by Michael Tillery

Ah, the NBA is almost here. Listen close to the magic. Can you hear the stop and start screeches? Do you see point guards dribbling past half court and raising a left or right fist calling out a play? How about coaches smacking their hands together with that father look on their face, wishing they could do the same to certain player’s heads?

Slashing and running and moving and soothing our appetite for the highlight. Put-back slams and screams to the camera; crowd roaring after Skywalker bangs on those who often did the banging. Damn, I missed the blocks and baskets before four zeros on the clock. Are you ready to rock?

Driving into the Wachovia Center was a chore of its own yesterday for the preseason contest between the Knicks and the Sixers. The Phillies were playing the Dodgers and pedestrians painted the sidewalks a sea of red, white and beer.

You see ushers the same and give the head nod to smiles of new era anticipation. Employees, cheerleaders, journalists and front office folk all look the same here. Everyone is happy.

From the opening tip you saw two vastly different teams from last season. There was a glaring difference on the New York visiting sideline. What the hell happened to the Knicks? These cats are diving and striving like it’s a fourth quarter in early June, trying to get that confetti shine. The bodies look different–New York flashes of pumped up heat rock enthusiasm. Man, who is their weight trainer? I need to give him a call. The veins bulging out of Lil Nate’s shoulders are bigger than his whole body. Quentin has lost weight. Z-Bo looks ready to go. Stephon looks like Georgia Tech ACC Championship dreamin’.

This ain’t the same team. No more “Fire Isiah” chants even in Philly. Dudes are off the bench, waving towels, cheering on their team and making the extra pass. I know it’s preseason, but this is a different team down to the shoe strings.

Of course the game was insignificant. I was surprised how many fans showed up. A lot came over from the Game 2 NLCS playoff and were let in free of charge if their had their Phillies beat the Dodgers 8-5 tickets.

They saw two teams in transition. I walked into the Knicks locker room first before cats scatter zoomed and immediately walked over to Allan Houston, who was having a conversation with writer Anthony Gilbert. Houston was speaking of his return to the NBA, his relationship with his Dad and his father/son instructional camps at famed Rucker Park. The fourth leading scorer in franchise history hasn’t played a regular season game since 2005 and at 37, is looking to make his second comeback with the Knicks.

Michael Tillery: Allan, how do you see basketball now after such a long layoff? You haven’t played in the NBA in three years.

Allan Houston: I think the game is faster paced. The players are definitely multidimensional. You have 6-8 guys who are interchangeable and can do everything on the floor like play the one or two. They can shoot threes and have good ball handling skills. Last time I played, you had a set position…set plays you could predict a lot when I was younger. The game has changed and so has the player athleticism.

MT: What do you hope to accomplish doing something you really don’t have to do?

AH: I want to look back and see the passion I had for the game. I want to see this fulfilled, and I believe God will help do this for me. I want to leave a legacy of things that I’ve learned as a person. How ever that happens doesn’t matter. Whether it’s 30 minutes a game or less. I want to continue to pass whatever I have on.

Team President Donnie Walsh just so happened to be watching the Red Sox/Rays game, and I wanted to see where his head was as the Knicks move into another era.

MT: Mr. Walsh, looking at the team and everything that has happened here the last couple of seasons, I gotta say that I see a different excitement in the players. New York is one of the teams concreted in the NBA pantheon. What do you want to tell the fans?

Donnie Walsh: Well, I think that our team is competing, and that’s something we have to do. We are playing hard. We are in a style that will be exciting and they want to get better at it. They want to play and they want to win.

MT: Talk to me as a fan. How do you see the team from where you sit?

DW: If you are in New York, you got to be for real. We haven’t been for real. What I’m seeing now is these guys are trying to get real. If they do that, people in New York will respond to them.

Stephon Marbury and Zach Randolph were cracking jokes on something or other and getting dressed adjacent to Mr. Walsh. If this team is to move in a positive direction, these two talented but enigmatic stars better put up or shut up.

MT: ZBo you know we spoke last year when things were really bad here. What’s gonna change?

Zach Randolph: Everything really. Everybody is putting in the work. Everybody is down for one another.

MT: I was just talking to Mr. Walsh and saying you look like you have a different type of excitement which is great to see as a basketball fan first even in the preseason.

ZBo: It’s a different atmosphere. Everybody wants to play, and everybody is on the same page. We are trying to accomplish our mission. We are trying to win. It’s going to be a lot of sacrificing. That’s what we have to do.

MT: Stephon, what’s good? Looking over your entire career and seeing what’s going on here now, we all know last year is in the past. What do you see for this team? What do you hope to get done here?

Stephon Marbury: Man, we are just trying to get back to the playoffs. That’s it.

From that answer, I knew I wasn’t going to get anything out of Stephon. I did want to highlight something that needs to be spoken more of–his giving back.

MT: Regardless of what is said about you Stephon, you are one to do big things in the community. What’s going on with you currently?

SM: I got my line coming out, Starbury.com. Stores on Amazon.com gave me a mass distribution deal to give others the opportunity to sublet their own deals under the Starbury umbrella. I will continue to do positive things in the community and allow people to have access to all merchandise. That’s something that’s very important to me.

MT: What do you want to tell the kids of Coney Island and also fans of the Knicks and the NBA as well?

SM: Stay humble and keep God first.

Thaddeus Young started the game at the three and played effectively in minimal minutes. I noticed his college coach at Georgia Tech, Paul Hewitt standing outside of the Comcast press room. I’d interviewed Coach Hewitt a couple of years back and it was good to finally meet him in person.

MT: Coach, looking at Thad’s progress coming into the League, are you surprised with his successful development?

Coach Hewitt: No, I’m not surprised at all. Because of the work ethic, his style and intelligence I knew he would do really well.

MT: It’s gotta be something to see one of your kids doing good…

PH: Oh definitely. I’m full of pride. I’m happy for him first. He’s a terrific young man and I’m not surprised by anything he’s doing on and off the court.

Two more stops…a talk with Sixers Head Coach Mo Cheeks and Elton Brand. Talking with Coach Hewitt, I walked into the press conference a little late. This is challenging because you don’t want to ask a question already asked–even in the preseason–because Cheeks is that dude to let you know. He joked that long time Philly legendary writer Phil Jasner was late as well so I was a little hesitant to speak out even though there was not many of us present.

MT: Coach, hear me out here. Could you compare Elton coming into the fold with Moses Malone arriving in ’83 when you were a player?

Coach Cheeks pauses, looks down and shakes his head like I just asked the $700 trillion stupid-ass question. Damn man, damn.

MT: Coach I mean in the team dynamic. It would be absurd to compare Elton Brand to Moses Malone at this stage, obviously.

Coach Cheeks: There isn’t any comparison. When Moses came in, we’d been to the Finals a couple of years with established players who have been around for a while. The impact in our team dynamic? We still have a very young team. Some of the things he’ll bring to our team will be great but certainly not the impact. We are at totally different stages in totally different times.

Let me see how Elton is gonna answer the same question.

MT: Elton, I asked a question your coach thought was ludicrous: comparing your arrival to Moses’. You came out and put up 18 in the first quarter. Is this an exciting time in your career? Especially in a town charged because they see you as someone who can take the city to greater heights touched on last season?

Elton Brand: Yeah it’s a very exciting time. We got a lot of young players that can play. We got a lot of work to do. It’s not like when Mo came in because they were on the cusp of a championship. We’re still growing but it’s a lot of fun. I’m happy to be in this city and I hope we do well this year.

MT: How do you think you and Sammy Dalembert with establish yourselves around the League down low?

EB: We’re going to do well, especially defensively. Offensively, we got a lot of work to do. In terms of diving in and getting on top of things but he’s a worker and I’m a worker, so we are going to work it out.

MT: You know there will be a priority here regarding the Boston Celtics/Philadelphia 76ers rivalry that seems to be budding again. Is momentum building in you personally when it comes to playing the champs?

EB: We are looking forward to that. They are the champs. They are the measuring stick. We got to want to go against them. Not even playing a game, that’s what we aspire to be.

Remember the words from every player and coach above. This should be an exciting season. While New York is going to have a serious challenge ahead of them in getting back to the post season, Elton Brand and the Philadelphia 76ers have a big opportunity to do it major this season.

I can’t wait until tip-off.