"Patrick is one the hardest working, most loyal players I have ever been around. I have told him more than once that he is a champion even if he hasn't won a championship. He practiced and played like a champion every day he was here. Seattle is fortunate to get a player of his talent and character." -Jeff Van Gundy, Sept. 21, 2000.
Since the departure of embattled head coach Mike D’Antoni, the Knicks seemingly have found a second wind. They are 4-0 since former Hawks head coach Mike Woodson took over the team. The offense seems to be flowing better with established superstars Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudeimre co-existing with upstart point guard Jeremy Lin. Cautious optimism seems warranted.
However, before you get too excited about the prospects of this team, please note that last year's team actually went 43-39 without big-money acquisition Tyson Chandler and only less than half a season of Carmelo Anthony. In fact, looking back at the recent history of the Knicks, the cycle of optimism followed by disappointment has occurred time and again.
The reality is, this storied franchise in America's biggest market has not won 50 games in a season or made it past the first round since 2000, the last season longtime franchise icon Patrick Ewing was on the team. They have only made the playoff three times in this span, won two playoff games (none since 2001, when Jeff Van Gundy was still the head coach) despite big-money signings, high-profile coaching hirings and several attempts at rebuilding.
The only logical explanation is that the Knicks have their own equivalence of the "Curse of the Bambino:" The Patrick Ewing curse.
Ewing was selected first overall by the Knicks in 1985 as a highly-touted big man coming out of Georgetown. His selection is without controversy, as the 1985 draft was the first draft with the draft lottery. Some have alleged commissioner David Stern cheated in the draft lottery to place consensus No. 1 Ewing to the big-market Knicks instead of Golden State or Indiana (both had worse records in the '84-'85 season).
Ewing had an illustrious career in New York. He won Rookie of the Year in '86, made the All-Star Game 11 times, led the Knicks to the playoffs every year from 1988-2000, including two NBA final appearances in '94 and the miracle run in '99.
Unfortunately, they lost in heartbreaking fashion to the Hakeem Olajuwon-led Rockets in seven games in '94, and Ewing went down with an injury during the Eastern Conference Finals in '99 and did not play in the finals.
Ewing was the definition of the franchise icon, very much like Kobe Bryant to the Lakers, Michael Jordan to the Bulls, Tim Duncan and David Robinson to the Spurs and Hakeem Olajuwon to the Rockets. That was why it was such a shock when Ewing was unceremoniously shipped out in September 2000 to the Seattle Sonics.
Even in the twilight of his career, Ewing was a force. In 2000, Ewing was still very much in the "best center of the Eastern Conference" (Shaquille O'Neal was the consensus most dominant player in the league) discussion, along with fellow Georgetown alumni Alonzo Mourning of the Miami Heat and the defensively-oriented Dikembe Mutombo of the Atlanta Hawks.
Before he was traded, the Knicks out-dueled Alonzo Mourning and their former coach, Pat Riley, in a classic seven-game series in the second round before falling to the Larry Bird-Reggie Miller-led Pacers in six games of the conference finals. Basketball in New York has never been the same since.
Ewing wanted a contract extension in 2000. The Knicks under Scott Layden, the same guy who gave Allan Houston, Shandon Anderson, Howard Eisley and many others ridiculous contracts, did not want to accomodate the franchise icon. Angered by the franchise's disloyalty, Ewing and his high-profile agent, David Falk, began to explore a previously-unfathomable trade out of New York. The trade finally went down in Sept. 21, 2000, the day basketball died in New York.
Sept. 21, 2000: The Day Basketball Died in New York
1. Scott Layden
Since then, the Knicks' extreme struggles could be attributed to bad karma of their mistreatment of Ewing. The incompetent Scott Layden, who probably landed the Knicks GM job due to nepotism (he is the son of Frank Layden, former head coach and general manager of the Jazz), signed sharpshooter Allan Houston to six years, $100 million. Houston was hurt during the majority of the duration of the contract and eventually was forced to retire due to his knee injury.
Layden traded for highly-paid role players Shandon Anderson and Howard Eisley, the already-damaged Antonio McDyess, the washed-up Dikembe Mutombo and overpaid softie Keith Van Horn.
2. Isiah Thomas
After Isiah Thomas, a man with an impeccable resume as a talent evaluator, player and coach took over, the conventional knowledge was that the Knicks were about to turn the corner. Thomas was credited with the selection and/or development of Tracy McGrady, Damon Stoudamire, Marcus Camby, Jermaine O'Neal, Jamaal Tinsley, Al Harrington and Ron Artest prior of his hiring by the Knicks.
His tenure with the Knicks proved to be just as disastrous as Layden's, if not worse. Despite blockbuster trades for New York's favorite son, Stephon Marbury, Eddy Curry, Steve Francis, Jamal Crawford and Zach Randolph, high-profile, Hall-of-Fame coaching hires Larry Brown and Lenny Wilkens (then the winningest coach in NBA history) and inexplicable contracts to Jerome James and Jared Jeffries, the Knicks failed to improve.
To add insult to injury, Zeke was also hit with allegation of sexual harassment. The case was settled out of court for $11.5 million.
3. Donnie Walsh
When respected talent evaluator Donnie Walsh took over the Knicks, he preached patience. The Knicks saved salary cap space to make a run at premiere free agents in 2010 such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire, etc. Mike D'Antoni was given a four-year, $24 million contract to sabotage Starbury's career. This season is supposed to be the year every thing come together. The cap space was spent on Carmelo Anthony, Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler.
Yet the more things change, the more things stay the same. Another abrupt resignation just like Van Gundy in 2002. Another underachieving squad led by supposed superstars. Another sub-.500 record. Stoudemire and Anthony are exposed and picked apart by the media as "frauds" and "prima-donnas" the same way Randolph, Curry, Starbury and Francis once were.
The supposed franchise saviour, Stoudemire, is suddenly another flawed big man who can't defend or rebound like Randolph and Curry. Melo is suddenly another selfish ballhog who cannot create his own shot and settle for too many jumpshots. Both of the underachieving stars are saddled with long-term mega contracts that the team cannot unload.
Amid the craze of Linsanity, Jeremy Lin is not the saviour. He has proven he is a competent starting player in the league, but he is a turnover-prone, shoot-first point guard who only has 61 games on his NBA resume. It is unfair to burden an undrafted sophomore who is only making $760,000 this season with the future of the franchise. It is unfair to blame him for the team's failure. How many sophomores are outperforming him right now? Not many.
The solution? Hire Patrick Ewing as the head coach of the Knicks. Ewing has been vocal about wanting a chance to be a head coach for a few years now. He is a leader who knows Madison Square Garden inside and out, who knows the culture of the Big Apple, its media, its allure, its aura and its intricacies.
The Knicks should make amends with their franchise icon before it is too late. Bring him back to Madison Square Garden, if not just for old time's sake. What's the worst that could happen?