Have you ever been in a rocky relationship? Embroiled in a mess break up? Caught in a vicious love triangle and think, “How did we get here?” More often than not, the answer to that question is a sticky one that probably goes back much further than recent memory can offer. I find myself in a very similar predicament when I look at the New York Knicks. While I have no great love for the Knicks, it’s not hard to recognize New York as a great basketball city or identify its fans as some of the most passionate and loyal in the league. For New York, it’s almost unthinkable that their marquee franchise can be mired in a second decade of terrible management and leadership that ultimately led to former Knick great Charles Oakley being ejected from Madison Square Garden in handcuffs last week. (More on that event to come). So how did we get here? It was a strange event for sure, but when you add it to the end of an equally bizarre timeline, sometimes all you can think is “Thank the Lord that’s not my team.”
Let’s start after hall of famer Patrick Ewing was traded to Seattle in 2000 (Why are we now deprived of a pro sports team named the Super Sonics? *sigh*). Shortly thereafter in 2001, we have our first unusual event featuring Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy. Van Gundy led the Knicks to the NBA Finals in ’99, but in 2001 he unexpectedly resigned indicating that he was “losing focus,” and stepped down. Perhaps Van Gundy had some premonitions about the future of the organization. However, I’d be remiss to not bring up an incident from a game that season versus the Spurs. In this game, Knick Marcus Camby took a cheap shot from Spur Danny Ferry. While pleading his case to the ref, Camby absolutely lost it and went after Ferry with a savage overhead haymaker that completely whiffed. Camby did however, successfully head butt Van Gundy. Enjoy.
Boom. 2001 season, first year the Knicks missed the playoffs since 1986. When you make the post season for 15 years, and suddenly, you might be bad, organizations respond differently. Some go into rebuild mode, call it Plan A, take their lumps, and come back later with solid team ready to make a run. The other option is Plan B, try and sign injury risk veterans to bad contracts (Antonio McDyess), resign underperforming players to contracts that would hobble an organization for years, ruin your chances at the draft lottery and frustrate your fan base, all for a shot to scrap into the playoffs. Now, what do you suppose the Knicks do?
In 2003 the party really gets started when the Knicks name Isiah Thomas Team President. Thomas brings on the legendary Lenny Wilkens to coach the team, and orchestrates a trade that brings in Stephon Marbury. Plan B works like a charm. The Knicks make the playoffs and are promptly swept in the first round by the Nets.
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. After a rocky start in 2004, Coach Lenny Wilkens resigns. Sound familiar? At least it didn’t take a blow to the head to prompt it. Predictably the Knicks miss the playoffs. Thomas, still trying to keep the obviously dying Knicks on life support, brings in universally respected coach Larry Brown, and makes of ton of plan B type moves trading for marginal centers with unprotected, what turn out to be, lottery picks. CBS ranks this as the second worst Knick trade of all time: the Knicks complete a trade for Eddy Curry, sending the Bulls the Knicks 2006 first round draft pick, the 2007 and 2009 second round picks, and the right to swap first round picks in 2007. Curry posted one good year for the Knicks in 2006-07, averaging 19 points and 7 rebounds per, and none of those picks were protected in anyway. This is the type of move that can cripple a team for years. The only reason this is the second worst Knick trade, is because the shipment of Ewing out of town needs to be sentimentally atop that totem pole of awful. The Knicks ended the 2005 season with a league worst 23-59, (you’d love to have that lottery pick right? The Bulls use what turned out to be the 2nd pick in the draft to take 5 time all-star LaMarcus Aldridge) they fired Coach Larry Brown, and were forced to eat $18.5 million of his salary in the process.
Now, with a coaching vacancy facing the 2006 season, who would be one of the wackiest candidates to fill the void? That’s right, team President Isiah Thomas! In 2007, after another abysmal season, we took it up a notch when Thomas was slapped with a sexual harassment lawsuit. Both Thomas and Madison Square Garden were found to be liable and MSG had to cough up $11 million in damages. Are we crazy yet? Knick fans were getting there, and with “Fire Isiah” chants cascading from the rafters, on 11/29/07 the Knicks ate an epic punishment at the hands of the rival Celtics, losing 104-59.
In April of 2008, Thomas was relieved of his role as President, and by the end of May he was relieved of the rest of his responsibilities. It may seem at this point that the ship is righting. Knicks management is about to start getting draft picks back, they are moving bad contracts off of their ledger, they are priming for a big 2010 free agent season, one that features names like LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh (who obviously went another way). Tortured Knick fans weren’t let off that easily though. January 24th 2010 showed ticket holders the worst home loss anyone in New York had ever seen. The Knicks losing 128-78, a fifty point drumming at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks was enough to make any fan start questioning reality.
In 2010 the Knicks finally returned to the playoffs led by new acquisitions Carmello Anthony and Amare Stoudemire, along with their first winning season since 2001 only to be swept by the Celtics, butsometimes going mad isn’t all tragedy. There are highs as well as lows, and you can’t do any damage while the league is on strike. After the 2011 NBA lockout, something magical, weird, and irrational happed: LINSANITY. Jeremy Lin, a third string point guard who was picked up about a month earlier found his way onto the Garden’s floor. What followed was wins in streaks, Sports Illustrated covers, global attention inspired by Lin’s Asian heritage, and must see TV every time the Knicks played. The fact this took place in NYC gave it extra juice and this little known player who was playing under the most auspicious of contracts was headlining SportsCenter nightly. But, yeah, it was predictably unsustainable.
While the Knicks made the playoffs in the 2011-2012 season, every silver lining has a dark cloud. Since they lost the first three games of this series to the Heat, coupled with the previous year’s first round sweep at the hands of the Celtics, 2003’s first round sweep to the Nets, and dropping the last two games of the 2000 first round series against the Raptors, the Knicks were the proud owner of the NBA’s longest postseason losing streak, congratulations.
The following year, the Knicks came out like wildfire, had a great season and actually set a then-NBA record for three pointers in a season. They won the Atlantic Division, and got first round revenge on the Boston Celtics. After falling to the Pacers in round two, we haven’t seen New York in the playoffs since.
In the years that followed, we saw the Knicks hire Zen guru Phil Jackson as team president, experiment with head coaches like Derek Fisher, set a team record losing streak ending at 16 games, and forced to eat large contracts. Suffice it to say, if you are around 30 and Knick fan, you’ve seen your fair share of turbulent times for your team. If you’re any amount younger than 30, that’s all you’ve seen. You’ve experienced a few highs, but mostly you’ve been subject to just awful leadership, sightless “win now” moves, and poor judgement on and off the court. Which brings us to the night of Wednesday February 8th…
Anyone who ever gave a damn about the Knicks has a right to be critical of their moves over the last decade plus. Anyone who ever gave them a dime, bought a ticket, a hot dog or a program has a right to express their frustration with this organization. What about former players, who bled for them, who dripped sweat on the Garden’s hardwood, who Spike Lee high fived after playoff wins? I’m sure they’d have a lot of opinions on the matter. Charles Oakley, a stalwart of Pat Reilly’s 90’s teams, did just that. Sitting just a few rows behind team owner James Dolan, expressing some harsh criticism landed Oakley, before the night was out, with three counts of assault, one count of criminal trespass, a pair of silver bracelets and a police escort out of MSG. Evidently being critical in earshot of Dolan has its price. Dolan may have “won” that battle but what do the optics of this do for the war he’s in with his fan base and their frustration. The Knicks PR team released a statement in a matter of hours following the incident:
“Charles Oakley came to the game tonight and behaved in a highly inappropriate and completely abusive manner. He has been ejected and is currently being arrested by the New York City Police Department.”
“He was a great Knick and we hope he gets some help soon,”
Um, ok? What’s the insinuation here? Are the Knicks accusing Oakley of having a drinking problem? A drug problem? An anger management problem? A mental problem? To make matters worse, last Friday the Knicks issued Oakley a lifetime ban. Regardless, the Knick faithful are behind Oakley, and Dolan, recognizing what a horrible look this gives him has to course correct. Dolan’s next move is to invite Latrell Sprewell, who he also formerly feuded with, as well as a cavalcade of former Knicks to join him for a game. This pathetic, obvious, cover to show he’s in good with other former players isn’t fooling anyone.
Dolan, left without options, four days after banning Oakley, informs him that he’s now welcome back to a game soon. Oakley, however, isn’t having it, telling the Dan Lebatard show:
“Right now, no. I told him [Monday],” Oakley said. “I want to have a press conference and I want him to apologize to me and the fans. They’ve had my back and they’ve felt the pain. I really appreciate the people all around who’ve had my back.”
So that’s where we are. It’s Valentine’s season and love for your favorite sports team is strong, but just like any relationship there are good times and bad. Love can make you do crazy things. Love can get you into trouble, it makes you passionate, irrational, and emotional. So just like you’d do for your buddy who got dumped, cheated on and done dirty, buy a Knick fan a beer. They’ve earned it.