Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Yo, Meathead!

Those of you who read my column regularly must notice that I rarely devote any ink to the NBA. I mean, I will write some things about basketball, but compared to baseball and football, hoops just doesn’t take up much of my time.

But believe it or not, I used to be a big basketball fan. Ten to fifteen years ago, when I was still living on the East Coast, I would tune in to the New York Knicks every chance I got. In the 1990s, the Knicks were a pretty darned good team. True, they never won a championship, but with a changing core of role players around Patrick Ewing in the middle (Derek Harper, Anthony Mason, John Starks, Charlie Ward, Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell, Larry Johnson, and above all, Charles Oakley), the Knicks were sure to compete hard with the best teams in the league, and they made the playoffs every year. Sure, some of these guys were Bible thumpers (Houston, Ward), while others were as unsavory as you could get (Mason, Sprewell), but the point is that these disparate personalities could come together and still play hard as a team each night. Coaches Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy preached defense, defense, defense, and if this was a fairly ugly way to win basketball games, the New York fans didn’t seem to mind. After all, defense has been preached in New York sports as long as I can remember. The Knicks’ rivalries with teams like Miami and Indiana only made the games into better theater than they already were on the New York stage.

Unfortunately for Knicks fans, ever since 2001, when owner James Dolan took over the basketball operations of his club, the Knicks have become the laughingstock of the NBA, and indeed, of all professional sports. Although I actually detest devoting my column to berating the Knicks as much as I hate covering Barry Bonds, there is so much evidence of corruption and looking the other way while crimes are being committed in both these cases that I feel like I have to say something.

Dolan has ruined the Knicks—possibly forever. His complete loyalty to coach/VP of Basketball Operations Isiah Thomas is astonishing, especially after Thomas was found guilty last week of sexually harassing fellow Madison Square Garden employee Anucha Brown Sanders. Dolan’s belief in Isiah’s innocence can mean one of two things: 1) that Dolan is a complete idiot who has his head buried up his own behind, or 2) that Dolan promotes this sort of behavior at the Garden himself and therefore sees nothing wrong with it. Of course, I choose 3) which is both.

So far, Thomas, with Dolan’s approval, has displayed no talent whatsoever in putting together a Knicks team worthy of saying it is part of the NBA. All he has done is put the team further and further over the salary cap by taking on long-term expensive contracts for players who are not worth it, keeping the team from having any flexibility to sign players who might actually help. Big busts of the Zeke era include Howard Eisley, Shandon Anderson, Luc Longley, Travis Knight, Jalen Rose, Steve Francis, and everyone’s favorite, Jerome James. Even though he was never a potential superstar, James is a bust of Ryan Leaf–like proportions—he received $30 million for five years but has essentially played for just half the season the past two years. His conditioning is always an issue—his nickname is “Big Snacks.” This is a 7-footer who has career averages of 4.3 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 1.0 blocks a game. I bet there are guards a foot shorter who have better statistics in all three of these categories.

Who on this Knicks team can play? Stephon Marbury? Yikes! The only thing Marbury has done for anyone is create his inexpensive line of sneakers for kids. Don’t get me wrong, that was a noble project. But after hearing how crass and unfeeling Marbury was during his testimony for the sexual harassment lawsuit—and after Marbury admitted in court that he had sex with an MSG intern outside a strip club (he’s married)—it’s hard to believe Marbury participated in the sneaker company for any other reason than to try to improve and promote his own image. Marbury is a poor leader on and off the court, self-serving and self-centered—a point guard who never met a shot he didn’t like (or take)! Eddy Curry? There is no question that Curry has improved under Isiah’s tutelage, but he is still perceived as soft and doesn’t get the calls in the post that a premier big man should get. Jamal Crawford? Crawford has some talent, but he still takes too many unadvisable shots, and he will never be able to lead as long as Marbury is scowling at him across the court or the locker room. Zach Randolph is an unknown quantity for New York at this point, but he has the potential to be as big a bust as any.

So now, between Thomas and Dolan, they have not only trashed the product, since the Knicks haven’t won a meaningful (read “playoff”) basketball game in six years, they have destroyed the public perception of the team as a classy franchise and turned off millions of fans, particularly those who think sexual harassment is unacceptable. Why anyone would go to MSG this season to take in a basketball game is beyond me. (The same thing goes for hockey, as far as I’m concerned—especially in light of the approaching court date for the sexual harassment suit against MSG brought by Courtney Prince, who used to be part of the Rangers’ dance team.)

The Knickerbockers are supposed to be one of the NBA’s flagship franchises! The NBA could be making a lot more money if the Knicks were a good team—or at least perceived as respectable. No offense meant, but I’d guess a Knicks–Lakers finals would bring in a lot more dough than Spurs–Cavaliers, even with Tim Duncan and LeBron James playing in the latter. (Lucky for the league, but bad for the Knicks, Danny Ainge has gone and made another flagship franchise, the Celtics, a true contender for the first time in ages, adding Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett alongside Paul Pierce.)

Yet Commissioner David Stern is doing nothing to the men responsible for bringing such unwanted attention on the Knicks and the rest of the league. Stern was the commissioner who ushered in the eras of Magic, Bird, and Jordan, creating unprecedented interest in and success for the NBA. Now, in the era of me-first hoops and players who are thuggish gangbangers, Stern is essentially saying that it’s okay for one of the NBA’s most prominent figures to sexually harass someone while working for one of its teams. Repulsive! If the NBA didn’t have an image problem already, this would cement it!

The Knicks’ downfall has coincided with some of the changes in the NBA that have hurt its image. The game has turned into slam dunks and three-pointers on offense, with little ball movement or employment of the “hit-the-open-man” strategy promoted by such great coaches as Red Holzman back in the day. It is all too common these days see players hoisting up bricks or jamming it off the back of the rim without even taking the opportunity to run a play. In addition to a stagnant, uninteresting style of offense, many players no longer know how to defend or rebound—when they are trying to guard their own basket, a lot of guys just stand around and watch the other team’s star player go one-on-one with whoever is guarding him. Has anyone even heard of help defense? The players are completely out of touch with their fan base and care only about their money and their egos. And I can’t forget that the officiating of NBA games is now under a cloud after the huge scandal recently where referee Tim Donaghy was accused of fixing games and passing along inside information for gambling purposes.

So—that’s why I rarely write about basketball these days, unless it’s to scoff at something. Isiah Thomas is a good coach, but not so great that he should get a free pass to move forward after all the negativity he has brought upon the Knicks. He deserves to be punished by Stern and fired by Dolan. While Zeke is with the team, even if the Knicks start winning, I’m not sure I could support them wholeheartedly anymore. Additionally, Dolan himself needs to go—the Knicks need an owner who either truly knows the game or will hire someone who does and keep hands off. And until the NBA takes steps to improve its product and its chemistry with its fans, why should I watch anyway? I realize that baseball and football are far from perfect themselves, but at least my favorite teams in these sports haven’t gone down the drain the way the New York Knicks have in the last half-decade.


Star said...

What basketball team is at the top of your list now that the Knicks are goners? Inquiring minds want to know...

Ed Attanasio, Freelance Writer, Journalist, Baseball Historian, Comedian and Ad Copywriter said...

My picks are Phoenix or Dallas in the West and the Celtics of the Pistons in the East.
If you had to ask me, I would say it will be the Suns vs. the Celtics in the NBA Finals, with the Boston Green prevailing in six games. But, what do I know?

Meathead said...

There is no team that I watch anymore. The NBa ain't much worth watching!