Did you ever get that feeling there was a minor plot out to get you? Not the big, sweeping stuff. Not “the government is Truman Show-ing you, so you better not sing ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ all weird in the car by yourself.” But the slow, creeping insecurity that comes with being alive, seeing the unavoidable biases around you, getting a little too weird in public every once in a while, slipping into a B-flat in a world humming a synchronous B?
In part because New Yorkers wind up in this city because they or their parents have all B-flatted their way out of their hometowns, they all see it happening right now. They see it in French Frank.
As veterans of being abused by Knicksian Goldfish Brain, where good young players are shot out of a cannon by GMs the second a 37-year-old former All-Star becomes available, Knicks fans know when somebody’s been given up on. They have read the tea leaves and discovered that 21-year-old Frank Ntilikina, whom the Knicks have consistently treated like a mistake or somebody else’s draft pick, has been given up on.
They’re trying to get justice, and they’re starting with collecting evidence.
Fans have spent the last several months combing through promo flyers and PR campaigns the Knicks put out for signs of Frank. They note the now-dispatched Trey Burkes and Mario Hezonjas, both of whom some guy at the Madison Square Garden Company was forced to photoshop like a Street Fighter character. But not a lot of Frank.
It’s so virulent and obvious it’s become a meme. When searching for an example of this on Twitter, I found a guy trying to pump up his friend, who was attempting to become a professional battle rapper.
“Make another one bro, you’re a battle rapper missing a valuable social media outlet for you and your fan base. You got LeBron talent but Frank Ntilikina promo, man.”
Maybe the team had it out for him. Coach David Fizdale certainly seemed to have the same opinion of Frank that the marketing department did, anyway.
If you like yelling about basketball but not really paying attention to it, the slight made sense. Despite the very cool nickname, Frankie Smokes only averaged 5.7 points per game last year. He was buried behind Burke, Emmanuel Mudiay, then Dennis Smith Jr on the depth chart. He looks a little uncomfortable running the offense. He is not and won’t be Michael Jordan.
This guy was the 8th overall pick. And, again, he was somebody else’s pick! Phil Jackson, who drafted Mr. Smokes, is loathed in New York for making a percussive series of wacky decisions (all of which now look normal in hindsight, but let’s not get into that).
I called up my Knicks whisperer, Robert Silverman, a former Knickerblogger writer who now uncovers dark sports things like NCAA scandals. It is not the cheeriest sports beat. Bob is fanatical about it all; Frank gives him light, not unlike Jesus or a chopped cheese at 2 a.m.
“The Knicks haven’t had a good PG since Steph [Marbury] and, before that, [Mark] Jackson. But even for younger fans, there’s a legacy that people desperately want to see revived,” Silverman told me. “When a kid like Frank comes along, rational evaluation doesn’t apply. Knicks fans desperately want him to succeed.”
Getting relentlessly beaten down by the city and all of its ghosts is part of the allure.
“We’re desperate for a player we feel connected to, watched mature, suffered through growing pains, and then succeeded beyond everyone’s wildest expectations,” he said.
Then some magic happened. At this summer’s FIBA world championships, Frank took over. He looked like Patrick Beverley ate nothing but tubes of anti-aging cream. He was a pest defensively. He hit jumpshots off the dribble. His French team was the first to beat Team USA in tournament play in 13 years.
This is not a data point, but I reached out to the Knicks to do some almost nauseatingly glowing piece about Frank before the season. We could’ve gone out to Le French Diner, a real restaurant in New York that sounds like a bad xenophobic joke, or we could’ve watched him disappear in midtown like he’s unfortunately so used to. They did not get back to me. And, look, they’re busy, I get it. None of this means anything.
Then I checked Evan Fournier’s Twitter account. He was the other guy in the backcourt for Team France and he tweeted this above a two-minute video of Frank tearing up the world’s point guards all summer: “The guy only needs a real opportunity.”
OK, maybe they’re out to get him a little bit. Maybe I believe it. Maybe that’s great. Maybe that’s why we get up in the morning, to watch people overcome against the banality of mild objection and slow death by ambivalence. Maybe I’m projecting. Or maybe he’s about to get a little justice.
Ben Collins is a writer and reporter for NBC News. He’s also a SLAM columnist and writes The Outlet, a monthly column in which BC muses on…well, whatever he wants. Follow him on Twitter @oneunderscore_.
Photos via Getty.