On 144th and Lennox, in Harlem, a room full of anxious kids fooled around on the basketball court at Abyssinian Baptist Church. The influence of Michael Jordan was profound. Not a single shot went up, it seemed, without MJ’s trademark expression: mouth agape, tongue out. More than few step-back jumpers flew, many from kids who could barely hit the rim with their shots. Call it the Stephen Curry effect. It was hardly anything out of the ordinary.
What happened next was a sublime moment of dissonance. In walked an impossibly tall, slender 21-year-old Latvian clad in black sweats. Suddenly he was surfing a sea of screaming faces. Kristaps Porzingis stuck out in the crowd, not just because he’s a legitimate 7’3, but because he was one of the only white faces in the crowd (at least among those who weren’t there to cover the event).
Forget the election, or abstract notions of globalism or intersectionality, or the language barrier. Kristaps’ English is nearly devoid of any discernible accent. Porzingis spoke the only language that mattered in that room: basketball. Someone handed him a basketball about 8 feet from the basket and amid a sea of screaming fans, Porzingis drew the back iron much to the delight of the crowd.
“It was pretty crazy,” Porzingis said after. “I felt like a rockstar, all those kids around me. I felt the love. I felt that I was the idol and someone they look up to.”
Nearly nine miles from Madison Square Garden, in a sweaty, cramped community gym, Porzingis took the next critical step – and it’s a big one when you’re seven feet tall — to becoming the face of New York sports.
Phil Jackson brought in Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose to make the Knicks a legitimate playoff team, and Carmelo Anthony remains the unquestioned alpha dog, but none of that should distract from the truth: the future of the Knicks is in the estimable hands of its sophomore big man.
Porzingis was in Harlem to announce a charitable partnership called “KrisStops” in which he’ll donate $500 for every block he gets the rest of the season. According to a release, 100 percent of that money will go to RENS, a local youth basketball program, which will put it in the Ben Jobe Educational Scholarship Fund. Jobe is a long-time Knicks scout who remains active with the team at age 83.
Porzingis sees it as a necessary step for him in his evolution both as a player and a leader. Tying himself to the community is a way of putting skin in the game.