The Empire Strikes Back

by April 15, 2011
Carmelo Anthony

Originally published in SLAM 148

New York Knicks

by Khalid Salaam / @KS_XXLMag

“Will we win a championship this year? Who knows, that takes time. But at the end of the day, we’re moving into the right direction. I felt like I wanted to be part of an organization, part of a team who had some upside and knew what the future was holding.”

Those are some of the first words Carmelo Anthony spoke at his initial New York Knicks press conference. Those are measured words, certainly nothing awe-inspiring, but certainly appreciated by the millions who regard themselves as Knick fans. Quietly, there may have been some doubts about the trade, but that’s not what you heard from NY fans. What was heard was a bit of rambunctiousness, but honestly, it’s hard to blame them.

The thing that’s so valuable to Knick fans is something that can’t be quantified or even made tangible to the untrained eye. Basketball and its relevance in NYC is what I’m speaking about. It’s graded highly here. Basketball is the sport that still moves the most mountains. It’s the city game, period. Even with the Yankees and their perennial contender status, New York is a basketball town. Despite having at least one of the two NFL franchises in the Playoffs seemingly every year, basketball is still the sport for which the city garners the most recognition. It’s civic pride, but not in a city councilman type of way—it’s one of the principle behaviors through which NYC people communicate to the rest of the country. As in, basketball is what we do here and we’re proud of that fact.

So with all of this in mind, consider the NYC proceedings of the last eight months. After a mostly dormant first decade of this millennium, UConn guard Kemba Walker resurrects the lineage of the NYC point guard with a Naismith Award-caliber season; then St. John’s exceeds all expectations and grabs a solid NCAA tourney seeding; and most importantly, the Knicks up their NBA All-Star number by two and add Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony to the squad.

The Knicks’ last 10 seasons have been among the most destitute of down eras that any team in any American sports league has endured. It’s not just the losing, because teams lose every year. For every Lakers team there is a Charlotte Bobcats, for every New England Patriots there is a Buffalo Bills. It’s more of how the Knicks were run as an organization that depressed the fans. Wasted Draft picks, guys with talent but little heart, malcontents, lawsuits… these all conspired to rid the world of Knick fans. It’s a testament to their loyalty that Madison Square Garden is always packed with 19,000-plus fans every game regardless of the team’s win-loss record. Carmelo Anthony

“I believe basketball is to New York what baseball is to the rest of America,” says Minister Kwame Thompson of Harlem’s Bethel Holy Church of Deliverance. “We love watching it, playing it and cheering and defending our home team—we aren’t just fans, we’re part of the team riding the bench!”

When word broke that Carmelo Anthony was interested in playing for the NY Knicks, it set off a chain of events. Those events culminated in Anthony being traded to NY shortly after the All-Star break and with it, New York City’s return to significance on a national scale. Quiet as kept, NYC’s title of “the mecca of basketball” has not held up in recent years, and other cities have passed NYC in as far as producing elite talent. (Try to name the best NYC players in the League right now—you’ll struggle for five.) But with Melo teaming up alongside fellow All-Star Amar’e Stoudemire and still-capable point guard Chauncey Billups, the energy is back. Belief is back. And every dormant Knick fan has awakened from their slumber.

“New York is the home of everything successful, but when you look at all of the New York sports teams, basketball on the collegiate and professional levels have always been the weak link,” says marketing exec Chad Wells, a Knick lifer whose enthusiasm beams out from his words. “With Carmelo and Amar’e, we are starting to show signs, we now have a foundation and a system we can build around.”

The real test is going to be for head coach Mike D’Antoni, whose very up-tempo style produced great regular-season results in Phoenix but no championship appearances. An overreliance on offense has been his downfall and continues to be this season, with the Knicks currently ranked in the bottom third of the League in defensive field goal percentage. D’Antoni had the excuse of shaky talent before, but that went out the window as soon as the Melo trade was complete. A wholesale change in defensive mentality is unlikely due to a lack of players, but more to a lack of demonstrated technique from the coaching staff.

Harlemite Dexter Hughes, who asked to be referred to as a “die-hard fan,” sums up the prevailing Empire State of mind: “It’s like Amar’e said, we have great players now. So it’s the coach’s job to make it work. There’s no way we should be losing to under-.500 teams.”

For the record, Anthony never said, “Wait until next year.” What he told the New York Daily News was, “For everyone to get 100 percent on the same page, it might take next season. Right now, in this short period of time, we’ve just got to come together as a unit. As far as everybody jelling and the chemistry and clicking to where we want to be at, it’s going to take some time.”

Truth is, anyone expecting a championship parade down Broadway this year is just fooling themselves. No matter what happens at the end of the season, this trade was a necessary deal.

Did they get hustled by their bridge and tunnel neighbor New Jersey Nets? Damn right they did. Did they have a real choice? No, they did not. The NBA is a star’s league and regardless of Anthony’s deficiencies (holds the ball too long, has bad defensive fundamentals), the Knicks had to make the trade. Even with Stoudemire’s great season, one star just isn’t enough. Melo is a top-12 guy, a perennial All-Star, a take-over-the-game type of scorer. You can win with him on your roster, period. You do that deal 10 out of 10 times. In his first 12 games with the Knicks, he averaged 25.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists. He showed flashes of what the future could look like, and the basketball world shook their head in agreement.

Then that Detroit game happened, followed by a bad loss to Milwaukee. Stoudemire mentioned something that sounded like a shot toward his new teammate after Melo refused to join a timeout.

The papers and some fans turned on Anthony quick after that game, but they can flip-flop like dying fish. If fans rocked with the Knicks of the last decade, then they can wait until this new team figures things out. Besides, the Knicks could very well end up playing the Heat in the first round, and then most of the country will be Knick fans.

Now isn’t that progress?