It was an otherwise calm, clear day when the ticker announced the breaking news: “The New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets agreed to a blockbuster three-team trade that sends All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony to the Big Apple.” First there was silence, steeped in blatant disbelief, followed by outright pandemonium.
The Knicks, already playing over .500 basketball in February of 2011 on the back of newly signed Amar’e Stoudemire and a group of young ballers, would now add Melo to the mix? Throughout New York City subway cars, suffocating apartments, bodegas and beyond into the suburbs, inner-cities, and Middle America where Knick fans across the country lived, a long, rumbling and deeply felt exhalation: He’s come home.
Born in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, Anthony was finally returning to the city that made him. The sweet sounds of Billy Joel, Nas, and Wynton Marsalis flowed in and out of open windows like a butterfly fresh out of its cocoon. Crooklyn, She’s Gotta Have It, and He’s Got Game were snatched off dusty pawn shop shelves. Bloodstreams pumped with newfound optimism.
And as the buzzer sounded on the first game of Melo’s return to NYC, under the bright lights of the Garden, Knick fans collectively looked up as one towards the scoreboard at that shimmering 27 and 10 next to Anthony’s name. They also saw a six-point win. The story of Carmelo Anthony in NYC was just beginning to be told. Anthony would lead the Knicks to the playoffs three out of his seven seasons with the team, yet only once would they get past the first round. Anthony would make the All-Star team every season he donned a Knicks jersey, averaging 24.7 points and 6.9 rebounds in New York.
Alas, Anthony’s story with the Knicks is one filled with as much sorrow as sap, grief as grit. Trauma is generational and we are still walking around with the reverberations of Patrick Ewing’s hobbled knees and over-loaded back. That’s where the tragedy of this list for Knicks fans truly burns brightest. Of the nine Knicks on the 75 Anniversary Team, six were transfers from 1996’s 50 Greatest Players list: Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Dave Debusschere, Jerry Lucas and Patrick Ewing. Bob McAdoo and Jason Kidd were not on the 50 Greatest Players list but are among the new honorees. Anthony represents the orange and blue as the lone bright spot in a tragic arc of recent Knicks history.
We know the story of the others. Their names are etched in New York lore. The championship core of 1970 and Monroe from 1973 represent the last time Knick fans were kings. It’s the years of these championships that detractors and media pundits do the math with to count forward the 48 years it’s truly been since the Knicks were champs, To win one is legend; to win two, with roughly the same core plus an all-time great great like Monroe, is an epoch. It’s why Knick fans are generational. It’s why we have been and continue to be the most profitable franchise in sports. Those two championships and the prospect of a third are why Knick jerseys outnumber home jerseys in sold-out arenas across America.
That team was just that: a team. Not a superstar and supporting cast, but a team of guys who would have died for each other. You had the Walt “Clyde” Frazier, a flashy, lock-down orchestrator who could get his own shot and shut down the other team’s best guard. We can easily see his game in the game’s current crop of great guards. Willis Reed was the captain of the ship, a physical, undersized center compared to opponents he was regularly tasked with stopping, like Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He had a silky jumper and relentless passion for rebounding, earning him four MVPs: one regular season, one All-Star Game, and two in the Finals.
Dave Debusschere was the heart and soul. He took “hustle” to an All-Star level, doing whatever was asked of him and gladly taking on the toughest defensive big assignment with glee. By the time Monroe arrived the Knicks had won one championship and were hungry for another. He and Frazier had forged a mutual respect as fierce rivals on the court during his days with the Baltimore Bullets. Monroe’s game was miraculous, earning him one of the greatest nicknames in NBA history: Black Jesus. Jerry Lucas played his best basketball before joining the Knicks but was an integral member of the 1973 championship team as Reed’s back-up with his rebounding acumen, point-forward passing ability, and ability to space the floor with three-point shooting. When the Knicks won the championship he became the first player to be a champion at every level of the game — high school, college, Olympics and the NBA.
Seen as a snub during the original Top 50 list, Bob McAdoo finally made the list this time around. He is best known for his MVP season with the Buffalo Braves and championships with the Laker at the end of his career, but he was also a Knick from 1976-1979, where he played only one full and two half seasons with the Knicks but averaged an astounding 26.7 points per game. Jason Kidd played only one year with New York, his last, but even at 39 his impact went light years beyond his modest numbers of six points and three assists a game on 37% shooting from three. He’d run out of gas by the playoffs, but the 2013 Knicks are easily the best Knick team of this century, and Kidd’s IQ and leadership were a major reason for that.
The sixth returning member of the 50 Greatest class is to many, the greatest Knick of all-time. Patrick Ewing did not have the talent of his championship predecessors, but he gave no less of an effort on the court. He sacrificed everything for the Knicks. By the end of his career he had given us his entire body and mind. And although he never had the second option needed to win it all with, he earned Knick fans’ eternal respect and domination for all he did in his quest for one.
The most clear snub this time around was another Knick, Bernard King. To younger fans, King was the original Melo, an unstoppable offensive force who could kill you with a pull-up, post-up, or from three. He was a nightmare in isolation but, like Melo, he never had a truly competitive team around him to win it all. King only played four seasons with the Knicks but they were his best. He was All-NBA First Team twice and scoring champion in the 1984-85 season, averaging 32.9 points a game. If the NBA releases an updated list at the centennial mark, King better be on it.
Anthony joins Kidd as the lone new Knick additions to the list of all-time greats. Anthony was not perfect. but he was ours. That’s what’s so bittersweet. He has been known to cause father and son to nearly come to blows over his legacy, one complicated by playoff campaigns and first-round exits. Unstoppable offensive performances and no-show defense. Most detractors who swear by the Knicks but not Melo do so purely under personal preference. They just don’t care for his lack of defense. He doesn’t remind them of the rough and tumble ‘90s Knicks. Or it was his inability to shoot 50% from the field like King?
But let anyone not bleeding orange and blue try to bad-mouth Anthony and watch us unite. No outsider can tell us what we already know, yet we will dive headfirst, stats slamming at breakneck speed through our synapses, ready to play fisticuffs with anyone who wants the smoke. This is an argument only permitted in-house. Outsiders are not welcome. Against non-Knick fans we will defend Melo together with out last, solitary breath.
One thing nobody can argue is when the unforgiving lights of the playoffs shined brightest, Anthony never ran from the challenge. In fact he rose to it. The numbers from regular season to playoffs prove it. As does the video evidence, which Knicks fans can pull up at a moment’s notice. There’s the 41-point game he delivered against the Miami Heat in 2012 to stave off elimination. Or the 29 he averaged to take out the Boston Celtics in the first round in 2013. To put it in perspective, in those 2013 playoffs the Knicks’ leading scorers after Melo were Raymond Felton and J.R. Smith at 14 each. That’s the level of player Anthony was saddled with while expected to take the Knicks deep in the playoffs with year after year.
And that’s the true tragedy here. For all Anthony did for the Knicks, for all the games played hurt, performances against superior teams, he never was given the proper team to truly compete. The Knicks brass under Donnie Walsh and Glen Grunwald handicapped themselves by first wasting their amnesty provision on Chauncey Billups, then overpaying Tyson Chandler with the remaining cap space they had left after max deals for Stoudemire and Anthony, limiting the level of players they could surround them with. So Anthony was forced to struggle with Ronny Turiaf, Ronnie Brewer, Landry Fields and Toney Douglas. These were starters on the Knicks during Anthony’s tenure. It’s a wonder Anthony was able to put the team on his back and make the playoffs at all while his colleagues around the league united on super teams.
But Anthony endured. He never backed down to the challenge of wearing “New York” across his chest. He never demanded a trade or begged other stars to come to NY. He never denigrated the teammates he was given. In fact, statistics show he made them better.
Chandler was a first-time All-Star and won Defensive Player of the Year alongside Anthony. Smith played the best basketball of his career and won 6th Man of the Year as the second option behind Anthony. Kidd decided against returning to the Mavs after their championship to come play with him in New York. Rasheed Wallace came out of retirement to play with him. Kenyon Martin left China for the Knicks to rekindle the chemistry he and Anthony had in Denver. And it worked. The Knicks won 54 games in the 2012-13 season, with Anthony third in MVP voting.
All this to be disrespected time and again by then-Knicks president Phil Jackson during his disastrous time overseeing the organization, only to be traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder a few seasons later, then off to Houston, then cut, eventually blackballed out of the NBA until the Portland Trailblazers took a chance and realized he still had a lot of game to give. Now he joins a Lakers squad led by good friend LeBron James in hopes of finally winning the ring that’s eluded him for so long. And you can bet, even though they might not admit it because it pains them so, Knick fans will be rooting for Melo when the time comes.
At this point of his career, Melo not winning it all could be blamed on his choices of where to play, how he went about it and ultimately chasing the bag. Who can blame him? As we hear so often, at the end of the day sports is a business. But Melo being ring-less at this point of his career can never be blamed on a lack of effort or leadership on the court. Especially in the playoffs, where it matters most. This season he has a chance to change that. Being named to the Top 75 Players list by his peers, coaches, and executives around the league cements his reputation as one of the all-time greats.