Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Knicks quest for relevance

I really and truly wish I could care.

I wish I could care that the Knicks are now going to be relevant again; that Spike Lee is going to get more TV time than Dick Vitale; that my beloved agent Esther Newberg is going to be calling me saying proudly, “I have Knicks tickets tonight,” because the Knicks are going to be a hot ticket again.

Carmelo Anthony is coming to New York. The city suddenly cares about the NBA again. I wish I did.

When I was a kid I LOVED the Knicks. I lived and died with the Knicks. I remember how thrilling it was when they finally made it back to the playoffs in 1967 and how devastating it was when Bill Russell’s last Celtics team took them out in The Eastern Conference finals in 1969. I was one of those people who camped out on line starting at 5 a.m. the morning playoff tickets went on sale. The only reason I didn’t go earlier is that my parents wouldn’t let me leave the house in the middle of the night.

I was in section 406 on May 8, 1970 for what is known as ‘The Willis Reed,’ game even though Walt Frazier had 36-19-13 that night. I’m going on memory so if I’m a little off don’t kill me. I wasn’t thrilled with the Earl Monroe trade because it killed me to see Dave Stallworth and Mike Riordan go but I got over it when The Pearl helped the Knicks win a second title in 1973.

I could tell you the autograph-signing habits of all the Knicks—Willis always signed and walked; Frazier stopped, signed and talked to everyone. Bill Bradley put his head down and hoped you wouldn’t notice him—he was always the last guy to arrive prior to a game. But he never said no when you did spot him—he figured you’d earned it. Dave DeBusschere would only sign after he’d gone into Harry M’s—the bar right next to the player entrance—to have a couple of beers. Then, if you waited him out, he signed. Nate Bowman did everything but ask YOU for an autograph.

My friends and I all did Marv Albert imitations and I thought it was incredibly cool that my dad had been at CCNY at the same time as Red Holzman. Red Auerbach was a couple of years ahead of him but I HATED that cigar-smoking SOB. (Until he practically became my son’s godfather in later life).

But it all went away. Willis couldn’t stay healthy and Dave Cowens was too young, too strong and too angry about losing game 7 in 1973 to lose in 1974. A year later, I remember sitting in my college dorm on a Saturday afternoon and watching the old guys hobble through a humiliating game three loss in the old best-of-three mini-series to the Houston Rockets. The who? The Rockets? Mini-series? I don’t think I came out of my room for two days I felt so humiliated.

That was the last vestige of the great old Knicks. But that wasn’t when I stopped caring. In truth, it was Pat Riley, the coach who restored the team to some semblance of past glory when he took over. I just didn’t like Riley: didn’t like him personally and didn’t like his style of play. My Knicks played defense as well as it has ever been played—they were the first team to make holding a team under 100 points a big deal—but Riley’s teams played defense the way the New Jersey Devils play the neutral zone trap: clutch and grab and swing elbows and make the game ugly.

They won but I couldn’t really enjoy it. As I said some of it was personal: I think Riley is three of the most arrogant people I’ve met in sports. I’ve told the Michael Jordan, ‘young and loud,’ story before. I didn’t mind being called young and loud—I was both at the time—I minded his complete refusal to acknowledge, even privately, that maybe he’d been wrong; that maybe Jordan was a little better player than Sam Bowie and that a member of the media—‘you media guys,’ as he said disdainfully that night—had told him so before Jordan played an NBA game.

“He’s really not 6-6, that’s what you media guys don’t understand,” Riley had said that night in New York during the 1984 U.S. Open tennis tournament. “He’s only 6-4.”

“I don’t care if he’s FIVE four, he’s going to tear up your league,” the media guy said.

Hell, I’m wrong all the time. I thought Mark Price was an overrated white kid. He was an all-star who might have made The Hall of Fame if he’d stayed healthy. We all get things wrong.

Except Pat Riley.

At least he lived down to what I thought of him when he took the money and ran to Miami and resigned by sending the team a FAX. Seriously? A FAX? What a great guy.

I tried to ‘get back,’ my feelings about the Knicks after Riley left. But it never came back—except for a moment when Allen Houston hit the shot that rolled around the rim and in to beat Riley’s Heat in 1999.

I don’t feel any malice towards them the way I did in 1994 when I did NOT want them to win the NBA title. I wanted MY Knicks to have the last basketball banner flying in Madison Square Garden. Of course in those days there were only a few banners in the Garden: The Knicks two titles; the Rangers long-ago Stanley Cup banners (to which one was finally added in 1994). That was it. You noticed the banners right away when you walked in. The Knicks banners were white, with orange lettering. They were cool. I didn’t want to see one go up that Riley was responsible for hanging.

Of course it didn’t, thanks in large part to Riley’s refusal to get John Starks out of the game when he couldn’t find water from a rowboat. I had nothing against Starks but I enjoyed seeing Riley outcoached by Rudy Tomjanovich—and this was before I had any relationship with Tomjanovich.

Of course the Garden took all the cool banners down a few years ago and put up about a million smaller, cheesy ones. There are now St. John’s banners and conference championship banners and division championship banners. There’s a banner for Billy Joel! (I love Billy Joel but a banner in Madison Square Garden? When did it become the mecca for piano men?) I think there’s a banner for the Knicks last five game winning streak.

It isn’t that I don’t like Mike D’Antoni, in fact I like him. Donnie Walsh too. I DO agree with Mike Francesa (who I almost never agree with) that if Isiah Thomas is in any way involved these days the building should just be shut down. I think A’mare Stoudamire is terrific. But I don’t like players who don’t get exactly what they want with one franchise so they run somewhere else (See James, Lebron). Finish a job. It isn’t like the Nuggets or the Cavaliers are The Clippers who will never win or the Redskins with evil ownership or the Kansas City Royals who won’t spend any money.

So, Carmelo Anthony is coming to New York. I was there on Tuesday and that is ALL anyone was talking about. Good for the Knicks for pulling it off. I feel for people in Denver the way I felt for people in Cleveland, the way I felt for people in Milwaukee all those years ago when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar demanded to be traded and ended up in Los Angeles.

Everyone in New York is agog.

I wish I could feel that way. But I just don’t, not even a little bit.


Couple quick notes on my AP poll this week: I voted Brigham Young and San Diego State 1-2 because why not vote them 1-2? It isn’t as if any of the so-called power teams are dominant right now and why not give these guys a little bit of recognition. The polls in basketball are (Thank God) just a beauty contest, unlike in college football. They mean nothing except as an ego-boost or downer.

That’s why you Georgetown fans who insist on sending posts that are so profane they have to be taken down need to seriously get over yourselves. This isn’t Egypt or Libya or Wisconsin. It’s a basketball poll—one that means just about nothing, unlike a charity basketball tournament that raises millions for kids at risk.

THAT you should be upset about. And you know exactly what I'm talking about.


Duke Grad said...

Everyone knows what you're talking about. Participation (or non-participation)in your event causes you to knock Georgetown on a constant basis, while at the same time kissing up to Gary Williams like some sort of sychophant.

In these cases, objectivity for you is thrown by the wayside.

Anonymous said...

Please don't feel sorry for Nugget fans. This trade does three things: 1) Makes Denver a better team. Sounds silly, but please watch. Denver will have a better winning % the rest of the season without Anthony (as they do over the course of his career in Denver when he has missed games); 2) Gives Denver a chance to win a NBA title sometime during Anthony's career; 3) Destroys any chance of a NBA title the Knicks may have had because no team will ever win a title with Anthony much like no team would ever win with Iverson.

I never thought I would ever see a player more overrated than Iverson. But reading some of the comments coming out of New York, we may have a new winner.

Much like Iverson, Anthony is a terrific offensive force. However, exactly like Iverson, Anthony is a ball-stopper. The offense stands still when he has the ball. Not sure how this will fit with D'Antoni's style. Should be interesting.

One thing I am fairly certain of: winning is not in the top three of Anthony's list of priorities.

Rich, Denver

Mike said...

Hey John,
What's the MJ "young and loud" story you referred too? I searched your previous blog entries about MJ and couldn't find it. Keep up the good work.I enjoy reading your opinions even the ones I don't agree with. I also find it comical that the haters don't quit reading your blog!!!

Mike, Seattle

Anonymous said...

How do you write a whole column about why it's hard to care about the Knicks and not use the word "Dolan"?

Gunnar said...

I hope Spike Lee gets more TV time then Dick Vitale...but I still don't know why Spike Lee is famous. Dr Ruth could be my Great Grandmother, but I would rather hear her talk about oral sex than hear Dick Vitale talk about college basketball.

case said...

we have similar knick roots, but mine go back to the jim baechtold and kenny sears fan clubs merging to become the first knicks fan club under the leadership of marvin aufrichtig(albert)
i also was there for willis and as a hoops coach was also repelled by riley and riley ball
but i enjoy d'antoni-ball, even with little d and have resigned myself to the way of free agency(i would think you would also,logically, though not emotionally)
so try to forget the riley years and enjoy the garden rocking with good hoops by good players who seem to be decent people
after all, you can't root for the lakers, celtics, heat or your home town team
who's left ?

Anonymous said...

John -- assume your going to be real happy learning Carmelo wants to bring #15 down from the rafters, and Earl Monroe has supposedly said yep. I expect nothing less from Monroe, but how about 'Melo' doing something in his career besides score points before asking for favors from legends!

I hope the Knicks have more sense than giving him this pleasure. But no way Dolan does.

Mark S said...

Hey John, what about Dick Barnett as far as the autographs go? I think he was the only starter you missed.

Anonymous said...

Hey Mike in Seattle...
Here's a link to a short piece on espn about the riley/jordan story.

Love the blog. Thanks for writing it John.


omnivore said...

Even if John is unobjective who cares? He is an author, columnist and blogger, not a reporter. He's trying to do something for charity and he's right; it wouldn't kill Georgetown to oblige every few years.