For 15 months, New York City has yearned for normalcy. For years, the New York Knicks fans have been yearning to matter. On Sunday, these worlds collided.
Knicks fans have been pining to see their team in the playoffs, with the stakes and the tension sending steam up into the rafters of Madison Square Garden. But above all else, they have been hankering for a villain. They crave a player on the other squad to boo, heckle, and shower with seething contempt. When you have a sneering, scowling, and at times heartbreaking villain, it means you matter. It means the stakes are high, the mood is thick, and the game has weight, a hell of a contrast from what has been a seemingly endless era of ineptitude. It recalls the times when the city was somehow at its best: crackling, alive, and ready to rumble. The need for the Knicks to not only be playoff-caliber good but also to have a foil is also about a need for times when New York’s enemies did not come in microscopic form.
People like Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and Reggie Miller have haunted the World’s Most Famous Arena, but the memory of their exploits has grown faint—an echo of a time when the Knicks dominated the sports consciousness of the city that has always seen itself as a basketball mecca, despite the absence of championship, or even playoff, appearances, to back it up.
Well, be careful what you wish for. That villain has finally come to town in the shape of a 22-year-old, six-foot, 180-pound guard by the name of Rayford “Trae” Young. The Atlanta Hawks guard scored 32 points, added 10 assists and hit a game-winning drive with less than a second to go in game one of their first-round playoff series, crushing a crowd of 15 thousand people who had arrived at 33rd Street to witness the first New York Knicks playoff game in eons. Young swished foul shot after foul shot, while the New York crowd lustily and profanely shared their feelings with this pint-sized partisan.
Young embraced the role, and he did so with relish. He already looks the part, complete with pencil-thin mustache, as if he had just finished tying someone to the nearby train tracks. Yet it takes more than a twirlable stache and ice water in your veins to be a villain worthy of New York City. You have to look at Spike Lee and the rest of the court-side celebs and let them know that you have arrived to stomp on their souls. That’s what Trae Young did. After hitting that game-winning shot, he gazed around the arena with open contempt, his finger pressed to his lips in a shhh-ing motion and drove the raucous crowd into a spasm of gut-punched silence. After the game he said, “As I hit the floater, it just felt like everybody got quiet. I was waiting for them F-you chants again. I was excited.”
Young continued his taunts after the game, caught on camera as he walked back to the locker room opining on the silencing of the Garden crowd. He was smug. He was cocksure. He was playing a role that he seemed to be typecast for: a person ready to punch guts and break hearts.
Young seemed even more eager to wear the villain’s cape than anyone since Lee Van Cleef. He also was more than aware that he was standing on the shoulders of villains past. “I definitely know the history of players coming in here and being hated. Like I said, I take that as a compliment to be honest with you. Obviously I’m doing something right if you hate me that much. I embrace it and try to focus on my team and trying to help my team win. At the end of the day, we’ll get the last laugh if we do that.”
Young said all this with a smile, and he should have been smiling. He became the first player in the last 25 years to hit a game winner in their playoff debut with less than a second to go. He also joined LeBron James as the only other player in NBA history with 30 points, 10 assists and five rebounds in their postseason debut.
Even though Young opened tear ducts across the city, there was something so… pre-pandemic, so innocent, about the emotions he provoked. Given the all too real tragedies the city has buckled under during the past year, it felt almost wholesome to get this mad over Trae Friggin Young.
Not everyone is built for villainy, especially in their playoff debut at the tender age of 22. It takes a great more than basketball skills and the mental fortitude to hit shots with 15,000 people in your face. You have to want to send children—and Spike Lee—home in tears. You have to be able to back up every sneer and modicum of trash talk with results. New York City has longed for such a person to jeer come playoff time for over 25 years. It hurts when the villain is standing astride The Garden. But compared to the last year, it hurt so good.