Revisiting the past can guide the Knicks down a path for a successful future.
Considering Madison Square Garden is also known as the Mecca of basketball, 38 years without a title begs us to question whether that alias deserves to be revoked quicker than DMX’s license.
Aside from the New York Jets (1969 Super Bowl winner), the Knicks are in the midst of the longest championship drought among New York teams representing the four major professional sports.
As the current roster has the potential to rival one led by Ewing in his prime, Knicks fans and players, alike, are eager to put the days of suffering behind them. However, it is imperative to realize that to build a better future, the past cannot be forgotten.
Over the years, New York has had its share of notable players who made an impression in ways that cannot be quantified on a stat sheet. While some are legends, others were merely role players or even maligned by the Knicks faithful.
Whatever their contributions may have been, a valuable lesson can be learned from each and every one of these former Knickerbockers.
On May 8, 1970, a solitary moment etched in sports history defined what Willis Reed means to the Knicks.
Heading into Game 7 of the NBA Finals versus the Los Angeles Lakers, New York’s MVP center was nursing a debilitating thigh bruise that threatened the odds of Reed making any appearance at all. A healthy Reed always gave the Knicks a chance to win, but the lack of the big man’s presence would spell doom for a team in search of its first world championship.
With all signs pointing to Reed having to sit out this pivotal contest, his game-time decision to participate was the decisive factor that pushed the Knicks over the top.
At 7:34 p.m., an astonished Garden crowd and teammates gawked as Reed, dressed in his uniform, hobbled out of the tunnel and batted the opening tip away from the mammoth Wilt Chamberlain.
Reed nailed New York’s first basket, a jumper from straight on, and followed that up with a second, 20 feet out from the right wing.
He may not have hit another shot the rest of the night, but scoring the team’s first two baskets was the only motivation the Knicks required. They went on to dominate the Lakers in that decisive game, 113-99.
Reed’s act was utterly unselfish and proved that putting his team before himself inspired them in such a manner that no pregame pep talk can.
While I’m not condoning playing hurt and risking further injury, sometimes putting your body on the line for the greater good is enough to light a fire under your teammates.
It is unclear whether the team was aware of the knee and elbow injuries that plagued Carmelo Anthony last season during their playoff series against the Boston Celtics. Nonetheless, now that the news that Anthony required offseason surgery to correct these problems has been publicized, his teammates should have a renewed sense of respect for him.
Hopefully Knicks players will continue to take selfless action as Reed once did and the rest of the team will respond with a bit more effort of its own.
This Hall of Fame floor general was a staple on both championship teams during an era when the Knicks were synonymous with winning.
Frazier was an exceptional scorer and precise passer, but the fact he was a complete player is what separated him from the pack. Similar to Dwyane Wade, Frazier also was an above-average rebounder from the guard position, and most of all, he didn’t mind getting his hands dirty on defense.
He was a ball-hawk, and had steals been kept as an official statistic for the first six seasons of his career, Frazier would undoubtedly be among the all-time leaders in the category. During the 1974-75 campaign, he recorded 190 swipes, good for an average of 2.4 per game.
In terms of criticism for lack of defense and rebounding, New York is easily the most disparaged franchise in the league. And Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire take the brunt of this ridicule simply because they are such gifted scorers that their offensive skill severely outshines their defensive capability.
Being superstars does place Anthony and Stoudemire under the microscope of scrutiny more than their teammates, but it’s still no excuse for inattentiveness on the defensive side of the ball.
Not only would ramping up their defensive effort directly benefit their offensive output, it would also impact their counterparts’ desire to swarm the ball. Defense is contagious, and seeing the captain pick it up a notch on the other end of the floor will encourage them to follow suit.
If the Knicks take a cue from Frazier and exert as much energy on defense as they do on offense, there’s absolutely no reason they shouldn’t contend for a title sooner rather than later.
A member of the 1970 and 1973 title teams, to label one of the 50 greatest a role player would be an injustice, but Dave DeBusschere often took a back seat on a star-studded roster that included teammates like Willis Reed, Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe.
He wasn’t the most popular player, by any means, but DeBusschere was New York’s unsung hero. Without him, it’s safe to say the Knicks might still be searching for their first championship.
DeBusschere was the type of guy who never quit until the whistle was blown, and his game was centered on hustle.
At just 6’6”, he was undersized, but it was DeBusschere’s unparalleled drive and determination that resulted in him being one of the most successful rebounding small forwards to set foot on an NBA court. During DeBusschere’s five and a half seasons in New York, he never averaged less than 10 boards.
In addition to his responsibilities as a defensive specialist and rebounder, DeBusschere was a proficient scorer as well. In his final season as a Knick prior to retiring, he put up 18.1 points per game.
If the present-day Knicks could incorporate one aspect of DeBusschere’s game into their own, it would be heart. You may not be the most talented or athletic, but if you have pride and leave it all out on the floor game after game, it will yield a positive outcome.
New York is a couple pieces away from legitimate title contention, and one of the missing components is a player in the mold of DeBusschere. Whether management searches outside the organization to fill the role, or someone steps up from within, the Knicks are in desperate need of a player to offer the kind of stability that will relieve some of the pressure off Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire.
Bernard King is a testament to perseverance.
After leading the Knicks to back-to-back Easter Conference Semifinals appearances in 1983 and 1984, King won his only scoring title the following year. With an average of 32.9 points per game, only Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant have posted higher season averages in the last quarter-century.
What was ultimately King’s most productive season hit a wall in the spring of 1985 when he tore the ACL in his right knee. At the time, injuries of the sort were deemed career-threatening.
However, King vigorously rehabilitated his leg over the next 12 months and vowed to return to form. To the dismay of many, King was activated for six games as the 1986-87 regular season came to a close.
Shockingly, he didn’t come back as a shadow of his former self. Instead, King was the same potent scorer fans had grown accustomed to, averaging close to 23 points in those contests.
Having drafted Patrick Ewing while King was recovering, New York decided to go in a different direction and neglected to re-sign King during free agency.
King was acquired by the Washington Bullets and proceeded to have four more extremely effective seasons. Most importantly, he remained healthy until he underwent a second surgery to remove cartilage in his reconstructed knee, forcing him to forego the entire 1991-92 campaign.
He made a brief comeback with the New Jersey Nets the following season, but it was short-lived. While his career may have culminated with a sad conclusion, King flourished for 14 years in the NBA.
King is living proof why you should never give up and always believe in yourself.
His story really hits home with Amar’e Stoudemire, who also endured a serious knee operation and has been fortunate enough to avoid any related setbacks.
The moral here is that Stoudemire and the rest of the Knicks should take nothing for granted and treat every game as if it’s their last because given the unpredictability of professional sports, it could all end tomorrow.
The undisputed face of the Knicks franchise is also the most unappreciated. Despite the accomplishments that rank Patrick Ewing among the best centers of all time, die-hards will never bestow the type of credit upon him that he is worthy of.
Unfortunately, Ewing never delivered the world championship that New Yorkers thought was inevitable when he was selected first overall in 1985.
The 7’ Jamaican, who sported a flat top haircut and turned kneepads into a fashion statement, rekindled the winning fever that fans had come to expect but had vanished since the championship squad of the early ‘70s disbanded.
It just so happened that the Knicks shared a conference with one of the most distinguished dynasties ever assembled: Phil Jackson’s Chicago Bulls featuring Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman.
As long as Jordan was around, the Bulls stood in the way of Ewing’s championship aspirations. Not so coincidentally, Ewing led New York to the Finals in each of the two seasons immediately following Jordan’s multiple retirements.
But it was there that he clashed with two more legendary centers—Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson—and fell short of capturing the dream.
Ewing poured his soul into winning a title for New York City. He sweated buckets and played hurt, but he never could get over the hump.
Although fans may despise Ewing for failing to bring back the glory days, he is the reason the Knicks were relevant for 15 years. He’s also a good person and embodies everything that you’d want your captain to stand for—a true champion in every sense of the word.
From work ethic to leadership and everything in between, current Knicks players need not look any further for a role model than the greatest Knick of all, Patrick Ewing.
They didn’t call him the “Oak Tree” for nothing. Charles Oakley patrolled the Garden paint for a decade and served as a defensive catalyst on arguably the most aggressive Knicks teams to date.
Under coaches Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy, Oakley had one assignment: grab every ball in sight that doesn’t go in the basket and rough up the opponent while doing it.
Averaging double-digit rebounds in four of his 10 seasons with New York, Oakley helped carry some of the burden that had previously fallen on Patrick Ewing’s shoulders.
He wasn’t much of a shot-blocker, but Oakley was a solid man-to-man defender with very active hands and excellent anticipation, which led to more than a steal per game.
Opposing power forwards were frequently overmatched by Oakley’s physicality night after night, and his bruising style really drained their stamina.
No active Knick is reminiscent of Oakley, but Amar’e Stoudemire could stand to adapt some of his favorable attributes. If Stoudemire could develop a nose for the ball comparable to Oakley, he’d rival Dwight Howard as the most dominant big man in basketball.
Adding a player of Oakley’s caliber would position the Knicks that much closer to fielding a championship squad.
Ignored in the 1988 NBA draft, the Golden State Warriors eventually signed John Starks as a free agent, only to cut him after the 1988-89 season.
Starks was toiling in the minor leagues when the Knicks came calling during the fall of 1990.
Never afraid of a challenge, Starks attempted to dunk over Patrick Ewing in one of his earliest practices. Ewing skied for the block and made bodily contact with Starks on the play. Starks tumbled to the ground and injured his knee.
Per league rules, New York could release Starks if his knee healed by a specific date. When he didn’t fully recover by the deadline, it was against policy to cut him.
Thus, the legend of John Starks was born.
Starks fit right in with his feisty disposition and rapidly became the team’s second scoring option behind Ewing. A deadly shooter from the perimeter, Starks is the Knicks’ career leader in three-point field goals.
Always one to relish the big stage, Starks had a flair for the dramatic. Some of his most memorable moments—for better or for worse—came during the 1993 playoffs. These include head-butting Reggie Miller and getting ejected during the first-round series against the Indiana Pacers and converting a tomahawk slam over Horace Grant and Michael Jordan, immortalized as “The Dunk,” during the Eastern Conference Finals in a matchup with the famed Chicago Bulls.
Needless to say, Starks made his mark on Knicks history with a little bit of luck and a lot of sheer determination. This fairy tale proves that it is indeed possible to accomplish anything through focus and hard work.
On the heels of two consecutive NCAA Championship berths at UNLV, Larry Johnson hit the ground running during his rookie season of 1991-92. The Charlotte Hornets’ first overall pick amassed Blake Griffin-esque numbers en route to the Rookie of the Year Award, posting 19.2 points and 11 rebounds per game.
There was absolutely nothing soft about Johnson’s game, and he quickly made a name for himself muscling through opponents and throwing down thunderous dunks. Despite his affinity for collisions, Johnson was durable too, playing in all 82 games in each of his first two seasons.
On the fast track to what was shaping up to be a Hall of Fame career, Johnson suffered a setback during his third season with the Hornets when he sprained his back in Dec. 1993. After suiting up for the previous 51 games, Johnson was sidelined for the remaining 31.
Johnson came back strong the following year, but the back injury had permanently debilitated him, and he had no alternative but to add a new dimension to his skill set: the three-point shot.
After one more stellar campaign with Charlotte, turmoil within the organization resulted in Johnson being dealt to the Knicks in 1996.
Although Johnson would never accumulate the kind of stats in New York that he did in Charlotte, his well-rounded offensive game meshed perfectly with the Knicks’ run-and-gun offense.
A key contributor over the course of the improbable 1999 Finals run, Johnson’s preeminent Knicks highlight occurred in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers when he was fouled in the act of shooting a three with seconds on the clock. Johnson’s dagger and the ensuing foul shot capped off a four-point play, giving the Knicks the 92-91 Game 3 victory.
Johnson only lasted five seasons with the Knicks before lingering back issues forced him into early retirement, but fans will always remember “LJ” and his signature celebratory sign.
By altering his game, Johnson demonstrated how a player can evolve and maintain a high level of success. If a former All-Star starter can change, anyone on the current Knicks squad is capable of improvement.
Most importantly, this theory can be applied with Mike Woodson and the defensive strategy; if Johnson was able to improve offensively by practicing his outside shot, Knicks players can brush up on defense via drills and repetition.
Then: the favorite son from the Coney Island projects. Now: the outcast stepchild exiled to China.
The heralded homecoming seemingly transitioned overnight from good to bad to ugly. Unless you were living under a rock circa 2004-2008, you know what I’m referencing.
When Stephon Marbury returned to New York in January of 2004, he was on top of the world. He had money, fame and endorsement deals—all because he could flat out ball.
But before you can say “Starbury,” everything imploded.
While the Knicks front office believed a Marbury-New York reunion would be prosperous for all parties involved, Marbury had a history of losing wherever he went. He wasn’t exactly an altar boy either.
Four straight atrocious years without a playoff appearance, locker room feuds with teammates and a public dispute with a head coach—not to mention steadily diminishing production on the court—was enough for fans, who once embraced him as the lord and savior, to turn sour.
The point is Knicks fans’ loyalty is unwavering as long as you’re living up to their extraordinary expectations. But in their eyes, you’re only as good as your last performance.
If your play is suspect and your off-the-court behavior is erratic, they’ll turn on you faster than you can hail a cab in Times Square.
In five short years, Marbury was essentially run out of his hometown, used sparingly in a reserve role on a team that didn’t advance past the conference semifinals and ostracized by the NBA, all while in his prime.
The lesson to be learned is that when you play in New York, everything you do is magnified on and off the court. You can’t control everything that happens during the game, but you do have full command of your life outside the arena.
Not everybody can make it in New York, and the same holds true for athletes. But while you’re here, just don’t do anything stupid that you’ll end up regretting, or you may end up bussing it all over China for a fraction of the salary you once earned.
With the last pick in the first round of the 2005 NBA Draft, Isiah Thomas made yet another questionable decision when he selected David Lee, a project out of the University of Florida.
During his rookie campaign, Lee made the most of his limited minutes, but it was too small of a sample size to predict how productive he could be in an expanded role. What was obvious was Lee’s game was built on hustle and enthusiasm.
A spot opened up for Lee in his second season, giving him the opportunity to see drastically increased minutes on a nightly basis. Lee took full advantage, and his blue collar approach sat well with the Knicks faithful.
Lee’s offensive package was elementary, but he was crafty around the basket, a relentless rebounder and surprisingly athletic. By the end of the 2006-07 season, he’d established himself as a fan favorite and averaged a double-double.
After more of the same the following year, Lee finally earned himself a starting job at power forward for 2008-09, his breakout season in which he averaged 16 points and 11.7 rebounds.
The next season, Lee upped the ante with 20.2 points and 11.7 boards per game, proving he could excel as the team’s No. 1 scoring option. He even earned his first All-Star appearance despite the Knicks’ subpar record.
Sadly, Lee entered free agency during the summer of 2010 when New York was looking to add a maximum-contract player to begin its rebuilding process. Given Lee’s rise to stardom and the likelihood of pursuing Amar’e Stoudemire, it would be impossible to retain Lee, too.
Lee hopped to the West Coast and joined a young Golden State Warriors squad, but his short stint in New York was not forgotten; Lee was greeted with a touching video tribute upon his return to Madison Square Garden in 2010.
It was vintage Lee all game, as he carried the Warriors to victory with 28 points, 10 rebounds and four steals. In spite of the loss, Knicks fans were happy to be reminded of one of the lone bright spots to emerge from the Thomas regime.
When Lee played in New York, the Knicks were frequently blown out, but he would still be out there giving it 100 percent.
As much as New Yorkers hate to lose, they’ll love and respect a player who dives for loose balls and kicks it into overdrive even if the team is terrible. The Knicks could use a couple more David Lee's because it’s players with his mentality that bring home the trophy.