, Wizards point guard Gilbert Arenas scored 46 points in 30 minutes, sitting out the whole fourth quarter while the Washington bench mopped up. Mr. Marbury checked out at halftime with more pain in his shoulder.
According to The Washington Post, at one point a heckler called out to Mr. Francis, “Hey, Stevie, where you going next?”
“To the bank,” snapped Mr. Francis—now half of the most expensive backcourt in history, at $30 million. He finished with nine points.
Two days later, he did slightly better against the San Antonio Spurs, but not enough to keep the Knicks from losing, 121-93.
The bright spot was 22-year-old Channing Frye, a big forward who runs every play as if it’s his last. At times, even in the midst of rout after rout, the action flows through Mr. Frye, the spacing around him is true, the ball finds the bottom of the net. For a foolish, hopeful second, the crowd cheers in a single voice.
“You gotta stick with them,” said Mr. Pizzarelli. “Maybe in baseball or football you can switch around teams to root for, but with the Knicks you can’t budge. Who knows, this [Francis trade] could be the deal of the century and we’ll be talking about it for years to come.”
He paused to consider the unlikelihood of that coming to pass. “I can’t root for the Nets,” he added. “I can’t even try.”