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Adam Sandler Is Betting the N.B.A. (and Knicks) Can Take a Joke

Adam Sandler is a devoted Knicks fan, which seems improbable for someone who moved to New England from Brooklyn at age 5 and so grew up deep in Boston Celtics country during the genesis of the Larry Bird era. He offers no reasonable explanation for this paradox beyond the retrospective admission that he foolishly chose the wrong partisan path.

“I made a mistake,” he says in a plaintive voice that has launched countless big-screen gags.

Meeting Bird years later as an established comic actor, he apologized for “how much I screamed at him growing up” and for preferring Julius Erving and the 76ers during epic Boston-Philadelphia playoff battles of the early 1980s. Close up, the 6-foot-9-inch Bird seemed bigger to Sandler than he had imagined, perhaps because of his exalted status, much like his most famous franchise.

All these years later, the Celtics and even the 76ers are Eastern Conference contenders again while his Knicks — their noble 1990s aside — are still irrelevant and possibly worse than ever. Because Sandler, who is 53, lives in Los Angeles and likes to “get out of the house,” he frequents Staples Center, watching the revived LeBron James-led Lakers and occasionally the newly fortified Clippers.

“The Knicks, I don’t get too upset anymore. I just face facts,” he said. “I’m almost madder when they win. I’m like, ‘How did that happen?’ ”

Sitting alongside Sandler at a Manhattan hotel this week was a cackling Kevin Garnett, who plays himself in a new movie, “Uncut Gems,” co-directed by the Safdie brothers, Josh and Benny, New Yorkers who also count themselves among the legion of long-tortured Knicks die-hards.

Garnett was known as the Big Ticket during his playing days, mostly in Minnesota and Boston, where in 2008 he helped secure championship banner No. 17. But Sandler is the box office star in the film — which opens this month — as Howard Ratner, a diamond district wheeler, dealer and degenerate gambler, increasingly desperate to settle his debts with one massive score.

Once upon a time, the N.B.A. probably would have cringed at such a movie, with Garnett, more commonly known as K.G., engaged in a gambling-related caper that uses the Celtics-76ers playoff games in 2012 as a crucial plot point.

Back in the 1990s, the N.B.A. commissioner at the time, David Stern, threatened to derail the league’s expansion into Toronto unless Ontario province removed legal N.B.A. betting lines from its lottery, arguing then that the league didn’t want “to see people encouraged to bet the grocery money on the outcome of any sport, but particularly our own.”

He also had to deal with gambling-related headlines ensnaring the estimable likes of Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas. In 2007, a public relations fire had to be doused in the case of Tim Donaghy, a veteran referee who bet on games he was working (the subject of a much less-heralded recent feature film, “Inside Game”).

In “Uncut Games,” Sandler as Ratner even assures a menacing creditor that the Celtics are a lock because the refs, and by extension the league, prefer Boston to win — a conspiratorial cliché the league has been fighting forever.

But at least on the wider cultural embrace and potential revenues of legalized sports betting, Stern came around, no matter how easy technology allowed the grocery money to be sacrificed. Adam Silver, his successor, has run even harder with that baton since Stern retired in 2014.

While N.B.A. players have long enjoyed relationships with Hollywood, most roles have been cartoonish or comic, such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s cameo in “Airplane” (1980) or LeBron James’s sidekick casting in “Trainwreck” (2015) and Michael Jordan in “Space Jam” (1996). Ray Allen was cheered for his understated performance as Jesus Shuttlesworth in Spike Lee’s “He Got Game” (1998), about the ethical challenges of college basketball recruiting.

But for a sport long trending and bending with the rhythms of youth culture, “Uncut Gems” is a tense, spirited partnership of promotional self-interest. The basketball language is far from generic. In Garnett, the Safdies — who specialize in exposing slice-of-life dark underbellies — fittingly landed the edgiest of recent N.B.A. superstars, even if the role was originally written a decade ago for Amar’e Stoudemire (who was then a Knick, of course).

Josh Safdie even recalled attending a Sabbath dinner with Stoudemire when the now-retired power forward was exploring what he believed to be Jewish ancestral roots. But Stoudemire’s career succumbed to injury, and not long after along with it went whatever positive vibes the franchise had in the period “Uncut Gems” is set. A couple of references to the Knicks tend to befit the punch line they have become in today’s N.B.A.

Sandler at least did his part for the failed resurrection. Reprising his Opera Man spoof on Saturday Night Live last spring, he bellowed, in verse: “Just wait till Durant comes to the Knicks. Please. Please, Kevin. And bring Kyrie.”

Durant and Kyrie Irving ignored the plea, signing with the Nets.

“That’s true,” Sandler said, resignedly, on the morning after the Knicks (4-17) had lost in Milwaukee by a mere 44 points.

Before he could say more, Garnett cut in.

“They did the Nets, but I thought they should have did the Knicks, you all, being honest,” he said. “I mean, I’m not a Knick fan by far, but coming to a city to dominate, the first superstar to hit New York and revive it is going to be bigger than life.”

Sandler cooed, “Ooh, yeah,” but it sounded like a dream more than a plan. And at this point, not a bet even Sandler’s “Ratner” would make.

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