by Lang Whitaker

A couple of years ago, back when I was living and working in Atlanta, Hawks guard Isaiah “JR” Rider went missing one morning. The team was in Detroit, they’d had their shootaround, but Isaiah never showed.

Someone working for the Hawks at the time gave me a call. I’d been working on an Isaiah story for a while and had his phone numbers and talked to him pretty regularly. The Hawks employee called and said, “He missed our flight, and we don’t know where he is. Have you talked to him?”

It was right around Y2K, I remember, and Wifey and I were going to spend the New Year with a few friends in the mountains. I was pretty removed from everything up there, so no, I hadn’t heard from JR.

As soon as I hung up the phone with the guy from the Hawks, I called the number I had for JR’s cell phone. It rang…and he answered.

He chatted away like nothing was happening. I played it cool, asked him what he’d been up to, then asked where he was at the time. “Oh, I’m in Detroit,” he said. “Gotta game tonight against the Pistons.”

“Oh,” I said, “because I talked to some people and they didn’t know where you were..”

Suddenly, he became furious. “Maaan,” he said, his voice rising, “Why can’t you just…”

And then phone clicked off. He ended up showing up for the game that night in Detroit, but I can’t remember whether or not the Hawks let him play.

Today, Stephon Marbury left the Knicks, although these seem to be vastly different circumstances. JR went AWOL because he was JR, the man with consistent inconsistencies, with perfect imperfections.

As for Steph not showing up for shootaround this morning, well…

According to Frank “Italian Ice” Isola, the Knicks had a front office meeting late on Sunday night to talk about how they could diminish (or remove entirely) Steph’s presence. This meeting occurred just hours after the Knicks lost an eminently winnable game against Miami, with Steph’s man Jason Williams lighting up the Knicks throughout and then Steph making a bad turnover and forcing a shot down the stretch.

Before last weekend, the Knicks were looking like a good team. They’d beaten Denver, had established a semblance of a rotation, had the home fans cheering for them, and even temporarily halted the craziness that surrounded them all summer.

Well, welcome back, crazy! That didn’t take long.

Why did the Knicks decide to scale back Stephon’s role? Yes, he looked bad in the fourth quarter against the Heat, but he’s the best point guard they have on their roster, by far. The Post reported that Steph was going to be benched for his defensive shortcomings. Which means they’ll turn to their crack defender…Mardy Collins?

Benching Steph because he’s not an elite defender is like benching Ben Wallace because he’s a poor offensive player. You don’t have guys on your roster because of what they can’t do, you have them because of what they can do. And what does Steph do? He drives to the basket, he hits open guys around the perimeter, he makes open shots. Is he one of the top 5 point guards in the NBA? No, not anymore. But is he one of the bottom five? Not even close.

In any normal NBA organization, money would undoubtedly be at the root of all this. Steph has $42 million still due him, which is a lot of bingo for any team to be shelling out to a guy who’s not at the absolute top of his profession. But these are the Knicks, who spend Monopoly cash and throw money at any problem to make it go away. So I don’t think this is about the money.

It shouldn’t be about loyalty, either. Steph took the stand this summer in the Isiah Thomas sexual harassment trial and testified for the Knicks organization, even admitting under oath that he’d had an extra-marital affair. The girl he affaired with was promoted.

The Knicks are already making this sounds like it’s about basketball, that Steph’s a poor defender, that he’s a bad player. But he’s not. He’s not an All-Star, but he’s better than most of the point guards out there.

And now the Knicks are trying to kick Steph to the curb?

Crazy.

But then, we’re talking about the Knicks…