On Wednesday the NBA released its latest jersey sales report, and near the top of the list was a somewhat surprising name in Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis, who came in at No. 4 overall, based on sales in the league’s official online store.
But in New York, where the 7-footer has helped to reinvigorate a once-dispirited Knicks fan base, Porzingis’ jersey isn’t just the best seller in the city. It’s flying off the shelves at a rate that’s bringing back memories of another recent Knicks phenom.
"Originally we didn’t have any (Porzingis jerseys), but once he started making headway we got some in, and now they fly off the shelves," said Hassan Williams, a manager at Champs Sports’ Times Square store, just nine blocks from Madison Square Garden. "The last time this happened, I would say, was Linsanity."
During the 2011-12 season, Jeremy Lin became an overnight sensation for the Knicks after assuming the starting point guard role in early February, more than a month after being claimed off waivers from the Rockets (who claimed him after he was released by the Warriors). The former D-Leaguer sparked a global craze and his jersey became one of the league’s best-sellers almost immediately.
Porzingis-Mania hasn’t exactly reached the level of Linsanity just yet, according to retailers around New York City, but that likely has something to do with the fact that Porzingis, who was booed by fans after being selected with the No. 4 pick in June’s draft, came into the league with high expectations that were never placed on the former Harvard star Lin.
"Jeremy Lin was ridiculous," Williams said. "It was a short period of time, like a super-boost. Porzingis, he grew his star, but Jeremy Lin was on fire right away . . . so people were like, ‘This is what we need.’ "
Still, there’s a measurable buzz already building around 20-year-old big man Porzingis, who has been a starter since Day One and is averaging 14 points, eight rebounds and two blocks through 43 games this season.
"It’s just like the Jeremy Lin extravaganza," said Nicholas Chang, a manager at the Modell’s Sporting Goods on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. "Everybody likes an underdog and everybody likes a surprise."
Because of Porzing’s success, stores have had trouble keeping the Latvian’s jerseys in stock. And that will only become a bigger problem if he and Carmelo Anthony, the owner of the NBA’s No. 15-selling jersey, can do what Lin did and lead the Knicks (21-22) to the playoffs.
"Because of the market that New York is in, I know that when we have a silver lining like we do with Porzingis, the spotlight is on him," Williams said.
And like Lin, the first U.S.-born player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent to play in the NBA, the Latvian-born Porzingis should also continue to benefit from New York’s constant influx of overseas visitors.
"For tourists that used to come in, they just wanted any Knicks jersey," said Marc Sacks, manager at the Modell’s at Penn Plaza, across the street from Madison Square Garden. "They just know the Knicks and don’t necessarily know the players. Some of them know Carmelo Anthony, so they tend to buy him.
"But lately a lot of European customers have come in asking for Porzingis," he continued. "Especially the Latvian customers. We had a few in here on Monday who had come here just to see him play."
Getting to the top and staying there are two different things, however — especially in a fickle city like New York. So it remains to be seen whether Porzingis’ version of Linsanity will stick, or if it will simply amount to the latest Knicks fad.
"People got disenchanted because he went off the face of the earth," Chang said of the current Charlotte Hornets reserve Lin, who sat out the 2012 postseason with a knee injury then signed with the Rockets that summer after the Knicks failed to match his three-year, $25 million offer sheet. "So it all depends on the circumstances and how a player keeps appealing to the fan base."