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Knicks in playoffs make rooting against underdog OK

by | Columnist

With all the effusive gushing over Monday's national championship game and Butler's role in it, we are reminded first of the fact that Jim Calhoun aside, Connecticut's roster is pretty damned precocious itself.

This is a point touched on by troublemaker Doyel elsewhere in our squalid little corner of the Internet, and it is correct. But it also reminds us that right down the calendar apiece comes the most predictable, most hierarchical and in some ways the most conservative of sports.

Your National Basketball Association.

The playoffs soon will be upon us, and with them the painful realization that unlike other sports, the fun actually doesn't begin until the conference finals, and only if the teams and players involved are the most household-y of names.

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We mention this because the New York Knickerbockers just got into the final 16 for the first time in seven years, and a less lovable underdog you cannot imagine. Also the Indiana Pacers are on the verge of achieving membership, yet nobody cares about them in any way, shape or form. The Memphis Grizzlies, same thing. In fact, the NBA is really only about six teams -- the Lakers, Spurs, Bulls, Heat, Celtics and Magic, and we're stretching it to go that far.

The Magic really counts only because of Dwight Howard, whom most people view in that annoying "Man, I can't wait to see what happens when he becomes a free agent" way we just endured with Carmelo Anthony.

And you may also notice that the Mavericks do not achieve the level of national interest, because of two things. One, their most notable player is still Mark Cuban even though he has been on his best behavior for way too long now. And two, nobody believes in them as a true championship contender.

No, the NBA has managed to buck all trends of parity by force-feeding what most media and casual fans seem to want -- a crushing and unwavering repetition of the familiar names, familiar faces, familiar logos and familiar uniforms. Indeed, the orthodoxy of the NBA and its audience is the most strident of them all, and if you don't think so, think of how much national admiration the San Antonio Spurs have received over the years for being one of the game's truly elite operations.

In case you don't have a pie chart handy, the answer is "Almost none." There is no champion in any sport in recent memory that received so much aggressive disdain from so many people claiming to be basketball fans. They have three clear Hall of Famers in Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Gregg Popovich and one of the most efficient yet creative front offices in sports, and yet their championships were viewed as the national equivalent of "Eat Your Vegetables Or You're Not Leaving The Table Day."

Even the most strident NBA fans view the first two rounds of the playoffs as a burden to be endured, the necessary weeding of all things not Kobe or LeBron or Celtics or, as a radical departure from the norm, Bulls. Yeah, the Bulls, the shocking and fresh outsider. Please.

Now as a general rule, those who generalize when they should specify usually pay full retail for assuming facts not always in evidence. Not every NBA fan likes it this way. But they do acknowledge that yes, it is this way. The networks can't get enough of the same old teams presented them same old way, and the ratings bear that out. NBA fans as a group want what they already know, a re-recitation of the same story lines they always want.

And no, the Heat are not a new phenomenon. The Heat are a merger of two olds. They didn't challenge the natural order of things as much as they took two familiar forces and make them a mega-familiar force -- a Wal-Mart/K-Mart merger to make an Uber-Mart.

Which is why, ultimately, the Knicks got so little play for returning to the postseason. The fun was watching them tie themselves in knots over acquiring Anthony and then deciding whom to blame when it didn't immediately go well.

The fun will not be in them getting their brains kicked in by Miami, especially when Anthony realizes he got no deeper into the playoffs than he normally did in Denver. And that's saying something when you realize that it's New York, where everything is inflated well beyond its normal size. I mean, the most familiar Knick remains Spike Lee, a testament to one man's loyalty in the face of overwhelming evidence. Of course, he also gets himself to the Finals, and is now more a fan of sitting down low for any big game than he necessarily is for the Knicks. The Dolans apparently will do that to a fella.

So while the relatively meek may be inheriting a rental of the earth in most sports, the NBA remains the Ottoman Empire -- what was, is, and always will be. There is a protocol and it will be adhered to, no matter what the rest of the world does with its newfangled notions and fresh faces and intriguing teams.

The NBA. Where Arch-Conservatism Happens. Who'd have figured?

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay


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