January 27, 2004

Knicks, Bulls fans know meaning of pain

This is my NBA version of A Tale of Two Cities (a tired gimmick, I know, but bear with me):

It was the worst of times. It was the worst of times. In Chicago and in New York, the hometown basketball teams were floundering. Once great—once the very heartbeat of their cities—these two franchises, the Bulls and the Knicks, had, by ill fortune and ill management, come upon long, sorrowful seasons sadly lacking in success. In the shadow of the Sears tower, a fat, drooling, lazy-eyed henchmen by the name of Jerry Krause—a Dickensian villain if there ever was one—did all he could to drive any legitimately talented player far away from the palatial confines of the United Center. His insatiable, if unrealized, cannibalistic instinct perhaps drawn to the meatier flesh of the young, Krause preferred instead to stock up on unproven 18-year-olds plucked directly from high school.

Meanwhile, in New York, a more docile general manager, yet one equally evil, roamed the rafters of the Garden. Scott Layden was his name. From Utah he was, and, unused to the pressures unleashed by mighty Gotham, he kept to the shadows, frightened, and made nary a move as his team sank ever lower in the standings. Nary a move, that is, other than to give his coach, of admirable character but questionable ability, one contract extension after the next; for every six losses it seemed Don Chaney was granted another year. Even Chaney himself looked perplexed by the situation as he coached from the sidelines. Or perhaps that was because he always looked perplexed. But, never mind, the point of the matter is what happens next.

The embittered, embattled and ruthless people of New York could take it no more. They took to the streets—or rather the talk-radio airwaves—and demanded change. As the weeks went by their cries for blood grew louder, and finally their demands were met. Layden was fired and replaced by steely-eyed Isaiah Thomas, he of Nasty Boys fame. With grim efficiency, Thomas waited barely a week before executing a blockbuster trade. To the Knicks came Stephon Marbury, Penny Hardaway, and (of little import) Cezary Trybanski. To the Suns went Antonio McDyess, Howard Eisley, Charlie Ward, Maciej Lampe, two first-round picks, and cash.

As Queens native John McEnroe likes to say: you cannot be serious. The Knicks get one of the two best point guards in the league and a valuable shooter to come off the bench; and they only give up three players well over the hill and a big time question-mark from the basketball hotbed of Poland?

There are Isaiah-haters out there who have questioned the wisdom of this trade from the Knicks perspective, but they are gravely mistaken. The Knicks finally have a star point guard who can dish the ball out to the likes of Alan Houston, a rejuvenated Keith Van Horn, and the vastly underrated Kurt Thomas, all of whom should play better with Marbury setting them up for easy looks. Marbury's penetrating and passing ability are doubted by no one. They are perhaps unrivaled even by the great Jason Kidd. It is, rather, his quick trigger that has left some of his teammates grumbling in the past. But already, Marbury is averaging several shots per game less with the Knicks than he was in Phoenix. With four-time defensive player of the year Dikembe Mutumbo at center, ready for one last playoff push, the Knicks were suddenly looking like a pretty decent ball club.

Still, Knicks fans were not satisfied. At consecutive home games against Dallas and Orlando, a roar of deep timbre cascaded down from the stands. "Fire Chaney!" the chant went. "Fire Chaney!"

And so it was done. Thomas fired Chaney and hired Lenny Wilkens—at 66 the winningest (and losingest) coach in NBA history. Like Marbury, Wilkens is a native of Brooklyn, and, in his playing days, was a Hall of Fame point guard. Time will tell, but 1,296 wins, including a 4-2 record so far with the Knicks, are looking pretty good.

One of those wins came ten days ago here at Chicago against none other than those still hapless Bulls.

A telling sign of the times: starting at small forward, a position held in the glory days by the incomparable Scottie Pippen, was Ronald Dupree, signed just recently to a 10-day contract. After several years with the Portland Trail Blazers, Pippen himself is back on the roster more as a publicity stunt than anything else. Looking every bit of his 38 years, he is averaging 6.4 points per game, and on Saturday, registered a paltry 15 minutes, though he did manage to score all of 8 points in that time.

As the Bulls attempted to erase a rapidly expanding deficit in the fourth quarter, the scoreboard urged the hometown faithful to rally around the team with a chant of "Let's Go, Bulls." And down from the stands cascaded a high pitched cheer that resembled the collective voice of 15,000 pre-adolescent boys—15,000 Tiny Tims.

Jerry Krause may be gone by now, but a spirit of surrender still pervades the United Center. It is, in fact, a happy sort of resignation for a losing team with which—this fall's playoff excitement notwithstanding—Chicago is well acquainted.

The chants that publicly humiliated a decent man at Madison Square Garden were gruesome to behold. Then again, so was the Bulls' play Saturday night in the fourth quarter.

In a different context—in a different time frame—Isaiah Thomas might not be a better man than Scott Layden or even Jerry Krause. But, unfortunately for those latter two, in the NBA, unlike your standard Dickens tale, a man's worth is measured by his success.