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On most nights, the Knicks are at the top of their game 90 minutes before tip-off. That's when, according to NBA rules, their locker room must be opened to the media. No sooner do reporters enter than the players tighten their defense to cut off any penetration into their personal space or the recesses of their minds. The no-look passdodging an approaching writer while pretending not to see himis relied on repeatedly. And the backdoor is utilized to perfection. In fact, plenty of Knicks hustle through it while escaping to the adjoining trainer's room, a sanctuary that's off-limits to the press.
The Knicks treat their showdowns with the press as seriously as their rivalries with the Pacers and Heat. The difference is, this matchup takes place almost every day from training camp through the playoffs. It's a tolerate-hate relationship dripping with sour attitudes and featuring more cold shoulders than you'll find when the Polar Bears hit the Coney Island surf on New Year's Day.
Athlete-journalist relations have been deteriorating for years. None of the area's pro teams, however, is as difficult to interact with as the Knicks. This season, the New York media has filed 20 complaints with the NBA for rules violations ranging from Knicks players refusing to remain on the court for 15 minutes after practice to the team failing to open its locker room to the media 10 minutes after a game. No other NBA team has sparked as many complaints.
Says one beat writer, "The Knicks just don't give a shit."
For Gotham reporters, the obstacle is twofold: cranky players and a bunker-entrenched front office that is often so evasive it could find a way to tap-dance around the question "Paper or plastic?"
"Much of the attitude comes from Patrick Ewing," says one reporter regularly assigned to the team. "He talks after games, but he's a baby who chooses when to be cooperative or rude. Ewings's tone is 'I'll do what I want, and fuck you.' That attitude has spread to other players, who feel they can choose their degree of arrogance." Earlier this season, the NBA fined Ewing $10,000 and the Knicks front office $25,000 for the center's lack of accessibility.
Battling Ewing for the title of Worst Demeanor is Larry Johnson. LJ routinely brushes off local writers and broadcasters, or answers some questions by feigning amnesia ("UNLV? I don't remember anything about playing there"). Meanwhile, Johnson has invited writers from Charlotte, his previous NBA port of call, to chat with him in the players-only trainer's room.
"A supreme asshole," the reporter says of Johnson. "There's a guy nobody wants to go near."
"Same with Charlie Ward," says another beat writer. "You get a chip on the shoulder andthe religious stuff."
The absence of friendly elder statesman Herb Williams this season hasn't helped the locker room atmosphere. If not for the cooperative Marcus Camby, Latrell Sprewell, Chris Childs, and Allan Houston, there'd be an awful lot of blank notebook pages on the Knicks beat. That the poisonous gas cloud didn't lift when moody Anthony Mason and Charles Oakley departed, some writers say, is proof that the anti-media feelings are ingrained throughout the organization.
"Everyone in the league looks at the Knicks [organization] as arrogant," says an executive with an Eastern Conference rival. "It's 'We're New York and you're not,' and it started with Pat Riley. He created the paranoia. Jeff Van Gundy is a mini-Pat Riley who carries it over."
To get quotes at the Knicks' practice facility at SUNY-Purchase, writers often have to chase players in the parking lot as they hustle to their cars. Contrast that with the availability, even for out-of-town media, of Grant Hill and Tim Duncan. Or the ease of landing a phone interview with one of the Pacers or Rockets.
"You hate your job when you cover this team," says the reporter. "Talk about a disregard for professional people who are glorifying you. It's disgusting."
Adds the second beat writer, "I blame the organization. [Public Relations Director] Lori Hamamoto is super-protective of the playersto the point where you're hesitant to ask for help. She's as likely to snap at you as to help you."
"They have their opinion," responds Hamamoto. "I try to help as much as possible. All I can do is my best. Knicks players are under great pressure. Demands on them are greater than in any other market."
Says Knicks GM Scott Layden, "The mere accessibility and candor of Coach Van Gundy refutes the claims [of stonewalling the press]." Layden, whose own quotes, when they come at all, are routinely vanilla, adds, "I don't talk about salaries, trade rumors, or some issues. That's not to slight the media. It's me. [MSG president] Dave Checketts doesn't sit me down and tell me not to talk."
Compounding the tension around the Knicks is the sheer volume of reporters, including seven traveling beat writersthe most in the league. So many credentials are given out for home games that the press sits everywhere but in Woody Allen's lap. The result is a locker room wolf pack, every paper printing the same hastily spit-out quotes, and true insight within an article about as rare as a Dick Barnett sighting. And with the infrastructure of personalities in place, the situation won't get any better.
So the folks around the Garden can probably count on hearing two sounds from now through April. The sound of the Knicks knocking on the door of an Atlantic Division title, accompanied too often by the sound of the fourth estate pounding on the bolted door of the locker room.