- Shaun Powell, ESPNNewYork.com
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In order to understand why the basketball is suddenly bouncing so high around here, just remember how it felt when all the helium was sucked out of it.
Was it a year ago this time? Could be. The Knicks were going through the motions, wasting yet another season just so they could have their hearts broken by LeBron James. St. John's was busy wrapping up another invisible era, this one under Norm Roberts. And the Nets? They were running their season win total to 12, roughly matching their number of sellouts. Not for their season. Their history.
That was the collective low point of the past decade. Individually, of course, the valleys were much deeper for our basketball teams. For the Knicks, maybe when Stephon Marbury cracked jokes after leaving the witness stand in a sexual harassment case that slimed the franchise. For the Red Storm, maybe when they failed to qualify for the tournament. Not the NCAA. The Big East. For the Nets, well, there are too many to mention. It all becomes a blur after a while. It was that bad, that consistent, that utterly forgettable.
That's why there's so much euphoria right now about the state of basketball in New York, which was considered dead, like Eddy Curry in the eyes of Mike D'Antoni. The celebration is raging not because the Knicks, Nets and Johnnies are all pushing for championships and doing something epic. No, it's because given what this area has been through, this feels like reaching the mountaintop, even though, in reality, there's more climbing to do.
St. John's: Nationally ranked for the first time in 11 years and looking reborn under first-year coach Steve Lavin.
Knicks: Rejuvenated by the arrival of Carmelo Anthony, the second coming of Bernard King.
Nets: Just grabbed Deron Williams, the best young point guard in basketball, who might go down easier in Brooklyn than Junior's cheesecake.
Spring now has a bounce to it, a glimmer of hope, a sense that the seeds being planted now will bring postseasons galore tomorrow. For a long time, too long, actually, New York was suddenly a myth when it came to basketball greatness, just another false claim by a city universally loathed for boasting about being the best in everything. At one time, maybe that was true. Basketball, the city game, flourished on all levels. Up at Rucker Park. Down at the Fourth Street cages. Inside the Garden. Out in Uniondale, where the ball was red, white and blue. And Jamaica Queens, where St. John's kept the city kids home.
For two and three decades straight, New York was spoiled by winning teams and great players and charismatic coaches. And it seemed like it would never end, kind of like the Isiah Thomas era. The big news each spring didn't come from Tampa or Port St. Lucie, and the conversation was about point guards and centers this time of year, not pitchers and catchers.
So what happened? Why the long and thirsty dry spell? Well. The playground legends all decided they'd rather escape from New York and play college ball elsewhere, and besides, the famous city pipeline stopped gushing so many asphalt stars. Jim Dolan, despised Knicks owner, chased away Dave Checketts and hired Scott Layden, then Isiah. Jason Kidd wore out his legs carrying the Nets, and his welcome. It was the combination of the perfect basketball tornado, and the devastation cut a wide swath. And what's really embarrassing is that there wasn't much of an outcry after a while. The losing and invisibility were accepted as a city nuisance, like rats in the subway. Nobody could prevent it, and those responsible were too clueless to reverse it, so why bother getting uptight? That was our attitude.
At least now, there's a buzz again. Basketball is no longer something to tolerate until Opening Day. If anything, basketball just had an Opening Week, with the ascension of St. John's in the rankings and the Knicks and Nets each getting franchise players.
This might not be the right time to throw up a caution flag, but here goes anyway. While Lavin has been an ideal fit at St. John's, for a number of reasons, keep in mind that Mike Jarvis was a hit, too, in the early going. He nearly reached the Final Four, and then the bottom fell out. All Lavin has done is win with Roberts' players. He still needs a string of strong recruiting classes and must either convince the best local players to stay home or assure out-of-state players that spending four years in the big city is an experience that shouldn't be missed.
Melo will rip a number of 35-point games and hit big shots, although the man he's guarding will have big nights, too. And anyway, the best way he can help the Knicks isn't by shooting jumpers; it's by recruiting Chris Paul in another year. Even better, Dwight Howard.
Williams still needs to sign an extension, and assuming he does, his best assist will be throwing an SOS to Howard or someone else who can help convert a bunch of Knicks fans in Brooklyn.
But, yeah, basketball is back. To paraphrase a line uttered in the bad old days, 'bout-whoop-d-damn-time.
Shaun Powell is a contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.
Basketball in New York City is once again giving hope to local fans.