“...I think I was so focused on proving myself as a #1 option, that I lost sight of some of my other responsibilities to the team. For example, I was supposed to be one of our leaders — someone who could help establish what our identity was as a group, and who could set an example of what it took to be a winning player in this league. Someone who could not only play at a high level, but who could also raise the level of those around him. As much as the team needed my scoring last year.... they might have needed my leadership even more. And I didn’t give it to them.”
If that sounds familiar, it is. Julius Randle wrote it last year in a piece detailing his remarkable ascension from Kevin Durant Consolation Prize to an All-NBA All-Star. Randle also wrote this:
“I think it was just a frustrating season — it wore on guys a lot. And it showed. As a matter of fact, here’s how I know it showed: My son, Kyden, he’s four years old.... and he watches every move I make on the court. Dude watches me like a hawk, for real. And then what happens is, we’ll be back at home playing one-on-one on his little plastic hoop (my wife, Kendra, is the ref) — and he’ll start imitating what he’s seen me get up to in my games. So like when I had a big dunk against some team and then flexed after, next time we played one-on-one, Kyden started doing that. He hit us with the kiddie flex.
But then one day, last season, we’re home playing with Kyden on his hoop, and he got a bucket (kid is already nice) — only I gave him a little love-tap on the play. A little veteran contact. And y’all I swear: he turns around, he looks at his mom the ref, and.... he starts giving her The Look.
What look? That look. He gives his mom that “are you kidding me” face, throws his arms up in the air, and then starts in on her — you know, like: No call?!? Where’s the call?!? And we’re cracking up, of course — we’re like, “Oh my goodness. Where’d he learn that??!?!?” It’s so funny. But it’s also like….. Oh, damn. He got that from me. That’s how negative I’ve been looking on the court these days. And in all seriousness, I think I realized, like, O.K. — if I’m making that kind of impression on Kyden, what kind of impression might I be making to all these other younger fans watching me??”
It’s easy to talk about your values when things are going well. I like to think the universe unfolds as it must, and we can receive or resist, but either way it’s gonna happen. When a surprise breaks my way, I feel good about my approach. When I can’t get hired by a sportswriting company to write news blurbs after spending years writing for them and after two strong interviews and acing their test, it’s harder to live by that value. Maybe in the moment I read “We’ve decided to hire someone else,” I lose sight of my principle. That’s normal. It’s human. But if I were to abandon it completely, you’d have to question whether it really ever meant anything to me.
During the New York Knicks’ 108-93 loss to the Utah Jazz last night, I wondered what I’d write about. What stood out during yet another late-season aimless defeat? I’ve been writing recaps of this same shit for eight years. What would stand out this time? The Knicks scoring 31 in the first quarter and only 62 the rest of the night? Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley getting half as many minutes as Randle and Alec Burks despite outscoring them and the Knicks making a comeback in the fourth? The growing sense that after every loss Tom Thibodeau goes home and flicks a dead light switch over and over until the sun comes up, trying to prove to himself that it’s not insanity if the switch lights once, just once? Donovan Mitchell paying homage to Michael Jordan?
This was also nice.
But no. What stood out the most, easily, came when Quickley drove to the hoop in the dying seconds. That annoyed me, since the game was over and Mitchell had taken a 24-second violation on Utah’s final possession. When IQ got to the rim, he missed what looked like a gimme. At first I thought this was justice. Then it became clear there were some extracurriculars going on.
Randle was annoyed enough that his coaches and teammates hung around to make sure nothing escalated. As he left the court he appeared to me to react negatively to Toppin trying to greet him or encourage him to keep walking away. After the game, to my surprise, Randle was available to speak to the media, which I must admit puts him in a class above the team’s general manager, president and owner. Not to my surprise, Randle put a B.S. spin on the incident, claiming there was nothing between him and Gobert, that he was “confused” because he was just talking to an official and that there was absolutely nothing beyond that.
Julius Randle talks about what happened between he and Rudy Gobert at the end of the game: pic.twitter.com/NOr9pZvxBW— Knicks Videos (@sny_knicks) March 21, 2022
This isn’t the first time, or the second, or the fifth that we’ve seen this from Randle this season, where he shows a willingness to invest in negative energy that he doesn’t show tracking back on defense or helping up a fallen teammate or coming up with a counter to the same defense teams have been throwing at him since last year’s playoffs.
I tend to defend players, always, because God knows I would NOT want you people seeing me during a bad stretch at work. Sometimes maybe I go too far; I’ve written in defense of Derek Fisher, Kurt Rambis, Jose Calderón, Enes Kanter and others. And I have not and will not expand my disappointment with what Randle does for 35 minutes a night into speculation or judgment on him as a person. I don’t know him. I don’t know his life. I’m not even a month back from taking a month-long break. Everything I write now is a drag, a struggle; my workspace is a mess I keep meaning to get to but don’t; my partner and I are separated; every week I make a list, accomplish maybe a third of it, make a new list and do it all over again. Julius Randle’s play is nowhere near the biggest issue in my life.
But as a Knick fan, I can say this after 71 games this season: I’m sick of this crap. Struggling can be a sign of growth, but with this team it feels like it’s a sign of a lack of imagination. Thibodeau keeps doing the same thing, with no adjustments I can detect (I’m not as smart as him re: basketball, but enough people who are smarter than me too complain about it, too, so I don’t think I’m making it up). The front office keeps acting like for some reason they and they alone are the one front office in all of sports that’s transcended the need to actually interact with the media, much less their fans.
And Randle appears stuck in the mud, spinning his tires, pressing harder and harder on the gas even though that’s not the answer. I don’t know what is. I hope this offseason he considers his own words from last year. That he asks himself what, if anything, is different between 2020 and 2022. That he remembers your values are not an ornament when things are looking bright, but a light to help you through the darkness.