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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The Knicks are finally good again. And New York City loves them for it.

Left: New York Knicks fan Krystal Gutirrez and her son, Carter Gutirrez, stand outside Madison Square Garden on the night of the team’s victory over the Indiana Pacers in the first game of the Eastern Conference semifinals in New York, on May 6, 2024. (Adrienne Grunwald/The New York Times)//Right: Jalen Brunson of the New York Knicks warms up before the team’s first game against the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York, on May 6, 2024. (Adrienne Grunwald/The New York Times)

By David Waldstein

They poured out of Madison Square Garden and the surrounding bars, draped in Jalen Brunson jerseys and other Knicks paraphernalia, chanting and yelling and exulting as they clogged Seventh Avenue and brought traffic to a halt.

The New York Knicks had just defeated the Indiana Pacers in the first game of the Eastern Conference semifinals Monday night, but some fans celebrated as if they had just won a championship. When that hasn’t happened in 50 years, it helps explains the elation.

A few days earlier, there was a similar flash mob of crazed young Knicks fans thronging the front of the Garden after the Knicks eliminated the 76ers in the first round of the playoffs. And that game was in Philadelphia.

No New York sports team can captivate the city quite like the Knicks. And for the first time in a decade, they are a very good basketball team, and the city is taking notice. Within moments of the victory over the Pacers, the Empire State Building glowed blue and orange, beaming Knicks pride out to Gotham like a bat signal.

The Knicks have been somewhat decent for a few years, but this version is different. This group is led by Jalen Brunson, a humble, 27-year-old, team-first overachiever who, along with the rest of the Knicks, has transfixed the city in a way reminiscent of Patrick Ewing’s 1990s teams.

On Wednesday night, they headed into Game 2 against the Pacers with a chance to extend their lead and add another dash of belief to the once-crazy notion that this group could one day win the team’s first championship since 1973 (Game 3 is Friday in Indianapolis at 7 p.m. on ESPN).

“Outside the arena there has been a lot of talk, a lot of excitement,” Brunson said last week. “I just love the fact that New York is really embracing us.”

The 2024 Knicks play hard. They are fun, united and unassuming, and Brunson has emerged as the most appealing athlete in New York right now. More relatable than Aaron Judge of the Yankees, less egomaniacal than Aaron Rodgers of the Jets, and more dependable than anyone on the Mets, the Liberty or the Giants. He is even more productive than Artemi Panarin, the Rangers’ superstar scorer.

With his 43 points in the Knicks win over Indiana, Brunson became the first player to score 40 points in each of four straight playoff games since Michael Jordan in 1993. Yes, that Michael Jordan. When Brunson was asked about it after the game, a teammate leaned into the interview, incredulous. He turned to Brunson and repeated: “Jordan?”

Brunson, flashing the same impeccable timing that he does on the court, replied, “Stop.”

That charm, combined with his hard-working ethos, is a prime reason that old and new fans are flocking to the Knicks after ignoring decades of embarrassing malfunctions.

María Luisa Rocca, for example, is in her mid-90s and didn’t watch much basketball before this year. A native of Colombia, she came to the United States in 1956 and moved to Manhattan only eight years ago to be close to her sons, who were not major hoops fans, either.

Most nights she watched baseball on television, and she paid little, if any, attention to the New York basketball team. Until this year.

Now, for her and many of her fellow New Yorkers, the Knicks — and particularly Brunson — have become appointment viewing, and elevator rides around the city are spent reliving the glory and marveling at Brunson’s latest magic.

“I have to watch the games,” Rocca said from her apartment in Greenwich Village. “I love this team, and Brunson is the best. He always shares credit. Some teams are bullies. Not the Knicks.”

Once thought of as a complementary player, Brunson averaged 28.7 points per game this year, the fourth-highest in the NBA’s regular season. His father is Rick Brunson, a former Knicks player and the team’s current assistant coach. When Jalen was a toddler in the late 1990s, he could usually be found in the Knicks locker room, bouncing a basketball that was almost as big as he was.

Now 27 and 6-foot-2, he shoots from the outside, slithers inside, hits turnaround jumpers with ease, rebounds diligently and passes unselfishly. He scores when they need scoring, passes when they need passing and rebounds when they need a board. If the Knicks required a field goal, Brunson would kick that, too.

In this year’s playoffs, he leads all players with 36.6 points per game. That includes 47 in Game 4 against the Sixers, which is more than any Knick has ever scored in a postseason game — more than Bernard King, Patrick Ewing or even Walt Frazier, the greatest point guard in club history, who won the franchise’s only championships, in 1970 and 1973.

Point guard for the Knickerbockers is a venerated position in the city, like conductor of the New York Philharmonic, manager of the Yankees or head chef at Gage and Tollner. It’s even up there with being the mayor, although Brunson has no known detractors.

“Brunson has been all of that,” Frazier said Monday at the Garden. “He’s being compared to me and my team and what we accomplished. They haven’t won a title yet, but he’s on the threshold, and it’s great everyone is talking about them.”

That includes a crush of A-listers — Cardi B, Sting, Julianne Moore, Tracee Ellis Ross — suddenly scrambling for courtside seats. But this team is not a Hollywood production. It is a real group that ordinary citizens identify with, like Evan Wilson, an archaeologist who moved to New York from Los Angeles seven years ago. Tossing aside his Laker fandom, Wilson now supports the Knicks, watching most games with a group of regulars at Jimmy’s Corner in Midtown Manhattan.

“There may not be as much superstar talent as other teams,” Wilson said, “but they make you want to cheer for them. I’m definitely a convert.”

As are the throngs who pack Madison Square Garden in their Jalen Brunson jerseys — No. 11 was by far the most popular shirt in the building and on the streets. At last accounting in March, Brunson’s shirt was the 15th most popular in the world, according to the NBA. The next audit should reveal a drastic rise in sales as more and more people discover the thrill of the Knicks roll.

“There is nothing like it,” said OG Anunoby, a forward who joined the team in January. “It’s electric. All of us, we feel it, and we love it.”

For the first time in years, much of New York loves it, too.

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