Rotten Apple

by Dave Zirin | @edgeofsports

It’s easy to be depressed about the 2012 New York Knicks. As I was working on this, they’d traveled at warp speed from Linsanity to “former coach Mike D’Antoni.” Mike Woodson may help a little, but it’s feeling like the wait for a legitimately fun run in the Playoffs still has legs.

Esteemed SLAM Ed. Ben Osborne asked me to say something about “my favorite Playoff memory,” and here my depression worsens, because for this Knick fan, “great Playoff memories” go back 30 years. I know the Knicks made the Finals in ’94 and ’99. But go back and watch those Playoff runs. These teams engaged in ugly wars of attrition, grinding their opponents down with the cruel patience of a police interrogation. Ewing, Oakley and Starks were proud warriors. But basketball inspires because it’s a game of beauty and those teams, um, had great personalities.

The last time the Knicks did what several teams do every spring (last year, that included the Grizz, Thunder, Heat, Bulls and, of course, Mavs)—make a Playoff run while riding a wave of imagination and momentum—was ’84. That’s when Bernard King averaged 42.6 points to lead his team to a 3-2 series triumph against the Detroit Pistons of Isiah Thomas and the finest player to ever rock a home perm, Kelly Tripucka.

In the decisive Game 5, played at the sweltering Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Bernard’s heroics withstood a stretch by Isiah that Jordan at his absolute zenith could never touch. Zeke scored 16 points in 94 seconds to lead the Pistons on a heroic comeback that fell just short.

Young’ns would be wise to reread that last sentence. Sixteen points in 94 seconds. At that pace, a person would score roughly 512 points in a game. Isiah was like a Walking Dead zombie, moving forward with relentless, unstoppable, cold-blooded fury. It took perhaps the only man on earth who at that particular moment was the better player. Bernard dropped 46, got the Sports Illustrated cover (proudly pasted on my wall once I got it), and the Knicks upset a Pistons team on the rise.

Then a Knicks team whose second best player was Bill Cartwright took a Celtics team bound for a Championship with the Hall of Fame Bird/Parrish/McHale frontcourt to the brink. We knew we didn’t have the talent to take down Boston. But we also never thought it would go seven games. But Bernard never stopped scoring, and we were led by Hubie Brown, a man who could coach up the Washington Generals.

Now, as the years have ticked by, we’ve journeyed from the Pat Riley anti-Showtime bully ball, to the endless disasters comprised of big names and quick fixes. Flashy, free-agent basketball players of varying skill, once they donned the Knicks blue and orange, morphed into totems of failure. We know the names and they’ve been dragged through the mud. The team has been a Bermuda Triangle of talent. Of all the skilled players who withered on the Knicks vine, only Z-Bo (to his great credit) clawed his way back from the Dolan career destroyer. The fear now is that Carmelo and Amar’e, both players of breathtaking talent, will join this group.

It’s our own personal Groundhog Day. As ’84 recedes into the ever-more distant past, it assumes a greater weight: the last time the NBA was beautiful in NYC.