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.
The Players and Their Coach
Everybody’s in heaven right now, but that’s true with any winning edition. Van Gundy is at last pushing the right buttons, and he certainly out-coached Larry Bird in terms of matchups. Again, some of this fell into his lap. The Knicks are a quick, freewheeling team without Ewing (Van Gundy’s No. 1 supporter), a fact not lost on players who like to improvise. Long forgotten: the scowling Sprewell, miffed at substitution patterns. “You guys were making more of it than me,” Sprewell claims now. “I was fine, and Jeff has done a great job with this team.”
One sometimes overlooked facet of Van Gundy’s efforts is his ability to get players to defend with passion: Chris Childs, a flailing full-court menace; Chris Dudley, fronting, aiding, practically begging a post-up; Camby, the helicopter presence; Allan Houston, of all people, riding Reggie Miller like a cheap suit. Good hard D is so empowering, it’s a wonder that it can’t be more universally coached throughout the league, especially the Western Conference. Childs points to that late-season “breaking point,” when the Knicks, down by 20, came back to shock Miami: “We knew that the way we had to break was up-tempo, defense. We’re a defensive team every time we step on the court.”
A problem for Van Gundy, should he return, would be a reversion to the old ways of Ewing’s post-up game. “Anybody can score,” says TV analyst Bill Walton. “I’ve always thought Ewing should focus on defense and rebounding. It’s his responsibility to make that adjustment. The job of the team’s best player is to maximize everybody’s strengths.”
The Players and Their God(s)
All right, so this religion stuff has gotten slightly out of hand. (Are there any atheists in pro sports? Dare they be heard from?) Thankfully, God-squad leader Charlie Ward seems to be backing off a bit; as he admitted earlier this season, his over-proselytizing sometimes irks teammates, especially Patrick.
Regarding his otherworldly, game-winning four-pointer, Johnson, a recent convert to Islam, thanked Allah; Houston was the first to call it a “miracle,” but Childs kept both feet firmly planted on the ground: “We were lucky.” Ward’s take? “It was a blessing, brother, and we were available and open.” But what about Indiana? “They’re blessed to have had an opportunity to be in this game.”
Ward actually seems like a pretty nice guy, but he lost big-time when, toward season’s end, he suddenly questioned having to dress in front of women reporters. He appeared surprised at the ensuing controversy and ended an MSG interview with, “Anybody has a problem with that [his position] can take it up with God.”
The Players and the Players
In this age of the dis, the Knicks, of all teams, enjoy newfound respect. The hated Heat, the finger-wagging Motumbo, Reggie, Rodman, the Bulls— all their former NBA tormentors are cast aside for now. There’s a support system to this group that’s carried over from the days of John Starks and Oakley, both of whom came “home” for the conference final. “The Knicks of today are tougher and better,” confides Oakman, ever the mensch, backstage at the Garden. “Sprewell, Camby bring energy to the game. Marcus still got work to do, but he can do it all— block shots, rebound. They’re excited, they got a special team now. I’m just a spectator, come to see the guys.”
Whether on or off the Knicks wagon, Walton sees the invigorating and infectious benefits of the team’s new vein, a style he regards as emerging from the old, “boring” version. “Basketball is a celebration of life,” says the blustery Redhead. “The running, the jumping, the yelling at the refs. It’s electricity. It’s like rock and roll— who can play faster, better. It’s five different guys singing at the same time, and the Knicks are about that right now.”
San Antonio, winners of 42 of their last 48 games (11-1 in the postseason), present a formidable challenge. It veritably boggles to imagine Dudley and Kurt Thomas containing both David Robinson and Tim Duncan, the newly anointed best big-man in the game. Can the 9-1 underdog Knicks (dynasty, they ain’t) do it? Doubtful, but yes, because it’s that crazy a year.
Back to dissing, the Nets’ Stephon Marbury remarked earlier that the Knicks would never win a championship with the point-guard combo of Ward and Childs. Portland’s Damon Stoudamire recently said the same of the Spurs’ Avery Johnson. Want a lead-pipe cinch? One of these two chirpy nonparticipants is wrong— dead wrong.