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Vinson Cunningham On The Knicks, Art, And How Basketball Can Help You Live Nobly

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 06: Donte DiVincenzo #0, Jalen Brunson #11, and Josh Hart #3 of the New York Knicks react against the Indiana Pacers during Game One of the Eastern Conference Second Round Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 06, 2024 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. ()
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images; image via Penguin Random House

This week, Defector has turned itself over to a guest editor. Brandy Jensen, former editor at Gawker (RIP) and The Outline (RIP), and writer of the Ask A Fuck Up advice column (subscribe here!), has curated a selection of posts around the theme of Irrational Attachments. Enjoy!

This past week, Jasper lent me his copy of Vinson Cunningham's recent debut novel, Great Expectations, a smirking title it somehow earns. The book introduces a young man named David Hammond as he drifts into Barack Obama's 2008 primary campaign, then follows him through to Election Day. That the plot can be described so simply is a testament to how artfully Cunningham can cook with the English language, and if you have read Cunningham's work in the New Yorker, you know the sort of sentences you're in for.

I did not know, though I should have, when I cracked Great Expectations open that I was going to read it in essentially perfect conditions, as so much of the book takes place in New York, a city I happened to be visiting and zooming around on the subway at the time. I was also doing this while Cunningham's beloved Knicks were in the process of losing a torturous second-round series against the Pacers. The book features a long scene where four characters watch a (real!) Pistons-Celtics game, a scene in which the protagonist professes his love for Paul Pierce. I spoke with Cunningham on the phone about the novel, this Knicks season, and the virtues of being a hater. The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

You mentioned that you love this particular Knicks team, and my read from the outside is that they seemed like the most emotionally load-bearing Knicks team of my adult life. Do you think that's true, and what in particular did you like about this group?

Like everyone, I love Jalen Brunson, but I really locate it with Josh Hart; how hard that guy plays, how much he cares about every single moment. It's like, you feel like you're letting him specifically down, but maybe the team down, if you don't care as much as he seems to at every moment. So it creates this incredibly dense experience where every moment you're trying to make your attention match to that effort. It's amazing. And then I think it's also the dream of sports that most of us had as kids, the dream of playing with your best friends. You know what I mean? Like, oh, I'm gonna go to the Eastern Conference Finals, and the guys that I'm going to be doing it with are my college roommates. That's a real dream. Every American boy that I knew would have immediately recognized that that's something worth aspiring to. The fact that they actually get to live this out, is beyond sports, right?

The fact that they're doing this together would be cool in any context, but they're playing for the New York Knicks, for these fans, for this coach. To me, they seem like the most coherent basketball team I basically ever watched at a high level.

Yeah, "coherent" is precisely the word. They have a real story. What happens on the court is only like an expression of everything else that we know about them. It all makes so much sense. They represent a culmination of a five-year sequence of some of the disappointments of the earlier Julius [Randle] era, and the second-round loss to the Hawks, in what I call the "Fuck Trae Young Era." And then there's this sort of slow introduction of all these amazing players, who improve together as a group, most neatly personified by Julius himself. The final few pieces of that change were the departures of RJ [Barrett] and [Immanuel] Quickley, in a trade that not only brought in OG [Anunoby] but really unlocked Hart and [Donte] DiVincenzo. It just all makes so much narrative and emotional sense.

And I would even argue aesthetic sense, honestly. I like that they just kind of boiled the team down to its essence of rock-shaped guys who love to fight and can play 48 minutes. I don't think Brunson's game is beautiful to watch, but I think the ugliness almost makes me appreciate it more, if that makes sense?

He's not silky, or really smooth in any way. In fact, sometimes it seems to me like he has to work too hard every single time. And he has this game that's just put together like a sculpture. I'm going to come over to the free-throw line extended. And then somebody's going to come in, I'm going to turn my back, and I'm going to post-up dribble, and I'm going to do it, boom, boom, boom. And I'm going to throw up this flip shot. It seems to be a product of thought. You can see him probing and thinking, it's like watching somebody swimming through a sentence or something. It just feels like the product of so much effort, which isn't necessarily the part of sports you'd think you'd like aesthetically. Most would say agility, elegance, speed, or fluidity. But this is something else. It's like effort as the point, not just as an input.

I have to say, though, it didn't work ultimately—they did lose, even if they expended the most effort per capita of any second-round team I've ever seen. Did it make it any easier to lose knowing that every rational explanation said they should have lost earlier? Or do you still think the point is to win and it ultimately was a failure?

Oh, boy, I mean, I thought that the point at which I would say they'd fully maxed out was the Conference Finals. I really did want to see us go against Boston. So on that level, I'm still very disappointed. I have watched all of the Conference Finals games, especially the Boston-Indiana series with a knot in my stomach; I still feel bad about it. At the same time, you watch the injuries, and you also think what is probably true is that the only reason we were able to make it as far as we did is Thibodeau's absolute willingness to drive people into the ground. This is the trade-off. One reason they lost is these guys were all too tired. But also, one of the advantages against the Sixers was that Jalen was willing to play more minutes than Embiid could ever possibly play. On some level, it was just a numbers game like that. How long are you willing to keep in your best player? So it's like a classic sort of Achilles heel, right? So maybe it's the right outcome given all of that, but I am still very sad that we lost to the Pacers, and think that if not for the weird injury circumstances, we would have beaten them.

I guess I'm asking you a rational question about something that's inherently irrational: fandom. I also loved this team, and I was thinking about how distasteful I would have found the way they play if they were any other team. A friend recently told me about this conversion experience he had going to a game at MSG, and something he said about the noise in the arena really stuck with me. He said the noise has a denser quality to it, as if it had a sort of physical dimension. Hearing that, it makes it impossible for me to think that any loss by that team could be written off as simply something that was supposed to happen. You're supposed to pour your heart and soul into this.

Even in that final game, I thought, OK, we're at the Garden, we're gonna win. Having been in that crowd so many times, you really do get the sense that you are a part of it, that cheering in the Garden is, on some level, like a skill or intellectual activity. You can feel that people are very much in rhythm with the team, that they can sense their needs. And I know all the counter-narratives about the Garden, that it's not actually a loud crowd, just a matter of acoustics. I've heard all these things, and I don't know what to do about it. I do know that the crowd knows how to use whatever that mechanism is, and it's very easy to get swept away at the Garden. I've taken various outsiders and sometimes they walk away vaguely scared. It gets to quite a fever pitch, which is pretty great. It's the greatest congregation in the world, among other things.

It's interesting that you use the word "congregation." Something I liked about the book—and this is going to be the broadest possible compliment—is basically everything about religion that you wrote: The push and pull, the rhythms of faith. As a sports fan, you're willingly attached to an irrational thing you have no control over. And I often think: How do I justify this experience of faith to myself and others? Why do I watch basketball at this volume? And the answer I've come to is an aesthetic one. I like how it looks. What do you like about watching basketball?

I was recently just telling someone about how I'm always tired around this time of year, because I watch all the games, and then often Inside the NBA until one o'clock in the morning. I've organized my life around this thing that I've been paying attention to since I was, I don't know, single digits, zero. I love the way basketball looks. Often, especially during the regular season, I put basketball on mute and I play music. It's like watching a dance, it's a beautiful sport.

What do you put on?

I put on R&B. One thing I love about Instagram now is that they mix these exact ingredients together. I just watched this Kyrie [Irving] mixtape set to Marvin Gaye or something, thinking, This is my shit. Basketball offers us these characters that we can follow on 10-year, 15-year arcs. I mean, when Bill Walton died the other day, it meant something to me. Even though I never saw him play (I'm too young for that), I listened to him in various announcing booths for decades. He's an icon to me, not in the sort of colloquial sense, but a literal icon, like a certain part of my brain only works if I think about something through Bill Walton, or name your person, whoever your basketball player is. It's just been an incredible source of meaning in my life.

And it's the corniest thing, but it's definitely gotten me through sad times. Watching sports has served as the background of so many moments with my friends. Sometimes I remember something that happened between me and my friends, because we were at a bar and it was this game of this series. And this is beyond fandom, right? This is beyond the Knicks. It's the NBA as a story, and as a show means a lot to me.

You basically answered my next question, so I have to say: The thing I liked most about the book was the way you wound into and out of a bunch of distinct pieces of criticism across art forms, like photography, painting, music—the one I liked the most was something on the physical aesthetics of a sentence—and, of course, basketball. There's the long bit about the protagonist David admiring Paul Pierce while watching Pistons-Celtics at a bar in New Hampshire. So I want to try out a theory on you, which is that Luka Doncic is the final form of Paul Pierce. He kind of looks ugly and his game is herky-jerky, and I watch him and think How is this oddly pink guy so good? And then he'll do something like that stepback against Rudy Gobert, and then I change my mind and think this is the most talented anyone can be at anything.

So the classic formulation is that Luka is some sort of derivation of James Harden, because of his ability to slow down, to exert absolute control over the acceleration and deceleration of his body. That's always been the thing that I've thought. But that is so true that even before '07, when the larger world got a chance to appreciate Pierce because of his proximity to KG, Ray Allen, and Rondo, even before then, when he first came into the league, you might have thought, Oh, wow, this very agile bear somehow escaped and is in a Celtics jersey. He looked slow, but then all of a sudden, he'd do something that was amazingly quick, and he'd be at the basket sort of out of nowhere even though no single motion ever seemed fast. Both of those guys are surprisingly big on the court, they just always seem to take up so much televisual space.

And then also they have sort of devious personalities. On Paul Pierce, I agree totally with the protagonist David Hammond. I always looked at him as an example of someone who was not a maniacal worker, someone who's very talented but is not hell-bent like Kobe Bryant on maximizing every ounce of their talent. Rather, he somehow used that aspect of his personality to achieve a kind of brilliance. And that was my hope for myself, never having been the greatest student, but maybe I could incorporate my flaws into part of a brilliant personality or something like that.

You know, I could never figure out whether Paul Pierce was a nice or cool guy or whatever. Right after that Luka shot you're talking about, he has this eruption and his face is getting red. I don't know if I ever would want to meet Luka, and usually my favorite players are people that I think might be a little bit cool to hang out with, even if they're, you know, assholes of various types. These guys just seem built to excel at this thing, but on their own terms? Has Luka ever shown up in shape? Maybe that's part of his charm.

I don't have the imaginary capacity to picture in my mind what Luka showing up in shape looks like, or if that's even good. I think the thing I like about Luka is another thing that keeps me coming back to basketball eternally, which is that I like competitors, and I like competition. The framework of the playoffs is so great, because you often get two teams locked into this dynamic where they're both well past what I thought their limits were and past the point of being able to surprise each other, and are just forced to keep trying to destroy each other. To bring us back to the Knicks, they are the realest competitors I've seen this year, and I love that about them.

Again, I just have to say Josh Hart, my God. What an absolute psychopath. He just cares so much. There's no reason he should get as many rebounds as he does. I would also put Isaiah Hartenstein up with Hart, as a guy who is also thinking through every moment like, How can I win? How can I win? How can I win? I think that's beautiful, and this is another corny thing that I think is true: A reason this is worth caring about is that it's a metaphor for how we have to live our lives. There are many factors that are out of our control, but to live nobly is to seize the things that we can control. And the only basketball players I care about are the ones who do that.

I have to ask: Are you a hater? Because as much as I love watching the game and respect everyone who does this stuff at a super-high level, I feel like a necessary thing to cultivate is one's haterdom. Another friend of mine has this theory that sports are so great because they are the last semi-intellectualizable area where you can just be a hater and not have to justify it. Do you identify with that mindset?

One-hundred percent. I hope never to cross paths with Chris Paul. I've had a problem with Joel Embiid for a while. Just like his former coach Doc Rivers, he's never done anything wrong. Have you noticed how he's never done a bad thing? Never ever? If they lose, it's Ben Simmons’s fault, it's this guy's fault, he's a great teammate-throw-under-the-buser. Also, as we learned this year, just a dirty motherfucker. He tried to kill Mitchell Robinson!


I cannot believe it. He should just stay upright. He falls over every play. He
falls over, his big ass is rolling around on the ground, and then always sulking back to the other side of the court. I cannot stand it.

And more recently, this series against the Pacers has made me completely aware of Tyrese Haliburton's "coach's son energy." He's just like the coach's annoying son who's good, but also just thinks he should have the best of everything, and when he's not, he's sulking. I cannot believe that he showed up to Game 7 in a different outfit, and then after they had won, put on that shirt. Like, if you're so cool, if you're so bad, wear that shirt to the game, motherfucker.

Giri described his game as an MLM scheme, which I thought was brilliant.

It's true. So yes, it is a great place to hate. If you live long enough, and you hate strongly enough, you can kind of come to a grudging respect. If you cultivate enmity in life, it never ends that well, whereas with basketball, it's part of the story.

The true hater is the one who engages honestly.

I think that's right.

You had a tweet pointing out that this is a very interesting two-year transitional moment for the league. Whoever wins, there'll be a new champion, a champion without an MVP winner. Meanwhile, the Wemby era is looming, and I think it will start sooner than most. So do you think the league is more or less interesting in a moment like this?

There are so many great players, and I think it's not only a function of LeBron [James], Steph [Curry], and [Kevin Durant]'s generation getting older, I think it's also a function of the game that is played right now. Defense has never been harder to play. You could name a million factors, right? I think that we're in for a long era of relative parity. I don't think the game as it is played is set up to accommodate dynasties as much as the game before. Though this all gets scattered to the wind if there's a truly generational player, and maybe Wemby just shuts my mouth and there's a new dynasty right around the corner. But honestly I'm astounded by the talent around the league. I love watching Shai Gilgeous-Alexander play. He plays like he's wearing a tuxedo. This year we'll have our sixth different champion in a row, and while we might get some repeats or whatever, I think it's going to be more like this for a while.

Just this morning I was hanging out with a Mavs fan friend and he was already talking about how Dallas had to win this year, that this would be their last opportunity. There's absolutely no guarantee this team will even make it out of the first round next year. Nobody is surprised anymore when somebody makes it to the Western Conference Finals one year then is kind of middling the next. Which is interesting and heightens the stakes, I think. And I also think it's more accommodating for casual fans. They have more entry points, they're getting introduced to a new set of personalities, and a new set of circumstances.

I almost feel a little—guilty is not the right word, but—mildly guilty to have read and enjoyed this book and mostly talk to you about basketball. That's just one small part of the book, though it was the most obvious entry point to just talking about it at all.

I like when basketball fans talk about that scene. It's the most gratifying thing in the world. David looks at lots of different things, and basketball is just as important as that pattern, or that painting, or that set of photographs or whatever.

So if David Hammond was a fan of the NBA in 2024, who do you think would be his guy?

Well, this is what would have happened: He would have had a long and ultimately disappointing affinity for Ben Simmons, and would have defended him for far too long. And right now he would be telling people why a healthy Paul George would be one of the greatest players of all time. He'd be a big Paul George stan.

I feel a little seen, because I have basically both of those takes right now.

Both of those things are true of me too, by the way.

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