by Peter Walsh
During the first half of a late-season win over the Detroit Pistons, a member of the New York Knicks security team taped a picture of the Larry O’Brien Trophy above each player’s locker. On winning nights against the League’s top teams, the pictures symbolize a realistic goal. After a loss, though, they represent a painful reminder that the clock is ticking for a team whose window is closing awfully fast. And while an identical pic hangs above each locker, none is more glaring than the one sitting above starting point guard Raymond Felton’s shaved head. The 6-1, 205-pound Felton, remember, replaced wunderkind Jeremy Lin as the Knicks starting point guard this season after his career spun out of control in Portland last season.
Felton is also the same player who became the butt end of bloggers’ jokes after he showed up in photos looking overweight during the offseason. And now, he’s the same guy who is playing the game’s most important position on a Knicks team that has a chance—albeit a slim one—to make an anonymous MSG security guard an augur.
After winning a National Championship during his junior year at UNC, Felton was selected fifth overall by the Charlotte Bobcats in the ’05 Draft. The Marion, SC, native was named a Second-Team All-Rookie and posted modest numbers throughout his five-year tenure in Charlotte. In 2010, Felton helped the Cats to their first-ever Playoff appearance and after getting swept in the first round he entered free agency and signed on to play in New York alongside Amar’e Stoudemire.
Initial doubt—remember, blue-and-orange clad fans wanted LeBron—soon turned to cheers when Felton revealed himself as the type of player the Garden faithful gravitate to. He played his ass off, never shied from the limelight and hit big shots while garnering All-Star consideration for the first time thanks to career-high averages of 17.1 points and 9 dimes. Heading into the prime of his career, he was playing the best ball of his life for a team on the come-up. But before he could even take a step back and enjoy his success, in February of that year Felton was shipped to Denver in the Carmelo Anthony trade and found himself coming off the bench for a rebuilding Nuggets team.
The following June, Felton was traded to the Trail Blazers. After seeing the success he had with Stoudemire, the rabid Portland fanbase was hopeful that same chemistry would occur with budding All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge. Then came the lockout, and Raymond Felton was thrown for a loop.
Felton arrived to training camp out of shape. And to make matters worse, he bumped heads with coach Nate McMillan and the Blazers struggled to an 11th-place finish in the West. Felton posted career-low per-game averages in scoring (11.4 ppg) and field goal percentage (40.7).
“It was a bitter taste in Portland,” says Felton. “Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great people in Portland, I have a lot of love for that city and organization. I came in out of shape after the lockout—have said that from day one, never blamed anyone for that, that’s on me. I was just getting badgered the whole time I was there. It was a tough experience, but I stayed professional during the whole thing and kept working, got my weight down and finished the season strong.”
While the Felton experiment was failing in Portland, Linsanity was taking the world by storm. Felton was public enemy number one in Rip City while Lin was an immediate superstar in the media capital of the world. During the offseason, though, talks broke down between Knicks management and Lin regarding a new contract and the sensation left for Houston. The Knicks subsequently inquired about Felton and the Blazers were more than happy to part ways with him. After a season of hapless basketball, the point guard was coming back to the place where he played the best ball of his career. Knicks fans were understandably skeptical of the move—the front office was replacing the future with a floor general coming off the worst year of his career. The Garden faithful were ready to pounce and make Felton the scapegoat at the first sign of trouble. But doubts were erased when the Knicks raced out to a 20-7 start before falling to the Lakers on Christmas Day.
Following the December 25 contest, Felton was forced to sit the next month due to a hand injury. He was averaging about 16 and 6 and though his play wasn’t always pretty, he was leaving it all on the floor every night.
Felton returned from his injury but struggled through February as the aging Knicks collectively hit a wall. He’s playing better as the regular season winds down and is ready to discuss the Playoffs. “I think the goal of the organization is to get out of the first round and build from there,” says Felton. “Get out of the first round, then worry about the second. We’re going to take it one step at a time each and every game.”
Do it well enough and maybe those trophy images can be replaced with the real thing.