by Lang Whitaker

As the Stephon Marbury saga has played out the last few months, I’ve watched with amusement (and bemusement). You long-term Linkstigators will recall that I’ve always liked Steph as a player and as a person — he’s always treated me well and I’ve always tried to be fair to him. (Well, maybe it was unfair to name my dog “Starbury,” but still.)

Anyway, when the whole Steph/D’Antoni situation blew up, I initially thought it was just hilarious that Donnie Walsh came in to run the Knicks and then made the exact same mistakes as Isiah Thomas in dealing with his biggest-salaried player, yet somehow escaped the blame that was heaped upon Zeke. I mean, you’ve got a guy who you don’t want on your team currently on your team. Your organization has shown absolutely zero compunction over spending wild amounts of money. So pay him and get on with it, right?

Then, when Steph either did or did not refuse to play last week, depending who’s side of the story you believe, I felt a sudden compulsion to take his side of things. After all, the Knicks had told him they had no place for him, that they didn’t want him to be a part of their team, that they basically didn’t even want Steph to be around. They supposedly said this to him privately and then said it rather publicly, as well.

Then, suddenly and desperately, they needed him. And Steph wasn’t there for them.

Good for him, I thought. Yes, I know the Knicks are paying Stephon literally unimaginable amounts of money to be on their team. But they said they didn’t want him. They were done with Steph, so why shouldn’t he be done with them?

Well, obviously, he shouldn’t be done with them because they pay him $21 million a year to play for them. I think, all things being equal, in any similar case, Steph would have played. But the Knicks committed a cardinal sin: They hurt Steph’s feelings. And feelings can run wild sometimes. Hurt feelings, even more so.

The first basketball game of my varsity career came in the winter of my 11th grade year. I’d spent the entire previous year playing on the JV team, contributing mightily to our 0-12 record, and then spent the spring working out and scrimmaging with the varsity guys after school every day. I’d gone away to summer camp with the varsity team for a week, played summer league games throughout July and August, practiced with the team every day once school started up again. I’d spent countless hours working out, getting ready, doing (or at least trying to do) every single thing the coach asked of me, and I couldn’t wait for the season to start. I knew I wasn’t going to get sizable playing time, but I also knew how much I’d sacrificed and how much being a part of this team meant to me.

All of the local papers had us picked to win our region, and enough kids at school had seen an intra-squad exhibition game our Coach had scheduled (and sold tickets for in order to generate some cash) to know we weren’t the average sports team at our school, North Fulton High School. (NFHS had historically prided itself on academics, which means…well, you know.)

We would tip our season off against Cathedral Academy, a small private school that had won the Class A championship the year before and would be returning most of their players, including the 6-8 son of NBA Hall of Famer Jerry Lucas.

On Tuesday morning, the day of our first game, I woke up in a panic, realizing I was late for my first game with the varsity. I jumped out of bed, threw on my uniform, hopped in my car and sped up to the school, pulling into the parking lot while the game was in progress. I entered the gym through a back door and took a seat on the end of the bench, as inconspicuous as anyone showing up halfway through a game could think they were being. Coach leaned forward from his seat and made eye contact with me, but said nothing, rocking back in his seat and returning his glare to the game.

I sat up in bed, my t-shirt soaked through with sweat. It was the middle of the night, and I was having a nightmare. I had some variation on that dream at least once a week until I was in college.

Tuesday afternoon, after what felt like an endless day in classes, we took a school bus over to our opponent’s school. As our bus pulled in at Cathedral, I peered out the window to find a small crowd of Cathedral students waiting on us. There’s a certain satisfaction that comes with walking into a gym in the midst of a crowd of 6-8 and 6-11 guys, like you are no longer a 6-foot, merely average guy, but their height has somehow transferred onto you.

Coach’s pre-game talk was subdued, reminding us of how much we’d already been through and how much was yet to come, his voice never rising above a normal speaking tone. I closed my eyes and tried not to think about anything. When I opened my eyes I couldn’t even see Coach from my vantage point, as I was stuffed into a corner of the room, so I just stared down at the carpet. (Yep, carpet. We were on the road and the locker room given to us was a  spare classroom. Around the holidays we played in a tournament at Georgia State and for a locker room were given a locker room that was being built and was still an actual construction site one floor below the gym. When we lost our first game of the season Coach destroyed that area, knocking over lockers and kicking out metal beams. Now that was awesome.)

Just before we jogged onto the court, Coach asked us all to huddle up. As we assembled around him, he produced a few packages of chewing gum, offering sticks to anyone interested. I took two pieces and, since warm-up suits don’t have pockets, stuffed them into my sock. We all put our hands in the middle, and before I knew what was happening, Two of our vets started counting down, “5, 4, 3…” On one, all the vets launched into The Lord’s Prayer. By the time they got to “hallowed be thy name,” the rest of us had joined in. On the way out onto the court, my friend Mike whispered to me that he’d never learned the thing, so he just mumbled along and closed his eyes.

We’d worked up a pregame routine that had us run out onto the court and then run through a few drills. It was nothing strenuous, just something to make us look organized. Dunking was not allowed during pregame warm-ups, so our bigs kept going up for ferocious dunks and then dropping it softly through at the last minute.

The game was almost anti-climactic. The crowd wanted to see us run and dunk, us white guys on the bench wanted to see us run and dunk, but our best player got into foul trouble early on, and with him on the bench, we weren’t able to get things going. At the half we were ahead, but it was just 38-33.

At halftime Coach lit into us, and when the second half started we were a new team — hitting threes, dunking, blocking shots. And we really looked awesome. We started opening up a lead, and by the start of the fourth quarter it was a sizeable advantage. Which was when I started prepping to get in the game.

Technically, I was the third-string point guard. I was a junior, and our starting point guard was also a junior. He was 6-5, was also the starting QB on our football team, could jump out of the gym and ended up getting a D1 basketball scholarship. So I understood that I probably wasn’t going to unseat or take minutes from him. I was fine with that. The back-up point guard was a true freshman named Barry. He’d killed at a local middle school the previous year, and Coach immediately put him on the varsity and began grooming him. He was shorter than I was, but he was fast as lightning and could drive to the rim at will; in retrospect, he reminds me of Devin Harris. Every day in practice, when we split into first and second teams to scrimmage, Barry was a reserve with the first team (the red team) and I basically ran the second team (the white team, for obvious reasons). I’d spent the previous six months going up against the starting point guard every single day, which definitely made me a better player.

(Our rotation changed dramatically at midseason when both our best player and Barry were declared academically ineligible and suddenly I was the second-best ball-handler on the team. My minutes didn’t change so much — the starter just played more.)

Now here we were. The game was in hand, and there was no reason — at least not one that I could come up with at the time — that I shouldn’t be on the court. With one minute to go, Coach started yanking the starters. Finally, with 8 seconds to go, he asked me if I wanted to play.

My initial reaction was to say, Are you kidding? With eight seconds left? Seriously, he wanted me now? After 18 months of sacrificing pretty much every available moment of my free time, he wanted me now? With 8 seconds left? What, did he want me to refill the water bottles after the game, too?

It felt demeaning, that he wanted me to play for just 8 seconds. It hurt my feelings, wounded my pride. I wasn’t as good as the starters, I knew that and could accept that. But I wasn’t this bad, was I? Coach could only trust me to play with double-digit lead and 8 seconds left on the clock?

All that processing happened in less than a second. I looked back up and coach and immediately said “Yeah,” and I saw my first action of the season. I blocked out the shooter after a free throw and then threw the ball inbounds to Mike, who ran down and missed a three at the buzzer. We won 83-67, making us 1-0.

On the bus ride home, I started parsing Coach’s language. After all, he hadn’t told me to check into the game, he’d *asked* me if I wanted to play: “Do you want to go in?” So maybe, I supposed, he realized it was a little demeaning to send someone in with 8 seconds left and he was leaving the decision up to me. What if I’d said no? What if I’d said, “Actually, Coach, I’m good. The game’s over, we’re going to win, I don’t need to stand on the court for 8 seconds. I’m better than that. Let’s just save it for the next game.”

Of course, playing for this team wasn’t officially my job, but in a strange way it was exactly like a job. I wasn’t being paid $20 million to be a member of the team, but I did have a place on a team that a lot of other people wanted. I’d beat out dozens of other kids to make the team. I’d sacrificed, I’d busted my tail, I’d made it. And now it felt like, for whatever reason, my Coach thought I wasn’t good enough. At the very least, it seemed like he didn’t believe in me.

And that hurt my feelings.

I learned a lot that season about minimizing my own expectations in order to be a part of something larger, something greater than me. It wasn’t always easy, and I did my share of venting behind the scenes, but I never said a word to coach about being unhappy with my playing time. I knew that I was good enough, that I could hold my own (or at least not get embarrassed) against anyone out there. I thought I’d put in enough work to be a bigger part of the team. If I’d gone to a smaller school or a school with a worse team, I’m sure I could have logged more minutes. But I wanted to be a part of something special. (Oh, and about five games into the season, I learned that if I lobbied our assistant coach, he could sneak in a word with the head coach and get me into more games.)

As it turned out, our Coach knew what he was doing — we finished the season 26-4. And because I trusted my coach, I was willing to sublimate myself to the will of the team. The key part there is the trust. I liked Coach, believed him, did what he asked me to do.

There was an interesting AP story the other day about the Marbury mess that looked at it as a simple employee/employer relationship. As the story says:

So it’s natural — if not justified — that Marbury would interpret coach Mike D’Antoni’s actions as malicious no matter the intent. An employer trying to repair a splintered relationship must be absolutely clear in all communication, she said. Otherwise, say, Marbury may claim he perceived D’Antoni’s request that he play to be optional, while the coach considers it an order.

So should the Knicks have bought out Marbury when he wasn’t in their plans earlier this season, even if it meant paying him money he didn’t earn? Absolutely, Rousseau said. Refusing to pay up is an irrationally emotional decision, and keeping a disgruntled employee under those circumstances only hurts co-workers — in this case, his teammates.

Which isn’t exactly true: Besides hurting his teammates, it hurts Stephon. You think it’s fun being forced to be somewhere you know you’re not wanted?

Basically, Steph doesn’t trust Mike D’Antoni. He said it himself: “I wouldn’t trust him to walk my dog across the street.” D’Antoni came in with a chance to win Steph over and, at the very least, keep him around and get something out of their $21 million investment other than a headache and a lot of bad PR. D’Antoni and Donnie Walsh blew that chance.

So while I see the Knicks’ side of things — we pay him and he should do what we say — I also see Steph’s side of things. He wants to play basketball, but more than that, it seems to me that he just wants to be wanted. If the Knicks had approached this entire thing differently, would it have played out better?

For instance, why didn’t the Knicks approach Steph quietly back in August, explain that they had no use for him and ask him to take a $2-3 million cut in exchange for his freedom? Did D’Antoni really not know at that time that he wasn’t going to play Steph? If so, that’s a costly delay to make up your mind.

Some involved might say differently, at least on the record, but I truly believe this came down to a case of the Knicks and Stephon Marbury both not wanting to lose a very public battle of pride.

And right now, they’re both losing.