Elizabeth Bishop would have some words for the New York Knicks.
This past Sunday night, as the particular perfume of Thanksgiving faded from our house, I nibbled on Chinese food while watching the New York Knicks lose to the Houston Rockets. It was a game they had no business losing, even if they were without their best player, Carmelo Anthony, against a Rockets team that last season fell just two wins short of the NBA Finals. In theory, the Rockets are one of the strongest teams in the league this season; in practice, they’ve settled into an unsightly mediocrity that strangely seems to suit them. You might just as easily say that the Knicks lost a game that the Rockets had no business winning.
Up by fourteen points in the fourth quarter, the Knicks, with their subs on the floor, squandered their lead in the blink of an eye, giving up a game-tying three-pointer in the dying seconds. They proceeded to lose in overtime, allowing sixteen points in extra frame—a feat that, if you’re actively attempting to prevent the other team from scoring, is difficult to accomplish.
It felt all too familiar.
The Knicks won seventeen games last season, a record low for the franchise. For the majority of this century they’ve been a rudderless mess. But this season has been different: the Knicks had, until recently, won more games than they’d lost, while playing one of the league’s toughest schedules, at that. They’ve beaten some good teams, and even in their losses have played a competitive, resilient, purposeful game, as if they were working toward a later benefit.
Nevertheless, something bothered me about Sunday’s loss. Houston, for all their good players, is a team as close to death-in-life as you’ll find in the NBA today. Their head coach, the legendary Kevin McHale, was recently fired, even though, on the heels of last season’s success, the management had just rewarded him with a multiyear contract this summer. They also traded for a player who faces multiple DWI charges and had the temerity to name him a starter until a terrible play buried him on the bench. James Harden, the star of the team, plays like he’s Super Mario, bumping into anything near him in search of points; the other Rockets players have the stilted body language of Scooby-Doo villains. Even their seven wins have the whiff of accidents to them: none of them have been by more than six points. The night after their overtime win in Madison Square Garden—a win the interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff referred to after the game as “a lesson in perseverance” before praising his team’s “mental toughness and fortitude”—Houston played in Detroit and was down 28 to 52 before you could say Luigi. They ended up making the final score respectable, but there was no rousing comeback this time. The Rockets’ record sank to 7-11 and the Pistons’ improved to 9-9, the waterline of respectability for teams trying to learn to win: .500, the hope barrier. The Knicks were on the good side of that barrier but a week ago; now they sit at 8-10. They and the Rockets have both become teams acquainted with losing, resigned to it, seeking even to perfect it. In a matter of months, a team can go from powerful to pathetic. Why is this so?
As Sunday’s game got away from the Knicks, I sat on my floor, still and stoic, my arms folded, my gaze straight ahead as the ice melted in my spiked eggnog. Bad memories welled up inside me. The ghosts of Knicks past began to dance in front of the screen and rattle their chains. Suddenly, there was nothing to give thanks for. If the Knicks can’t handle their business even when they have a late and luxurious lead, what does that say about them?
A poem by Elizabeth Bishop called “One Art” came to mind. “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” it begins, and right before the final word, disaster, Bishop gives herself a command in parenthesis: “(write it).” Instead, I found myself saying to myself: (don’t write it). Don’t write about this. This isn’t a disaster. The Knicks tried to win, they played hard, they suffered from some unlucky bounces, they played against good players who figured the game out. The Knicks are no longer terrible. They’re trying to learn how to win.
Fine. But how does a team learn how to win? Is it the same as learning how not to lose? And is it possible to turn losing, as Bishop claimed, into an art itself? If it is an art, then it’s all too easy to master: something like what Milton, in Paradise Lost, called “not nice Art,” all artifice and flimsy deceit.
After the loss, the press interviewed Kristaps Porziņģis, the Knicks’ prized rookie from Latvia by way of Spain. He’d just eased his way into a twenty-point, fourteen-rebound performance with seemingly no heavy lifting involved, no sublimity or wonder. In the matter of a few weeks, his production has been gripped by a frightening normalcy; he’s made the spectacular look as ordinary as Helvetica. (Remember when Ice Cube talked about messing around and getting a triple-double in “It Was a Good Day”? Porziņģis is like that.) But tonight he’d been on the receiving end of a devastating two-handed dunk by Dwight Howard, off an alley-oop. When Howard slipped his screen and rolled to the basket, the outcome of the play was clear to anyone who watches the game: the clear lane, the space, Howard accelerating to the basket in a slight crouch that signifies imminent liftoff. When you see a dunk coming, the tried-and-true reaction is to avoid it—no one likes being on that side of the highlights reel—but Porziņģis came from the weak side of the court anyway, and the rest, as Howard said in his own words, is history.
Porziņģis took responsibility for the mistake—a welcome change of pace for the Knicks. People seem to assume the team needs a big free-agent signing to change their fortunes, but the Knicks have never signed the biggest free agent on the market. Ever. Their best players have come from the draft, as Porziņģis did, or from smart trades, as Earl Monroe did. And their best teams have been resilient: they’ve bonded with New York, they’ve shown an abundance of chutzpah. If the Knicks failed to display much in the way of street smarts on Sunday, the simple act of assuming responsibility for it—and then thinking out loud about payback, as Porziņģis went on to do—may be a sign of promise, even if it’s pyrrhic in the short term. The long game is the only game.
The only problem is, Porzingis will have to wait a long time for his revenge. The Knicks don’t play Houston again this season. When they do face each other, in the murky future of the 2016–2017 season, who knows where their fortunes will stand? For now, the undefeated Golden State Warriors rule the roost, and neither the Knicks nor the Rockets can claim to have mastered the art of losing: that honor goes to the Philadelphia 76ers, who have one win right now. At this point in the season, we’re beginning to see teams take a good look at themselves in the mirror. Some lament the loss of their past selves, but the best are squinting deeper, past the blemishes, in search of some sign of the future.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the Daily’s basketball columnist. His second book of poems, Heaven, was published earlier this year. He is the recipient of the 2013 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award, a 2013 Whiting Writers’ Award, and a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship.