I was an idiot. I had put myself through a decade of awful basketball, had invested too much time and emotion in the New York Knicks, and I was at my breaking point. I turned to my wife and kids -- this was in December, when the N.B.A. lockout was nearly over -- and I said, "Don't let me watch the Knicks this year."
But then the front office pulled off a surprise trade for center Tyson Chandler, a leader of last season's Dallas Mavericks championship team, so I thought things might turn out all right. On Christmas Day, there I was, occupying my spot on the rug, in front of the Sony, to watch the Knicks beat the Boston Celtics in the season opener, and nobody could stop me.
My frustrations began a week later, when I couldn't watch the games on TV. Team owner James L. Dolan was in a fight with Time Warner Cable over the price of carrying the MSG channel, which broadcasts the Knicks. Making the dispute especially annoying was the fact that Dolan is also the chief executive officer of Cablevision. He was willing to piss off Knicks fans in order to get the fee he wanted from a corporate rival.
I suffered through radio broadcasts during the blackout. My torments began in earnest when the team lost six straight. The offense, so fluid during parts of last season, had gone gloppy. Power forward Amar'e Stoudemire and his new colleague, Chandler, said, "Excuse me, pardon me," to each other as they tried to occupy the same piece of hardwood. But the main culprit seemed to be the star and supposed savior Carmelo Anthony, a high-volume shooter (read, ball-hog) brought in last season at great cost. It seemed like we fans were going to be stuck with him for the duration of his three-year, $65 million contract.
There seemed to be no hope. I made a cold-blooded decision: I was quitting the Knicks.
To replace them in my fanatic's heart, I thought I would follow the Denver Nuggets. The Knicks, after all, had sent four players to Denver in the Anthony trade, which gave rise to bloggers calling that team the Denver Knuggets. But I couldn't go through with it -- it just seemed forced.
So I decided to become a fan of basketball in general. This would be the mature thing to do. I would enthuse, inwardly, about the game's combination of muscle and grace, as I watched whatever contest happened to air on TNT or ESPN. But that felt phony. As a fan, I'm a monogamist. If the Knicks' season doesn't last into the postseason, neither does mine.
The only remaining logical -- or at least local -- alternative was this: the New Jersey Nets.
The Nets stank, it was true, but at least this was not a franchise expensively obligated to an irksome star who habitually demanded the ball on the wing and spent ten seconds backing, backing, backing his way into the paint, while his teammates watched, before flinging up a shot as he either drew a foul or complained about one not being called on his way toward performing a vague pantomime of defense at the other end of the floor. Also in the Nets' favor was owner Mikhail Prokhorov, a Moscow multibillionaire. He seemed like an upgrade over Dolan, a Long Island multimillionaire. Even if the Nets were soon to lose terrific point guard Deron Williams to free agency, which seemed likely, the franchise would be in position to fatten its roster with college draft picks.
The Knicks seemed doomed to squeaking into the playoffs on Anthony's strengths only to lose in the first round on his weaknesses. So I went ahead and broke with the team I had begun to love in 1970, when I was a suburban six-year-old whose bedroom wall gave its place of honor to a poster of the championship Knicks -- the fabled squad of Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere and let's not forget Dick Barnett.
On the driveway I modeled my shot on Barnett's, kicking my heels against my butt at the top of my jump. I sent away for an autographed picture of Reed and tacked it to my bulletin board the day it arrived. The first sophisticated book I read was probably John McPhee's detailed meditation on Bradley, "A Sense of Where You Are." The old-man coaches at clinics and church-basement practices drilled into my skull the tenets of coach Red Holzman: hit the open man; move without the ball; defense, defense, defense. My love only increased when the Knicks won the title again in 1973.
My parents were fans, too. When I was 8, 9, 10 years old, they took me to Madison Square Garden, where we would sit cheering in the cigar-smoke haze of row thirteen. The mere act of reading over the list of recent final scores in the program's back pages gave me a feeling of dreamy contentment. When Bradley touched the ball, my father cupped his hands and shouted, "Dollar Bill!" My mother was even more excitable. One time she leaped up, arms flailing, and sent a stogie flying.
Holzman's Knicks were an ideal of teamwork, but I also appreciated Dancing Harry, who had come to the Garden as an unofficial throw-in in the 1971 deal for Baltimore Bullets star guard Earl "the Pearl" Monroe. In his puffy cap, Dancing Harry would do his moves during breaks in the action long before there was such an entity as the Knicks City Dancers. I also felt a funny civic pride in the fourth quarters of lopsided games, when I joined other fans in beseeching Holzman to give minutes to obscure benchwarmer Hawthorne Wingo.
On certain evenings I couldn't hack the ride to the city. Route 3 was hell, especially the smelly part near the Secaucus swamps. There I stood, on the shoulder's crushed glass, heaving, as cars whizzed by, my hands on my kneecaps, my father holding my head. Then he drove me back to North Caldwell, and Mom put me to bed, with a ginger ale on the nightstand, and she clicked on WHN, and I followed Marv Albert's rich voice as it brought John Gianelli and Jerry Lucas into my room. It was almost as good as row thirteen.
One night things changed. My parents and I were watching a game on our white, floor-model Zenith, when, in reaction to a turnover committed by a Knicks guard, I yelled, "Dean Meminger sucks!" "Sucks" was an obscenity in those days, at least in our household. My parents scolded me and said I wouldn't be allowed to watch if I couldn't do so without having a fit.
It probably wasn't so neatly abrupt as all that, but my memory pinpoints my Meminger outburst as the ending of the romance between the Knicks on one side and my parents and me on the other. As they sanely released their allegiance to the team, now that the 1968-1974 golden age was finished, I remained steadfast through the 1977 trade of Frazier, the 1980 retirement of Monroe, and the 1985 drafting of Patrick Ewing, which took place almost a year after I had started going out with the woman I would marry.
I have fractured memories of the Ewing teams. I was in my late twenties and early thirties, transitioning from the first years of marriage to the first years of parenting, and the rule seemed to be this: the more dramatic a playoff game, the more likely it was that I had to attend a wedding that day. On wide-open Route 80 or the twisting Saw Mill Parkway, I listened to car-radio calls of first quarters, and then, with luck, was able to catch the fourth at a hotel bar.
Under coaches Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy, the Knicks compensated for a lack of athleticism with the brawn and bang of enforcers Anthony Mason and Charles Oakley, who expressed their displeasure with opponents who attempted lay-ups by knocking them to the floor. Year after year the team came up shy of the title, but I never felt cheated, unlike those fans who fetishized championship rings and considered the rich Ewing era a failure.
The most exciting team was probably the mirage-like 1998-1999 incarnation, led by the ferocious Latrell Sprewell, the lithe Marcus Camby, the angelic Allan Houston and the comical Larry Johnson. Ewing was out with an injury much of the postseason, and Camby, playing center in his stead, gave the team energy as he flew above the rim to tap in misses. Sprewell streaked solo down court for slams, which he punctuated with glowers at the crowd, and Johnson formed an "L" with his arms (for "Larry") after sinking unlikely three-pointers.
The ironically morose Van Gundy, with the baggy eyes of a tapehead and a gym rat's slouch, may not have gone in for this kind of thing, deep in his conservative basketball heart, but he allowed for an uptempo game, at least in flashes. It wasn't long, however, until the team underwent an overhaul, with the 1999 corporate ascendancy of Dolan, and a decade-long slog of losing was under way.
So after the team's six-game skid in January of this year, I had reached the end. One evening, in early February, my wife got home from work to find me making dinner while listening to a game on the radio.
"I thought you were through."
"I am. This is the Nets."
"That's weird. Do you care?"
"I guess I don't. Not yet."
I felt traitorish as I stirred the chili, but I was just going to have to tough it out. The more time I put in, the more I would grow to like the Nets players and announcers; I would do it by force of will.
At that moment, as I heard on WFAN, Nets forward Kris Humphries, who had been catcalled in arenas nationwide because of his short-lived, reality-show marriage to Kim Kardashian, sank a free-throw. The team went on to beat the Detroit Pistons, 99-96. Hurray?
I had been reduced to the sorry state of attempting to root for these N.B.A. strangers because, unlike more sensible fans, I had not been able to tune out the Knicks when they started to stink. I held fast through the seasons presided over by general manager Scott Layden, who placed an unwarranted faith a harmless journeyman he had brought in from Utah, Shandon Anderson. Even more foolishly, I couldn't tear myself away as things got even worse under Isiah Thomas, a smooth-talking onetime star of the Pistons who, in 2003, replaced Layden at the Garden.
Coaches came and went. Don Chaney was given a contract extension seemingly moments after leading the team to a 42-point loss; and soon after that he was shown the door. Lenny Wilkens coaxed a crummy roster into losing only more game than it had won, but Thomas got rid of him, too. Assistant coach Herb Williams quietly took the job and quietly returned to his lieutenant's post after a season that has thankfully been wiped from my memory. Larry Brown was next. The coaching mantra of this Brooklyn-born septuagenarian was "play the game the right way," but he had the strange habit of starting this or that bench player whenever the Knicks happened to be playing in this or that bench player's hometown. He led the team to .280 winning percentage. Thomas dumped Brown and named himself coach at Dolan's behest. When the Knicks showed signs of life, the besotted Dolan gave Thomas a lavish, four-year extension. The team promptly nosedived, amassing a .341 percentage with Thomas seated sideline.
I hung on maybe because of the irrational fan's kinship I felt with certain players. The tubby Zach Randolph arrived from a Portland Trail Blazers team known as the Jail Blazers, but he turned out to be a terrific player, with a silky left-handed jump shot that he tossed in from his usual spot on the floor; he also grabbed rebounds as if by magic, given his lack of leaping ability. David Lee, a hustling player from St. Louis, performed beautifully in the dual role of undersize center and honorary New Yorker. Jamal Crawford was a sweet-shooting perimeter man who scored 52 one night, and Nate Robinson played the pint-sized-dynamo who never backed down from a shot or a scrap (and who never once committed a foul during his four-year stay, at least as he saw it).
The star was Stephon Marbury, of Coney Island, a Knicks fan himself, who bulled his way to the basket. Other fans couldn't stand him, but I liked his bald, scowling head. Then there was the troubled, out-of-shape Eddie Curry, a lumbering center who wasn't much fun to watch during those rare times when he was in uniform and putting up decent numbers. And Jerome James. This seven-footer embodied the Thomas period. While nursing a mysterious injury, he made $6 million a year; he was a mild spectator in a suit, the farce version of the dedicated Ewing.
The Knicks kept losing. I kept watching. The silent figures in the apartment… by this time I was living in Manhattan, with school-age sons who had no idea that basketball was something normal human beings enjoyed… tiptoed around me, lest they disturb the grouch on the rug. Darkly I mused on the stewardship of Dolan, whose Cablevision family owns not only the Knicks but the Garden itself, Radio City Music Hall and the Beacon Theater. It made me nuts to think I was funding the mess the team had become when I bought tickets for Bob Dylan or even Björk.
I honed the precious notion that a blockheaded multimillionaire might have owned the Knicks, on paper, but we die-hards were its true custodians. We were a regime in exile, the ones who thought of Frazier more as an unflappable player than a rhyme-spouting announcer. We were the ones who had physically suffered through the failure of Charles Smith to put the ball through the hoop on one, two, three, four close-range attempts in the final excruciating 13 seconds of the seventh 1993 playoff game versus the Bulls, years before the reign of Dolan the pretender.
Thomas and Dolan had created a toxic Garden monster. Their Knicks were paid well above the N.B.A. salary cap while piling up losses. They lured name players largely by giving away valuable future draft picks, which meant there was zero hope of replacing our overpaid busts with college stars. Still I stayed true. Was I a Knicks fan only for the wins? Certainly not. Following a team through the seasons is like following heroes of fiction through the chapters of a novel. Did I shut my copy of War and Peace, never to open it again, when Prince Andrey took a grenade at Borodino? Did I abandon the poor bastards in Ethan Frome when the sled hit the elm? Hell, no, I kept reading.
Just because the team wasn't any good didn't mean it wasn't providing me with entertainment, or so my mental contortions informed me. Didn't it absorb the mind, albeit morbidly, to watch well-meaning players try to find a way against better designed squads? And wasn't there a chance that, somehow, the unselfish Knicks of my youth would come back in some new guise? In saner moments I rooted for Dolan to sell his toy to someone able to care for it. Or I just hunkered down for the long siege of waiting out the lengthy contracts.
The salt in the fans' wounds, all the while, was the restrictive media policy incongruously put into effect by Dolan, here in a city built on the free flow of hard information, spicy opinion and pure bull. No Knicks player or coach was given leave to speak to reporters without permission, and when they did speak, they usually had a publicist present. (The only employee who flouted the rule was Larry Brown, who couldn't be bothered to give a shit. In the days before he got sacked, he held a series of amusing roadside chats with reporters, beyond the reach of Dolan's henchmen.) Dolan also got rid of Albert, the team's voice from 1967 to 2004, because he had apparently offended the owner with his straightforward calls. After that, the play-by-play announcing on radio and TV broadcasts sometimes verged on the absurd, full of forced cheer and references to the Garden as "the Mecca of basketball" and "the world's most famous arena." Give me a break.
But no tricks of publicity could hide what was going on when a female Garden executive, Anucha Browne Sanders, successfully sued Thomas, Dolan and Madison Square Garden for sexual harassment. The legal proceedings pulled back the press-proof curtain to reveal a sleazy corporate culture, thereby weakening the Dolan-Thomas tandem. The brave Sanders, who settled for $11.5 million after a jury found in her favor, had done more for the franchise than any Knick in uniform.
Likely nudged by N.B.A. commissioner David Stern, the Knicks executive chairman was apparently made to realize that a once-beloved team in a once-basketball-crazed city could not continue like this. An old Bronx sage, Donnie Walsh, was brought in to run basketball operations. Dolan supposedly granted him control, and this seemed plausible, when glasnost came to the Garden as Walsh loosened the media policy. He also "reassigned" Thomas, who left the Garden for an obscure college coaching job in Florida.
The Knicks hadn't played much defense in the long Layden-Thomas nightmare, so I wasn't thrilled when Walsh hired the offense-minded coach Mike D'Antoni. D'Antoni had proved himself, to a degree, with the run-and-gun Phoenix Suns, who put on a terrific show in the regular season but faded every spring. Any Knicks fan who had lived through the Ewing years tended to believe villainous might made right. There was something soft, something Euro, about teams who flew up and down the court. But I began to question the conventional New York wisdom when I read a book on D'Antoni's tenure with the Suns, Seven Seconds or Less, by Jack McCallum. The title referred to the coach's philosophy of ideally having his team shoot within seven seconds of receiving the ball. In such a short space of time, D'Antoni reasoned, the opponent would not have a chance to set up its defense, which meant open shots for his side.
I was further persuaded that grind-it-out basketball was not the only way to go when I came upon a four-hour ESPN documentary Black Magic, directed by Dan Klores. It chronicled the game's history at traditionally black colleges and universities. The coaches highlighted therein prized the outlet pass, the fast break and the corner shot. When a pioneering black coach like Ben Jobe put this theory into practice, certain basketball critics, enamored of the methodical half-court game favored by Princeton and other mostly white squads, dismissed it as undisciplined playground stuff. But when Duke University adopted the fast-break style for its 1978 team, which won the NCAA tournament, it came in for media praise. Jobe was not pleased to read a laudatory newspaper account the day after Duke's big win. "When Duke did it, it was genius," he said in a Black Magic interview. "When we did it, it was jungle ball."
The hairs stood on my arms when I heard him say that. Jobe was a disciple of John McClendon, a black player and coach who had studied under the (white) inventor of basketball, Dr. James Naismith. Naismith himself favored the swift approach and considered the half-court style anathema. Taken together, Seven Seconds or Less and Black Magic overturned my old notions. Forget the plodding, defense-centric way of Van Gundy and his ilk (now talked up, ad nauseum, by a frequent D'Antoni critic, TNT analyst Charles Barkley, who, not coincidentally, never cared much for running).
Somehow Walsh moved contracts from in-box to out-box. Goodbye, James. So long, Marbury. Hello, ex-Sun Stoudemire, the stork-like forward-center whose game had more Camby in it than Ewing. Another Walsh signing was Danilo Gallinari, a 19-year-old Italian possessed of a center's length and a shooting guard's game. Once the parts came together, the Knicks scored a lot of points, and the players seemed not to mind so much when opponents went in for lay-ups, which perplexed fans accustomed to chanting, "De-fense!" D'Antoni had a simple guiding principle ungraspable for those who made braying calls to sports radio. The thing that mattered, in his view, was scoring more points than the other team; keeping the opponent under 90 points (or even 100) was not an intrinsic good.
Internet commenters here and elsewhere, jokingly and not, dubbed the coach "Pringles," for his resemblance to the mustachioed potato-chip mascot; they also called him "Dumb Phony" or "D'Amnphony." He probably did himself no favors with a certain element of the fan base with his mild post-game comments and his all-round lack of rah-rah attitude. Unlike the last successful Knicks coach, Van Gundy, the new guy didn't seem to suffer a punch to the gut with each loss. Now and then he would even mention the heretical notion that the other team was trying, too, and sometimes you just don’t get the win -- which was logical enough, in a league where excellent teams lose 30 games a season. Also unlike Van Gundy, D'Antoni didn't micromanage the last minutes of the fourth quarter, even failing to make use of all his time-outs! He seemed to reason that a time-out taken with a minute to go also gave the opponent time to think about things and adjust its approach accordingly. He was the rare coach who seemed content to let his guys work it out for themselves and maybe learn something in the process, and I liked what I saw. He seemed to treat the players like men.
By the middle of last season, with the team improving, a number of fans seemed almost O.K. with the seemingly newfangled (but, in fact, deeply old-school) style of play. Point guard Raymond Felton ran the floor at a good clip, despite having the build of a football fullback. A Russian import who stood more than seven feet tall, center Timofey Mozgov, was not someone who would look impressive in the hallowed street-basketball confines of Harlem's Rucker Park, but, ensconced within D'Antoni's system, he was not bad. Also emerging was a shooting guard whom Walsh had selected late in the 2010 draft, Landry Fields. His game pleased believers in advanced statistics while putting old-timers in mind of Celtics great John Havlicek.
By emphasizing a share-the-ball offense, by engaging the enemy in high-possession shootouts, D'Antoni had the Knicks putting scares into teams made up of players who, at the individual level, had more game. The action on the floor lulled me into forgetting about Dolan. Walsh was the representative, in executive flesh, of the true believer's dearest hopes. D'Antoni was our madman genius, a logician in a profession of screamers. And then… cue scary music… Carmelo Anthony.
Sports-radio callers and slick TV guys screamed for Walsh to bring him in, via trade, while I hoped he would wait out the season and perhaps -- perhaps -- sign Anthony as a free agent, once his contract had expired. Dolan did not agree, according to reports smuggled out of the Garden, and took direct part in negotiations, with Thomas (from his Florida outpost) advising him to make a deal. The Knicks ended up sacrificing Felton, Gallinari, Mozgov and the promising Wilson Chandler. Not to mention a first-round draft-pick and two second-rounders. This was commitment: the team had dug itself in deep.
As a Knick, Anthony played self-consciously, with nervous smiles after misses. The connoisseur's favorite, Fields, disappeared, as if intimidated, now that he found himself alongside ESPN royalty. Anyone who hadn't seen the first part of the 2010-2011 season had no idea why courtside superfan Spike Lee wore a Fields jersey beneath his beads. The point guard who accompanied Anthony in the trade from Denver, Chauncey Billups, proved a terrific passer, but his 34-year-old legs favored the methodical approach, no matter how much D'Antoni windmilled his arm on the sideline.
Nevertheless, for the first time since the Sprewell-Houston-Camby season, the Knicks made the playoffs. The team might have even won the first round, had Stoudemire not suffered a back injury. But no longer was this a speedy D'Antoni outfit. Worse, the team's architect, Walsh, beloved for his sorcerer-like undoing of the Dolan-Thomas damage, said he was stepping down. Getting too old for this, he claimed. Reporters tried to bait him into admitting he was angry for having been overruled or undermined by Dolan during the Anthony trade negotiations, but he wouldn't bite.
Dolan was again on the rise, with Thomas perhaps pricking the sides of his intent. He even tried to re-hire Thomas, as a consultant (and perhaps prince-in-waiting), but Stern put the kibosh on the plan, citing the conflict of Isiah's NCAA job. In a bit of offseason intrigue, the owner not-so-subtly undermined D'Antoni by handing an assistant's job to Mike Woodson, a defensive specialist (and former Isiah teammate) recently fired as head coach of the Atlanta Hawks.
So there I stood, on a February evening, stirring chili while forcing myself to care for the lowly Nets.
The next night, with MSG still blacked out, the Knicks played the Bulls in a nationally televised game. I couldn't help tuning in. Anthony put on a typically self-absorbed performance, scoring 26 points on 26 shots, as the Knicks went down, 105-102. Watching the loss only confirmed my decision. Making it easier to consciously shift my allegiance was the fact that the Knicks and Nets had similar won-lost records at the time (Knicks, 8-15; Nets, 8-16). But the real test arrived with the next game: Knicks vs. Nets.
I watched this one on the YES Network, home of the Nets. In the opening minutes I realized I was rooting more against the Knicks than for my new team. Anthony had a poor start on his way to hitting three of 15 shots. Nets star Williams made a deft behind-the-back pass in heavy traffic beneath the basket, which got my attention. And then… Jeremy Lin.
With the Knicks' point-guard play a mess all season long, D'Antoni inserted this obscure benchwarmer, who had lately been in the N.B.A. Development League as a member of the Erie BayHawks. As everyone knows by now, the 23-year-old Lin was an undrafted Harvard graduate who had been cut by the San Francisco Warriors and the Houston Rockets before Knicks senior vice president Glen Grunwald scooped him up. (Dolan has yet to give Grunwald the title of general manager.) That night, Lin led the Knicks not only to a win against the Nets -- scoring 25 points, with seven assists and five rebounds -- but to the most charming win I had ever seen. By game's end I was as confused as a conservative receiving word that an operation initiated by President Barack Obama had killed Osama bin Laden.
I had seen basketball novelties before, however. Nate Robinson had brought roars from the rafters on a number of now-forgotten nights. Even Knicks short-timer Tracy McGrady had a moment of Garden love. Lin wasn't fooling me. But the next game, with Anthony out because of a groin injury, and Stoudemire absent to mourn the death of his brother, the Knicks beat the Utah Jazz while playing free and easy. This was D'Antoni ball. Lin, now a starter, scored 28 points. He seemed bent on ruining my plan.
After the game I went online to search for an antidote that would bring me back to my senses. I eventually found it on YouTube: a video showing the Knicks owner on the Jones Beach stage.
When not running the Garden, Dolan is the rhythm guitarist and lead singer in a blues-rock band called J.D. and the Straight Shot. Unlike other hobbyists, he has arranged things so that he sometimes plays with pros like Joe Walsh and Robert Randolph. If Dolan was your coworker, and you heard him do his thing at a company picnic, you might say, "Hey, not bad." But he has one song, an original, that is sure to drive a stake through the heart of anyone who loves the Knicks or the blues. It's a bouncy number called "Fix the Knicks," and it appears on Dolan's self-released 2011 album, "Can't Make Tears," a collection produced by none other than Kevin Killen, who has worked with a few acts you might have heard of (U2, Elvis Costello, Peter Gabriel, Sugarland). A live performance of "Fix the Knicks" is the shameful cultural artifact I found on YouTube.
The lyrics tell of a man who runs a certain basketball franchise in a city of impossible critics. Not exactly the stuff of a song by, say, Howlin' Wolf or Charlie Patton. And there it was on my laptop: Dolan and his hired hands working through it while opening for Aretha Franklin -- which is the kind of gig available to any rank amateur who happens to operate a few celebrated concert venues.
The handheld video captured the audience in full groan when Dolan sang: "Doin' my best, that is my promise / I check with my friend, Isiah Thomas." The following lines contain a not-so-veiled jab at D'Antoni: "You know they're gettin' better/ We spare no expense / They score a lot of points / But where's the defense?" This is potent stuff indeed -- but as the Knicks flew through a seven-game winning streak guided by the point guard from nowhere, Lin's magic was proving stronger. The games were beautiful. I was back in. Mainly by luck -- and not through any Dolan-Thomas scheme to "fix the Knicks" -- the franchise had found someone able to execute the active, share-the-ball offense not seen at the Garden since the days of Holzman and Reed.
At the height of Linsanity, with the Time Warner Cable subscribers of Chinatown threatening a protest, Gov. Andrew Cuomo stepped in to resolve the Time Warner-MSG dispute, and I resumed my place on the rug. When Anthony was about to return from his injury after a layoff that coincided with Lin's great success, he was careful to give humble radio interviews suggesting he understood the power shift that had taken place in his absence and would adjust his solo game accordingly. But the Knicks lost eight of the first ten games with the star back in the lineup, and his shooting percentage fell below the league average.
After a particularly awful performance in Dallas, Anthony expressed concern with his role. The next night he looked hesitant, even lethargic, in a blowout loss against the San Antonio Spurs, scoring eight of his 27 points only when the game was out of reach. Garden fans were moved to boo a terrible team performance against the Philadelphia 76ers. A stop in Chicago was equally ugly: Stoudemire and Anthony put up passable numbers, in the box score, but on the floor it was obvious that they lacked energy on defense.
The team was once again a mess. But even this setback, which marked the ending of the Lin honeymoon, didn't send me away. I was involved. Again. I needed to know what would happen next. As the losing continued, I didn't fool myself into thinking Lin would play well every night, or that the team would even make it to the postseason, or that Anthony would ever figure it out. But I was a Knicks fan. Again. Lin had given me back the thing a fan needs: hope. Still, I couldn't help feeling slightly ashamed of myself. My defection to the Nets, however brief, had left me just another fan who was jumping on the bandwagon. In all the mania for Lin, I was a prodigal rejoining the faithful, no better than the celebrities who were suddenly eager to sit courtside. And my devotion to the team now no longer felt so innocent or unshakable. Now I could see the wisdom of the flighty, front-running fan.
With all this running through my head, and the Knicks' losing streak hitting six, D'Antoni resigned after having apparently asked Dolan to try to trade Anthony. That night, the Knicks played the Portland Trail Blazers, with Woodson in the coach's folding chair. I couldn't bring myself to watch and I felt disgusted when I checked online to see that the team had pulled out a blowout victory.
After the game the new coach talked about accountability and effort. The usual coach-speak, I thought. Where did it leave me? I had no idea. I couldn't root for Anthony. I couldn't root for Dolan's idiotic plan coming to fruition. But judging by the players' reactions to what had happened, it seemed that I had bought into the D'Antoni system perhaps to a greater degree than they did. Which was messed up. After all, I wasn't on the Knicks. They were.
They did it again the next game, trouncing the Indiana Pacers on a Friday night before a screaming crowd. Who were these people? Didn't they realize they were cheering the return of "J.D." and probably another decade of losing? I didn't watch. I couldn't. The whole thing made me ill. Next night, same thing. Another win. But now… I couldn't help turning on the TV… just to catch the second half. What I saw was puzzling. Anthony was actually sharing the ball. In the first games after the Woodson takeover, in fact, he took fewer shots per game than usual.
The team, furthermore, was playing with hustle. They were rebounding like crazy and going to the floor for loose balls. On defense they trapped the opposing guards high, close to the halfcourt line. Woodson used up his timeouts. He was animated during sideline huddles. And it occurred to me: Had D'Antoni's scientific approach, his lack of rah-rah crapola, his trust in a perfect system, his habit of treating players like men who didn't need constant prodding and scolding -- had all this been responsible for their having taken it easy? Had his braininess caused him to neglect the human factor? Was his attitude too much of "Well, if they don't get what I'm trying to do for them, fuck 'em"? Do we all do our best work when somebody is riding us, even if that somebody may be a jackass?
Woodson acknowledged that Anthony had not made enough effort when D'Antoni was the coach, and he took some of the blame for that himself. Seeing that quote in the papers helped me get over feeling pissed off about everything. So Woodson kept coaching, and the Knicks kept winning, going 8-1 in his first nine games, and holding the opponent to under 90 points in seven of those games.
The plot thickened again, from the fan's perspective, when Stoudemire suffered a back (re-)injury, and Lin went out with a sore knee. I was in an airport lounge, checking the latest Knicks news on Twitter, and I saw that the villainous Carmelo had regained his shooting touch -- now that he was clearly the center of the offense -- in yet another win, scoring 25 points in 26 minutes as the Knicks beat the Orlando Magic 102-86. I'm never going to like Anthony, but I guess I was glad about the win.
I guess D'Antoni couldn't see that, for a coach, logic isn't the best weapon. For a fan, it's completely worthless.