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"We are this close to not drafting Mike Sweetney," says Martin Bell. He's wearing a Latrell Sprewell jersey and an NFL Today cap, and he sounds as hopeful as a guy holding a ticket with the first two winning Powerball numbers. It's crunch time on June 26, in the middle of Draftnik Central, way back, stage right, in the the Theater at Madison Square Garden. This was the section that started the "Fi-re Lay-den! Fi-re Lay-den!" chant even before the draft began. "If we draft Mike Sweetney, I'm going to castrate myself," adds Bell's pal, Brian Hughes.
These were hardcore draftniks, and it takes one to know one. When it comes right down to it, the NBA draft might just be my favorite sporting event of the year, because it encapsulates what I love about sports. It's pure analysis without those pesky games getting in the way.
The Clips' taking lumbering center Chris Kaman off Knick GM Scott Layden's draft board buoys their spirits, but it's the Bulls' drafting point guard Kirk Hinrich that really opens up the possibilities. Texas guard T.J. Ford had been heading to Chicagoland in many mock drafts. Now it looks like maybe, just maybe, he can become a Knick.
The Milwaukee Bucks are on the clock. We can see it now. Ford, in blue and orange, beating Jason Kidd off the dribble with an Iversonian first step. The 20-foot airballs and not-in-my-neighborhood rejections from Gary Payton? Those will wait until after training camp. Charlie Ward is as good as gone, sent to the Middle East for a future second-round draft pick.
Then fateor Ernie Grunfeldsnatches our dream away. "The Milwaukee Bucks select . . . T.J. Ford!"
"Shit! Shit! Oh, my God!" the 'Niks bellow in unison.
"We are soooooo drafting Mike Sweetney," howls Hughes, who is quickly backing away from his earlier pledge.
"It's like being a fish," he adds. Huh? "You see this juicy worm in front of you and then all of a sudden there's a hook in your mouth."
As Ford walks toward the podium to press flesh with David Stern, the 'Niks greet him with tough love. "You're undersized for an audiencemember," taunts Bell, as the compact Ford walks past on his way to a media op. The Knicks are on the clock, but it's anticlimax. We all know where this is going.
A GM with vision and guts might take Maciej Lampe of Poland, a seven-footer with a sweet stroke. But this is Scott Layden, the one who played Who Wants to Be a Millionaire with Howard Eisley and Shandon Anderson. As the seconds tick down, the JumboTron shows a highlight reel of recent Knick draft picks. Patrick Ewing. Mark Jackson. Kenny Walker.
"Who's next? Monty Williams?" Bell quips.
So when the Knicks draftwho else?Mike Sweetney, the mood is mostly one of resignation. The "Fi-re Lay-den!" chant is rekindled, but without the same zeal as before.
"I watch those teams from 1993-94 on Classic Sports," Bell muses. "And with every boneheaded pick, the days of Derek Harper and Charles Oakley and Anthony Bonner and Herb Williams get farther and farther away." I don't have the heart to tell him about the legendary 1978 draft, in which the Knicks bypassed underclassman Larry Bird for Micheal Ray Richardson. Or the 1983 draft, when the Knicks passed on Clyde Drexler to select Darrell Walker. Or the 1992 draft, when Hubert Davis got the nod over Latrell Sprewell.
With the deed done, the mood lightens. The 'Niks rag on LeBron's all-white suit. They briefly consider a "Free Jayson Williams!" chant. When I ask, "Which one?" they shelve the idea. They insult Tom Tolbert just because.
But their venom truly spews out onto Seattle's picks. When the Sonics select Nick Collison, Hughes shouts, "We liked you better the first time we met youwhen your name was Christian Laettner!" And indeed, when the Great White Stiff strolls by, another group takes up the cause and starts chanting "Chris-tian Laett-ner!"
"If I can leave tonight with Nick Collison and Tom Tolbert hating me, I'll be a happy man," says Hughes.
"This team is sooo white, baby!" he adds, channeling Dick Vitale, who earlier had warned that the Knicks will live to regret taking Sweetney over Collison.
But as Bill Maher can attest, topical comedy can be dangerous. "Last year, we almost got into a fight," Bell recalls. Late and loud, the 'Niks took up the cause of Fordham guard Smush Parker, exhorting team after team to make him their second-rounder. When Sacramento tabbed Central Connecticut State big man Corsley Edwards with the last pick of the draft, the fans in front turned around and started taunting them back. "It was Corsley Edwards's family," Bell recalls sheepishly.
This year, when Phoenix reaches for Serbian Zarko Cabarkapa, a lack of info doesn't stem the tide of analysis. "I don't know who he is, but he has good ball-handling skills, and he isn't a big fan of defensive contact," quips Hughes.
"And he doesn't use deodorant," adds David Johansen, a lawyer from L.A. seated a row behind, sipping a beer through a straw. On the big screen, Mike Tirico gets up close and personal with the Serbian players, lamenting to viewers how they grew up with "war going on all around them."
"Or you could call it the genocide they were perpetrating," Johansen snaps back.
The talk turns to Maciej Lampe, the Polish power forward whose stock is dropping like shares of ImClone. "How do you think he feels?" wonders Johansen's companion, Elizabeth Morgan, a lawyer from Massachusetts who looks like she may have taken a wrong turn while headed to a Neil Young concert. "Is this a blow to his confidence?" Perhaps, but it's also a $6 million blow to his bank account, the difference between early-first-round money and a second-round non-guaranteed contract.
Somewhat tentatively, a chant swells: "We want Lam-pe! We want Lam-pe!"
And, shockingly, that's what we get.
The Knicks have lucked into the steal of the draft, using the 29th pick to snatch a player rated as high as No. 5 on some draft lists. It'll be years before we know if he's Dirk Nowitski or Keith Van Horn, but for now, we can bask in the glow of pure hope. Maciej Lampe (MA-chay LOM-pay) is the best Knick draft pick since the Rod Strickland slide in 1988.
The 'Niks are stunned. They can't even get it together enough to chant, "Ma-ciej Ma-ciej Man! You're gonna be a Ma-ciej Man!"
As the new Polish Knick dons his cap and approaches the podium, Bell says, almost kindly, "You're better than Mike Sweetney."