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Keidel: Gangs Of New York

Nets Hungrier And Leaner Than The Knicks
(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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By Jason Keidel
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My tongue bled from the biting. After dashing to an 8-1 start, I couldn’t click on my radio, TV, or laptop without the suffering the near-universal drooling over a team that has suddenly morphed from moribund to legendary in nine games.

They haven’t been 8-1 since Clyde and Pearl, yo!

This team is the bomb, son!

OMG!

SMH!

How’s that going?

Well, 1-3 since, silencing the absurd comparisons to the Red Holzman symphonic, passing and harassing (to paraphrase the poetic Frazier) juggernaut.

The Knicks have recently sponsored a series of radio spots espousing “history” and “tradition.” What history are we talking about? The team that has won one playoff game in the last decade? Only with the Knicks do we celebrate a club that hasn’t won a ring, chip, or trophy in 40 years. Forty.

We properly lament the Jets and loathe the Mets for the eons between championships, but the Knickerbockers have some psychic, distorted hold over New Yorkers, who have confused anarchy with accomplishment. Normally reasonable fans were boldly declaring that the Knicks were the best team in the NBA, when they’re not the best team in NYC. That handle belongs to a squad in Brooklyn.

Has anyone noticed that the Nets have the same record as the Knicks? Has anyone noticed that the Nets just beat the Knicks? Do you see Nets fans flooding the phone lines with predictions of a new world order? The Nets have quietly built a new building and a new, young, lean, and hungry roster that will give their Manhattan foe fits on the hardwood, even if the media will always bequeath the bold ink to the Knicks.

Just look at the respective starting lineups Tuesday night. Carmelo Anthony is the only Knick you could say with absolute certainty would start for the Nets. Let’s give Tyson Chandler the nod over Brook Lopez, and the rest is all Brooklyn. Since the Nets have been basketball nomads since they jettisoned Julius Erving and joined the NBA, they don’t have an inherent, fervent following. So the back page belongs to the Knicks by default, not by achievement.

If we judge success in rings – and in New York City, we usually do – then the Knicks are worse than the Mets, who at least gave you 1986. When you haven’t cruised along Canyon of Heroes since the Nixon Administration, you really need to be quiet until you accomplish something.

While I concede the Knicks have been better than I expected, their continued ascent will depend entirely on Jason Kidd, who is perhaps the most underrated player in NBA history. No matter his age or wage he has made every team better instantly. The variable with Kidd is injury. Should his ancient limbs survive a long season, the Knicks can beat anyone in the Eastern Conference not named Miami.

Kidd is the anti-Carmelo, a pass-first savant in the Magic Johnson mold. Kidd sees the game in three dimensions. Carmelo Anthony sees it in one, through the prism of his stat line. And thus Kidd has a two-pronged job this year: help the Knicks play past their past and to get Carmelo to put the team’s needs over his own. Consider Carmelo A-Rod Lite, a wildly talented but misguided player who needs schooling from winners.

As we saw the other night, when ‘Melo ball reared its regrettable head, the Knicks watched Anthony heave shots in wretched percussion, like an arcade game at Buffalo Wild Wings where you need to chuck as many shots as possible in 60 seconds. Everyone was quick to quote his flashy 35 points and 13 rebounds, yet omit his 11-for-25 shooting and one – One! – assist in 50 minutes.

Like everything else with Carmelo, the first glance doesn’t reveal the entire tale. Since the Knicks gave up so much to get him, paid so much to keep him, and made him the emblem of the franchise, they’ve airbrushed his essence. The touching “I’m coming home” introductory commercial isn’t exactly accurate. Born in Brooklyn, but raised in Baltimore. Reared on Bernard King, yet King was long gone by the time Carmelo was three. (Yes, he played for the old Washington Bullets, but that wasn’t the context with which his allegiance was presented.)

“Why you always hating on Carmelo?” I’m often asked.

Because I’m irked by athletes who are given otherworldly gifts and don’t make the most of them. Watch the overtime and see Gerald Wallace breeze by Carmelo for a crucial bucket. Sure, he played 50 minutes, but Tyson Chandler would leave a limb on the hardwood before letting someone saunter around him for a lay-up. Anthony didn’t even try to stop Wallace.

Carmelo could be great, but he’s fine with good. No matter your vocation, talent is only half the deal. Desire is the other half. Can he be taught hunger? The answer is beyond my pay grade, but an answer in the affirmative is the only way Carmelo will ever be part of an NBA champion.

Mike Woodson has done a splendid job in corralling Carmelo without bruising his titanic ego. More than any X or O on a chalkboard, Woodson’s most daunting and essential chore is to remold ‘Melo into a winner, which requires rewiring of the highest order. Kidd is the coach on the court, Woodson’s appendage in spreading the ball and the brand as a team that passes and plays defense, too.

Carmelo can’t carry the Knicks to a title in the same vein as Kobe and LeBron, but he doesn’t have to. A player of his gifts can suppress his impulse to shoot his team out of the game, to take 20 shots instead of 30, to make the extra pass and hound the glass, to play a little defense, then they can heed and inhale the wisdom of and Kidd and Chandler and even Rasheed Wallace – players who have actually won a championship. Evan Roberts made a wonderful observation the other day when he said “There are now rings in the locker room.”

Winston Churchill once said, “I am always ready to learn, but I do not always like being taught.” No doubt that’s coda we all understand. And Carmelo Anthony would be wise to heed its implicit lesson. He will be better by being statistically worse.

The NBA, heck, all sports, has had a village of superstars who drop flood the box score with commas and crooked numbers during their 20s, only to realize later that they served themselves and few others, with vanity trumping veracity.

Carmelo Anthony is at that axis in his career. He’s established himself as one of the premiere scorers in the NBA, yet beyond the digits in his box score and bank account, his legacy has a palpable hole. No world titles other than gold medals. Everyone talks about how didactic his Olympic experience was last summer, watching Kobe and LeBron, two men who are where ‘Melo wants to be, ensconced in the winner’s circle.

Let’s see if he loves to learn, and then if he can be taught.

Feel free to email me: Keidel.Jason@gmail.com

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