As Yom Kippur approaches, it drapes over us an air of repentance, prompting us to reflect on a year’s worth of depravity, wrongdoing, and ill will. Redemption and hope, however, are in our midst as well, as we are given the opportunity to wash our hands of misdoings and our minds of all corrupt thoughts and desires. That the Jewish Day of Atonement occurs precisely when NBA training camps begin is no coincidence, for it is a time of rebirth on the hardwood as well as in the shtetl. Those teams plagued by a culture of transgression know that they, too, must take an opportunity to show penitence, and no team is more in need of doing so than the New York Knickerbockers.
No team sinned greater in the 2005-06 season than the Knicks, once the NBA’s most prized franchise but now steeped in utter irrelevance. The Knicks tempted with multiple millions of dollars Eddy Curry—a man with an ailing heart who was potentially teetering on death at any moment—to play basketball for six years. They forced another man, the ailing elder Larry Brown, to betray his auxiliary family and shame himself when their public attempts to woo him—with money and the promise of returning to his hometown, New York—led to his being fired by the Detroit Pistons. The Knicks were also guilty of hubris, in procuring the me-first Steve Francis to play alongside the equally ball-hungry Stephon Marbury, a move that, despite my own praise for it, reeked of arrogance.
Marbury himself exhibited arrogance throughout the season, clashing with coach Brown and claiming himself worthy of lofty individual accolades. Jerome James is responsible for the crime of sloth: He accepted a mountain of wealth following a 2005 playoff performance he knew he would never have to duplicate, then ballooned to 300-plus pounds, rendering himself injured or useless for the majority of the season.
Isiah Thomas, the Knicks’ general manager, deserves the most blame for the Knicks’ sins. He was responsible for eventually firing Larry Brown, thus embarrassing the basketball legend Thomas had lured to New York as a would-be savior. Thomas deserves blame for financial mishandlings and player-personnel misdeeds as well. (Note: It would easy to cast Knicks owner James Dolan as equally responsible for the Knicks’ undoing, but a multibillionaire acting immorally seems trite, and ultimately inoffensive.) On an individual level, Thomas found himself in the midst of a sexual-harassment suit, and constantly warred with the media, even issuing threats to some of their most potent members. Finally, in the ultimate act of pride, Thomas, upon firing Brown, deemed himself coach of the team, as a last attempt to save his legacy as an executive and to spin a tumultuous post-player career into an improbable fairy tale. Although he seems to be a humble man at heart, Isiah’s public pride tends to get the best of him.
The Knicks’ sins have yielded an appropriate outcome. One need not be a scholar of The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti to see that karma has had its way with them. Formerly the capital of the NBA map, New York now hosts a franchise in ruins. The Knicks are coming off their worst season in 20 years. Dealing with as many character issues and financial hindrances as actual basketball issues, the team has become the embodiment of inefficiency. The Knicks apparently spent the summer (no doubt in four-month preparation for Yom Kippur) begging for forgiveness from the basketball gods. This campaign of repentance, although appearing to sway positive chi back in New York’s direction, was in fact quite flawed and transparent. Below the surface of the Knicks’ ostensible benevolence are mere self-preservation and empty gestures. In exhibiting such a fraudulent morality, the Knicks may have committed an even greater sin: giving false faith to the all-knowing higher powers that control the team’s destiny.
The Knicks’ first act of tainted repentance was publicly demonstrating a change in basketball philosophy, shifting from acquiring offensive-minded, individual-focused well-known players like Steve Francis, Jalen Rose, and Jamal Crawford to instead obtaining fundamentally sound workmen. This effort can be seen in the selection of Renaldo Balkman as their first-round draft pick (instead of the play-making Rajon Rondo or the laptop-ganking point guard of the future, Marcus Williams). Balkman, a C-minus replica of Dennis Rodman (sans attitude), was seen in college as a good hustler and an above-average defender. But Balkman has no real strength. That he was selected in the first round of the draft was seen by the sports cognoscenti as preposterous.
Second, the Knicks made Jared Jeffries their major free-agent signing, committing a ludicrous amount of money to a guy who, again, has “good fundamentals” and “a nose for the ball.” Jeffries was acquired instead of potentially flashier guys like Bonzi Wells or Al Harrington, players over whom Isiah normally salivates. These moves appear to have been made to, at the very least, get basketball analysts on the Knicks’ side. Whereas guys like Francis and Crawford are easy to criticize and are inherently unlikable in their penchant for scoring and anti-team play, Jeffries and Balkman are lowly and make little noise. Although the NBA’s understated find much favor with the average TNT or ESPN colorman, the acquisitions of Balkman and Jeffries are fooling no one, while only enraging New York fans further.
As an additional endeavor to redirect positive energy back to Madison Square Garden, Stephon Marbury, the face of the Knicks and the team’s most disgruntled child, released his own brand of discounted shoes, the Starburys. Taking a cue from Shaq, who performed the same service a few years ago, Marbury had the shoes manufactured by an independent athletic-wear company and priced them at $15, so that underprivileged individuals would be able to purchase a well-made, fashionable sneaker. Can I take anything away from this great act of charity? By no means. I believe Marbury has genuine concern for the disadvantaged, as evidenced by his heartfelt and tearful response to the Hurricane Katrina victims a year ago. The introduction of the shoe, however, was suspiciously well-timed, as Marbury has, over the past year, rapidly become the poster boy for the NBA’s egotism problems and was in need of an image boost.
Engaging in the charade was Isiah, who, in naming himself coach, appeared to finally be admitting that the plagued current roster was his own doing. To make up for it, he was taking on the responsibility of leading the team back to glory. I do believe Isiah to be a fundamentally good man. I also believe he was humbled during the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies last month: watching Charles Barkley and Dominique Wilkins, members of Dream Teams I and II, teams from which he was denied, take the stage; watching Joe Dumars, Isiah’s former Pistons teammate, who, during the ceremonies, was painted as the true unsung hero behind Detroit’s world championships. Seeing Isiah sit through these proceedings, his eyes conveying genuine respect and humility, I could not help but wonder if this incarnation of a maligned yet accomplished man was the true one.
Taking on the head-coach position, however, was not an act of nobility. It was the last move that same man—a desperate man—could make. And although I support Spike Lee’s contention that the Knicks will redeem themselves this year with Thomas reaping Coach of the Year honors, the relief will be temporary, and the price the Knicks will pay will be long-term mediocrity. As opposed to reaching either contender status, like the Suns, Spurs, Mavs, and Heat, or pitiable depths, like the Hawks (for whom we feel undying sympathy, and who will one day acquire a No. 1 pick of consequence), the Knicks will wallow in their self-created purgatory for years to come.