THE BEST GAME of 2016 – NBA2K17

I walk up to the ticket booth and ask for the best seat in the house. The guy in the window names a price and my blood runs cold. Maybe sixth or seventh best, I say. I pay around USD$250 for my ticket and head inside. The music is deafening, the light blinding. My senses are being bombarded from every angle. My seat is only a few rows from the action. Action that hasn’t even started yet. I sit down and to my surprise, there’s a menu waiting. I can order food directly from my seat! Well, I just have to try this. I order a beer and a gigantic hot dog that I couldn’t finish eating. The arena is packed to the gills. Thousands of people all like me. Gathering together under one roof. All excited to witness the spectacle in front of me.

It’s only then do I remember where I am. This doesn’t seem right. These people should all be in mourning. It felt like only yesterday that they saw with their own eyes thousands of their neighbours die a horrible, senseless death only a few blocks from here. How are they not running around screaming all day long? But they’re not. They’re eagerly waiting in their seats just like me. This is amazing. I feel privileged to even be in this building, let alone sitting in a $250 seat that serves big hot dogs. The lights go down and what everyone paid to see erupts in front of me.

The New York Knicks lost by four points to Orlando that night. But even with a loss, I left the iconic Madison Square Garden feeling uplifted. Surrounded by New Yorkers, I had witnessed something special on many different levels. I had been part of something new and exciting. It felt like a small part of a larger rebirth of a city. Via its beloved basketball team. These Knicks fans were just happy to see the Knicks. They celebrated when they scored and were frustrated when they missed. Just like before. Basketball was still basketball inside the Garden. And if it could still be basketball now, then nothing could ever change it.

The date was 30th December 2001. Three months after 9/11.

I was hooked. Knicks fan for life.

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Since then, 2K have become masters of video game basketball. The amount of research, face-mapping, body animation and sheer love for the sport is worn on the sleeve of every entry in this franchise. Since 1999, California-based developer Visual Concepts have been building NBA2K into a consistent mark of quality when it comes to sports games. Where some franchises are happy enough to just update rosters and tweak some art, it feels like every NBA2K is built from scratch. For ’17, the developers had the crazy idea to travel all over the United States to record sounds from each individual basketball court. Crowds, floorboards, buzzers – all unique. Even crazier is that they actually did it.

While this attention to detail is impressive, it matters not if the core gameplay isn’t up to scratch. But NBA2K17 nails it. The learning curve and fluidity of movement are a dream to play. Mastering a good jump shot or pulling off a solid screen so your team-mate can get an easy lay-up feels fantastic and in a way that somehow never gets old. Similar to EA’s Skate series, NBA2K offers skills to the player upfront and it’s up to you to get better.

It is also a franchise that provides atmosphere that a lot of games can’t even approach. The crowd feels electric when the score is close and reacts dynamically to blocks and 3-pointers. The arena announcers are appropriately excited to be calling plays and the pre-shows with Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and Shaq are funny and educational. But the real wizardry is the commentary. The NBA2K series has consistently made this aspect of their game to be so convincing that it seems like magic. Their professional commentary team and the design of how it fits into the game is so good, it feels as real as Kevin Durant’s skinny arms or Lebron’s monster dunks. But enough about 2K. Let’s talk about how much the Knicks suck.

New York Knicks V Orlando Magic

Since that magical night in 2001, my love for the Knicks has never wavered. From the days of Latrell Sprewell and hoping Amar’e Stoudemire reaches his potential to still being annoyed by Tyson Chandler being drafted to Phoenix and JR Smith walking around with a Cleveland championship ring, the Knicks are an enigma wrapped in frustration. It would be something if they were absolutely awful like Philadelphia or Dallas. But the unshakeable inconsistency of this historic team is the maddening reason they haven’t gone all the way since 1973.

Sport is inherently weird. To dedicate yourself to watching a group of people running around chasing a ball (whatever shape that ball may take) is a bizarre way to spent your spare time. I don’t know these people and they don’t know me. However, I sit in judgement on their actions and deeds. They might get paid an obscene amount of money but I could never do a tenth of what they do every couple of days. I would be in hospital sitting in a bathtub full of ice after just a single quarter of play. 82 games fill out a season that lasts from October to June and these players exhaust themselves showing feats of skill, strength and sometimes forward-thinking that blows the minds of their fans. When the Knicks are clicking on all levels, it is a team that is a joy to watch.

That said, I throw my head back and call them out by name in a way that seems like they owe me something. Joakim Noah might have great at Chicago but he has been the weak link on the Knicks roster. Get Kyle O’Quinn in there more often because he is a master inside the paint. Derrick Rose is an unstoppable machine when he drives to the basket and Kristaps Porzingis is a revelation. 21 years old, 7 foot 3 inches and he’s out there playing like an All-Star. Come on Jennings, stop showing off and nail those mid-range jumpers. Baker needs more time to prove himself if only Hornacek gave him extra minutes. Justin Holliday is like a sniper when he shoots from the arc and he nails three-pointers like a veteran.

Chicago Bulls v New York Knicks

See what I mean? I don’t know these players personally but I feel like I do. I worry about their injuries and off-court activities and how it affects the team going forward. As of this writing, the Knicks stand at 18 wins and 22 losses. They get a run of good games under their belt followed by string of disasters. Again and again and again. Nothing sticks. And it has been this way for years. Despite Carmelo Anthony being the solid rock of New York, his support can’t keep it cohesive enough to take this team to the top no matter how much individual talent they all might possess. But I’m all on board regardless of how many L’s they have on the board. And I can thank NBA2K17 for that.

A few years back, my interest in this New York team was barely there. I would occasionally pay attention to scores once or twice a month but my heart wasn’t in it. And I played NBA2K on and off alongside my half-hearted desire to see the Knicks do better. And then NBA2K17’s The Prelude was released. Essentially a free demo, it dropped a week before the main game and was a foundation to build your character in story mode. Playing through the highlights of his college career, your in-game persona started to take shape and ended on the cusp of the start of an NBA career. With your stats and achievements carried over into the main game, this felt like it mattered and made me remember what was so special about basketball to me. The story mode itself in NBA2k17 is fantastic. I almost squeal with delight when I get a text from Carmelo Anthony congratulating me on a good win.

I had forgotten how much I enjoyed watching and paying attention to basketball. I barely follow any other sport but something about throwing that ball up into that hoop has stuck with me. I assume it’s the same with other passionate fans. When the Knicks hit the court, the world just falls away and the game is all that matters. Donald Trump was elected during a Knicks game but you wouldn’t know it. Fans were too busy yelling at Noah for missing that simple lay-up.

Boston Celtics v New York Knicks

That’s not to say anything could have been this trigger. The quality and sheer fun of NBA2k17 is second to none. The story mode, playing blacktop games, taking your player online against other people in MyPark – all phenomenal. Just recently, MyPark had a one-night only party where you could play on neon courts and in-game version of Snoop Dogg was choosing the music. That’s some good clean dumb fun right there. I got destroyed by experts but at least I got some cool sunglasses for my character. There’s even a mode where you can play a whole season as your favourite team alongside your favourite team. Real-life stats, injuries and scores heighten the NBA season to a new hyper level that borders on obsession. And don’t even get me started about the in-game collector cards: those things are popular in the NBA2K community to the point of madness.

NBA2K17 is a very special game and the Knicks are a very special team. And on another level, there’s something uniquely inspiring about how the NBA has developed. In a country where black people are maligned, threatened and killed, here they are treated like gods and showered with praise. The most legendary players in history – Chamberlain, Jordan, Magic, Shaq, Ewing, Kobe and Lebron are household names and all are black. Not that this is any sort of solution to America’s deep racial inequality problem but maybe this is one corner of America where they can soar higher than the racism that plagues the world like a virus. On top of that, in video games it’s the one box art every year where you’re probably going to see a person of colour on the front rather than a grizzled, angry white man. That’s important whether the millions of NBA2k fans realise it or not.

Thinking back to 2001, the way New Yorkers took pride in their city and their Knicks struck me as something to look up to. A set of ideals to keep the things that matter in place to keep you going. I felt it every day when I was in New York. For such a horrible tragedy to strike at the heart of your own city is not something many people in the western world can understand. Rebuilding and recovering would be even more difficult to comprehend when the reminder of thousands of people being murdered is close to where you catch the bus. It’s an attitude that has become necessary heading into 2017. My older relatives used to tell me about the Vietnam War and Nixon and how crazy those times were. One day I’ll tell young children about this era of the world and no doubt they will all think I’m talking nonsense. That’s if the world doesn’t go even more insane in the future.

Chicago Bulls v New York Knicks

I’m going to hang on to these Knicks. They’re stuck with me and I’m stuck with them. Every time I sit down to watch another game, I’m so excited. My frustration levels reset and I can’t wait to see my Knicks get started again. All the world’s troubles are put on mute for a while and I can grip the side of my couch while Melo passes to KP in the paint and O’Quinn blocks another certain score for the opposing team. Their next game is against Toronto, one of the best teams in the NBA. But somehow, I’m optimistic. I feel hope that this team of talented but inconsistent players that has blown so many chances over the years through bad coaching, bad management and insane decisions will just win their next game. That’s all they need to do. Just win the next one. It’s a simple thing and I had forgotten how much I enjoyed it.

I wouldn’t have that feeling in my life anymore if it wasn’t for NBA2K17 – the best game I played in 2016.

 

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