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Lights Out in Indiana

By Bob Liss

I. Season Over, Suddenly

“Knickerbocker basketball is on the air.” That old phrase kept recurring to me whenever I got home early to watch a playoff game at 4 or 5 PM (as needed) this year, for this Knick team, warts and flaws notwithstanding, was always worth the watch. The reason for the early start is that I now live in San Francisco, have for nearly thirty years, but the Knicks in the last two years have captivated me in a way that goes way beyond geographical boundaries.

Despite having loved Carmelo Anthony’s play at Syracuse - where he stayed only one year, but brought lifer Coach Jim Boeheim his only NCAA championship - I had written him off as a selfish one-dimensional player while he was with the Denver Nuggets. That impression was confirmed in his early days with the Knicks, when he seemed to tarnish - even ruin - Amar’e Stoudemire, along with the chemistry that had fuelled Linsanity.

Yet I have now come to love watching Anthony play nearly as much as I do LeBron James; maybe more, due to the added suspense of an uncertain outcome, which brings me to another wonder: what an incredible assortment of individuals comprised the Knick team that Coach Mike Woodson took such a long way before getting derailed by a formidable Indiana team that Charles Barkley was telling us early on would defeat New York, and prevent the long-anticipated matchup with LeBron’s defending champion Miami Heat.

With that match-up no longer possible, the playoffs - especially with Golden State also being eliminated (by San Antonio) - suddenly lost their interest for me. I was certain that soon, after I briefly mourned, LeBron would bring them alive again, but there would never emerge that classic confrontation of James and Anthony.

II. Artists in Different Keys: Carmelo and LeBron

LeBron James is universally known for his inhuman physical gifts, from size and strength equal to the league’s most athletic giants, to speed and agility characteristic of the best guards. All these traits enable him, uniquely, to guard any player at any position. Yet reporters routinely remark that it is his mental equipment - his ability to read, change, and react to the constant flow of a game - that distinguishes the mature James as much as his physical prowess. He is, simply put, a basketball genius.

Whereas Carmelo, his close friend, is the consummate scorer, reminiscent even of Bernard King. Unlike James, Anthony rarely takes in all aspects of a game, but rules it through his scoring. Yet this domination is only achieved when he is able to blend some judicious passing into his game. And that of course depends on team-mates being able to make shots, to take some of the load off his shoulders, thus allowing him to play within himself, and overcome his natural instinct to score at all times.

I think of Anthony as a prince of hard bop. Solid definition characterizes his game at every move. By contrast, LeBron’s fluidity and ability to morph himself into the very action that he is enveloping and encompassing echoes Monk and Mingus, with a supreme overriding Coltrane flavor. He can make any melody work; forces nothing. Not so for Melo, whose clarity and often-astonishing precision in movement harkens back to Oscar Robertson. I sometimes think of him as a spoiled, petulant Oscar; a bit of Earl Monroe too, it could be argued.

Watching tapes of Knick playoff games, you can see him making decisions, all of which a discerning viewer (no genius required) can fully viscerally understand. One can feel as if he/she were Carmelo for that moment, that play, that superb effort leading to a score. With Melo, the flow is not continuous, certainly never infinite; there are discrete options: two horns; he’s playing them both; only question is which one. Whereas for James, his acts and the game’s flow somehow merge and echo one another. Melo fashions his games, sculpts; James is too caught up in motion to sculpt. But both are true artists. I will miss Carmelo’s special exuberant moments. I have saved three of his best games on my DVR; he is a joy to watch.

But beyond Carmelo and his personal battles with James, this year’s Knick squad - in both in its joyous abandon and its periodic dysfunction - had captured my imagination. How and why would I so miss them? It isn’t about home-town chauvinism for me: growing up in New York as an adolescent, with the Knicks slipping into mediocrity (often comic mediocrity), I became a St. Louis Hawks fan. I took the struggling Knicks totally for granted, all the while giving thanks for the first games of Garden double-headers; many times, my friends and I left after only a half of the “second game.” Eschewing regional loyalties, once my hero Bob Pettit retired, I came to be a fan of teams that played the game beautifully well, as long as they didn’t wear Celtic green.

Walt Frazier’s Knicks, under Red Holzman, won two titles, and fit that bill perfectly. So did Bill Walton’s Portland Trail Blazers. Both teams became icons of perfectly played team basketball. Their smooth unselfishness was a joy to watch for fans of all stripes, from all locations. They came to define both chemistry and legitimacy. You didn’t have to be a Knick fan to embrace that Knick team, any more than you had to live in Portland to love those Trail Blazers.

But there have been many other, less aesthetically pleasing iterations of the Knicks, including Pat Riley’s Thug Squads of the Michael Jordan Era, extending through the years of mismanagement under Isiah Thomas, and the reconstruction orchestrated by Donnie Walsh. Last year’s season had the dramatic structure of a five act farce, with plot reversals and climaxes galore. Perhaps it’s having to finesse change through obtuse owner James Dolan that makes it all seem so precarious.

What made this such a special group (even though they fell short of their high expectations)? Was it simply that they were representing the Knicks? Look, L.A. is still the transplanted Minneapolis Lakers, the Knicks’ tormentors when I was first starting out. And Phil Jackson came up as a gangly rhythm-disrupting Knick sub, a pup at Red Holzman’s tit, while Don Nelson was nursing at the other Red’s inflated one in Boston. Besides, Auerbach was from Brooklyn, you know. Jack Nicholson is a great actor and man about town, but Woody Allen and Spike Lee grew up in the cheap seats after a subway ride in from (where else?) Brooklyn.

The Knicks, who were the first team to sport a black-only roster, have had more than their share of bad black dudes: from Spencer Haywood, though the ultimate 1970’s backcourt of Micheal Ray Richardson and Ray Williams. So there is plenty of precedent for Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, and Iman Shumpert! As there should be in New York. The most Jewish of cities, it led the basketball world in great Jewish players, who dominated the game for many years.

This year’s cast of characters, as assembled and blended by Coach Mike Woodson, suggested to me a kind of a re-working of Robert Downey’s classic film Putney Swope, in which the inmates run the asylum with perfect cover from the titular boss. It’s an admittedly loose analogy, but how else to categorize the colorful cast of Shumpert, Smith, Raymond Felton, Chris Copeland, joining the near-geriatric cohort of Rasheed Wallace, Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas, and Kenyon Martin, and former European star Pablo Prigioni?

Tyson Chandler’s inability to make even the simplest shots (despite his ridiculously high shooting percentage) rendered him a sadly comic figure when things started to go wrong against Indiana. But what else went so awry in destroying the chemistry and flair that characterized the Knicks when all cylinders were clicking was the astonishing demise of J.R. Smith, who had become that second scorer that great stars need in order to release pressure. Though not exactly Dwyane Wade, Smith had scoring sprees that were often prodigious. His ability to make long and difficult shots - and exciting ones - had given the Knicks a spark, and allowed Anthony moments of rest on the court, as well as vicarious excitement, as Smith’s scoring feats seemed so fashioned upon Anthony’s as to make him seem a perfect sidekick, at times almost a clone.

But with the Knicks up 3-0 against the Boston Celtic, Smith, who had gone from being a multi-talented head case to the deserving winner of the NBA Sixth Man Award, reverted to his old immature ways, threw an unnecessary and wildly self-indulgent elbow, and drew a one game suspension from which neither he nor the Knicks ever recovered. Adding the conflagration that would consume the Knicks, the insouciant Smith was seen out late “clubbing” with celebrities.

III. Dirge

Anthony had been brilliant against Boston for the first three games and much of the fourth, but thereafter was never consistently himself, only in spurts, and Smith, that unabashed great gunner, could no longer shoot. The pattern and the cohesion had been destroyed. The other saxophone in Melo's band had been muted; his solos alone had to supply the band’s energy.

They still got by Boston, but Indiana was too strong. It would take LeBron’s genius - and his buddies - to stop them.[1]

Melo’s lack of Jamesian comprehension and intelligence was evident in his oddly skewed pre-game conceptualization of “whatever it takes.” Note the confusion of “I” and “we”: “It’s do whatever it takes, even if that’s 60 points and 20 rebounds; whatever it takes, I have to do it, we have to do it, as a team.”[2]

In the final loss to the Pacers, Anthony’s twenty point first half was off-set by Brooklyn’s Abraham Lincoln High School product Lance Stephenson’s sixteen points and eight rebounds (on his way to 25 and ten). Stevenson brought a special intensity that was obvious from his wildly focused eyes to his pounding style, as befits a four year state champion in New York and the highest scorer in New York State history.

Anthony had been carrying the team by himself but could not keep pace; he labored mightily to try to ignite a sputtering offense. In Game Five, when he somehow led the Knick offense briefly back into a high enough gear to catch up, you could see him having to struggle extra hard.

In Game Six, the effort seemed to be all there again but it just wasn't happening. Then, in a sudden turnaround by his cold-shooting team-mates, four threes in 100 seconds (the first three by Shumpert) turned a budding 72-60 rout into a 72-72 tie. The Knicks led 92-90 when Anthony attacked the rim, but was met there by Indiana’s massive center Roy Hibbert, who spectacularly rejected the shot, and took the life out of New York’s comeback, igniting a 9-0 Pacer run. Carmelo, exhausted, was futile thereafter: frustration, an ankle turn, three fourth-quarter turnovers. Out: 106-99.[3]

Ironically, just a day before they were eliminated, in the process of clearing out miscellaneous papers over-crowding my desk, I came across a poem I had written in 2010 entitled “Death and the Knicks.” It was not about playoff elimination; it was a dirge prompted by the death of 1950’s Knick guard Dick McGuire. It brought back memories of the lovable but less than championship caliber Knicks that I grew up watching at the old Garden.

The 2013 Knicks have now died as well. They will not soon again be significant, despite their wildly exciting run. This was their best chance, in an increasingly powerful Eastern Conference, where several stars (Derrick Rose, Danny Granger, Rajon Rondo) of already contending teams are expected back from injuries. The Knicks can only contend if Shumpert, only 23 now, quickly blossoms into a star.[4] No-one else on the roster has much of what everyone now calls “upside.”

Though we come to praise Anthony, we must bury him as well. Going forward, as people like to say, it appears to be LeBron’s league now, but NBA eras overlap. Was there a Duncan era? If so, is it over? This is Tim’s seventeenth year, yielding four titles, though never two in a row.

LeBron’s first trip to the Finals, for Cleveland in 2007, was thwarted by the Spurs in just four games. They may meet again in June. Closure, along with poetic justice, would so demand. But were the decision to be made on the basis of poetry alone, Carmelo would be there too.


1 A perfect example of LeBron’s genius came in Game One against Indiana: down one point with 2.2 seconds remaining, the shot James got for himself was a point blank lay-up.

2 I’m reminded of Tim Hardaway’s misconception that unselfishness meant working to boost one’s assists per game average.

3 Anthony’s 35 in three quarters, with only four in the fourth quarter, recalled Roger Brown’s 1960 39 point game for Wingate against Boys High with Connie Hawkins.

4 Looking like he stepped out of the '50s to sing lead for The Platters, he certainly has the requisite bearing and charisma.

From June, 2013

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