Once Pat Riley took his talents to South Beach and Jeff Van Gundy took his talents out of the Garden, it was as if The World’s Most Famous Arena had become a basketball Bermuda Triangle, a procession of misery, a fastbreak to heartbreak, home office to the triangle offense, for crying out loud. Which most Knicks fans have been doing for too long. Inside the World’s Most Famished Arena.
But suddenly, hope springs eternal again, for both the wild-eyed optimist and realist among a tortured fan base that has nevertheless proudly embraced its Knicks as ambassadors of The City Game – and lives for the rekindling of a torrid love affair with them.
Tom Thibodeau cannot turn the Knicks into contenders overnight, but with one more game on Thursday night against the Pistons before the All-Star break, the signs of a burgeoning professionalism and a commitment to D-FENSE are unmistakeable enough to remind anyone who may have forgotten that basketball is meant to be revered here as the soul of the city.
The legendary Marv Albert was the voice of the Knicks when they won their NBA championships in 1970 and ‘73. Red Holzman’s Willis Reed-Clyde Frazier teams remain the gold standard. That’s the way it is when Knicks fans find themselves trying to scratch a 48-year itch.
“They appreciate good defense, and they appreciate good passing,” Albert said. “That era was so popular because of the way they’d swing the ball, which is what Golden State did through their championship years. Steve Kerr believed in that, and so did (Spurs coach Gregg) Popovich. Those Knicks teams were very smart. Red had five coaches on the floor, basically.”
The Riley-Van Gundy Knicks were smart as well, but their identity was toughness and tenacity. “Which also is appreciated by Knicks fans,” Albert said. “It’s funny, if another team comes into the Garden and beats up the Knicks, fans complain. But when the Knicks had (Anthony) Mason and (Charles) Oakley and that group, they would just KILL guys – the game was so different – and of course that was applauded.”
The Knicks are no longer laughingstocks, which is a victory in itself. Julius Randle is an All-Star, R.J. Barrett is developing nicely, Derrick Rose is a good mentor for precocious rookie guard Immanuel Quickley, who has opened eyes. “He has no fear,” Albert said. “He still has a ways to go, but still, he’s been impressive.”
Albert is a Son of Brooklyn. A onetime Knicks ballboy. A Lincoln High School graduate. He can tell you better than most why the Knicks have had such a grip on his city.
“It’s such an easy game to be able to play in terms of finding a court.”
Albert says, “You could go one-on-one with a friend, or it could be 2-on-2. We played a lot of street hockey, we played roller hockey, football’s tough to play, baseball you need more kids. But basketball, kids played in the schoolyard from when I was growing up til now. Even now you see kids with masks shooting around and playing.
“New York has produced so many great players. I don’t think there’s anything like, say New York guards. There’s so many guys coming out from everywhere from across the city, and I think that’s part of it. People who are sports fans, most of them have picked up a basketball.”
Albert played at P.S. 195 and Manhattan Beach. “On Basket No. 1 – they had about eight different hoops – Basket No. 1, I was a spectator because they had games where Connie Hawkins would come down and play, so we would stand, it would be like 10 deep,” Albert recalled. “Alan Seiden, remember him? Roger Brown, Sihugo Green, Jack Molinas, Billy Cunningham was there once or twice, Art Heyman.”
Long before he captivated the city with his signature “YES!”, before he attended Lincoln High School, Albert was just another fan mesmerized by the Knicks. “They would cheer a good screen that was meant to set up a shooter,” he said, and laughed. “They knew the game so well.”
Knicks fans still know it so well. “It’s still gonna take a while, but it’s very nice that they’ve done what they’ve done,” Albert said. “The Knicks fan who is just ready to jump for joy constantly, I applaud them, that’s great! The realist will look at it and say, ‘This is wonderful, let’s hope it keeps going at a decent pace the way it’s been going.’”
A forbidding schedule awaits following the All-Star game. But at least Knicks fans won’t be relieved this year that only half a season remains.