by Russ Bengtson
On some level, Rafer Alston must dread coming back to New York.
It’s not the pressures of playing in front of friends and family—Skip has been doing that for a long time now, both at the Garden and before that on blacktop from Queens to Harlem. No, it’s the hours before the game. More specifically, the media time. Even more specifically than that, the same local reporters who pepper him with the same questions every freaking time. It has to be infuriating.
But Skip takes it all in stride as he always does, talking to a massive pre-game crowd more appropriate for a superstar—not that many superstars talk before games. Dwight Howard doesn’t. He just cruises through again and again, topless as usual, like he’s fishing for tips. Or at least compliments. Mickael Pietrus is wearing the same reinforced adidas undergarment that Howard does, but doesn’t have quite the same physique. No one does.
I listen in for a few moments from the periphery of the Skip scrum, where he’s talking about New York City basketball. He remarks that kids today are far more distracted than they were when he played, what with their iPods and video games. His words are solemnly recorded in notebooks, on cassette tapes. He closes that particular subject by bringing up Myspace and Facebook. What the hell, I think, you can’t blow your ACL on an XBox 360. I also realize that, on some level, Rafer must feel very old. Which means I might be dead.
Someone asks him about Stan Van Gundy, and Rafer is effusive in his praise—a good idea since his coach sits less than 10 feet away, diagramming plays on a portable board already so filled with cramped writing that it looks like a prop from Se7en. At the moment he’s writing out the various Knicks’s three-point percentages, led by Danilo Gallinari at, well, 40-something. Chances are good he won’t be adding to that tonight, since he’s a) in Italy, and b) not playing. But points for being thorough.
Tonight the Knicks will be honoring legends from each decade, including Patrick Ewing (in town as a Magic assistant) and Clyde Frazier (who’s at every game since he’s an announcer). They’ll be joined by Bernard King (‘80s), Willis Reed (‘60s), Richie Guerin (‘50s), the daughter of Carl Braun (‘40s), and Dick McGuire (maybe they had an extra invite). Since the Knicks pregame historical highlight video starts with Willis Reed limping out of the tunnel, then jumps directly from a Clyde Frazier steal and layup to Patrick Ewing, it’s nice that they’re acknowledging other aspects of their history. There will be no player representing the ‘00s—considering we’re into ’09 you’d think they could have picked someone—which, actually, is more telling than the selection of any single player could be. The representative would have likely been Allan Houston, also already in the building (as Donnie Walsh’s special assistant or something), but we all know who it should be. He plays for the Celtics.
Most of pregame has been covered above, but it’s worth noting that the guy who sings the anthem apparently sang it before every game for a long stretch in the ‘80s. Why not? It’s not like the team switches starting lineups every game. Not since Larry Brown, anyway.
Nate Robinson has a pair of those ubiquitous “Beats By Dr. Dre” headphones in his locker, only his are neon green with his “Kryptonate” logo. The only other custom Beats headphones I’ve seen this year are LeBron’s. This sparks a brief discussion with a Knicks beatwriter on the prevalence of said $350 headphones, and a theory that the price players pay for them can be shown on a bell curve—superstars get them for free, some rookies and role players probably pay full retail, and a vast majority of guys must get them at cost. Someone needs to look into this.
Nate note number two: His street clothes hang in his locker, and his fitted and hoodie are purple and green—the colors of the Joker. It’s possible he’s mixing his superhero mythos, and this isn’t good. Nate, you need to hire a comic book consultant.
Question that vexes me in the press dining room (dinner is meh roasted chicken and pretty good mac and cheese): Exactly how many times has MSG aired John Starks’s playoff dunk on the Bulls? I’m talking gross, here—including repeats and promos and whatnot. If you told me 50,000, I wouldn’t even blink an eye. The number of times they go on to mention the Bulls went on to win the series in question must number in the tens. At least.
Larry Hughes is out with a sprained big toe. Cheikh Samb is out with a “sorry, we’re not renewing your contract.” He’s replaced on the roster by Courtney Sims, a big, genial, D-League call-up who’s got about as much chance at getting minutes as I do.
David Lee is sent to the center circle to jump against Dwight Howard. What ensues is almost exactly like the David and Goliath story, only not at all: Lee doesn’t even bother jumping.
Wilson Chandler fouls Dwight 21 seconds in. It would be kind of cool if they just started up the Hack-a-Dwight now, except the game would go on for six hours and the entire Knicks team would foul out by halftime. Dwight goes one for two, utilizing a short-armed form he learned from a Tyrannosaurus. Or Kevin Willis.
The Magic hit their first field goal with 8:31 to go in the quarter. With the exception of Howard, they’re playing like they just flew in from Guandong 20 minutes before tip-off. Howard, meanwhile, might not be aware that he’s being guarded at all.
With the Knicks leading 8-3, Rafer airballs a three with no one even near him. Stan Van Gundy quits and goes into accounting.
OK, not really.
Dwight Howard splits a double-team, apologizes profusely—probably too much—and dunks.
Richie Guerin and Bernard King are sitting together in the front row. They must have a lot to talk about. “Hey Bernard, I was a Knick great, too you know.” “I know, Richie. Hey, who was the best black guy you ever played against?” *Uncomfortable silence for next two hours*
Dwight swats a Q Rich attempt out of our universe.
Q, undaunted, buries a three to put the Knicks up seven with 5:07 to go.
Lee takes a deep two from the top of the key, backpedals, misses the shot. This does not bode well for an offensive rebound.
Jared Jeffries has ended the Air Jordan I Experiment after one game. Tragically, Mike D’Antoni has not seen fit to end the Jared Jeffries Experiment after, well, however many games he’s played.
Larry Johnson is actually at the game, sitting baseline. This is the first time he’s been back at the Garden since he retired, and he gets a tremendous ovation. He looks better than he ever did as a Knick, trim and fit. I estimate he could give Dwight 14 and six without too much trouble. Of course Dwight would get 60 and 35, but hey, the man’s in his 40s.
Seeing that the good feelings are getting too deep-seated, Stan Van Gundy cleverly inserts J.J. Redick with 1:21 to go in the first. Predictably, the boos rain down. Those Van Gundys are clever.
We’re locked up at 24 after 1.
Marcin Gortat replaces Dwight Howard, and immediately wreaks havoc. He—for whatever reason—leaves Chris Wilcox to double Q on the baseline, Wilcox drives the lane, gets the ball, and is fouled by a late-arriving Tony Battie. And 1. Next time down, Nate drives right into Gortat and loses the ball, Jeffries sort of picks it up before thinking better of it, the possession goes the other way, and Redick misses a three.
Redick hits a three to bring the Magic within two, but Al Harrington scores on a layup and gets the and 1 since Gortat had his feet in the restricted area while attempting to draw a charge. Which boosts the Knick lead back to five.
Wilcox—who’s been quite active this quarter—dunks back a miss on the baseline, but is called for offensive interference. And D’Antoni goes ballistic. You don’t see this many angry guys with mustaches stalking the sidelines outside of the NFL, so you have to cherish it.
Chris Wilcox doesn’t give up. He gets an and 1 courtesy of Hedo Turkoglu, misses the one, but Wilson Chandler corrals the rebound, gets it back to Wilcox, who’s fouled again by Hedo. This time he misses both. Maybe giving up would be a good idea.
Rashard Lewis misses inside and falls down, which gives Dwight Howard the opening he needs to dunk hard enough to temporarily suspend daylight savings time.
Hedo misses a three, so the next time down he just throws an alley-oop for Howard, who reverses it with the ease of a man who has a 45,092” vertical.
Chris Wilcox simply will not be denied. Well, except by the free-throw line and referees. Jumper works, though. 40-32, Knicks.
Anthony Johnson responds with a driving dunk that doesn’t say much for the Knicks interior defense, or lack thereof. Wilcox tries to respond with a dunk of his own, but just adds the rim to his list of enemies.
Dwight connects off glass on a pretty spin move. He’s got 20. The rest of the Magic are still considering whether they want to play tonight.
For the next Appleson post, Jake and I are considering having a rap battle. (The discussion went something like this: “Hey, let’s do a rap battle next time.” “Yes!”) Obviously said battle will not include the Orlando Magic, but Courtney Lee’s corner three makes me wish it would.
A few minutes later he does it again, just to vex me.
Halftime, Knicks lead 54-50.
It’s been noted in the local papers, but it’s worth repeating. As Patrick Ewing is introduced (to much applause and cheering), the Orlando Magic stand in front of their bench, applauding themselves and encouraging the crowd. The Knicks? Nowhere to be found. Sure, OK, preparation takes precedent, but come on. This is embarrassing.
Clyde Frazier is wearing a black leather SUIT. Oh, the questions he must get on a daily basis.
The Knicks stretch the lead to eight with 8:45 to go, and Stan Van Gundy calls time out in order to sacrifice a goat.
OK, not really.
Al Harrington draws a charge on Hedo, who now has four fouls to go with his four points and four rebounds. Four shame.
Dwight doesn’t get a call on the offensive end that he thinks he should have. He shrugs his massive shoulders, nearly dislodging the world, then heads back the other way and blocks a David Lee shot so hard that it goes through the backboard and kills 17 people.
Nate Robinson appears to be talking a stream of non-stop shit to Courtney Lee, who in turn appears to be taking it all in stride.
Knicks lead 79-70 after three.
The Knicks stretch the lead to an even 10 after a Magic deuce and a Q Rich trey. With 9:15 to go, Gortat checks in for Dwight. Zoinks!
Hedo finally seems to be coming out of his game-long daze. He gets to the baseline, pumpfakes Chandler, gathers, pumpfakes Wilcox, gets fouled.
Enough Gortat. Howard and Rashard enter for Gortat and Battie. It’s assumed that Van Gundy delivered some sort of motivational speech—something like, “you’re aware this is an NBA game that actually counts in the standings, right?”
With 7:14 to go, it’s 86-78 Knicks, and the lead is anything but safe.
Hedo buries a corner three from right in front of the Knicks bench and yells something at someone a couple rows in. Uptempo Collapse™, engage.
After cleverly pointing out to everyone within hearing range that “it looks like both teams flew from Gstaad at 4 a.m..” I write “Skip fouls Rafer” in my notes. As I consider myself to be fair game, I share this as well. The Magic are over the limit with 6:28 to go, possibly because their players have resorted to fouling themselves.
Rashard hits a three from up top, Lee gets a dunk when Dwight challenges Q, and Hedo hits another three from the opposite corner. The Knicks are trading twos for threes, and the Magic are playing an impromptu game of Around The World. I’ve seen this movie before. It’s 90-87 with 5:20 to go. That’s way too much time.
A Courtney Lee driving layup cuts it to 90-89, and Orlando finally regains the lead on a Dwight Howard putback dunk with 3:52 left. Their last lead was, um, 1-0.
Hedo stretches it the Magic lead to three on a driving layup, Q re-ties it with a trey, but the Magic aren’t even remotely concerned. Skip buries a three at the end of the 24-second clock from in front of Spike’s seats, steps on someone’s foot out of bounds, and bends down to brush their shoes off before heading back downcourt.
The rest is, as they say, purely academic. The Knicks cut it back to one, the Magic pull away. Courtney Lee hits all his free throws down the stretch, the Magic reach 100 first, the Knicks lose. Final count is 106-102.
Numbers: Dwight finishes with 29 points, 14 rebounds, and what appears to be a criminally low four blocks. Courtney Lee winds up with 22. And Hedo gets 16 (12 in the fourth quarter) and eight. Over on the Knicks side, Lee gets a 14/13 double-double despite fouling out in 30 minutes, and Nate finishes with a team-high 19 off the bench despite shooting 6-23. Both teams are abysmal from the line, missing a combined 25 freebies.
Stan Van Gundy is talking, and I’m not listening. Mostly it’s because I’m too far away, separated by too many people, but also because Larry Johnson is less than 10 feet away, reminiscing with various Knicks employees and beatwriters. Apparently he’s back in Dallas, playing lots of golf. All of a sudden, though, Stan’s voice rises a couple of decibels, and I’m drawn in. He’s talking about Patrick Ewing. What I scribble is this: “while they’ve got a lot of ex-players in their organization they haven’t made an effort to hire him, which is amazing.” He goes on to say quite a bit more.
Now, I hate to editorialize—especially after you’ve stuck with me through 2,400 words of this—but what business of it is Stan Van Gundy’s whether the Knicks hire Patrick Ewing (or even interview him) as head coach? Plenty of organizations merely honor their former greats. And Patrick Ewing is far from the only former great who works for a different team than the one he starred for. Michael Jordan is an executive with the Bobcats. Larry Bird is an executive with the Pacers. Will Stan say similar things about the Bulls and the Celtics? And while yes, it would have been nice if the Knicks interviewed Ewing for the coaching job, does anyone think he would have been a better choice than D’Antoni? Much ado about nothing, I think.
Hedo Turkoglu emerges from the shower in a plush black terry robe—the only player I’ve ever seen in a robe. Most make do with the towels provided by the home team, which are often too small and simply not up to millionaire standards. It’s amazing that Turkoglu is the only NBA player to have come up with this solution. (Apparently he isn’t—a locker room attendant mentions that Antawn Jamison also has a robe, and the Rockets actually travel with their own towels and washcloths.) One of the Magic staff guys actually calls Hedo “Hugh Hefner,” which he takes in stride.
Dwight takes his time getting ready to talk, asking a reporter from NBA TV China (a young female one, natch) to check whether his tie is straight. Too bad I’ve got an earlier ride to catch than he does.