The N.Y. Knicks
Are the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict of Basketball!
There is something I [Liel Leibovitz] do almost every night that causes
me great shame. Most of my friends know nothing about it. My wife caught
me red-handed once or twice and looked at me with pity and disgust. I
can no longer keep it a secret: A few times each week, I wait until my
kids are asleep, and settle onto the couch to watch the New York Knickerbockers
Have you been following the Knicks lately? If not, let me be the Virgil
who walks you through this purgatory: [Until they won three in a row towards
the end of January,] they fumbled 16 games in a row, the worst losing
streak in franchise history. In 25 consecutive appearances on the court,
they managed to win only one. As Jason Gay noted in the Wall Street Journal,
"It is really hard to go 1-for-24 at any human endeavor." Still,
the Knicks find ways.
You could fret about their terrible defense, their lackluster offense,
or virtually any other measurable criterion. But there's only one statistic
about the 2014-2015 Knicks that is truly shocking: This sorry excuse for
a professional sports organization has managed to sell out 197 of its
last 199 games.
Others may scratch their heads or wonder out loud about the depravity
of the species or man's propensity for self-inflicted suffering, but not
me. I've lived this drama before, and I understand its sinister appeal.
There's no elegant way to put it, so here goes: In many ways, including
some that are far from trivial, watching the Knicks is a lot like witnessing
the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Yes, basketball is just a game while the conflict claims lives. Sure,
comparing the two in any practical way is ludicrous. But some issues are
so thorny that they call for a simpler frame of reference to make us help
sense of their intricacies. Contemplating my sadly unwavering devotion
to the Knicks in the face of so much misery helped me understand something
about the inexplicable dedication so many people-Israelis, Palestinians,
Americans, Europeans, and others-have for the peace process, a phenomenon
that may be as much of a fantasy as the playoffs are for my home team.
Stop, then, and reflect about the Knicks and about the conflict, and
the fun begins right away. Both hopeless narratives revolve in part around
a large man with white hair and folksy charm, a consummate politician
accustomed to getting his way, a master builder of winning teams. In one
scenario he's called President Bill Clinton; in another, president Phil
Jackson. In both cases, the president's good work is overshadowed by a
far more divisive figure, criticized both for those with whom he chooses
to engage and disengage: It's owner James Dolan hiring Isiah Thomas and,
later, firing Jeremy Lin; it's Benjamin Netanyahu dismantling his coalition
only to force an election that will likely result in a cabinet that looks
much like the one he has now.
There are colorful disruptors in this story, men like Mohammed Dahlan
or J.R. Smith, who challenge the system by doing things like operating
a private army in the Gaza Strip or operating on their own samurai code
that includes untying the shoelaces of rival players mid-game. For these
reasons, both got exiled from their respective teams.
And there is the tragic spirit of squandered hope hovering above it all:
It's the superstar Carmelo Anthony, averaging 23.9 points per game with
nothing to show for it; it's Start-Up Nation, producing miraculous creations
yet still mired in terror and bad politics; it's the young men and women
in Ramallah and Tulkarm and Nablus, educated and ambitious yet felled
by their leadership's flight from responsibility; it's the feeling that
we ought to be superstars, but instead we're a laughingstock. It's a tough
feeling to take.
And yet, we take it. Celebrities crowd the front rows at Madison Square
Garden just as they jump into the conflict with tweets, letters, condemnations,
boycotts, embraces, and declarations. And each of the two disaster stories
has its own scrum of professional mourners, men and women who've been
following the collapse closely for decades and yet, at each turn, look
up sweetly and declare that maybe, just maybe, this will be the year-the
year that ushers in new and promising players; the year to figure out
the flaws in defense; the year to break through in talks; the year to
But those of us watching at home or from the bleachers know better. We
know it's not about winning but about something deeper and more primordial.
Both the Knicks and the conflict are impossible to ignore because they
suggest what so many of us suspect to be true: that, as mortals, there
are some problems we just cannot solve, and that some conflicts burn on
not just to vex us but also to guide us, to give us an Archimedean point
through which to view our place in the world. Herein lies the profound
grandeur and strangeness of it all.
I watch the Knicks as a fan, and, as one, I root for their success. I
watch the conflict as a proud Israeli, and, as one, I pray for an end
to violence, for peace and prosperity to all. But what keeps me-and, I
suspect, so many others-coming back again and again is the instruction
I receive from watching human beings make sense of a senseless situation.
A coach trying a new starting line-up even though more than a dozen have
already failed, a negotiator toying with a new strategy even though scores
have already fizzled-that is where true hope lies. There is wild bravery
in knowing that, for reasons largely out of your control, you will soon
be battered and yet suiting up and taking the court and playing until
the clock runs out.
An approach like this one is often called existentialist, but there's
also something strongly Jewish about it. Ours is not a religion of answers
and solutions; it's a religion of questions, and the ones we love best
are the ones we know we can never answer, beginning with the strange conundrum
of just why we, small and insignificant, were chosen by God, and just
what is it that we're expected to do with that divine designation. Because
we can never arrive at a definitive answer, because we can never grasp
God's true intentions, we're left with nothing more than intricate guesswork.
And guesswork is what I watch the Knicks do every night. Not footwork
or blocking, no feats of athleticism or bouts of discipline, but the more
human, and infinitely more fascinating, ordeal of a handful of guys trying
to extricate themselves from despair. As I watch, I feel a little bit
better. I know that I will probably never see anyone wearing a blue-and-orange
jersey crowned champion in my lifetime, and, as a fan, I lament that greatly.
I would love to see my side crush its opponents. But moments of great
and clarifying victories are not how human beings are measured; we're
judged for how we handle the same disasters that, just because we're human,
we cannot possibly avoid. Every few months, this truth is starkly evident
in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. Every few nights, it's on display
at Madison Square Garden. All we have to do is watch.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for the online Tablet Magazine,
which this article was originally written for and was first published.