By Jason Keidel
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Most New Yorkers revel in the guilty pleasure of loathing a local team, being the lone hater in the house, buzzing around your boy’s head like a mosquito while he tries to swat you and your karma out of his crib.
As most of you know, my sinful glee is my contempt for the New York Knickerbockers.
What you don’t know is that I grew up adoring the team residing on my island, just six subway stops from my childhood home. I caught Clyde’s twilight, and became enamored of the Hubie Brown squad. Without leaning on Google I can rattle their roster off the tongue as though they still played – Ernie & Bernie, Truck Robinson, Marvin Webster, Rory Sparrow, Bill Cartwright…
But once Pat Riley lost his corporate staring match with Dave Checketts, I knew the Knicks were no longer about winning. Why would ownership trust Checketts, who won nothing as an NBA executive, over Riley, who bagged five rings in Los Angeles and had the Knicks within a whisker of their first title since the Nixon Administration? Indeed, had John Starks not morphed into a master bricklayer in Game 6, the Knicks would have defeated the Rockets.
Turns out that the new sheriff in town, James Dolan, was about to embark on a historic spree of wretched management. There isn’t enough room here to list the gaffes, which culminated in Isiah Thomas, Starbury, and sexual harassment. Thomas, who was just jettisoned from college powerhouse Florida International after a 26-65 record as head coach, still has Dolan’s tone-deaf ear.
Because of Dolan’s incompetence, the Knicks won’t win a title while he’s the landlord of MSG. Rangers fans just caught a whiff of the pungent hex Dolan put on the World’s Most Famous Arena.
But Dolan, resisting his appetite for destruction, did the right thing by keeping Mike Woodson. Even the most ardent Knicks apologists agree that Phil Jackson was the only man with the gravitas to nudge Woodson off the bench.
But the Knicks never made the Zen Master an offer. It probably wouldn’t have mattered. Despite his prickly persona and thorny relationships with his bosses (he even ordered Jerry West out of the Lakers’ locker room) Jackson is master manipulator on and off the hardwood. No one questions his intelligence or prescience, so perhaps he and the Knicks knew not to go there, even superficially. Can anyone see Jackson and Dolan, with egos stretching wider than Jackson’s mountainous, Montana sunsets, sharing the same totem pole?
Woodson assumed a team teeming with infighting, backstabbing, and loafing during their public mutiny on Mike D’Antoni. It was a microcosm of the modern NBA: the stars always trump the stripes on their boss’s lapels. And thus Woodson parachuted into the crucible.
With an uncanny eye and ear for the team’s mood swings, Woodson repaired a team ready to tank. The glitter of Linsanity was fading, Carmelo Anthony was clueless, and their matador defense reflected a club that had rolled over, quite ready to die.
Yet Woodson repaired the rampant leaks, commanded respect, demanded defense, and got instant results. The Knicks finished 18-6 before being dusted by Miami in the first round. It wouldn’t have mattered if Jackson, Red Auerbach, or John Wooden stewarded the Knicks in that series. But even with the foul taste the five-game destruction left in your mouth, the Knicks should be favored to win the Atlantic Division next season.
One of the more appalling personality traits of the Knicks and their fans is their penchant for plucking excuses out of defeat. The Knicks never lose; injuries, coaches, or rogue referees conspire to oppress them. Fans stooped below sea level this season by blaming the truncated training camp and condensed schedule, as if every other team didn’t have the same problem.
But next year there are no excuses. The Knicks will have a full fall, complete arsenal, and a squad swathed in stars. Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony are good for 40 to 50 points per night, and are flanked by Tyson Chandler’s defense. Iman Shumpert should recover in time for a playoff push, and Jeremy Lin – who should return as a restricted free agent – will be healthy long before October. With the two All-Stars swallowing their salary cap, the Knicks need to win with Lin at point guard. And if they don’t win 50 games and at least two playoff series, it will be time to detonate the Amar’e/Carmelo melodrama.
But it says here that no coach can coax this bunch better than Mike Woodson, who earned his perch on the bench. The players played like they wanted Woodson to lead them, and now they have him.
Dolan thought so little of signing Woodson that his minions announced the deal on the eve of Memorial Day weekend. We’ll soon see if it was memorable.
Can Woodson hold on the Knicks job in the long term? Leave a comment below.