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Tuesday, November 26, 2002
Updated: November 27, 12:22 PM ET
Mirage at MSG

By Charley Rosen
Special to Page 2

Contrary to popular opinion, New Yorkers love to love. They love things like ethnic food, "Seinfeld," "Sex and the City," Woody Allen movies, chocolate egg creams, parking spots and the "local" sports teams. And nothing was ever more beloved than the ball club that is still referred to as "The Old Knicks." As far as New Yorkers are concerned, the Knicks' NBA championships in 1970 and 1973 constituted a dynasty.

Those were the days of righteous hoops in the Big Apple, back when all home games were broadcast on radio only, and every contest pitted the legions of goodness against the forces of evil. And every time the good guys scored, Marv "The Marvelous One" Albert said, "YESSS!"

The New York Knickerbockers were a proud and successful franchise whose players had mythic qualities: The Captain sacrificed his career for a championship. The Black Jesus transformed every ballgame into a prayer meeting. Noo Yawkiz also idolized Dollar Bill, Nate the Snake, Dean the Dream, Dave the Rave, Head & Shoulders, and Jerry What's-His-Name. And who was ever cooler than Clyde?

Hit the open man. Fall back, baby.

But that was then.

Nowadays, the Knicks are a public disgrace, and it's no secret that their season is already doomed to oblivion. The team's salary cap is bloated, they have no young players to develop, and their best players are virtually untradeable. Since June 1999, the Knicks have devolved from the Eastern Conference champs to last-place chumps.

How did this rapid fall from grace come about? Was it kismet, or incompetence? Bad luck, or buffoonery? And is there any hope that the Knicks could once again ever deserve the love of their long-suffering fans?

Some of the answers lie buried in the ghosts of seasons past:

Dave DeBusschere and Walt Frazier
DeBusschere's defense helped the Knicks win two championships.
It was the best of trades ... and the worst of trades.

The best-worst trade in Knicks history took place on December 19, 1968; it sent Howard Komives and Walt Bellamy to Detroit for Dave DeBusschere. That transaction was the catalyst for subsequent New York championships in 1970 and 1973, but it also had deleterious effects in the long run.

The problem was that New York's management became convinced that even in bad times, their team was only one savior away from the promised land. That's why, ever since then, the Knicks front office has hoped that yet another quick fix would resurrect earthly pretenders into heavenly contenders, and has eagerly traded for and/or signed one-time marquee players who were either overrated or over-the-hill.

The prosecution cites Spencer Haywood, Bob McAdoo, Marvin Webster, Campy Russell, Maurice Lucas, Mike Newlin, Truck Robinson, Kiki Vandeweghe, Mo Cheeks, Xavier McDaniel, Rolando Blackman, Derek Harper and Buck Williams. New Yorkers wanted to love them all, but were betrayed by their advanced years, their eroded skills, and by Charles Smith's unholy trinity of blown layups against the Chicago Bulls.

For the Knicks, this strategy has been a chronic and costly exercise in foolishness and frustration. The truth is that team chemistry is more important than individual brilliance -- a reality that the various incarnations of Knick administrators have failed to grasp.

The team's latest redeemer was supposed to have been Antonio McDyess, who unfortunately fractured his left kneecap during a preseason game and is out for the duration. But, while it's true that New Yorkers love to love, they also love to exaggerate the value of everything that exists in the big town. Everything good is the best, and everything bad is the worst. So McDyess would've been the difference, the second coming of DeBusschere.

In fact, except for a stopover in Phoenix in 1997-98, McDyess has never played for a winning team (not counting last season, when an injury limited him to only 10 games, during McDyess's six-year tenure in Denver, the Nuggets' overall record was 145-233). How, then, to evaluate McDyess's career averages of 17.6 points and 8.7 rebounds per game? According to the venerable Hubie Brown, "Always beware of a player with good numbers on a bad team. Lots of plays are run for him, and he can be all loosey-goosey, because there's nothing at stake."

In addition, many coaches and scouts around the league report that McDyess was toothless in crunch-time. One coach even called him "a loser."

Another famously flawed and erstwhile savior was Latrell Sprewell, who's evaluated in even more negative terms by professional NBA insiders. "A con man," says one coach. "A cancer," says another. "Literally and figuratively a choker," says a third.

P.J. Carlesimo
After the choking incident, the Knicks should have known about Sprewell.
And here's the latest post-mortem on Sprewell's most noteworthy move -- a stranglehold on his former coach, P. J. Carlesimo: Then as now, Sprewell was just another spectacularly talented knucklehead who felt that anybody -- especially a coach earning less money than he was -- who told him to do anything he didn't want to do was dissing him. The kicker is that Sprewell's star-spangled arrogance was also tinged with mean-spirited and even sinister qualities, unlike the hapless P.J, who was just in over his head.

Because Carlesimo's father was a successful high school coach and athletic director, young Peter Joseph was indoctrinated in an old-fashioned way to motivate players. To whit, it was considered acceptable for a coach to unite his players by being such a carping, sharp-tongued jerk that they'd all hate him. The players would then try to "shut that SOB's mouth" by playing all-out all the time. This was Carlesimo's modus operandi when he coached the Golden State Warriors.

Also, even though Carlesimo was successful at Seton Hall, he was overwhelmed by the complexities of NBA basketball. To quote Carlesimo, "There's no difference between the college and the pro game. In both, the basket is 10 feet high, the foul line is 15 feet from the basket, and there are five players on each side."

In truth, the differences are profound -- boys versus men, raw versus hard-boiled eggs. That's why Carlesimo frequently fielded the wrong combinations of players and failed to recognize offensive and defensive mismatches.

And the winner was ...? Nobody. Certainly not the Knicks organization, who saw their penultimate savior turn into an always-late-for-practice, wall-punching, rude-gesturing, never-delivering, two-faced, shoot-'em-up fraud.

Pity the poor, desperate Knick fans who are still trying to convince themselves that, yes, they do love Sprewell.

Another big reason why the Knicks' future is so bankrupt is the team's recent history of feeble draft choices. Since 1985 (Patrick Ewing), the Knicks have been good enough to avoid the lottery, but since 1990 their No. 1 picks have been utterly forgettable. (Does anybody besides Ed Tapscott care to remember Frederic Weis, who was taken one round before Ron Artest, currently lighting it up for the Pacers?)

Perhaps the front office's most egregious error was to grossly overestimate the team's performance in 1998-99. That, remember, was the "lockout" season that featured a meager 50-game schedule. The abbreviated season was even shorter for Ewing, who injured a knee after 38 games. Without his high-scorer, coach Jeff Van Gundy devised a new game plan -- perpetual isos for Allan Houston and Sprewell. This tactic worked wonderfully and secured the Knicks a place in The NBA Finals (where they lost to San Antonio in five games. Indeed, isolating the wings was so effective that Van Gundy made it the fail-safe of his offense thereafter.

But there was a fatal weakness in Van Gundy's design -- Houston is 6-foot-6, 200 pounds; Sprewell is 6-5, 190. For 32 games (the 12 remaining in the regular season after Ewing's injury plus 20 in the postseason), the two comparatively lightweight players could absorb the punishment of playing one-on-one basketball. Every shot was taken under duress. Drives hoopward were challenged by the opponents ' biggies. Bang! Smack! Pow! For 32 games.

Latrell Sprewell
New York pinned their hopes to a player that has been called "a con man" and "a cancer".
However, extending that same game plan over an 82-game schedule (plus playoff contests) simply wore the edge off of Houston's and Sprewell's effectiveness. So, too, by legislating the passivity of the rest of the team, Van Gundy also dulled their competitive energies. Not only that, but defenses now knew exactly where the ball was bound.

Still another problem that put the Nix behind the 8-ball was Van Gundy himself. While his peers gave him high marks for his team's stubborn defense and all-around hustle, he was derided for the simplicity of his offensive strategies. (An assessment that at least one of his players seconded.) NBA insiders likewise know Van Gundy to be arrogant, secretive and relentlessly manipulative. But he was so cute and pouty -- how could any self-respecting, underdog-loving New Yorker not cherish him?

Another strike against Van Gundy concerns the very reason why he got and kept his job, i.e., by sucking up to Ewing, and then doing the same to Larry Johnson, both influential clubhouse presences. So why did Van Gundy quit so unexpectedly one Saturday morning last season when the team was 10-9? Mainly because Sprewell habitually responded with profanity whenever Van Gundy unholstered his brown nose and, during the Friday practice session before he quit, suggested that his coach perform a certain X-rated activity upon himself.

The Knicks, then, are simply paying the cost of 35 years of wishful thinking, poor planning and misguided player moves. And while New Yorkers love to love, they also love to hate -- rainy summer weekends, snowstorms, the Bosox, the Celtics, anything to do with Los Angeles. Lately, the hippest of the hip New Yorkers are getting off on hating the Knicks. Thirty-point leads are not to be trusted. Two-point deficits are insurmountable. At MSG, the booing starts before halftime, and, win or lose, the final buzzer plays to thousands of empty seats.

Yet there remains a hard core of Knick-loving New Yorkers who believe, against all odds and signs, that better times are coming. These are the faithful, doggedly following their blighted heroes through the bleak desert of the new season. Still wanting to believe that the next mirage will be real. That the next messiah, who will walk on air and recapture the golden ring, is nigh.

Love it or hate it, these things can only happen in New York.

Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."