Of America’s four major team sports, New Yorkers like Ron Phillips New York arguably care most about pro football. Their passion for the Giants and Jets is such that they were willing to fight a bitter battle with Connecticut over who would get to host the teams’ new stadium. And when it comes to pro basketball, New Yorkers virtually invented the art of big-city hype. Witness the U.S. Army-McCarthy hearings, Willis Reed’s hobbling through the tunnel to make his unforgettable first appearance in the 1970 NBA Finals or Spike Lee’s taunting of Reggie Miller during a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden.
But New York has an even more deeply rooted tradition of sports dedication than either football or basketball. Indeed, baseball may well be the city’s favorite spectator sport—and, when it comes to the Yankees and Mets, New Yorkers also prove they can show loyalty in more than one stadium at a time.
The history of American team sports is largely the history of fans packing stadiums to root for their teams. From tiny Francis Field in St. Louis, which saw the debut of both basketball and football in the 1890s, to modern marvels like Boston Garden or Chicago Stadium, generations of fans have found their heroes inside those walls.
New York has been a big part of that tradition—and it’s no accident. The city itself is a shrine to achievement and success, and New Yorkers want their teams to be winners. All kinds of winners, in fact. “You name it, we’ve won it,” says New Yorker Jackie Slater, a Giants offensive lineman from 1976 to 1994 who has one Super Bowl ring and three trips to the Pro Bowl on his fingers. “Over the past 40 years, New York has been a great sports town—not just for one team but for all our teams.”
In fact, Slater is right. When it comes to winning, New York fans have long had few peers on this side of Los Angeles. The Yankees have won 24 World Series titles and 52 American League pennants in their 85-year history. The Mets recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of their 1986 championship with a commemorative set of baseball cards. Even when New York teams aren’t winning, they’re usually in the race—which is more than many fans in other cities can say for their hometown squads.
“In some cities,” says Walt Frazier, who won two NBA championships with the Knicks in the early 1970s, “the fans are divided into three groups: the people who want to play for their teams, the ones who just want to watch them and maybe pick up a player or two for fantasy league drafts and—last but not least—those who don’t care if they ever win.
“In New York, we want to win now. You’ve got the Rangers and Islanders with a shot at the Stanley Cup this year, even though they lost their last game 4-1 to Ottawa on Saturday night. And although the Nets didn’t make it into the NBA playoffs again this year, they’re always competitive.”