Basketball culture still reveres the tall man as Kristaps Porzingis, a 7ft 1in baller from Latvia, proved by becoming the most famous teenager in New York on Thursday night.
Howls of anguish– theatrical and phony, most of it, but none the less loud for that – greeted the announcement that that the New York Knicks had chosen Porzingis as their number four pick in the globally televised, live-blogged NBA draft lottery. In keeping with their relentlessly aggressive and smooth push for a bigger chunk of the global sports consumer audience, the NBA have made their annual summer draft an event in its own right. For one evening, hope springs eternal. NBA mythology has banked a number of classic examples of how the omnipotence of one player can transform the fortunes of a basketball club and, by extension, an entire city.
The arrival of Michael Jordan in Chicago in 1984 was the most breathtaking example. Number 23 transformed Bellow's sombre city from merely the capital of the Midwest to the hippest basketball city on the planet.
Jordan's last act for Chicago was to sink the deathless crossover-dribble-jumpshot in the dying seconds of game six to secure a third successive title at the expense of the traumatised Utah Jazz. That was in 1998 and 15 seasons on, the Bulls club – and, by extension, Chicago – is still trying to tap into a combination of players capable of generating the thrilling gusts of anticipation and pride which Jordan and his side-kick Scottie Pippen whipped up winter after winter.
New York basketball fans have been waiting for that sort of evangelical experience for half a lifetime and more. One of the marvels of the NBA is that the league at least bows to the principle of fairness, with the most hapless teams of any given season granted the highest draft picks that summer. It means that the most touted young players in the country rarely go to the most famous teams. So Karl Anthony Towns, the number one pick for 2015, will play in Minnesota – at least for this season. The Knicks, despite their tradition of long-suffering disappointment, is a huge basketball team, akin to Manchester United or Barcelona. The name holds allure. Knicks basketball fans are regarded as notoriously sniffy and wear their prejudices immodestly. Beneath the hauteur exist several generations of basketball fans desperate for someone to bring them success. The return of Phil Jackson, the unwieldy seven footer who made the journey from role player on the beloved Knicks team of championship team of '73 to one of the most influential NBA coaches ever, was greeted as a providential event.
Jackson was at the helm during the Jordan era in Chicago and throughout the best of Shaquille O’Neal/ Kobe Bryant era at Los Angeles. He has coached a staggering 11 NBA title winning teams. Restoring New York to greatness through his role as president would be his final contribution. But they lost more than ever last season, going down in a staggering 65 games. The one consolation was that they would have fourth pick of the best young players.
Vent their disbelief
And out of the shadows, from somewhere in
, they plucked Kristaps Porzingis. The NBA commissioner
paused before he called out the young man’s name because he wanted to say it correctly. The name doesn’t roll off the tongue. The draft was held in New York’s
centre, home of the Brooklyn Nets and it was there attending Knicks fans got to vent their disbelief and displeasure. One child, bespectacled and clad in Knicks gear, shed tears and then held his phone in front of him to record his own despair for posterity.
For older Knicks fans, the declaration in a relatively obscure Latvian teenager as the new hope for Madison Square Garden served as a taunting reminder of the NBA draft some 30 years previous. Dave deBusschere, a team mate of Jackson's in the salad days, was the team's general manager for the inaugural draft. The process was more modest then, looking like nothing so much as a tanned version of the Irish national lottery.
When the Knicks were pulled from the drum containing enveloped-cards of the seven worst teams in the Starlight Room of the Waldorf Astoria, deBusschere couldn't contain his excitement. In the years afterwards, that 1985 lottery was the subject of all kinds of conspiracy theories: that the envelope was bent at one corner; that it was pulled from the deep freeze so it could be identified by touch. The NBA needed a strong New York team, went the argument. The number-one pick meant getting Patrick Ewing, the sensational 7ft centre from Georgetown. Ewing's selection had an instant and transformative effect on basketball in the city. He was good enough to make the Knicks into regular title contenders. He spent his entire career with the club but, thwarted by Jordan's singular fury as much as anything, failed to land an NBA title.
But Patrick Ewing was one of the most famous athletes in America when he was drafted by the Knicks. Kristaps Porzingus comes via the Spanish league. At 105 kg, he will look heartbreakingly slight in comparison to the fully matured NBA centres he is going to meet next autumn. He has to earn the trust of the New York fans and prove that he doesn’t belong to the lengthening list of hopes plucked from Europe who proved to be out and out busts. He is going to have prove himself to
, the Knicks’ resident eight-time All-Star who, at 31 and committed to a lavish contract, has limited seasons in which to do something memorable as a professional player.
It is not as if Porzingis comes without recommendation or glowing reviews. For the past few weeks, the big man has been showcasing his game at various camps, drawing high praise for the solid footwork and the light shooting touch and versatility of his game. The potential within the long, skinny frame was inestimable. Just because he wasn’t as well known as the college stars who featured on networks and on the magazine covers month after month didn’t mean he wasn’t potentially as good. . . or better.
But still, his selection represents a huge gamble by Phil Jackson. What a place for a 19-year-old to find himself, as the talk of not just any town but that town. Come the autumn, he will have everyone from Woody Allen to Ewing himself sitting at courtside waiting for him to show what all the fuss is about. Porzingus's early champions are convinced that he has the right stuff to prove that he is worthy of being a New York Knick – and that he may just turn out to be the player to release the team from its cycle of miserable underachievement. If that proves to be the case, then the question may flip to whether the Knicks are worthy of Mr Porzingis.