With Little to Cheer in the Present, Knicks and Their Fans Trapped in the Past

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterFebruary 14, 2017

TORONTO, CANADA - March 13 : Former NBA player Charles Oakley during the game between the Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors on March 13, 2015 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images)
Ron Turenne/Getty Images

On the night Charles Oakley became an ex-Knick, June 24, 1998, he was nowhere to be found.

Team officials kept calling, to let him know he had just been traded to the Toronto Raptors. But Oakley wouldn't pick up the phone, delaying the deal's completion by a day.

When general manager Ernie Grunfeld at last reached him, Oakley cut off his explanation. "If I'm traded, I'm traded," he said, according to the book Just Ballin': The Chaotic Rise of the New York Knicks by Mike Wise and Frank Isola. "I'm no longer your commodity."

And that was that. One of the grittiest, nastiest and most beloved Knicks of all time, a cornerstone of a perennial NBA contender, was gone.

Before long, the remaining pillars of the era would fall away: John Starks, traded in 1999. Patrick Ewing, traded in 2000. Larry Johnson, retired in 2001.

Coach Jeff Van Gundy resigned in December 2001, months after team executive Dave Checketts, the chief architect of the era, was forced to resign.

The man forcing that resignation was James L. Dolan, newly installed (by his father) as Madison Square Garden chairman. The '90s Knicks were a bruising powerhouse, channeling their aggression into a series of 50-win seasons, storied showdowns with Michael Jordan and two trips to the NBA Finals.

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The Knicks of the current era have been known mostly for turmoil—for boneheaded trades and outlandish contracts, for scandals and infighting, lawsuits and controversy, for an endless, dizzying parade of coaches and executives, fading All-Stars and false idols.

So when an agitated Oakley battled with Garden security last week—taken away in handcuffs and besmirched by Garden officialsKnicks fans knew who to cheer for.

It didn't matter that Oakley, according to Garden officials, had been maliciously berating Dolan in the moments before the incident. It didn't matter that Oakley provoked the physical confrontation by shoving one security guard in the face, and hacking another's arm.

No, Knicks fans reflexively lined up behind the 53-year-old bruiser—for all the blood, sweat and thrills he gave them two decades ago. They lined up against the owner, who has given them only humiliation and heartbreak.

Even director Spike Lee, long supportive of Knicks ownership, came to Sunday's game in an oversized No. 34 Oakley jersey.

Shrouded in this ugly conflict was an awkward truth: The Knicks, and their fans, remain hopelessly trapped in the 1990s, forever pining for the past, humming themselves to sleep each night with another chorus of "Go New York Go."

And who can blame them?

The Knicks' last trip to the conference finals was in 2000. Their last 60-win season was in 1992-93. They've won just one playoff series in the last 17 years. Their only recent flash of relevance, a 54-win campaign in 2012-13, was followed by an immediate crash (37 wins in 2013-14).

When the Knicks need a coach, fans and pundits clamor for Ewing, or Mark Jackson, or former Van Gundy assistant Tom Thibodeau.

While the rest of the NBA becomes smaller, sleeker, faster, New York pines for bullyball, for Oakley, Mason and Johnson, for hard fouls in the lane and scores in the low 70s.

When the Knicks in 2008 hired Mike D'Antoni, fresh off a brilliant four-year run coaching the Phoenix Suns, New Yorkers groaned. Too gimmicky, they said. Too many three-pointers. Small ball? That ain't New York.

They celebrated the 2011 arrival of Carmelo Anthony (a modern-day Bernard King!) and seemed perfectly content when his 1990s iso-ball ways torpedoed D'Antoni's revolution.

New York spent the '90s in futile pursuit of the Chicago Bulls, who collected six championships and bounced the Knicks from the playoffs repeatedly. Even that experience colors the present, in the form of Phil Jackson, the coach of those Bulls teams and now the Knicks' president.

CHICAGO -1991: Charles Oakley #34 of the New York Knicks stares down Phil Jackson, head coach of the Chicago Bulls during an NBA game at Chicago Stadium in Chicago, Illinois in 1991.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges that, by downloading and or u
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

One way or another, the Knicks are always reaching backward.

It was Jackson's Knicks rootsas a gangly forward in the 1970sthat the franchise trumpeted upon hiring him in 2014. But it's the Bulls legacy that gave him his aura. And Jackson is still insisting on an offensive system that most NBA coaches consider a 1990s relic.

The Knicks have been remarkably slow to embrace modern analytics ("nonbelievers," per ESPN); and though they are playing a little faster this season (13th in pace), they rank 20th in three-point attempts per game.

The basketball revolution has yet to reach the World's Most Famous Arena.

With little else to celebrate, the Knicks wrap themselves in history whenever they can. Starks and Johnson are now community relations ambassadors. Allan Houston is an assistant general manager. And countless alumni have passed through this season as part of a 70th anniversary celebration.

On Sunday, Dolan insulated himself from the Oakley controversy by bringing back Latrell Sprewell, another Knicks anti-hero who once profanely berated the owner. Sprewell was given a baseline seat, right next to Dolan.

Anything to remind fans of better times, and to obscure the malaise of the present.

But Oakley? Oakley says he has never been invited backretribution for criticizing Dolanand that his attempts to reach out to Dolan have been rebuffed.

Sources say team officials in fact tried repeatedly over the years to mend fences, but that Oakley failed to show for arranged meetings, or to return calls. Shades of 1998.

But the only Oakley that fans see, the one who last week bought a seatprovocatively situated just rows behind Dolanand then got tossed, is the Oakley who spent a decade muscling for rebounds and smacking down guards in the lane. He earned the loyalty.

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 12:  Former New York Knicks playes Larry Johnson and Latrell Spreewell and Knicks owner James Dolan attend the game between the New York Knicks and the San Antonio Spurs at Madison Square Garden on February 12, 2017 in New York Cit
Elsa/Getty Images

Dolan has done nothing but antagonize and deflate those fans. Meddling in basketball affairs. Hijacking trade talks. Chasing off Donnie Walsh, the Knicks' best executive since Checketts. Refusing to re-sign Jeremy Lin, who gave fans a rare burst of happiness in 2012. Refusing to give interviews, to explain any of it. Blacking out the MSG Network on cable systems, at the height of Linsanity. Hiking ticket prices, repeatedly. Bringing back Isiah Thomas, repeatedly. Writing bitter letters to disillusioned fans.

No, there was never any doubt which side fans would take when Oakley took on Dolan last week.

And when the parties at last reached detente on Monday, an old, familiar voice helped smooth the way. Yes, that was Michael Jordan on Line 1, when Commissioner Adam Silver gathered the parties at his office.

In a statement, the commissioner said both men were apologetic. He said Dolan expressed hope that Oakley would return to the Garden "as his guest" sometime soon.

All these years later, perhaps there will be a true reconciliation. Perhaps Oakley will be brought back into the fold, to join his former teammates, to be honored alongside other Knicks legends.

Perhaps they'll all hum a verse of "Go New York Go." Or, more appropriately, the chorus to "Glory Days."


Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.


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