The story is rarely in the streak, honestly. Losses pile on top of one another, winless weeks become winless months, and the losing can almost feel like the worst kind of February head cold, the one you wake up with the day after the Super Bowl and stays with you through Presidents Day and seems to linger all the way to Fat Tuesday.
The Knicks lost to the 76ers at the Garden Wednesday night, 126-111, and unless you’ve either tuned out (good for you) or been trapped under a rock (please dial 9-1-1 immediately), you know that makes it an 18-game losing streak.
That’s the longest single-season skid in team history, sets them up nicely to pursue the overall team record of 20 straight if they can avoid beating the Hawks — against whom they have fully one-fifth of their 10 wins — Thursday.
No, the real story is in the relief that follows a streak’s end. When you’re in the middle of it, of course, that’s hard to see. Ninety minutes before the Knicks took aim at No. 18, David Fizdale said, “It sucks, but I just go day-to-day. I just stay in the moment. I don’t linger in the past too much. I don’t let myself drift into wherever we’re gonna end up. I just try and stay in the moment every day so I can lead these guys.”
But it will end, and that’s when the fun starts. The Sixers might not have been a great candidate for that (unless being inside MSG stirred up some old tanking muscle memory), but all losing streaks end. Eventually. The Cal Tech Beavers basketball team once lost 310 straight games in the 26 seasons connecting 1985 and 2010. Then they beat Occidental College 46-45. (Note to Knicks: Try to schedule Occidental for Homecoming next year.)
Hubie Brown was the coach for all 20 of those losses back in 1985 (a vintage year for basketball losing streaks, apparently), starting with a 113-105 loss at Kansas City on March 23, 1985 (better known as the night Bernard King blew out his knee). That kicked off a 12-game streak to end that season, spanned across the summer, and lasted the first eight games of the next season (better known as the first eight games of Patrick Ewing’s career). The Knicks went 235 days between wins.
When victory finally arrived, on Nov. 12, after the Knicks had finally subdued the 0-8 Suns, 103-93 (in front of 12,220 fans at the Garden, back when lousy basketball actually kept fans away), Brown looked like a man who’d finally gotten himself a meal and a hot bath after 10 years of solitary confinement.
“You never forget how sweet it is to win,” he said. “It’s like riding a bicycle.”
The more humorous observation that night, though, may have come from his rookie center, who had 25 points and nine rebounds in winning his first professional game; it actually might still be the funniest thing he has ever said.
“People were jumping off our bandwagon,” Ewing said, “left and right.”
That’s actually the best part about losing streaks: nobody can complain about fair-weather fans crowding any bandwagons. The band is long broken up, and the wagon is in the shop for repairs. The present bandwagon for the Knicks is actually a pedicab, with room to spare in the back.
Use any metaphor you like. You know the famous quote by John F. Kennedy, “Victory has a hundred fathers but defeat is an orphan?” Winning streaks are Mar-A-Lago. Losing streaks are where “Annie” is set.
Losing streaks, in other words, can play with your brain.
“I told the team, ‘If I was in a foxhole, it would have to be a darn big foxhole because I’d want all of you in there with me,’ ” Rich Kotite actually told his Jets on the afternoon of Oct. 28, 1996, when his team — 0-9 on the season, 12 straight losses in the books going back 337 days, the single-longest drought New York has ever seen — beat the Cardinals at Sun Devil Stadium 31-21 (note to all New York teams: when in doubt, schedule a team from Phoenix).
It isn’t just coaches who get delirious, either.
“First the Yankees, now us,” rookie wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson crowed, as this victory happened the day after the Bombers closed out the Braves for the 1996 World Series. “I said we wouldn’t go 0-16 and I’ll put my foot in my mouth again and say we’re going to win some more.”
They didn’t, of course. Even the most insipid losing streaks end eventually. But the teams that build them, they built them on merit. The streak ends. The struggle is eternal.