This is what makes basketball so unique, and so uniquely appealing: Sometimes, it really does only take one player — the right player. It isn’t a one-man game, no. One-man basketball teams struggle. We’ve learned that since we cracked open our first Clair Bee or Frank Merriwell book.
But one player, the right player …
Look, 50 years ago the Milwaukee Bucks won an NBA championship. They were not a one-man team. There were, in fact, two all-time top-15 players on that team, including a veteran Oscar Robertson, who still had some tricks left. But make no mistake, the Bucks became the Bucks two years earlier, when they won a coin flip and the right to draft Lew Alcindor. That’s why Robertson wanted to come to Milwaukee in the first place.
That is why we should celebrate Julius Randle today. Has he single-handedly turned the Knicks into a title contender? He has not. He was, in fact, on this team last year when it resided among the dregs of the sport. But he committed to better fitness over the summer, to working hard at his game, being a better teammate, being a more-rounded performer.
And so he is an All-Star. And just as nobody outside of Tom Thibodeau’s immediate family possibly saw the Knicks as a plus-.500 team at season’s start, nobody saw Randle coming — except for maybe Randle, Thibodeau and Tyler Relph, Randle’s offseason instructor. Thibodeau has done a masterful job with the Knicks, but he alone would not have them at 19-18. He needed Randle to go from terrific player to All-Star. Randle did that.
One player did that.
It is part of the charm of basketball, and also its illusion. The Knicks really did become champions thanks to the addition of one player once upon a time — Dave DeBusschere — but it worked because he joined a cast of selfless stars whose numbers all hang in the Garden’s rafters now.
The Knicks became near-champs because of one player once upon a time — Patrick Ewing — and that worked because he was a forever talent who just never quite had the supporting cast. But he sure made a difference for a long time.
Forty years ago this month, St. John’s learned how important one player can be. The Johnnies had great players and terrific teams before that. They’ve had very good players and good teams since. But in late March of 1981, a telephone rang inside Lou Carnesecca’s office, and the Brooklyn voice on the other end had a message that brought everything.
“Coach,” Chris Mullin said, “I’m coming.”
It is a sign of simpler times that the news didn’t draw a single headline in New York City, even though Mullin had been spectacular in the state federation playoffs for Xaverian High School. The news actually nearly destroyed one coach, who flew into New York to watch the Wheelchair Classic high school game at old Mater Christi High in Astoria.
Mullin had visited his campus earlier that winter, fallen in love, and that was music to the coach’s ears because he needed good players and he needed them in a hurry. He came to New York to see if he could close the deal with Mullin. But before the game, in the layup line, he got some devastating news.
“Coach,” Mullin said, “I’m going to St. John’s.”
Mike Krzyzewski was crestfallen. He knew the value of one player, the right player, at the right time. He would recover. He would find other players.
“But in the moment,” he laughed a few years back, “I figured the world was over.”
One player, the right player … can still quicken the pulse. St. John’s has never been the same since that phone call. A nice local program became a national power, and a Final Four team, and remains a sleeping giant. One player. The right player.
A nice follow-up: A few weeks ago we told you how Dropping Dimes, an Indianapolis-based charity that helps old ABA players who need it, had assisted ex-Nets star George Carter in his final days. Recently the man who Carter was traded for, Julius Erving, joined DD’s advisory board — a high-profile addition to a board that already includes Bob Costas, Bob Netolicky, Nancy Leonard, Mack Calvin, Brian Taylor, David Craig, Peter Vecsey and Myles Turner.
“Many of the best times in my career were in the ABA,” Dr. J said, “and, as players, we considered ourselves to be a band of brothers.”
As someone who grew up starry-eyed on the playground at East Meadow’s Prospect Park watching Matt Doherty torch all comers, then idolized him at Holy Trinity and at North Carolina, you’d better believe I soaked up every word of his new book, “Rebound: From Passion to Pain — Leadership Lessons Learned,” and I strongly suggest you should, too.
I miss the Knicks. I miss the Nets. Let’s start the second half already.
It feels like Brett Gardner has played for the Yankees since the Yankees wore flannel uniforms.
Whack Back at Vac
Bill Miller: Thursday marked the 48th anniversary of the story on Yankees pitchers Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich swapping wives. That has to be in the discussion for most interesting baseball trade ever made.
Vac: I always hoped the proposed Matt Damon/Ben Affleck movie about that (when both were young enough) was true, because I wanted to audition for the role of ex-Post baseball sage Maury Allen, at whose house the transaction reportedly was finalized following a 1972 holiday party.
Jim Jarczynski: It’s time for the Mets to retire Willie Mays’ No. 24. I know the Giants already did, but Willie is beloved by New Yorkers. He finished his career with the Mets. Willie turns 90 on May 6 and should be honored before he dies.
Vac: I’m in. Who says no?
@GoodmanHoops: The more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion Mark Schmidt might just be the best candidate for Boston College. Alum. Can coach his [butt] off. Extremely well-liked. Can develop players.
@MikeVacc: I say this with all due respect to one of my favorite college basketball media personalities: Walk away, Jeff.
Alex Burton: You will never convince a certain senior segment of New York City residents that the state game is anything other than Stickball. I bid you a Pennsy Pinky.
Vac: In that voting, stickball wins the gold. Stoop ball brings the silver. Ring-a-levio takes home the bronze