The Breaks Of The Game

What are the Knicks doing on their extended summer vacation?

As the sun went down on another blustery, NBA-less evening last week, Allan Houston was struggling to find his zone. He wasn't looking for that unconscious plateau that basketball players sometimes reach on the court, where every shot seems to fall automatically through the net. For Houston, and for many of the New York Knicks, getting into a zone these days is about finding some peace, as perhaps the most fundamental routine in their lives has been disrupted by the ongoing NBA labor mess.

"I don't feel right unless I'm doing something," Houston told the Voice last week. To that end, the 27-year-old guard says he has been vigilant about maintaining a five-day-a-week workout schedule with his personal trainer. In addition, Houston has regular sessions with a Knicks trainer to rehabilitate his injured knee. (Because the injury occurred before the lockout, the Knicks have allowed their personnel to work with Houston. Center Patrick Ewing, who is still nursing an injured wrist from last season, has been extended the same courtesy.) In recent days, Houston's knee has been strong enough for him play his first five-on-five ball since last season. "It felt great," he says with the familiar optimism of a sidelined player itching to get back on the floor.

The NBA's four-month-old lockout has aggravated that impatient impulse for Houston and many other players. Years of the same physical routine has conditioned their bodies to unleash right about now, after spending the summer months in hibernation. "It throws your rhythm off," Houston says. "When it's this cold outside, guys are used to being involved in some kind of organized play."

In conversations with the Voice over the last week, members of the Knicks spoke about the difficulties and some incidental benefits of dealing with life without basketball. While some have filled their downtime with projects befitting multimillionaire New York athletes, others are whittling away the days by doing the dishes and taking on other homebound duties.

These days, Knicks forward Buck Williams spends his time shuttling his two sons, aged six and nine, back and forth to their school in Greenwich, Connecticut. He's also had more time to help the boys with their homework. It's debatable, however, whether that is a positive development, according to Williams. "I was in science class with one of my sons the other day and they started talking about compounds and all this stuff. I said, 'What am I doing in here? I don't know what they are talking about.' "

Williams says he's also spending time researching ideas for business ventures he plans to pursue after he retires. For the 38-year-old Williams, that sunset is sure to be soon. A knee injury limited him to only 41 games in the 1997­98 season, marking the first time in his 17-year career that he had not played in at least 70 regular-season games.

For Houston, right now should be the prime of his playing days, but instead he's pursuing an acting career. Houston is using his extended summer vacation to shoot Black and White, an upcoming film about a group of white kids who get involved in hip-hop culture. Houston's costars include Ben Stiller, Claudia Schiffer, and Brooke Shields. "It's fun," he says, "I actually get to act." Although he would have participated in the movie even if the lockout hadn't happened, the NBA's labor troubles have given him more time to devote to the project.

Houston says he has also developed a new appreciation for the pleasures of suburban life. He has been spending a lot more time at his home in placid Greenwhich. "It's nice," he says, to "not have to deal with" the New York celebrity scene. "It's like two different worlds. There's nothing to do up here except go out to eat and relax in the house." For the moment, that seems to suit Houston just fine.

While Houston seems to have responded to his predicament with characteristic calm, Knicks guard John Starks has confronted the basketball void with his trademark intensity. Starks says that he has used the unexpected free time to throw himself headlong into a variety of business ventures. At the moment, he is knee-deep in preparations for the launch of his new communications firm, Three-Point Wireless. The company, slated to open in midtown Manhattan in January, will sell a wide range of cellular equipment and services. "It will be a one-stop cellular store," says Starks, moments after stepping out of a business meeting on the project, and with little indication that he's had trouble picking up the lingo. Starks also owns Original Man Wear, a leisure sportswear clothing line with showrooms in New York and several other cities.

Starks is also keeping busy with activities related to his charitable organization, the John Starks Foundation, which raises money for a variety of youth programs. He is particularly excited about a project at the Boys Brotherhood Republic, a New York City youth center, that educates kids about the legal system, using a mock courtroom setting. Starks hopes that the close-up view of what happens after one gets arrested will give young people a better understanding of their legal rights and help to deter them from the wrong path.

Although he seems to have plenty to occupy him, it is still a challenge to keep his mind off basketball. "You do get anxious at this time [of year], but I understand the purpose of what we're doing." Starks is keeping fit with a regular workout regimen at the gym conveniently located inside his Connecticut home, but he hasn't had many opportunities to run the court with other players.

On the domestic front, Starks has found himself factored into the household chore rotation more often. And he hasn't had much luck pawning off his least favorite job— feeding the dog— on his 11-year-old son, John Jr. The lockout has given Starks Sr. time to try his hand at coaching, too. He is volunteering as an assistant for his son's football team this fall. He has been dabbling in the arts as well, attending his six-year-old daughter Chelsea's piano recitals.

Point guard Charlie Ward hasn't seen his domestic responsibilities increase since he has been idled by the lockout. "I'm used to cleaning up," Ward said in a phone interview from his Stamford, Connecticut, home that was accompanied by the occasional clamor of pots and pans in the background.

Ward says he has kept in shape working out and running the court with friends in recent months. But, echoing the sentiments of many of his teammates, he says "nothing's going to be the same" as NBA competition. Ward, who is 28 years old, has spent much of his newfound free time involved in the charitable activities he plans to devote himself to more fully after his retirement. Last Friday, he appeared at a public school in the Bronx, where he gave a motivational speech to a group of youths. Ward says that the lockout has allowed him to oblige many more of the requests to make these kinds of appearances.

Although Ward did not expect the NBA's labor troubles to come to this, he says he makes it his business in life to be prepared for anything. To that end, he is philosophical about the disruption of his livelihood. "It's giving me an opportunity to do other things, look at new avenues, and explore innovative ways of doing things. This situation should be a lesson to prepare yourself for hard times."

Despite Ward's optimistic determination, the conversation turns quickly to talk of the lockout. Although he sympathizes with hoops fans whose needs aren't being met at the moment, he supports the union's hard-line negotiations stance. "We can't pay for their [NBA owners] bad choices, they have to live with the consequences," Ward says, referring to the league's claims of financial difficulties.

All the Knicks who spoke with the Voice said they were keeping close tabs on developments in negotiations. Williams, the former union president, says he even speaks frequently with his successor, Patrick Ewing, but has not taken an active role in the talks.

For the moment, members of the Knicks are still hoping that they will get back to the business of basketball before the end of the year. When asked about a return to the court, Starks slips into locker-room mode: "It's going to be my best season for the New York Knicks, mentally and physically," Starks promises. "It will be the old John Starks, going aggressively to the basket." Was there ever any other John Starks?

Houston, meanwhile, isn't making any prophecies about a bright Knicks future. Although he is excited to pick up where the team left off last spring, he isn't looking to settle any old scores.

"I think it's time for everybody to start worrying about us instead of us worrying about them."

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