David Chmiel examines the current state of the NY Knicks, where Phil Jackson stirs fading memories of the team’s glorious past with a team not built for the future.
Eight months ago, New York Knicks fans had had enough. They had to watch terrible basketball — again — from $500 seat, while trying to wash away the pain with $14 beers. They sharpened their pitchforks, dipped brooms in kerosene and got a city permit to gather in front of Madison Square Garden.
A week before the Showdown on Seventh Avenue, Knicks owner James Dolan anointed St. Phil, founder of Ashram Of The 13 Rings, to head the latest version of the Manhattan Project. Jackson brought his rookie coach, Derek Fisher, and a host of other triangle offense disciples to exorcise the demons of seasons past and restore the Knicks’ mojo.
The protest was called off, season tickets were renewed, Spike Lee made a Cablevision/Knicks MSG Network “joint” to explain that the triangle offense is more than just a x’s-and-o’s scheme to get easy buckets. Seems it is “a way of life.” Shareholders, and fans, were happy. The Knicks were rebuilding, for real this time.
Today, those new-look New York Knicks are 2-7. They are averaging just south of 92 points per game — 30th among 30 NBA teams. They’re giving up 98 points per game. They have lost six in a row, J.R. Smith punched an opponent in the crotch, the ball is stalled in Carmelo Anthony’s hands, and nobody can defend the pick-and-roll.
But nobody is panicking. Yet.
Scott Skiles spent a decade as an old-school NBA point guard; his 30 assists in one game is a record that has stood for 15 years. Undersized body propelled by oversized chip on his shoulder, he antagonized teammates as much as opponents. He then spent 13 years as a head coach, preaching old-school hoops values.
“Basketball is like church,” he once said. “A lot of people go, but not many people get it.”
The Garden always has been known as the Mecca of Basketball, the high altar of the “city game,” where reputations are made, where rivalries fester, where — Knick or not — you got it or you got out.
The New York Knicks have called the two Gardens home for 68 years, playing first at the Garden on 49th Street and 8th Avenue, before moving in 1968 to the Garden built atop Penn Station. Today, fans of a certain vintage with history in both Gardens have suffered like pre-2004 Red Sox fans. Please, God, just let them win won more before I die.
Small children are certain Grandpa is lying when he told them the Knicks won championships in the 1969-70 and ’72-73 seasons, when “Chuck Taylors” were performance footwear, the gym was full of cigar smoke, and the only sounds came from the squeak of Chucks on hardwood and the cheers of ticket-buying acolytes to William “Red” Holzman’s all-for-one philosophy. The Brooklyn-born coach was an All-American at City College of New York, an Army veteran, a wry and unbending taskmaster for team play. Holzman played point guard in the NBA, won titles, coached the Milwaukee Hawks. He was fired from the Hawks and spent 10 years as a Knicks scout, waiting for the chance to mold the players he found into the team that would captivate the city. From 1967 to 1977, the core of Holzman’s team — Willis Reed, Dick Barnett, Walt “Clyde” Frazier, “Dollar” Bill Bradley, Dave Debusschere, Cazzie Russell, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, and Phil Jackson — conformed to Holzman’s simple vision for the game:
“See the ball on defense, hit the open man on offense.”
They averaged 105 points per game, 11th among the league’s 17 teams. The first six players each scored in double-figures, but nobody averaged more than 20 points per game; each player averaged more than 3 assists per game. Hit the open man on offense. They led the league, for four of five years, in fewest points allowed. See the ball on defense. They won roughly 65 percent of their games. Red and those players are in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
New York Times writer Harvey Araton elegantly captured the style and substance of Holzman’s Knicks in his 2011 book, When The Garden Was Eden:
“To step inside Madison Square Garden was to grab hold of a lifeline to an alternate world of harmonic order and balance. Black men and white men from North and South, East and West, worked together for the common good, with purpose, commitment and intelligence. . . . It was Broadway’s rendition of what the country aspired to be but obviously, and painfully, was not.”
Red got it, the players got it, and the fans got it. Those Knicks exist today; they are just called the San Antonio Spurs.
In the last 20 years, Hall of Famers Bernard King and Patrick Ewing provided hope, and heartbreak. The Knicks made the playoffs, but that is the NBA’s version of social promotion — half the league’s teams play in the postseason. The team makes money — once selling out the “World’s Most Famous Arena” for a decade, generating hundreds of millions each year in corporate sponsorships and stratospheric ticket prices that lend themselves more to expense-account client entertainment than family-of-four “we bleed orange and blue” fanatics. The team has not reached the NBA finals in a decade, they’ve been better than 42-42 four times in the last 14 seasons. This proud franchise has been without a title in forty-one freakin’ years.
The team may be valued at $3 billion (thanks, Steve Ballmer), but owner James Dolan had never really placed a premium on winning. He paid dearly for overrated and washed-up “superstars” — on the court and in the executive suite (see Thomas, Isaiah and Marbury, Stephon), but no matter what he did, it backfired and the team floundered, leaving everyone to wonder (with apologies to Paul Simon), Where have you gone, Red Holzman? Knicks nation turns its lonely eyes to you…
Jackson first got a taste of coaching when, after he’d suffered a back injury during the Knicks’ first championship season, Holzman turned him into a de facto assistant. Jackson saw his future, and he eventually went from acid-dropping, truth-seeking role player (His first book, Maverick, which chronicled his playing days, is a must-read) to coach nirvana, leading the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers to 11 titles. He proudly surpassed Holzman’s nemesis, Celtics icon Arnold “Red” Auerbach, as the NBA’s most decorated leader.
A couple of years — and a few joint replacements — removed from coaching, he was ready for Dolan’s call, especially when Dolan promised that Jackson was running the show completely.
Coach Fisher may be a rookie, but he is the Jackson lieutenant who is in charge on the floor and in the locker room. After the Knicks lost recently, he told the assembled media (and, it could be argued, his players):
“We need five, six, seven, eight, nine guys who are committed to hold it down out there. They have to run the offense and make it work. We are working at finding those right combinations. It is early in the season, for sure, but a lot of times, it takes a group of five to learn how to get stops together, how to be most effective as a unit. When they solidify their identity as a team, it all will work together.”
Jackson gives Fisher the space to lead the team and masters life as a “suit,” working the phones, studying the contracts, and finding his Zen place to manage the roster, and expectations. He made a couple of trades, cut one of the players he traded for, added players who can shoot and delivered and even outlined the strengths and weaknesses of each player on the roster for the New York Post.
Like a house that is being gutted, the dumpsters are lined up and getting filled up, casting out decades of Garden dysfunction in order to build a basketball collective that Red would approve of. There is no triage for this situation, so Jackson has to attack his management challenge:
- Instill an aspiration among players and coaches for the Red-meets-Triangle culture that will restore the Knicks’ claim to long-gone perfection — without sounding like the “back in my day” New York fans who aren’t shy about letting the players know what the Knicks once meant to the city;
- Create a sea change in team management, lose the hostile paranoia that turned the dance with the media outlets into more of a death march, and
- Instilling a sense of calm among a diverse, multi-generational fan base that has had it up to here with ghost stories about 20th-century success.
But there’s the rub. The Spurs blew up the Heat last summer with a style of play that conjured the Knicks heyday. It can be done, you can stay awake during the ceremony in this church, and it isn’t a curse to live in the shadow of all the retired jerseys and championship banners that hang from the rafters. Jackson is here to make it happen. He’s here to help Carmelo channel his prodigious one-on-one scoring savvy into an efficient offensive game that is contagious to the rest of the team. He’s here to tell J.R. Smith that if he unties another opponent’s sneaker — or punches another player without discretion — that he’ll be playing for the Bucks. He’s here to figure out if the bench has been hiding an undiscovered Scottie Pippen or Mike Riordan or Phil Jackson. He’s here to make Iman Shumpert believe that he could play defense like Clyde, Jackson’s old roommate on road trips.
Clyde, whom the Knicks traded to the Cavaliers in 1977, has been behind the microphone as the Knicks’ analyst since 1987. It would be hard for those superstitious longtime fans, like the Red Sox fans who until recently couldn’t beat the Yankees, to ponder whether there could be a “Curse of Clyde” to explain away the futility.
But, like any of Red Holzman’s disciples, he and his teammates know that the team must have the players who represent the style and substance that they last embodied 41 freakin’ years ago. In Michael Rappaport’s recent documentary treatment of “When the Garden Was Eden,” Frazier said simply of their trademark philosophy, “It was a fun way to play ball.”
Clyde’s trademark sartorial splendor and “swishin’ and dishin’” commentary never hides the truth about Knicks basketball. Back in those championship days, the game flowed, on offense and defense, and the crowd hung on the action, anticipating the pass before the pass that led to the basket. No thundersticks, no music in the timeouts, no Knicks City Dancers, just the chatter of basketball freaks waiting for the poetry and precision of the most selfless and committed teammates the sport had seen. The crowd freaked out when every Knick had his guy boxed out and the ball hit the floor before they picked it up and started the fast break.
Basketball IQ, from the floor, in the stands, and on playgrounds all over the city and the suburbs. There was no talk of changing the game from 48 to 44 minutes to keep the fans’ interest. Back in the day, you wanted the game to keep going. Red Barber once said of the New York Yankees:
“They don’t play a 162-game season. They play 162 one-game seasons.”
As the Knicks struggle this season — and they most certainly will — Jackson must help the Knicks faithful exhibit patience, once again. At least until tonight, if the team loses to the Utah Jazz.
Or at least until Phil Jackson can conjure the spirit of Red Holzman and find the players who won’t back down from the Garden ghosts until they have hung a banner or two of their own.
Photo Credit(s): Associated Press/File