Growing up in Chicago then Dallas in the '60s and '70s, I always wondered why New Yorkers felt some sort of "claim" on basketball. Yes, the New York Knicks won the title in '70 and '73 with a rare display of savvy and teamwork, but even as an adolescent I knew that the sport was invented in New England. The Knicks' championships notwithstanding, the two dominant teams were the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, which won 19 of the league's 30 titles through 1976 (most of the Lakers' titles came in Minneapolis, prior to the team's move to L.A.). The dominant player at the time, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, played in Milwaukee. I took New Yorkers' claim on basketball as just another Gotham pretension that made folks in the rest of the U.S. hate them.
Then I moved to Manhattan and began to understand: New York City moves like basketball. The orderly uptempo throb of midtown and Wall Street felt like a fast break. The crowded, rush-hour subways felt like the jammed mass of humanity underneath the backboard contesting a key rebound. Every success in this adrenalized environment felt like a basket; some were layups, others were long-range jump shots and those rare slam-dunks were definitely worth celebrating. During my first week in the city, I passed by the famed West Fourth Street courts and was amazed by the near NBA-caliber style of play. By the end of my first month, I made a point of checking every court I saw. I began to wonder if instead of a work study job, I could just get a gig as a scout for some NBA team.
New York City had existed for nearly three centuries before basketball was invented, but it seemed as if the sport was imprinted on the local DNA.
The Knicks of the late '70s weren't very good, but they were followed passionately. Instead of piped-in music, a lot of delis had the game on. You could hear it in taxis, too, and some folks just sat on the street engrossed in broadcasts on their transistor radios. The Knicks and their Madison Square Garden cohabitants, the NHL's New York Rangers, gripped the city's imagination in the same way that the Yankees did during the summer. Back then, the Yankees were winning titles during the run of Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson and Ron Guidry. The Rangers were contenders. That the Knicks could maintain such a grip on the populace of a city with so many things to obsess over was impressive.
The Knicks maintained their hold on the city during some lean years in the '80s thanks to recent Hall of Fame inductee Patrick Ewing, the stellar center, and induction-worthy forward Bernard King. The love intensified during the '90s as the team went to the NBA finals twice. Then after a few years of wheel spinning, Isiah Thomas came to town. Ask a random New Yorker now about the local pro basketball team, and in response you're likely to get a grunt of disgust, a wistful recollection about the "good" Knicks teams or an optimistic comment about the New Jersey Nets.
What Thomas accomplished in 4½ years as Knicks president and two as coach will be studied for decades in sports management classes as a case study in what not to do. In a rush to win and without heed to the ramifications on the team's salary cap, Thomas took on as many bad contracts as he could, hoping that by collecting talent regardless of price or skill, the team might improve. This inspired post at the hoops blog Free Darko deftly compares the Thomas era with the Knicks to what the federal government is now proposing to do with the Wall Street bailout plan. By enthusiastically accepting the toxic contracts that had limited the cap room other teams could use to acquire talent, the Knicks almost singlehandedly helped turn Phoenix, Orlando and Toronto into contenders. If Chicago's young front line starts playing up to its potential, then add the Bulls to that list this season. And since the Utah Jazz own the Knicks' 2010 first-round draft pick, Thomas will be owed a thank-you note from Salt Lake City more than two years after he was deposed at the Garden by Donnie Walsh, the new team president.
NBA training camps open this week. The league can be proud of the fact that its two most storied franchises, the Lakers and the Celtics, are back among the elite teams. Meanwhile, not far from league offices, at Madison Square Garden, Walsh and new head coach Mike D'Antoni are rolling up their sleeves to remove the stench from the Thomas era and make the Knicks relevant to New Yorkers again. At his hiring, Walsh announced that his aim was to be positioned to compete in the 2010 free agent market, which may include the services of superstar players LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
It's a savvy move to buy time, but at this point 2010 is an optimistic forecast to have a team that a superstar would want to join. At present the Knicks' roster is chock-full of benchwarmers making between $5 million and $7 million a year and role players making between $7 million and $9 million. And, the Knicks' roster sports three of most untradeable players in the NBA: center Eddy Curry, who has a heart condition and last played defense sometime in high school, makes just shy of $10 million; forward Zach Randolph, a stellar rebounder and scorer who rarely passes and doesn't always even bother to cross midcourt to join his teammates on defense, makes $14 million; and point guard Stephon Marbury, another indifferent defender who left the team when told he wouldn't be a starter, makes $21 million.
The Knicks' payroll leads the league at $99 million and change. In recent years, it has ballooned as high as $139 million. Unfortunately, during Thomas' four full years with the organization, the Knicks averaged a record of 28 wins and 54 losses per season.
NBA teams can be rebuilt quickly. Two-plus years ago in Portland, Kevin Pritchard took over a Trail Blazer squad with a cap situation nearly as bad as the Knicks and a roster of players as well known for their police records as their hoops stats (they were often called the Jail Blazers). After a furious series of trades, shrewd drafting and a little bit of luck, the Trail Blazers stand ready to give the Lakers, Rockets, Spurs, Jazz and Hornets a strong run for Western Conference supremacy.
Meanwhile, the new regime at the Garden simply wants to prove that the current roster can actually still play basketball. A good general manager never trades a player when his value is lowest, and everyone in a Knicks uniform except forward David Lee, swingman Wilson Chandler and guard Nate Robinson is at the nadir of the value. This season will be about restoring market value to the players on the roster.
Since they play in Madison Square Garden, which probably is—as it claims—the world's most famous arena, and since New York City is the league's biggest market, Commissioner David Stern would love to have a winning Knicks team as part of the NBA's showcase, but it won't happen soon.
"Crawling from the wreckage" isn't much of an ad campaign, but it will be an apt description for the Knicks this season and maybe next year, too.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.