by Paul Knepper
Basketball may have been invented in Springfield, Massachusetts, but for nearly a century it’s been the city game. From the blacktops of Harlem to the Mecca on Seventh Avenue, the beats and rhythms of the game have embodied the hustle and bustle, ingenuity and artistry that is the very pulse of New York City. Residents take great pride in their basketball, from the legendary street ballers at Rucker Park, to the collegiate game, to their beloved Knicks.
Over the past decade New Yorkers have been brooding as the city has tumbled to the depths of irrelevancy in the hoops world. Two events took place this week which changed that: St. John’s cracked the top 25 and the Knicks landed Carmelo Anthony.
St. John’s success seems like small potatoes compared to the Melodrama which has dominated sports talk shows for the past few months, but don’t underestimate the city’s love affair with college basketball. For years the college game ran through New York, beginning with the NIT at Madison Square Garden, initially the biggest tournament in college basketball. The city always had an elite team – from LIU and CCNY to St. John’s – comprised of New York City kids.
When the Big East ruled college hoops in the 1980’s, St. John’s was a national powerhouse. The Redmen (now Red Storm) played the majority of their home games before sellout crowds at the Garden and produced stars like Chris Mullin, Walter Berry and Mark Jackson. However, they began to tail off after the retirement of legendary coach Lou Carnesecca in 1992 and the past decade has been disastrous for the proud program.
SJU has been marred by scandal and unable to recruit the top New York City talent, resulting in many losing seasons. They haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2002 and prior to this week, hadn’t been ranked since the closing polls of the 1999-2000 season. The Garden grew barren during Red Storm games, even when top programs were in town.
Last March, the university fired coach Norm Roberts after six unsuccessful seasons in Queens and replaced him with former UCLA Coach Steve Lavin. Lavin inherited a team of nine seniors and he has them playing a brand of rugged, unselfish basketball which New Yorkers can relate to. More importantly, they’re winning again.
The Storm are 17-9, including 9-5 in the Big East, and have made a habit of knocking off top teams. They thumped third-ranked Duke in January, followed it up by pounding a talented Connecticut team, then beat #9 Notre Dame and #13 Georgetown. Their most recent victory came over the #4 ranked Pitt Panthers on Saturday, when guard Dwight Hardy tip-toed the baseline before laying in the game-winning basket. Notably, most of their signature wins have come at the Garden and there was a real buzz in the crowd during the Pitt game Saturday night.
This week, the Red Storm were rewarded with their first national ranking in 11 years, coming in at 23 in the Associated Press poll and 25 in the coaches poll. Barring a complete collapse, SJU should make the tournament for the first time since 2002. Though most of the team are seniors, the squad will be replenished with the second ranked recruiting class in the country, leading many New Yorkers to believe that the Johnnies are back.
Of course, the Garden faithful will have something else to cheer about tonight when Carmelo Anthony makes his Knick debut in the “World’s Most Famous Arena.” The Knicks, like St. John’s, fell on hard times over the past decade. And like the Red Storm, they’re rising again.
New York fell in love with the champion Knick teams of the 1960’s and early ’70’s, comprised of Reed, Frazier, Bradley, Monroe and DeBusschere. Then the franchise struggled in the early to mid ’80’s, before climbing back into contention when a ping-pong ball with Patrick Ewing’s name on it bounced their way. The Knicks went to the playoffs fourteen consecutive seasons from 1988-2001, including two trips to the NBA Finals (1994 and 1999).
New York is a passionate sports town. The fans are dedicated and very knowledgeable about their teams. Whenever the Yankees, Mets, Giants or Jets make it to the playoffs they’re the talk of the town, but they don’t capture the entire city. Most New Yorkers aren’t fans of both baseball and football teams. The city is split between them. When the Jets are losing, football is still alive and well in New York if the Giants are winning. The same goes for the Yankees and Mets.
Basketball is different. This is the Knicks town. The Nets are a Jersey team. When the Knicks are winning the city rallies around them more than any other New York team. When they’re bad it feels like pro basketball is dead. And prior to this season, they were bad for a long time.
They made the playoffs just once over the past nine seasons and haven’t finished with a winning record since 2001. Worse yet, a sexual harassment suit, horrendous personnel moves and the Isiah Thomas saga made them the laughing stock of the NBA. Knicks fans were devastated.
The ship began to change course three years ago, when the team hired Donnie Walsh as President of Basketball Operations and Mike D’Antoni as coach. Walsh spent two years unloading Isiah’s overpaid players and cleared enough cap space to sign superstar Amar’e Stoudemire last summer.
With Amar’e leading the way, the Knicks are much improved this year, sitting at two games above .500. Stoudemire represented the team as a starter in the all-star game this past weekend and fans have been serenading their new star with chants of “MVP.” The Knicks were respectable again, but still not legitimate contenders.
That changed Monday night when they landed Carmelo Anthony in a blockbuster deal with the Denver Nuggets. It’s not hyperbole to say Melo is the best natural scorer in the world and the most talented offensive player the Knicks have had since his idol Bernard King. He and Amar’e together will put on quite a show and be nearly impossible to stop. Add former NBA Finals MVP Chauncey Billups to the mix – he was part of the Anthony trade – and the Knicks have the nucleus for a championship contender.
New Yorkers were starving for competitive basketball for a decade. Suddenly, the Johnnies are knocking off one top ten team after another and the Knicks two superstars are the talk of the town. Fans are making pilgrimages to the Mecca of basketball once again. The game is back in the city.