This is what Tuesday night is all about, what the lottery is all about, when the pingpong balls start to fly and also start to fall, the first domino in what the Knicks — and every other hapless basketball team in the raffle — dream will be a profound pathway to respectability.
This is what the lottery offers: a 14 percent chance at hope. This year, this time, hope has a name: Zion Williamson, who was a sensational college player at Duke, who could be a great player in the pros, who for now represents something so much more than skill and talent and potential to whichever team wins the drawing Tuesday night in Chicago.
He offers New York — and everyone else with balls in the hopper — a chance to dream about actually being part of the remarkable basketball Sunday the NBA just gave us, two Game 7s that electrified the sport and carried four cities to the brink of emotional distress. And how remarkable would that be, to be a part of a day like that again as an active participant, and not an envious spectator?
Zion alone doesn’t ensure that. But he is the first step — the first domino — the first glimmer that better times could really lay ahead.
“We are confident in our plan, and that we’ll be in good position no matter where we land in the lottery and no matter what player we take in the draft,” Scott Perry said a few weeks ago, and it is the tone and treble the Knick’s GM must take because the team has to be prepared for the 86 percent likelihood it doesn’t win — to say nothing of the 47.8 percent chance the Knicks finish outside the top 4.
It is called a “lottery” for a reason, after all, because it is a game of chance, nothing more. In the same way you’d be asking for trouble investing your weekly salary in Powerball tickets, Perry and Scott Mills would be foolish to have their vision for the Knicks be entirely entangled with winning the Zion Sweepstakes.
So it is not everything. It can’t be everything.
But it is a wonderful starting gate, a perfect parkway to bringing the ultimate payoff back to New York City. Zion alone doesn’t do that. But Zion, joined by a few big-ticket friends in July, joined by whoever else Mills and Perry can convince to join the party thereafter, makes being a part of a day like Sunday actually seem possible again.
And that is Tuesday’s ultimate grand prize.
It is about the exhilaration of going on the road, as Portland’s Trail Blazers did Sunday, and seizing a Game 7 moment by the carotid, walking into the belly of the playoff beast and leaving the city of Denver feeling an inch tall rather than a mile high. This is a perennial next-year team like the Raptors handing Toronto its most unforgettable sporting moment since Joe Carter walked off the Phillies 26 years ago, Kawhi Leonard’s shot bouncing, bouncing, bouncing, bouncing …
And falling, finally, into forever.
But it is also about the Nuggets, the kind of dogged team impossible to root against, a team that gave its city some kind of season and already has the faithful counting down to training camp. It is about the Sixers, who nearly pulled off an unlikely parable at Scotiabank Arena, who weren’t killed off for good until a rare star made an even rare prayer of a shot. It was a game that left Joel Embiid and an entire tough-guy city like Philadelphia in tears.
We know that part well, right? After all, the last time the Knicks owned this city, back in the ’90s, they never once got to the finish line so year after year we were Denver, we were Philly, we were the citizens left to repair our crushed basketball souls across long, empty summers. It was hard. It was painful. It was agony.
But it was also magnificent.
Being in the arena is magnificent. Being in the hunt is glorious. When you’re in the arena, in the hunt, sometimes you get a two-game stretch like the one CJ McCollum gave Portland. Sometimes the iron treats the basketball like the friendliest YMCA gym in creation, and those are days as a sports fan nobody will ever take away from you.
It’s been 20 years since the Knicks were in the NBA Finals. It’s been 19 since New York was last fortified with belief that it could have a day like Sunday.
The road back has been as enjoyable as the Cross Bronx at 6 p.m., but Tuesday the pavement will smooth out for someone. The potholes will vanish. Tuesday, some team will win the lottery, and will earn the right to start producing No. 1 jerseys with “Williamson” stenciled on the back.
Tuesday, the first domino falls.
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