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August P&T mailbag, part 1: New York’s goal for 2021, Bronx Jelly & this fan’s funnest Knicks moment

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Hint: it was a long time ago.

New York Knicks Photo by: Tim Defrisco/Getty Images

This is a big week in Knick history. The draft lottery is a couple days away. Their best player from 2019 got their best player from 2018 ejected from a playoff game in 2020. And today, part one of the August mailbag drops.

Here we go!

1) Would you rather the Knicks make the playoffs next season seeded 6-8 and lose in five games or pick 2nd in next year’s draft?

— leroy smith

This question stirred up quite the hornets’ nest in the comment section. Having recently woken up to a bedroom full of yellow jackets who made a nest in the wall right over our bed, I am extremely sensitive to dealing with these kinds of commotions. So let’s get to it.

My first thought was gimme that #2 pick. But that’s like when I’m driving and think “Taco Bell’s CEO gives money to Donald Trump, and their food isn’t a source of pride for the people who prep it or eat it. I’m done with that place,” then 20 minutes later I’m sitting with a Mexican pizza and cheesy Gordita crunch. if I’m honest, I’d rather have the playoff appearance.

If the Knicks are drafting #2 next summer (virus permitting), that pro’ly means they sucked. It’s possible they could miss the eighth seed by a game and move up to the second pick. If that happens, great. Awesome. Best of both worlds: competitive and lucky. But that’d also mean an eighth straight season missing the playoffs, which would be a franchise first.

Getting knocked out in five by the Bucks or Celtics or Raptors would pro’ly mean the team won 36-43 games. That’d mean they were competitive most of the time, even successful. That’s be awesome! It’d mean the team pro’ly got big contributions from whoever they draft this year, and that one or more of RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox took their respective next steps. It’d make Tom Thibodeau and Leon Rose’s Broadway debuts smash successes.

All that would give the Knicks momentum heading into a free agency that could include more than a dozen All-Stars. I’m not sure how many of those players would consider a Knick team that was picking second in the draft. And I really, really don’t feel like sitting through another season watching this team lose at least two-thirds of their games.

2) If you could pick one player that has been on the Knicks at some point since 1980 AND never made an All-Star team to add to next year’s roster, who would it be?

— garfzilla

Bronx Jelly.

3) For which Knick have you had an irrational fandom...even though they weren’t worth that love?

— Navona

Three come to mind right away. None lasted more than a year with the team, but all left indelible marks.

Xavier McDaniel came into my life in the right way at the right time. I was just turning 13. The Knicks were just turning good. I was skinny but tough, not afraid on the court or off to confront dudes who could break me in two. X-Man was the same way, giving up 40-50 pounds to Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason but just as tough as any of them. And he was nicknamed X-Man, and the “X” was taking on added significance as race became a bigger part of my life and I started reading Malcolm X and listening to Public Enemy and following Spike Lee (I still remember this interview Spike did in Sports Illustrated that year). X was an inspiration to a young light-skinned Puerto Rican who’d gotten shit from whites, blacks and other PRs for what they said he was and what they said he wasn’t, who was desperately trying to find an identity.

Terry Cummings played just 30 games for the Knicks in 1998, acquired in a midseason trade to provide frontcourt depth with Ewing lost for the season with a broken wrist. At 36, Cummings was far from the force he’d been as a two-time All-Star for the Bucks in his younger days. He only scored 20 points once as a Knick. His playoff numbers that year are humble. His biggest contribution to the Knicks was being the third piece in the deal that brought back Latrell Sprewell. And yet, Cummings was a craftsman in the post. There was dignity in his game. If time was catching up to him, it’s not because he’d been foolish with the time he’d had. That ‘98 season was a weird one — once Ewing went down, for the first time in a while the Knicks had no real expectations. But that team still fought every step of the way. Even without the Big Fella anchoring the defense, they finished fourth in the league in defensive rating. They exacted revenge on the Heat in the playoffs after the P.J. Brown Atrocity. Cummings was as emblematic of that team as anybody: he always approached his craft like the whole world was watching, even when they weren’t. Respect.

Lastly, I’d say Jeremy Lin. I don’t feel that athletes need to be role models. But I appreciate the thoughtfulness Lin brings to his interviews and his writing. I admire him for being a trailblazer in many ways, and for dealing with lots of garbage along the way due to his identity falling outside American basketball’s (and American society’s) black/white binary. Also, the man is responsible for as joyous a run as the Knicks have had this century (the 2013 season came after Linsanity, and that was a full season, not a run). I always wished Lin had returned to MSG at some point, just so the fans could give him a proper testimonial. I don’t care what you think of his defense, or how old he’d gotten, or anything you have to say against his game. Sometimes it’s nice to imagine a world where we care about the value of the human experience more than some bottom line. It’s nice to think love will win out over greed. Not because it never does. But because it never gets old.

4) What’s the most fun Knicks moment you remember?

— fomalhaut

On the night of January 5, 1992, the Knicks hosted the Phoenix Suns. Pat Riley had taken over and New York was one of the league’s pleasant surprises with a 19-9 record. The Suns were in year four of a seven-year streak where they won 50+ games. It was a clash of styles: the high-flying Suns were fifth in offensive rating, while the blue-collar Knicks were second in defensive rating. The game was close throughout.

With a little over seven minutes left, Phoenix was up eight. The game could have been slipping away. There’d be no shame if it did. The Knicks were still a team on the rise; losing to a perennial Western power wouldn’t derail them. But to a 13-year-old who was new to the Mets sucking (the ‘80s had been good to me) and who was 15 years from discovering Manchester City, the Knicks were the new center of my sports world, and at that age my sports world meant as much as any of the others making up my cosmos. A big Knicks win would have me on cloud nine for a week. A bad loss wasn’t just a rainy day; it was monsoon season.

Mark Jackson brought the ball up the floor after Dan Majerle hit a pair of free throws, then swung it to John Starks on the other side of the court. Anthony Mason had a mismatch in the post on Majerle, but before Starks could feed him Mase came out to the arc to set a pick on Starks’ defender, future Knicks coach and Kristaps Porziņģis whisperer Jeff Hornacek. The pick was on Starks’ right, but foreshadowing his more famous dunk a year later against Chicago, he took off in the opposite direction.

I tried to stream a longer clip from the full game video here (check the 1:46:30 mark, though the whole game is fun if you have time, and you do; you should still be quarantining). But I can’t, because, of all reasons, the video is blocked by the NFL, apparently because there’s some content from halftime or a commercial that those creepy Madison Avenue pustules are still trying to wring a profit off of 28 years later.

This was the single most joyous moment of my 30 years as a Knicks fan. It was stunning. Audacious. It was athletic. My teams have never been athletic marvels. The Knicks’ whole ethos in the ‘90s was essentially the Battle of the Bastards. You had the noble but doomed warrior in Ewing.

And you had the Knicks’ offense and defense, equal parts suffocating.

When Starks rose up and did what he did — eliciting the ecstasy John Andariese can’t help but sing, leading NBA historian Marv Albert to invoke the names Michael Jordan and Julius Erving — it was one of the earliest incidents of the ‘90s Knicks making you believe that anything was possible, that the best was yet to come, that they would rise above. It was something a kid stuck in a town he hated who didn’t know anyone who could speak to his experience needed to hear at that age, in that time. They came back to win in overtime. Of course they did. I’m sorry for you fans who got on-board after those years; you remind me of post-’86 Mets fans. I’ve had the good fortune to start liking teams before their periods of greatest success, so I’m always ultimately an optimist. Starks’ skywalking was one such ray of light. It’s also a sweet fucking dunk.

That’s all for part one. Part two will hopefully drop Thursday.