By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
By Alison Flowers
By Albert Samaha
By Jesse Jarnow
By Eric Tsetsi
By Raillan Brooks
They keep calling it a short season, but even with the abbreviated schedule, the current NBA cycle seems like it's been with us forever. Some of that owes to the dragged-out lockout; the rest, at least locally, to the roller-coaster fortunes of our favorite Knickleheads. Where they've come from, who they've become, and where they're going reads like Horatio Alger crossed with Tolstoy. Any overview of this most improbable late-spring, early-summer denouement the end-of-April 21-21 Knicks now appearing with the juggernaut San Antonio Spurs in a title bout wouldn't be complete without a brief look at a select number of the team's running subplots.
The Press and the Players "The Knicks just can't do it," crows backup center Herb Williams in a relatively subdued post-Indy Garden locker room one that suggests there will be no euphoria-sharing with annoying scribes. "What's wrong with the Knicks?" Williams shouts to no one in particular. "They look like a high school team."
Whether or not anyone actually wrote such, the Knicks remain ever-sensitive to critical appraisal. Friday night's conference final victory is later punctuated in typical fashion by Patrick Ewing: "You guys buried us, covered us, and started shoving dirt on us." Perhaps a bit extreme, Ewing's assessment is due to a long-standing team antagonism with beat writers. Larry Johnson, who accepts $10,000 NBA hits rather than bothering with league-mandatory half-hour accessibility, is remarkably effusive following his heroic Game 3 four-pointer; a few days earlier at Market Square Arena, he was reputedly directing courtside obscenities at the Post's Peter Vecsey, who in turn labels him "Larry Low Life" in print.
One major problem is the rampant overcoverage, with locker rooms once player sanctuaries besieged by cameras and notepads. "With the media analysis that goes on these days and the closeness of the media to the stars," says Knicks radio voice Johnny "Hoops" Andariese, "I'm surprised we haven't begun analyzing skeletons." Noting a Post column in which Wallace Matthews bemoans Ewing's refusal to bare "insights into his soul," Blinky, a peddler who sometimes works outside the Garden, asks, "Is it any wonder pro athletes don't want to play in New York?"
The Crowd and the Players "Pray for us and we'll pray for you," said Charlie Ward in his opening day address at the Garden. "Pay for us, and we'll play for you" might have been more appropriate. Once known as the team's "sixth man," today's Knicks faithful are, for the most part, a giddy, fickle bunch a long stretch from the knowledgeable hoop-nuts that supposedly populate basketball's "mecca." These are high-priced ticket-holders who will delight in some inane lucky-fan promotion during a tense fourth-quarter time-out with the score tied late Friday night, who will respond like Pavlovian dogs to electronic reminders ("De-fense!" "Charge!"). Could the same people who blew the roof off Friday night be those seen bolting for exits on Monday when their faves trailed by nine with four minutes left?
They booed Patrick Ewing early on for his union stance ("We're fighting for our livelihood"), just as they jeered Marcus Camby's nonproductive outings; now they rally at the former's street-clothed image on the big screen, at the latter's arm-waving exhortations for noise that follow every slam dunk. Whatever. The lubby-dubby wonderment of Latrell Sprewell's high-fiving victory lap may overnight become ancient history should the Spurs do what they are supposed to do.
"The New York crowd wants a winner," explains former Knicks great Walt Frazier, adding that it took him "four seasons of 20 points per game" to win over the Garden. "Now a guy comes along for half a season, and he's already the greatest around. They [fans] think these guys are their saviors."
The Coach, the GM, the President The delicious irony has been thrown around a lot lately: the Knicks' recent success owes largely to the efforts of Sprewell and Camby, prized recruits of now deposed GM Ernie Grunfeld. Coach Jeff Van Gundy's reticence about the Camby trade he wanted to retain Charles Oakley along with his decision, until recently, to bring Spree off the bench, allegedly led to problems up top. If the resultant rift cost Grunfeld his job, well, that's NBA office-ball, and it's "JEFF-VAN-GUN-DEE" you hear the crowd chanting these days.
Meanwhile, team president Dave Checketts who admittedly lied about meeting coaching prospect Phil Jackson in secret back when the Knicks were seriously floundering refuses to endorse Van Gundy, even after his finest hour. "We were going to go as far as we could," says Checketts, looking somewhat lost, after the final Indy game. "We were going to hope for a couple of miracles with Larry's four-point shot in this series, Allan's shot in the Miami series." Such cryptic references to the fates suggest that blind luck won those games, not coaching.
And if New York's not Phil's kind of town anymore (he's reportedly headed to the Lakers), nor are the Knicks necessarily his cup of tea. Ewing has made it well-known he wouldn't play for Jackson next year, but who's in charge here anyway? As for the recently martyred Grunfeld, let's not forget he's the genius who signed on the redoubtable Charlie Ward for $24 mil. All this will play out off-season. If Knix history is any indicator, it won't be pretty.