by June 04, 2008

By Jake Appleman

(Written in late March with editorial vitamins steroids from Ryan Jones. Addendum at the bottom. Probably worth 15 minutes of your time, even if you’ve never been to NYC.)

We’re happy to disrupt you’re regularly scheduled NBA Finals hype machine with the following:

Back in late September, I participated in a focus group for the MSG network during the Isiah Thomas sexual harassment civil litigation suit. More than halfway through the wallet-padding experience, the eight of us were split into two teams and asked to pretend we were TV executives and come up with ideas for potential shows. The best idea we had was a joke: The Front Office, a parody on NBC’s smash hit, The Office, based on the New York Knicks.

The Front Office would star Tim Meadows as Thomas, the embattled (moronic?) Coach and General Manager; Paul Giamiatti as James Dolan, the free-spending (legally blind?) owner; and Terry Tate Office Linebacker—the muscle-bound, roid-raging Reebok-commercial phenomenon from a few years back—as Anucha Browne Sanders, the woman who won $11.6 million in her sexual harassment suit against Thomas. In the words of Tate/Sanders: “This ain’t your cake, Isiah. This is Anucha’s cake.”

Yes, the Knicks have become such a comic disgrace that there should be a TV show made to chronicle what goes on in The World’s Most Famous Arena. To most suffering fans it appears obvious that, as a catastrophic failure on the court, the Knicks are the antithesis of New York City, a place experiencing such economic growth that living almost anywhere in Brooklyn will cost you a small fortune.

But look closer. Dolan has legally misappropriated enough money to wet John Gotti’s dreams—yet, with a net value of $604 million according to Forbes Magazine, the Knicks are still the most valuable franchise in the NBA. If you’re of the belief that the Giuliani crackdowns robbed New York of its soul, turning the town into a high-end mall, then the team fits its home perfectly. The Knicks, like their city, have grown soft.

David Simon, the Creator of The Wire, an HBO drama that showcased Baltimore’s grittiness, said of New York: “There is no city more vain about its position in popular culture, more indifferent to other realities, more self absorbed than New York City. You guys have a lot going on and there are lot of wonderful stories to be told. But you literally think you have the end thing to say, the nth degree of what to say on every one of them.

“Baltimore has 10 times your crime rate, 5 times your rate of poverty. And yet, because all the Wall Street money went here in the 80’s and the 90’s, and there is no more hell in Alphabet City and Morningside Heights is being gentrified, Manhattan is one big pile of money. You guys think you know urban America; you don’t know sh*t anymore.”

In order to fully see if the Knicks/NYC parallel could work, I took the entire roster, with the exceptions of the sparingly used Randolph Morris and Wilson Chandler, and assigned each player an NYC neighborhood based on the quality of analogy. The current player was compared, not only to a neighborhood now, but juxtaposed against the same neighborhood back in the early 90’s and the player that played that role on the early 90’s bad-boy Knicks, the best New York basketball teams in modern history.

As Simon would say if he were a rabid NBA fan, New York used to know hard-nosed basketball; it doesn’t know sh*t anymore.

(Note: There were criteria for positions. Centers—or men in the middle—were represented by 42nd street; guards, because they usually set up near downtown, were assigned neighborhoods below 14th street; frontcourt power players were assigned neighborhoods above 59th street; and wing players without one defining on-court identity were metaphorically represented by neighborhoods east of the island (Queens), because, well, west is New Jersey where there’s a franchise that actually has a clue.)

Ladies and Gentleman, the starting lineup for YOUR-NEW-YORK-KNICKS!

A 6″11 Forward, from Long Island City…Jared Jeffries!

LIC is supposed to be a city, hence the name, but it isn’t; it’s just an increasingly expensive neighborhood that looks across at “the city.” To that end, while Jeffries is supposed to be a defensive stopper that can guard 4 out of the 5 positions on the floor, he hasn’t lived up to his billing and often resorts watching other taller-building ballers (David Lee, Renaldo Balkman) play actual defense.

This all about context: To the non-thinker (Thomas), it stood to reason that Jeffries was a defensive standout because he was arguably the best defender on the 05-06 Washington Wizards. The truth is those Wizards were a weak defensive team that relied on offensive prowess. In fact, Jeffries’s defense was kind of like the needle in a haystack of crap: shitty.

The same sort of thing can be said of LIC: sure if you dropped it in the middle of Indianapolis, it’d be the center of a metropolis. In New York, it’s just another place people who can’t afford to live in Manhattan call home. Back in early 90’s, LIC was a moderately priced neighborhood that didn’t try to be too much and Charles Smith, when he wasn’t busy blowing the most important playoff game of the 92-93 season, didn’t try too hard, though he did use his discernible offensive abilities to help the Knicks win games.

A 6″9 Power Forward, from the South Bronx…Zach Randolph!

While Randolph is dangerous enough—CBS Survivor: Hoop Family (Randolph’s posse) would be incredible—he lacks the heart and grimy win-at-all costs style of play that defined an era and endeared Charles Oakley to the old school New Yorker. Randolph is everything that one could argue is currently wrong with New York and its Knicks: an overpriced, overrated mess that thinks in green and believes it’s better than it actually is.

Much like the South Bronx of today, any positive reaction to Randolph’s game probably comes from numerical misrepresentation. His impressive stats are a front that seek to hide his deficiencies as a basketball player, while the South Bronx wikipedia page footnotes an article from the summer of 2004 by Robert Zink of PBA magazine, which asserts the following (Randolph-related footnotes added in italics):

“So how do you fake a crime decrease?” Zink asks. “It’s pretty simple. Don’t file reports (don’t pass out of the double team), misclassify crimes from felonies to misdemeanors (forget to play good help defense), under-value the property lost to crime so it’s not a felony (fail to co-exist with anyone that boasts a similar skill set), and report a series of crimes as a single event (fire an ill-advised airball from out of your range that becomes fodder for YouTube ridicule). A particularly insidious way to fudge the numbers is to make it difficult or impossible for people to report crimes (fail in aspects of the game that are hard to statistically track) — in other words, make the victims feel like criminals so they walk away just to spare themselves further pain and suffering (make 13+ million dollars a year and beg to leave immediately, because, as always, it’s never your fault).”

Unlike Randolph, back when the Knicks were the soul of New York, the Oak-man did real police work in the paint, establishing a truly frightening identity that sent shockwaves through the league.

A 6″11 Center, from Times Square…Eddy Curry!

The center of New York’s madness back in the day, both Times Square and Patrick Ewing were dangerous forces that could intimidate anyone not looking for trouble. Ewing came to the Knicks fresh from Georgetown, where he wreaked such havoc on defense that the fear instilled in opponents was labeled “Hoya Paranoia.” Times Square, before the Giuliani crackdowns, was a cesspool of sin, where you could do practically anything with drugs, except perhaps have sex with them—but that’s what the factory-line of hookers was for.

Now, Times Square is a corporate center and that only truly succeeds if you’re thinking in numbers (financial digits or tourist counts). Meanwhile, Curry’s scoring output and impressive field goal percentage mask the fact that the dude wouldn’t know a rebound if it hit him in the face or a defensive stance if he got low to pick up a donut.

A 6″2 Point Guard, from Williamsburg…Stephon Marbury!

The self-proclaimed Starbury, legendary incoherent talk show rambler, born-again Christian, the shoe game’s fake Robin Hood and the NBA’s premier Diva, is all about one thing: himself. The put-on in manner of his actions is eerily reminiscent of Williamsburg’s vomit-inducing hipsters, a spreading virus of a people that seek to make their every whim uber-chic—funny because Williamsburg has a history of environmental hazards.

Just as hipsters think they’re really cool because they rave about something called “performance art” and the newest in-band that nobody has ever heard of, Marbury thinks he’s God’s gift to the NBA. Sadly, neither could be further from the truth. Bottom line: Both the ‘Burg, thanks to its annoying invaders, and Marbury, thanks to his eccentricities, are sad played-out parodies of self.

It wasn’t always this selfishly bad. Just as Doc Rivers and Derek Harper were real point guards that played both ends of the floor—share and share alike— when they ran the 93 and 94 Knicks respectively, Wiliamsburg, pre hipster invasion, was a real New York neighborhood that enjoyed popular music, like the deafening chants of DE-FENSE that rained sweetly down from the Garden rafters during the early 90’s.

A 6″5 Shooting Guard, from Park Slope…Jamal Crawford!

Crawford, much like the post-gentrification “Slope” can look great at times but doesn’t have the requisite soul to be a winner, as indicated by the fact that he’s never played on a team that has won more than 40% of its games. The contrast between Crawford and the heart and soul of those old rugged Knicks teams, John Starks, is staggering. Much like the Slope then and now, streak-shooters Crawford and Starks couldn’t be more different if they tried. Crawford, whose occasional schoolyard trickery excites the crowd, is style while Starks, who refused to back down from Michael Jordan, was substance.

Anecdotal evidence: my cousin, who grew up in Park Slope, was the recipient of an unprovoked public beat-down in his own neighborhood. That summer, when he told the story at sleep-away camp, all the rich kids from the suburbs looked at him like he was from Beirut. He used to carry knives for protection; now his former hood is all Sushi joints and multi-million dollar brownstones. How the scrappy have fallen.


A 6″6 Small Forward, from Queensbridge…Quentin Richardson!

Due to reputation, one would think Richardson, much like the Queensbridge of today, would be more dangerous than he actually is. While QR has been slowed by seemingly endless string of nagging injuries, QB has been slowed by police. Crime is a function of society—”The Bridge” thrived in that regard back in the day—just as Anthony Mason, arguably the fulcrum of the Knicks’ early 90’s bad-assed-ness, succeeded in the context of that time. Could Mase excel in today’s tightly officiated, patsy NBA? Probably not on the same level. Does gentrification-era QB truly maintain the ridiculously dangerous rep represented by the vivid lyrical portraits painted by rapper Nas? Not on the same level.

A 5″9 Point guard, from Coney Island….Nate Robinson!

A rambunctious, if occasionally out of control youngster with promise, Robinson is represented by both the good and bad of the cyclone, unstoppable at his best, destructive at his worst. Meanwhile, Coney Island’s future is brighter thanks to the Brooklyn Cyclones, the Mets’ Class-A minor league affiliate. The irony here is somewhat obvious: Marbury’s backup does a better job at metaphorically representing his neighborhood than he does. And don’t get it twisted, though he may now be an ESPN talking head, Greg Anthony’s “hands-on” approach to defense perfectly mirrors the dangers of the early 90’s Coney Island that reared Marbury. Just ask Kevin Johnson, the former Phoenix Sun point guard that Anthony punched in the face.

A 6″2 Guard, from the East Village…Fred Jones!

My fondest childhood memories from the East Village involve repeatedly running up to the foot of my parents’ bed and excitedly saying, “amblience, amblience,”—baby-talk for “ambulance”—and listening to a drunk homeless man sing himself to sleep every night on our stoop. My mom, a modern dancer that choreographed shows on and off-Broadway, was one of the first artists to colonize the East Village in the late 70’s back when you couldn’t, in theory at least, pay people to live there.

When my parents moved my family to the suburbs at the end of the 80’s, it was, in part, because they didn’t think the city—particularly the East Village—was safe enough to raise children in. Mom used to walk through her neighborhood holding her keys through her fingers to scare away potential muggers. Having moved back into town 7 years ago to support my brother’s acting career, she now says the only thing she worries might be robbed is her home. This is staggering because she owns it.

While recently staring out the window of her apartment, looking out at new multi-million dollar lofts across the street, she opined, “They probably look at us like the Beverly Hillbillies.”

Back in the glory days, the Knicks had two jumpshot artists (Rolando Blackmon and Hubert Davis) that brought something different yet needed to the bench. Contrast Blackmon and Davis with the Knicks’ current backup shooting guard, Fred Jones, and you’ll see that while Jones appears to be semi-talented—he even jumps really high!—he has no place on a truly gritty basketball team. Like the East Village today, his game is overpriced and superficial without holding the same true value—or, to wit, just another Fred Jones.

A 7″1 Center, from the Port Authority Bus Terminal…Jerome James!

The Port Authority and Jerome James are both currently the most overpriced, wastes of space in New York. Contrary to the most basic definitions of each—”basketball player” and “terminal of buses”—neither features the desired movement, except for occasional traveling. As you might expect, this frustrates fans and customers alike that want their freaking money back.

Herb Williams, current Knicks assistant and Ewing’s backup back in the day, was out-dated even on those great Knick teams, but his toughness still fit the general mold of the city, just as the dangerous pedophile leeches that my eighth grade Health teacher Mr. Goodman warned us lurked in Port Authority fit the nature of the city back then.

A 6″6 Guard from Bedford Stuyvesant…Mardy Collins!

Back in the day, Eric Anderson, a benchwarmer perhaps best known for his cameo in the brilliant documentary Hoop Dreams, never played. His role was to practice hard and stay as far away from the game as possible. His coach, Pat Riley, just never went there, mirroring the reality that most folks that didn’t already live in Bed Stuy wouldn’t dare set foot there in the early 90’s.

Times have changed, as indicated by Collins’ occasional minutes—he played enough to commit the foul that incited a brawl last season against the Nuggets—and the stunning gentrification of what was once arguably New York’s most dangerous neighborhood.

A 6″7 Forward, from the Upper East Side…Malik Rose!

Rose is elderly (12 year veteran), has retirement money ($7 million this year to, more or less, not play), wonderful memories (spent most of his career on the Spurs) and fancy rings (two championships)…kind of like wealthy folks that make up the majority of the UES. Much like those looking to gentrify may look to their now-wealthy UES predecessors for counsel, Rose dispenses advice to Knicks on the bench like a wizened sage. It’s just too bad there’s nobody there to truly heed his words.

Much like the UES of 15 years ago, Monty Williams was once a promising youngster. His career never really panned out like it should have, but like most of those born into privilege, he landed fine and now works as an assistant coach on the up and coming Portland Trail Blazers.

A 6″8 Forward, from Harlem…Renaldo Balkman!

Harlem, like the unheralded Renaldo Balkman, hustles its ass off. The problem is that those in power never simply let the two just do their thing. Like Isiah messing with Balkman’s minutes, Harlem keeps getting messed with by those in power trying to over-gentrify. This has led to protests and an uneasiness that, understandably, pisses people off.

Tony Campbell, a prolific scorer with the expansion Timberwolves and Lakers before coming to the Knicks, never quite fit in New York. Like Balkman and Harlem, Top Cat’s style, which revolved around scoring, wasn’t utilized properly, although it could be argued that this happened because he didn’t fit the defensive identity of the team.

A 6″9 Forward, from Spanish Harlem…David Lee!

Crime rates are down in El Barrio—felony assault dropped 73.8% between 1990 and 2007 according to Compstat. To that end, Lee doesn’t quite assault players driving into the lane quite like 1994 enforcer Anthony Bonner, but he still plays with a strong interior presence. In fact, Lee, like a modernizing Spanish Harlem, has more money earning and quality of work potential than Bonner did. The key is combining an old-school tenacity with moderate expansion that doesn’t try and over-do it. Expand, but don’t overshadow; stay true to your game.

The reason Lee will never succumb to the crap around him is the same reason Spanish Harlem, at least in theory, can never fully be gentrified: human nature. Lee’s often the only Knick shooting around before the game. Meanwhile, one would hope that most Spanish Harlem residents will strive to never fully give up what defines them: their native language and the Latin American cultural melting pot that defines their neighborhood’s vibrant soul. Could naming nearly everything after Tito Puente still mean something if the majority of the neighborhood turned that ever-trendy combination of Casper-white and money-green? Doubtful.

(Sidenote: If a yuppie ever calls Spanish Harlem “Spa-Ha” in your presence, you are obligated to punch them in the face. Even if your hands were chopped off in a freakishly gruesome ban-saw accident. This is non-negotiable.)

Strange, the Knicks’ biggest hope lies in their one white boy. That should turn this basketball/gentrification metaphor upside down.

The update: When the Knicks tabbed old school New Yorker Donnie Walsh to take over as general manager, my karmic heart fluttered. Could it be? NYC, returning to its roots? All the Knicks needed to do was hire Mark Jackson, a New Yorker that overcame the odds (too pudgy, too slow, can’t jump), and fuse his likable demeanor with Jeff Van Gundy’s defensive stylings–ABC, it’s as easy as 1,2,3 (and compulsively watching tape)–in order to give them the best shot at old school NYC glory. But no, they had to go fancy international flavor and shiny offense with D’Antoni. More offense! Build it higher, new hire, and use more fire! Seriously, if OJ Mayo (the polished struggle) is available and they pick Danilo “the exchange rate” Gallinari (hope without defense springs eternal), someone just burn the entire building down.