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The Ongoing Battle for the Sports Soul of Gotham

Being the only city in America with two teams in each of the Big Four professional sports leagues, New York City has a divided fandom. Can the “little brother” teams ever truly take the spotlight off the “big brother” teams in the Big Apple?

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To quote The Social Network, “You can’t put a price on cool”. There is a civil war brewing in New York City over their sports teams, which begs the question; can the little-brother teams ever be cool enough to take the city?

The most important rule to being cool is that if you have to try to be cool, you aren’t cool. The Nets have done everything possible to become cool. Kevin Durant chose the Nets, in part, because he felt Brooklyn was “cool”. They’ve redesigned their uniforms, the court, they’ve even tried to incorporate rap culture into the fabric of their team identity. They even have Jay-Z in their ownership group, while the Knicks have the living embodiment of Jack Black from School of Rock running things into the ground. The Nets had the second-best record in the eastern conference this season, yet they still occupy the undercard. Why is that?

On the other hand, the Knicks have not tried to be cool. At all. On the contrary, they have done everything possible to make fans hate them. From trading half their team for Carmelo in 2011 when they could have just signed him four months later, to the owner throwing out one of their best players ever, to signing four archaic power forwards in a time when the league is trying to go smaller, the Knicks have done very little right over the past two decades. And yet, the Knicks are still cool. Why? Is it the nostalgia of Willis Reed, Patrick Ewing and Jeremy Lin? Is it Spike Lee harassing referees on the sidelines?

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The answer is all of the above. New Yorkers have grown up Knicks fans, watching basketball in the Garden and rooting for the Knicks. Then those fans had children, and passed their fandom onto their kids. And so on and so forth. There’s a history with the Knicks; they have won titles (50 years ago, but still), they play in the most famous arena in the world, and they have celebrities populating the sideline every game. The Nets just don’t have that prestige. They have Dr. J, a couple good seasons of Jason Kidd, and the deplorable Pierce-Garnett trade. The Knicks have been maybe the worst-run team in the league the last decade, while the Nets have been contenders, and now the favorites. And yet there is just a certain coolness that emits from the orange and blue Knicks logo that the black and white Nets emblem just can’t produce.

The same goes for baseball. The Mets have the latest World Series appearance in New York City, they have two phenomenal position players in Pete Alonso and Francisco Lindor, and maybe the best player in the sport in Jacob DeGrom. But they aren’t the Yankees. They don’t have 27 championships. They don’t have legacy players the likes of Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson and Derek Jeter. George Costanza didn’t work for the Mets in Seinfeld. And they may wear pinstripes, but they don’t look nearly as clean as the ones in the Bronx.

The Mets have had cool players. Jose Reyes was cool. Keith Hernandez was cool (another Seinfeld reference!), and Mike Piazza was cool in a not cool kind of way. Meanwhile, the Yankees actively try not to be cool. You can’t have a beard there. When Johnny Damon shocked the world and signed with the Yankees, they made him cut his hair and, in essence, his soul. They don’t even put names on the back of their jerseys. The Yankees want to win, they have no interest in being cool. And that’s why they’re so damn cool.

Hockey might have the biggest gap among the four major sports. The Rangers are so much more popular than the Islanders that I’m not sure I need two paragraphs for this, but I’ll do it anyway.

The Islanders are good this year, yes. Matthew Barzal and co. have been playing well, and they might even win it all. But they have no chance at overthrowing the Rangers as the city’s premiere hockey team. The Rangers had maybe the best goalie in the sport in Henrik Lundqvist, made the Stanley Cup Finals fairly recently, and play in Madison Square Garden. But the biggest reason why they’re cool is their prominence in pop culture. How many times did various members of Friends go to a Rangers game? From Ross getting hit in the face with a puck to Joey’s giant foam finger, the Rangers were the team the Friends wanted to see. Not the Islanders.

Football is in a strange existence where neither New York team is cool. The Jets certainly aren’t, and if you had any question just type in “butt fumble” to Google and tell me if you still think they’re cool. But the Giants aren’t really cool now, either. They were cool when they kept beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl and when Odell was making unfathomable one-handed catches. But Ben McAdoo and Daniel Jones are decisively not cool. Perhaps the coolest thing about either team right now is that Mike Greenberg is a die-hard Jets fan, but then again is it? Maybe Zach Wilson will make the Jets cool, but for now neither team is. And the tie goes to the Giants (sorry Fireman Ed).

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Could Durant, DeGrom, Wilson and Barzal rise up and lead the revolution in New York City? Maybe. Maybe the Nets rattle off a few titles here and become the new Warriors. Maybe the Islanders steal a title and upgrade their threads. Maybe DeGrom wins seven consecutive Cy Young awards and leads the Mets back to the World Series. And maybe Wilson is electrifying and Brett Favre-esque, slinging the ball around the field and making dazzling fourth-down conversions. Maybe someday the Nets, Mets, Jets and Islanders can claim the NYC throne. But for now the Yankees, Knicks, Giants and Rangers are the kings of New York, and maybe they always will be.

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