It was the summer of 1996, the last time the New York Knicks were in the kind of position they're in now, and I was an intern for MSG Network. One of my primary responsibilities was to deliver our daily press clippings to all of the different factions of Madison Square Garden.
One day as I boarded the elevator to deliver clippings to the secretary for the president of the Garden, a few others stepped in with me. One was then-Knicks general manager Ernie Grunfeld.
I resisted all temptation to grab Grunfeld and tell him what I thought the Knicks should do. Instead, I emitted a nervous laugh that drew his attention.
"What's so funny?" he asked.
"I'm looking forward to seeing how you spend all this money you've got," I said with a smile.
Grunfeld smiled. "Me too," he replied.
I've thought about that elevator ride with Grunfeld recently, and I've been wondering what I'd say if I got in that same elevator with Donnie Walsh.
I've followed the Knicks since Red Holzman's final season as coach, 1981-82, and became a big fan of the Hubie Brown and Rick Pitino teams of the 1980s. I reached an obsessive level in the early '90s, when my father and I had a mini-plan that netted us 20 games a year as well as tickets to every home playoff game in 1993 and 1994. Then came college and a slow, steady decline in my interest, with a brief uptick when the Knicks miraculously beat the Heat and Pacers en route to the 1999 NBA Finals. The hiring of Isiah Thomas to run the Knicks, and the repeated horrendous decisions by ownership, served as a near-death blow to my fanhood. The damage wasn't irreparable, but it was pretty close.
Now, by the miraculous managerial maneuverings of Walsh, the Knicks are in position to make moves that will be game-changers, and will impact the direction of the franchise for the next 10 years.
Yet I can't get excited about it. And that has to do with a crisis of conscience taking place inside my brain.
See, I don't want the Knicks to sign LeBron James.
How in the world can a Knicks fan say that? It's heresy, right?
Well, hear me out, and then say what you wish.
I have two reasons for feeling the way I do.
One is that I don't want a player to come to New York simply for the sake of his brand. Everything I've heard about The King, and all of his actions, indicates that his brand is his No. 1 concern.
I have always been a big supporter of players who make it clear by their actions, not their words, that they want to be on a team. This may sound like a silly example, but John Olerud is a favorite of mine, not because of the way he played for the Mets, but because he and his family rode the subways and made New York a part of their lives during their time here.
From a Knicks perspective, an example of a player who embraced what it meant to be a Knick, both for good and for bad, was John Starks. He certainly doesn't have to work for the team now, but chooses to do so, because the Knicks are as important to him as he was important to them. I get no sense that James is going to embrace New York in any way, other than to enhance his commercial potential. Maybe that's unfair, but that's my perception.
What kind of person would leave his hometown team to come to the Knicks, given the current state of the team?
If James joins the Knicks, their arena might as well be called Madison Square Zoo, because that's what it will become. Every game will be the most overhyped event imaginable, and those who own the franchise will take full financial advantage of those who follow the team.
The talk will be of how LeBron dreamed of someday playing in the mecca of basketball. It will be so phony.
And then a voice inside my head makes the point: "Is there anyone out there who would become, in your mind, a 'real' Knick?"
I think of the realities of professional sports and I realize that there probably isn't anyone who would come here just to be a part of the team's history and New York's basketball tradition. Those days are long gone. So maybe I should put that issue aside. But it's hard.
The other issue I'm dealing with is this: I don't want to be rooting for the team that robbed the cradle.
LeBron James is meant to play his entire career in Cleveland, just as Joe Mauer is meant to play his entire baseball career in Minnesota. LeBron James means more to Cleveland than he will ever mean in New York. He is theirs, not ours. If he leaves, a colleague who is a native of a Cleveland suburb told me that LeBron will be the most hated person in Cleveland, times 10.
Sports fans are not necessarily wired to be sympathetic, but I feel their pain. This is a city that has endured suffering at a championship level, with a triple crown of heartbreak over the last few decades. The losses have been epic, with torturous defeats by the Browns ("The Fumble"), the Cavaliers ("The Shot") and the Indians (a walk-off in Game 7 of the World Series), with a bevy of other moments along the way that would make even a hardened fan want to give up the games.
But plenty of hometown heroes go elsewhere. Should that really have such an impact on how I choose to root?
That's where I am at the moment -- a Knicks fan trying to figure out where I stand at a pivotal moment in team history. The elevator is coming soon, but I don't know that I want to get in, even if this ride goes to the top.