By Matt Caputo

Last week, late in the fourth quarter, as the Knicks faced an infinite deficit against the play-off chasing New Jersey Nets, Jamal Crawford went to the foul line. From the tiny JVC I watched the game on, the Garden crowd seemed as quiet and docile as usual. I can only imagine how pathetic the Knicks look in high-def. With or without top-of-the-line reception, when the MSG Network’s cameras close in on Crawford from the sternum up, it’s hard not to notice the unusual bandage he has worn on his left shoulder since January. I have no clue why he wears it, or why I watch Knicks games when it’s clearly not “the thing to do.”

“I wonder why he wears that thing on his shoulder,” says Maggie Coughlan, a Nyack native and lifelong Knicks fan, sitting on the couch next to me watching the Knicks leading scorer take aim for the basket. “I wonder if it’s to keep his shooting arm warm.”

As Crawford raised his narrow arms for his first free throw, the Knicks were locked into their seventh consecutive losing season. And this season is by far the most disheartening and counterproductive, probably of all time. And tonight, the only nearly serendipitous happening at the Garden came right after Maggie’s sentence ended, from a guy who hasn’t played for the Knicks since 1977.

“I bet you’re wondering why Crawford is still wearing that bandage on his shoulder,” said Walt Frazier, answering Maggie’s question as Crawford released his shot.

Before I could react, Maggie shouted “Oh, my God, isn’t that crazy?… It’s like we’re the only ones watching.”

This got me thinking about who the Knicks are as a franchise, something my coworker Andrew Pitagorsky says will speed up the aging process. As a lifelong basketball person (broke into the business in the sixth grade, keeping score in the “Dads League” in Queens for $5 a game), it’s tough to deal with the amount of talent that has passed through Manhattan producing so little success. Over the last week, I’ve been trying to gain insight into why people still bother with the Knicks at all, and if there is anything salvageable in this 62-year-old franchise.

They haven’t won a title since 1973 and have only won two conference titles (in ’94 and ’99) since then. To their credit, the Ewing, Starks, Mason and Harper bunch brought New York close, but not all the way. To think that the Knicks have had Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, Mark Jackson, Rod Strickland, Bernard King, Allen Houston, Steve Francis, Stephon Marbury and quality coaches like Hubie Brown, Rick Pitino, Don Nelson, Larry Brown and Lenny Wilkens in relatively recent time and have only been serious contenders twice is beyond me. Right about now, you start to develop a better appreciation for Jeff Van Gundy.

In a city where basketball knows no rival, the New York Knicks have been a nonfactor and might as well be cursed. In fact, they probably are.

Legend has it that the BAA, the NBA’s predecessor, didn’t even have a New York franchise in their original plans. Eventually the league’s founders, made up of owners from markets that are now largely removed from today’s major-league sports blueprint, decided a New York franchise was essential to the new league’s street credibility and validation to the media. The “Knickerbocker” logo was picked out of a hat. New York had always been a basketball town, so it made sense to try putting a team in the city. College basketball was a popular draw for Madison Square Garden, so the local fans were already familiar with the sport. So much so that it forced the Knicks to play only a limited number of games there for years. Taking second priority to more lucrative college contests, the Knicks played many homes games at the 69th Regiment Armory until 1960.

It’s hard to say if the Knicks could ever captivate New York sports fans like the Yankees or Giants have. Even the Mets, who are 15 years younger than the Knicks, easily have more fans than they do. But with the popularity of basketball being what it is in New York, the coming of Donnie Walsh or whatever GM to the organization should focus on restoring the team’s relationship with the city’s die-hard hoops heads. Knicks fans haven’t forgiven the organization for drafting Frederic Weis (or Jerrod Mustaf, Monty Williams, Dontae Jones, John Thomas, Donnell Harvey, Frank Williams). And now, worse than their terrible taste in draft picks, Knicks fans are faced with having to end and recover from the Isiah Thomas era, which has no end in sight!

Because of their perpetually losing ways over the last decade, the most exciting time to be a Knicks fan is in the off-season, when there is still a chance that they will make the play-offs. Dealing with losing is never fun. However, for some creative Knicks supporters, it has been profitable.

“It was just getting so painful and tough; I can excuse one or two mistakes by a coach or manager, but I don’t know any other coach who has done as bad a job as Isiah. I just don’t like the idea that one man has a monopoly over the team,” says Ivan Cash, the SUNY Geneseo design student who was arrested in January of 2008 for attempting to sell T-shirts that read, “DON’T HATE THE PLAYER. OR THE GAME…HATE THE COACH,” outside Madison Square Garden. “They’re a joke this season. I don’t really watch anymore. I used to schedule my day around games, and now I just check the box score, if that.”

Although he’s stopped going to games since being arrested and held “for about the entire length of the game,” Cash continues to sell his shirts via hatethecoach.com. If supporters like Cash, who have been arrested in the name of the Knicks, are disillusioned and uninterested, where does that leave the average Knicks fan? The fact is, there probably aren’t any average Knicks fans left. Without a bandwagon in sight, the Knicks die-hards, especially with baseball season starting, are finding more and more reasons to care less and less about the city’s black-sheep franchise.

“I go back to the late 1950s with the Knicks, and the scenarios go on and on and on,” says Dr. Arthur Nathan of Freeport, Long Island. In December of 2007, 67-year-old Nathan, a dentist, posted an eight-foot pink slip outside the Garden and held a rally calling for the removal of Isiah Thomas. “Where the truth lies, I have no idea.”

As it stands, the Knicks are 20-53 and have no shot of even matching last year’s sad win count of 33. They dealt with a very stupid sexual harassment case, a Stephon Marbury who didn’t have his heart in it, and a head coach and team president who couldn’t find anything wrong with his team on the floor. This season a number of fans, including Dr. Nathan, came out of the woodwork to air out the city’s forgotten franchise.

“Hopefully I put some thoughts in Dolan’s mind with my pink slip,” says Dr. Nathan, who says his business has sped up since taking his public stand against the Knicks. “I’ve got news for you, the Knicks fans are crazy. Why they still fill the Garden instead of leaving empty seats is beyond me. With Dolan, everything is the bottom line, and we’re keeping his bottom line the way he likes it by still showing up at games.”

He’s right. Unlike other cities, where having a losing team would be grounds for fans to stop showing up at games, in New York there are far too many corporate interests ensuring that Garden seats get bought and frequently occupied to make winning and losing an attendance factor. The New York papers have advertisements for Knicks games with photos of the stars of other teams—like LeBron, Kobe and AI—essentially classifying the Knicks as what the boxing world refers to as “an opponent.” With the Knicks’ good years coming few and far between, it’s understandable to assume fans have come to care less and less over the last decade. Many have stopped caring about the team completely.

“I went to my first Knicks game with my pops, who is an old-school fan. I also went to something called the ‘Knicks Experience’ event and got to tour the Garden and meet Walt Frazier and some Knicks from the ’90s,” says Benny Rupel, a lifelong Manhattan resident who played varsity basketball at both Humanities High School and SUNY Purchase College. “I don’t know a lot of young kids who are really big Knicks fans. I don’t know if I am anymore, myself. They haven’t had real street credibility since they had Anthony Mason on the team. People are booing at the Garden, but they don’t stop showing up. I don’t think they will ever have the feeling in New York that the Yankees have.”

What’s troubling about the lack of support (or at least positive support) for the Knicks is that other than those insane few folks who make giant pink petitions, or sell shirts mocking the coach, the fans aren’t getting any younger. The only thing lower than people jumping on a successful sports team franchise’s bandwagon is for people to stop supporting them when they lose. Fifty percent of being a sports fan is being behind your team when it’s not easy. As long as the seats of the world’s most famous arena are occupied, their losing ways and horrendous executive decisions could continue forever. The Knicks could be “in a rebuilding phase” for the rest of their existence.

“The Knicks were the soul of New York to me. People could never get tickets; they would pay triple the price to get in,” says Waheed Hosein, arguably the Knicks’ most animated fan, who is always quick to ask you if you caught the game last night, in a ground-floor lobby on 25th Street and Broadway. As die-hard as they come, Hosein feels the Knicks need a franchise with a style of play the city can appreciate. “It’s a shame, a shame that we have the mecca of basketball, the capital of basketball, here in New York City, and we’re a laughing stock because of Jim Dolan and Isiah Thomas.”

There are tons of reasons why the Knicks should be good. This is a city that idolizes their sports stars, and basketball is its most popular game. The Garden is a great arena, and it’s as special a basketball venue as they come. It’s a city where a championship basketball team would inspire the most momentous victory parade in sports history.

“I care because I go back to when the Knicks were the Knicks—I mean, like the ’69 Knicks, who had Willis Reed coming out on the court on one and a half legs,” says Dr. Nathan. “Now when they’re down 10, people leave, because you figure they’ll be down 30 in another 10 minutes. In the old days, if the Knicks were down by 12 at home, no one would go anywhere because you figured they’d come back.”