Besides being Jewish, terminally neurotic and a bit of a clown, there’s one other thing I have in common with Woody Allen (of course, his clowning ended 25 years or so ago); I am a big fan of the N.Y. Knickerbockers. Now I would never be in a position to buy a ticket for $100, their going price, but I follow them closely even though it has been almost two decades since I was in the habit of watching them play. That was the team that included Patrick Ewing at center and John Starks at guard. While they never won a championship, they were in the words of Marlin Brando in “On the Waterfront”, a real contenda.
The Knickerbocker team that did win championships was about as accomplished as any team in the past half-century. That was the team with Willis Reed at center and Walt Frazier at guard that won championships in 1970 and 1973. In one of the most legendary games in the franchise’s history, Reed started game seven in 1970 despite a torn muscle in his right leg against the storied Los Angeles Lakers led by Wilt Chamberlain.
The Knicks went through a dry spell until 1985 when they drafted Patrick Ewing as the number one choice in the draft that year. Ewing was a real warrior who was born in Jamaica and starred at Georgetown University. Unfortunately he never had anybody of Walt Frazier’s caliber to co-lead the team. John Starks was a good shooting guard but often took ill-advised 3 point shots when he was cold, just as the case with Knick forward Carmelo Anthony today. Greg Anthony was the point guard who had even weaker shooting skills than Starks but was good on defense. In fact that was the best thing you could say for Patrick Ewing’s Knicks, they knew how to play defense.
Here’s John Starks’s most memorable play, getting past Michael Jordan to dunk in the playoffs with Chicago in 1993.
The Knicks went through another dry spell that has continued pretty much until now. James Dolan, the team’s owner, hired Isiah Thomas in 2003 to run the team. Despite Thomas’s great skills as a player for the team-oriented Detroit Pistons, he never had any sense of how to put a team together.
Thomas’s approach was to sign very expensive contracts with big-name players without regard to whether they complemented each other. While all sports require teamwork, there is none in my opinion that puts as much of an emphasis on it in order to succeed as basketball.
If the team was an embarrassment on the court, it was Thomas’s off-court behavior that really tarnished the franchise’s reputation almost beyond repair. In 2006 Anucha Browne Sanders, a top female executive for the Knicks, sued Thomas and Madison Square Garden, the team’s owner, with sexual harassment. Thomas and his boss James Dolan practically made a joke out of the suit. The court decided it was no joke at all, awarding Sanders $11.6 million.
Mike Lupica, a sports writer for the N.Y. Daily News with generally liberal attitudes on issues beyond sports, sized up the outcome on September 21, 2007:
Imagine Anucha Browne Sanders not thinking she was in the presence of true genius working with somebody like Thomas, who has the largest payroll in his sport and has had it for years and has not yet produced a single playoff victory.
“Stop talking right now!” Mills quotes James Dolan as saying to Browne Sanders in the famous meeting where he supposedly decided she wasn’t as smart as all the other geniuses in the room.
In that moment Dolan sounds like what he is and always will be: a spoiled rich boy. He eventually decided he didn’t want Browne Sanders around anymore and that was that, he didn’t need to listen to lawyers. And Thomas? You think he was ever going to listen to some pushy woman who refused to see things his way?
Here is a quote from a story Christian Red and T.J. Quinn wrote in this newspaper last year, about Thomas’ days running the Continental Basketball Association into the ground. It comes from a woman named Diane Bosshard, who owned the La Crosse Bobcats with her husband before selling the team to Thomas:
“He ruled with intimidation. It was just like, ‘If I swear enough or if I act like I’m tough enough you’re going to back down.'”
Anucha Browne Sanders didn’t back down at the Garden, doesn’t back down in 23A, where they want her job performance to be on trial. That shouldn’t put jurors to sleep. It should have them rolling in the aisle.
A year later Thomas was replaced by Donnie Walsh, a 67 year old former president of the Indiana Pacers who had a solid track record, even managing to get some use out of Isiah Thomas who coached the Pacers for a while before moving on to the Knicks. Walsh’s goal was to clean house at the Knicks, first of all by unloading the expensive but unproductive talent and secondly by enforcing higher ethical standards—a fairly easy goal to accomplish in light of the fact that anything would be better than the cesspool Thomas ran.
Walsh’s first executive decision was to hire Mike D’Antoni, the former coach of the Phoenix Suns. Although the Suns never won a championship, they were always in the playoffs. D’Antoni was committed to offense-oriented play that involved a high tempo running game and the so-called “pick and roll”. Rather than try to explain it, I’ll refer you to the clip below:
Not long after hiring D’Antoni, Walsh offered Amare Stoudemire, one-half of the Phoenix Suns’ pick-and-roll team, a fat contract. With a group of young, newly drafted talent, the Knicks were finally starting to look respectable. But in a calculated bid to lure people to the Garden, team owner James Dolan traded most of these new players to the Denver Nuggets in order to land Carmelo Anthony, a flashy shooter with few defensive skills. Once the Rockets unloaded Anthony, they began playing better than ever.
This year the Knicks started off abysmally, a function mostly of lacking a true point guard who knew how to distribute the ball. Lacking such a player, Carmelo Anthony got a green light to hog the ball, making other players less effective than last year, including Amare Stoudemire.
What the Knicks needed was somebody like Steve Nash, who was not only a terrific basketball player but politically courageous. In 2003 Nash had the guts to oppose the war in Iraq during a time of war hysteria that nearly ruined the careers of the Dixie Chicks and Bill Maher. Considering the close ties between professional sports franchises and the national-security state, Nash was putting his career on the line as Common Dreams reported:
APPARENTLY A COUNTRY music concert is the wrong place for a war protest, the Academy Awards show is OK as long as you keep it short, and a basketball game … well, that’s still up in the air for debate.
When the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks told a London audience that she was ashamed that she and President Bush are from the same state, many Texas radio stations refused to play the group’s songs. She quickly apologized. Former Santa Clara and current Dallas Mavericks star Steve Nash, though, has not apologized for his anti-war comments and said fan reaction to his stance has been “unbelievably positive.”
It all started with Nash wearing a T-shirt to All-Star activities in Atlanta that said, “No War. Shoot for Peace.” Nash continued his protest of the war, as reporters asked him about his shirt and his beliefs, up until and after the first U.S. bombs hit Iraq last week. Those who haven’t been receptive to Nash are those that don’t think a basketball player should be using his forum to speak out on politics, especially a Canadian basketball player.
“From the start, I spoke out just because I don’t want to see the loss of life,” Nash told ESPN. “People are mistaking anti-war as being unpatriotic. This has nothing to do with the fact that I’m from Canada. This is a much bigger issue. But now that we’re in battle, I hope for as many lives to be spared as possible (and) as little violence as possible before a resolution.”
The Knicks were short on money under a salary cap that NBA teams must adhere to, so their top choice for a point guard was one Baron Davis, who can best be described as someone from the remainder bin. He used to play with Lebron James on the Cleveland Cavaliers but has been inactive for over a year because of a herniated disk. In his place, the Knicks have used guards with no experience playing point, like Toney Douglas, or men with experience but who are over the hill like Mike Bibby. The net result was a dismal start that had fans clamoring for Mike D’Antoni’s firing.
Out of desperation, D’Antoni decided to let benchwarmer Jeremy Lin play the point guard position on February 4th. The results can be seen here:
Knicks commentator Walt Frazier can barely contain his enthusiasm.
In the five games that have featured Lin as point guard, he has achieved a status equal to some the greatest players of all times. The N.Y. Times’s Nate Silver came up with some revealing statistics:
The New York Knicks’ Jeremy Lin has scored at least 23 points in each of his last four games, including 38 on Friday night against the Lakers. He has also recorded at least seven assists in each game, and he has been efficient, shooting at least 53 percent from the field each time.
Just how common is something like this? I searched basketball-reference.com for other streaks that were in the same general ballpark: players who scored at least 20 points, had at least six assists and shot 50 percent over a period of four consecutive N.B.A. regular season games.
Since the 1985-86 season, 41 players have had such a streak in addition to Lin.
It is an extremely impressive list. All but seven of the players made at least one All-Star appearance in their careers, with about two-thirds of them selected to the All-Star team multiple times. The list includes nine Hall of Famers — and a number of other players who are sure to make it once they retire. The players on the list account for 17 of the last 28 M.V.P. awards.
Now this would be impressive enough on its own merit, but the real eye-opener is how unexpected this all was given Lin’s background. He was a Harvard University graduate, where there is no such thing as a basketball scholarship. Most basketball players come from powerhouses like Duke, Michigan State and UCLA, not the Ivy League. Since 1954, there has only been a single professional basketball player from Harvard and that is Jeremy Lin.
The other remarkable thing is his ethnicity: Chinese-American. The last stand-out Chinese player in the NBA was Yao Ming, who was forced to retire because of repeated foot injuries. Lin’s background was totally unlike that of Yao Ming, who was part of China’s well-oiled basketball machinery heavily reliant on state funding.
The Times once again commented on how he came out of left field:
Some coaches have wondered whether Lin, who is of Taiwanese descent, did not receive a closer look by recruiters because of his ethnicity. Coaches have said recruiters, in the age of who-does-he-remind-you-of evaluations, simply lacked a frame of reference for such an Asian-American talent.
Another big reason for the lack of interest might have been because Lin never possessed jump-out-of-the-gym athleticism. That made it hard for recruiters to pick up on his quick first step, his passing skills or his uncanny sense for the game simply from watching him at an Amateur Athletic Union tournament or in a high school playoff game.
“I just think in order for someone to understand my game, they have to watch me more than once, because I’m not going to do anything that’s extra flashy or freakishly athletic,” Lin said in 2010.
Because he is a fervent Christian, some have been led to speculate whether he is going to be basketball’s Tim Tebow but if you listen to Lin’s comments after a basketball game, he tends to credit his coach and his fellow players rather than God.
There’s been a bit of a controversy growing out of boxer Floyd Mayweather’s twitter on Jeremy Lin: “Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he’s Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don’t get the same praise.” Well, maybe so, but they weren’t doing it for the N.Y. Knickerbockers.
Dave Zirin’s really good article on the differences between Jeremy Lin and Tim Tebow.