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Why Being a Knicks Fan Hurts So Good

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Ashley Nicole Moss did not have much of a choice when she was growing up. Her father, Jeff, was a Knicks fan, which meant that she was a Knicks fan, too.

For part of her childhood in Brooklyn and Queens, Moss, 27, found that rooting for the Knicks was not such a horrible thing. When she was especially young, the team often made the playoffs and even advanced to the N.B.A. finals in 1999, which she said was among her earliest memories as a fan. So she was completely unprepared for the subsequent two decades, which were largely a wilderness of losing and dysfunction, of failed hopes and shattered dreams.

“It’s been a lot of disappointment and a lot of frustration,” said Moss, who is a co-host of “KnicksFanTV” on YouTube.

All of which has made this season — this glorious season — so much more special for fans like Moss. The Knicks have engineered a comeback story, sending their long-suffering fans into a fervor. While the Nets, over in Brooklyn, are brimming with high-priced talent as a championship favorite, the Knicks have gone from punchline to playoff contender in the space of several thrilling months.

“God forbid, if we win, we are going to burn this city down,” said Daniel Baker, an avowed Knicks fan more popularly known as Desus Nice on the late-night comedy show “Desus & Mero.” “Sorry, I’m just letting you all know.”

The Knicks, with the second-lowest payroll in the league and a roster almost devoid of stars, will open their first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday night at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks are seeded fourth in the Eastern Conference after finishing with a 41-31 record in the regular season.

“It’s a team that people can relate to,” Moss said, “because of that true New York mentality: You grind from the bottom, and you work your way up.”

The filmmaker Spike Lee, who has famously clashed with the team’s owner, James L. Dolan, said the past was history.

“This is a new era,” he said. “A new day. And all I see are orange and blue skies.”

Two stars in Madison Square Garden: Julius Randle and Spike Lee.Credit…Vincent Carchietta/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

It is not often that the Knicks can cast themselves as gritty underdogs, given their history of profligate spending. Yet they have won just one playoff series since 2001. They are two seasons removed from finishing with the league’s worst record. They also haven’t landed big free agents: Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving opted instead for the Nets.

But after trying something new — fiscal prudence — the Knicks have built themselves in the image of their first-year coach, Tom Thibodeau, who barks instructions with the low growl of an outboard motor. The Knicks rank among the league leaders in blue-collar categories like opposing field-goal percentage and rebound rate. There is not a whole lot of flash. Instead, fans celebrate the unsung things that the players do so well: a hard screen, an intercepted outlet pass.

And while the Nets seem to channel the Harlem Globetrotters by lobbing passes off the backboard for alley-oop dunks, the Knicks lean on the more earthbound labor provided by the likes of Julius Randle, a forward and first-time All-Star who led the league in the most roll-up-your-sleeves category imaginable: minutes played.

Earlier this season, when the Knicks beat the Indiana Pacers to improve their record to 17-17, a video that went viral on social media captured some fans rejoicing outside the Garden as if the team were on the brink of a championship.

“And that was real,” said Josh Safdie, a Knicks fan who was co-director of the film “Uncut Gems” with his brother, Benny. “The same thing was happening in my living room.”

Even the N.B.A.’s top star, LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers, recognizes the importance of the team’s resurgence, saying on Twitter in April that “the league is simply better off when the Knicks are winning.”

Knicks fans have experienced pockets of joy in recent seasons, of course. There was Jeremy Lin’s star turn in the off-Broadway production of “Linsanity.” And the early part of Carmelo Anthony’s tenure was often a lot of fun, with the team making three straight playoff appearances. But more common is fans investing in potential saviors — the former team president Phil Jackson, the former lottery pick Kristaps Porzingis — only to come away crushed.

Knicks fans during Linsanity in 2012.Credit…Barton Silverman/The New York Times

“As a Knicks fan, you’re signing up for basically insanity,” Baker said. “The beginning of the year, as a Knicks fan, you’re like, ‘Yo, we’re going to the finals.’ You have no rhyme or reason to say that. You have no player that’s going to take you to the finals, but you just go in with your gut.”

Joel Martinez, Baker’s co-star on “Desus & Mero” who is better known as The Kid Mero, likened the Knicks to a “wild, volatile stock.”

For Safdie, a formative moment came in 1994, when the Knicks, led by Patrick Ewing, faced the Houston Rockets in the N.B.A. finals. In Game 6, with a chance for his team to close out the series and win its first championship in two decades, the Knicks’ John Starks had his shot blocked at the buzzer, and the Rockets escaped with a narrow win.

“Ewing was open,” Safdie said, his voice rising at the memory of it. “Ewing was wide open!”

At the time, Safdie cried before heading to a nearby playground to shoot hoops. He consoled himself with the belief that the Knicks would win Game 7. They lost.

“For the consummate Knicks fan, there’s a certain kind of masochism that comes with it,” Safdie said. “I’m a moody guy to begin with, but my moods and attitudes fluctuate so much based on the play of the Knicks.”

For fans of a finer vintage, the present is often viewed through the lens of the team’s more illustrious past. Nostalgia, though, comes with a whiff of sadness, because the team’s only championships in 1970 and 1973 become more distant by the day.

Lewis Dorf, 69, recalled working as one of the team’s ball boys for three seasons, from 1966 to 1969. During one of Dorf’s first nights on the job, the Knicks’ Willis Reed decked several Lakers, splattering blood on Dorf’s team-issue Converse sneakers. Some time later, Dorf had Reed over to his family’s home for dinner.

Lewis Dorf in his lucky Knicks shirt.Credit…Kat Slootsky for The New York Times
A signed Willis Reed picture on Dorf’s wall along with his other Knicks memorabilia.Credit…Kat Slootsky for The New York Times

“Those kinds of memories stick with you,” said Dorf, a high school sports referee who now lives in West Orange, N.J.

Steve Finamore, 56, a longtime high school basketball coach in Michigan, grew up in Brooklyn mimicking Reed’s post moves, Earl Monroe’s spinning drives and Walt Frazier’s ball-handling wizardry. There was never any question, he said, about his fandom. The Nets were an afterthought in New Jersey, and the Knicks were a part of his identity as a New Yorker who loved basketball.

“It’s something that grew on us,” he said, “the way plants grow in your backyard.”

It was not until 2013 that Finamore had a crisis of conscience. Even though the Knicks were coming off a competitive season, Finamore was tiring of the drama that seemed to surround Dolan and some of the team’s stars. The Nets, meanwhile, had traded for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in a bold title bid. Feeling the tug of his Brooklyn roots, Finamore picked up a couple of pieces of Nets gear before his wife, Mary, intervened.

“She said, ‘You’ve been a Knicks fan since 1973, and you’re going to leave them now?’” Finamore recalled. “My loyalty won out. I realized there was no way I could do it.”

Daniel Wann, a professor of psychology at Murray State University who has specialized in studying sports fans, said people tend to tie their identities to larger groups. But many of the groups that people once used to form connections have been in decline, Wann said. Fewer people attend church, for example, and most no longer live within walking distance of their relatives.

So following a sports team, he said, gives many an important sense of belonging. Suffering along with a losing team is often considered a badge of honor because it shines a light on their loyalty.

“It’s really hard to say, ‘Well, I don’t care anymore,’ even in those times when you want to say that you don’t care anymore,” Wann said. “The reality is, it’s just too much a part of who you are to let it go.”

Dennis Doyle, a 38-year-old lawyer from Queens, spent the 2014-15 season attending every Knicks game, home and away. It turned out to be the worst season in franchise history.

Dennis Doyle attended every Knicks game in the 2014-15 season, when the team went 17-65.Credit…Barton Silverman/The New York Times

“I’ve always looked at it like it’s not a choice,” Doyle said of being a Knicks fan. “It’s almost like having a disease. It’s just something you’re kind of stuck with, and there was always too strong of an emotional bond.”

His reward for persevering has come this season.

“It’s such a pleasure to watch them,” Doyle said. “They play hard, and they play defense. And even though their offense stinks sometimes, you can live with that. I’m just so proud.”

Dorf, who has been a season-ticket holder for 52 years, scrambled over the past week to land good seats for the first round. He said it was the first time he had felt stressed about tickets since 1999, when the Knicks last went to the finals. (On Tuesday, when Dorf called his ticket representative, he wore his commemorative T-shirt from the 1998-99 season as a “good luck charm,” he said.)

Safdie said he was hoping to attend Sunday’s series opener. If not, he said, he will probably do what he usually does: stream the MSG Network’s broadcast of the game on his tablet, positioning his face approximately “four inches from the screen.”