I recognized Mom’s number when I opened my flip phone. I knew why she was calling.
“Hi Mom,” I answered. “I hate this move. I think it’s a terrible move.”
Mom tried to be diplomatic.
“Just give it some time,” she said. “Things could work out.”
I wasn’t going to give it any time and I knew it wasn’t going to work out; I’d never been more certain of anything in my life as a sports fan.
So, yeah, I wasn’t excited about Isiah Thomas being named president of the New York Knicks.
The Knicks are the reason I care about basketball. I came of age living and (mostly) dying with those talented and tough Knicks teams of the early- and mid-1990s that regularly went deep into the playoffs and regularly succumbed to those great, Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls teams, save for one NBA Finals appearance in 1994, during Jordan’s basketball hiatus. The Knicks were Wile E. Coyote; they’d keep coming up with ingenious plans to win it all, yet they’d always be leveled by an anvil or go careening off a cliff, the Bulls yelling “Beep Beep!” and sticking their tongue out as they raced to another title. But, I loved Wile E. One of the best birthday presents I got as a teenager was an Anthony Mason jersey. I begged Mom to take her Toyota Corolla through the car wash that Charles Oakley owned. Mom was also a huge Knicks fan; the Knicks won their only two NBA championships when she was a teenager. Knicks tickets at Madison Square Garden were hard to come by, so Mom and I had a seven-game New Jersey Nets ticket plan during the 1995-1996 season in part because it included seats for one of the Knicks games against the Nets at Continental Airlines Arena. I privately sneered at the Bulls hats, jackets and jerseys that filled New York City back then; it’s easy to root for the Road Runner, but you have to stick by your hometown team, even if they continue to buy products from Acme that keep failing them and don’t reach their full potential.
The Knicks didn’t have much of an identity once the late 1990s rolled around, but they were still competitive and capable of doing damage in the playoffs, culminating in a surprise NBA Finals appearance in 1999. The following season, Scott Layden took over as general manager and, after a couple of decent years, the Knicks hit an iceberg. It had been a decade and a half since the Knicks had bottomed out, and their lack of high draft picks didn’t allow them to rebuild with younger players. The Knicks kept signing and trading for veterans who were either mediocre or over the hill and none of the handful of young players they acquired panned out. Eventually, they did hit bottom, and it cost Layden his job late in 2003.
By the time Layden lost his job, I’d left New York City and was working as a sports play-by-play broadcaster and a news anchor and reporter for a radio station group in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Growing up, the Knicks were my second-favorite team behind the New York Mets, but they’d taken a backseat to the New York Giants, who I could watch every week at a bar a few minutes from my apartment, and Syracuse University, my alma mater, whose men’s basketball and football games were regularly shown on cable. I tried to watch the handful of Knicks games that were on television in Michigan but, as their record dipped, so did their national exposure. But my passion was reignited that day I was working in the newsroom and saw the Associated Press wire story announcing the Knicks’ hire of Thomas, which was followed by Mom’s phone call a few minutes later. The Knicks had stagnated under Layden, but going from him to Thomas felt like having a malignant tumor removed only to find out I had cancer. Thomas, one of the best point guards in NBA history and a good evaluator of amateur talent, had failed as a coach and/or general manager in several stops, even taking the time to run the minor-league Continental Basketball Association into the ground. I knew the Knicks were doomed.
Unfortunately, he didn’t prove me wrong. Thomas, who eventually added head coaching duties to his team president responsibilities, saddled the Knicks with bad contract after bad contract. Like New York Yankees or Brooklyn Dodgers fans of a certain age who can recite the entire roster of their great teams of yesteryear by heart, I can name most of the Knicks poor acquisitions and the beneficiaries of the terrible contracts under Thomas off the top of my head: Eddy Curry. Jerome James. Stephon Marbury. Steve Francis. It got to the point where I stopped getting upset about the Knicks’ losses because I knew continued futility would be the only way for Thomas to get canned. I was amazed the Knicks stood by Thomas even after an embarrassing sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him by one of the Knicks’ former female employees; it was a lawsuit the Knicks could’ve settled out of court, but they chose to fight it, leading to a lot of their dirty laundry being aired in a public forum. Some of my ire directed at Thomas began to be diverted to owner Jim Dolan, who seemed to have more faith in Thomas’ ability than he should’ve.
I was living in Binghamton, New York when the Knicks finally fired Thomas after the 2007-2008 season, prompting a celebration. Moreover, Thomas was replaced by people with excellent track records: Donnie Walsh, who’d built some really good Indiana Pacers teams, was named the president and Mike D’Antoni, who’d won with the Phoenix Suns, became the head coach. It was going to take a few years to rid the Knicks of all the bad contracts Thomas had saddled them with, but there was now a light at the end of the tunnel. New Yorkers have a reputation as an impatient bunch, but we had no problem accepting and watching terrible Knicks teams for a few years because we were confident the manure would turn into roses.
And that’s what made the first few months of the 2010-2011 Knicks season so wonderful. The Knicks had cleared enough salary cap space to finally sign some good players, led by standout center Amar’e Stoudemire. I was concerned about Stoudemire’s injury history – the Knicks couldn’t find anyone willing to insure his massive contract – but I still thought he was a good piece to build around. Besides, Walsh had put the Knicks in position to make more free agent signings over the next year or two, so Stoudemire was going to get more help. I followed the Knicks closer than I ever had as an adult, and their improved on-court product led to a ton of national television appearances, making it easier for me to keep an eye on them from Kansas City.
Then, the Knicks traded for Carmelo Anthony.
I’ve had a soft spot for Carmelo Anthony ever since he led Syracuse to their first-ever championship in college basketball. That was during the 2002-2003 season, Anthony’s only year in Syracuse orange. After years of resisting the urge to bring in a “one-and-done” – players who plan on declaring for the NBA Draft after playing one season of college basketball – Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim relented and landed Anthony, and it couldn’t have worked out any better. Unranked at the start of the season, Syracuse gained momentum as the year progressed, thanks to Anthony’s ability to gel with the rest of his teammates. Fellow freshmen Billy Edelin and Gerry McNamara handled the point guard duties that season and both proved adept at getting the ball to Anthony in spots that would allow him to score effectively. Syracuse was a balanced team with the ability to score inside or outside and a tight rotation of players who all knew their roles; Anthony thrived in this atmosphere.
Things have been different for Anthony since he was picked third overall by the Denver Nuggets in the 2003 NBA Draft. He’s developed a reputation as a player who is only capable of scoring and incapable of helping his teammates score or making those around him better. At Syracuse, Anthony wasn’t asked to set up his teammates, they had several capable rebounders and their 2-3 match-up zone hid his defensive shortcomings; all Anthony had to do was score. In the NBA, the team’s star player is expected to pass at least occasionally and it’s hard for any team to make a deep playoff run when their best player isn’t an elite-level passer, rebounder or defender. Anthony certainly made the Nuggets better, but their ceiling was limited because Anthony was limited as a superstar.
I was aware of Anthony’s reputation when the Knicks acquired him in February, 2011. Anthony made it clear he planned on leaving Denver after the season and that the Knicks were the only team he wanted to play for. It was unlikely Denver was going to be able to trade Anthony to any other team and Anthony was all but certain to choose the Knicks during free agency that summer. Walsh reportedly saw no need to trade for Anthony; the Knicks were already good enough to win a postseason series or two and they’d have to give up quite a bit to acquire Anthony in a trade. By picking up Anthony in free agency, the Knicks would be able to keep their core intact and add Anthony, which seemed like a win-win proposition. Walsh’s strategy made sense to me, but he was reportedly overruled by the meddlesome Dolan and the trade was made. I was incensed. Not only did Dolan ignore the recommendation of the general manager he hired to rid the Knicks of the mess Dolan helped create, but I knew there was little chance of Walsh – or his allies – sticking around after the 2010-2011 season.
Not surprisingly, the Knicks gave up several key players to get Anthony, were swept in the first round of the NBA playoffs and Walsh resigned after the season, although he remained with the team as a consultant. And the lockout-shortened 2011-2012 season saw the Knicks get off to a terrible start, in part because of the difficulties Anthony and Stoudemire had playing together. Both players like to operate in the post, creating a logjam that made it more difficult for both to score. And, Anthony performs better in a slow-paced, half-court game, whereas D’Antoni had installed an up-tempo, full-court style of play. The Knicks didn’t start to play as a unit until the emergence of Jeremy Lin, an afterthought who’d been claimed on waivers and had never stuck at the NBA level. But Lin, a point guard, proved to be skilled at making his mediocre teammates better and got his start during a stretch in which Anthony and Stoudemire didn’t play much together, since one or the other was out for various injuries or family emergencies (Stoudemire left the team for several days after his older brother died in a car accident).
Last week’s predictable first-round playoff exit for the Knicks – at least they won a playoff game this time, their first postseason victory since 2001 – ended a tumultuous season that saw D’Antoni resign and several key players miss lengthy stretches of the season. Anthony was in the middle of the tempest; his strained relationship with D’Antoni reportedly led to the latter’s resignation, and Anthony’s work ethic, desire to share the ball on offense and ability to stay in shape were questioned by his coaches, media and fans. The fact that Anthony carried an injury-riddled team the last month of the season and ensured the Knicks got one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference seems like a footnote. Many Knicks fans felt duped: Anthony was supposed to be the superstar who would lead them to bigger and better things instead of an impediment to their long-term success. I can’t say I expected many associated with the Knicks to sour on Anthony so quickly, but I’m not surprised.
Perhaps a full training camp and a traditional, non-condensed schedule will help Anthony and the Knicks find their rhythm next season. And, the Knicks have an entire off-season to surround Anthony and Stoudemire with players who compliment them. I think the Knicks will be better next season than they were in 2011-2012, but I still expect them to disappoint. I am glad the Knicks are good enough to warrant my attention again and that they expect to win more games than they lose. But, I’m still wary of that anvil that always seems to fall from the sky.Follow @raford3