Call it a coincidence, or just call it impeccable timing, nonetheless, this edition of Who Wore it Best? #8 aligns seamlessly with the debut of the Knicks’ latest addition, OG Anunoby. No, he will not be on the list, or even an honorable mention. It takes more than 2 games in a Knicks uniform to make this list. This week does spark a very exciting debate between the legacies of Latrell Sprewell and JR Smith, along with a fair share of honorable mentions.
With the addition of Anunoby, there have now been 26 individuals to wear the number for the Knicks. Anunoby is actually the second player to wear the number for the Knicks this season. Upon OG’s arrival, the Knicks released DaQuan Jeffries who wore the number through 10 appearances this season prior to his release, marking the first time since 2011 in which two Knicks wore the #8 during the same season (Danilo Gallinari and Derrick Brown). However, this week’s focus is not to delve into the extensive history of all players who have worn the number but rather to center on the ongoing debate between Spree and JR. While Gallo may deservedly get a percentage of the votes based on personal preference, the consensus among most Knicks fans is that the number 8 belongs to Spree and JR, but as we dissect week in and week out, Who Wore it Best?
When Latrell Sprewell joined the Knicks after serving a yearlong suspension for choking then Golden State Warriors head coach P.J. Carlesimo during a Warriors practice in 1997, many thought Spree may never play in the NBA again. Prior to David Stern handed Spree an unprecedented 68-game suspension, many pondered if Spree would be banned from the league altogether. Strangling a coach was something the NBA had never seen before and something that Spree still must carry around with him to this day. Ultimately Spree missed the remainder of the 1997-98 season. Then as luck would have it, the NBA lockout hit the summer of ‘98 forcing half of the following season down the tubes with a late start and an abridged 50-game season. Due to the suspension and lockout, Spree ultimately didn’t play another NBA game for nearly 14 months until he made his Knick debut in February 1999.
When the Knicks acquired Spree for the beloved John Starks many Knicks fans didn’t know what to think or make of the deal of acquiring Spree. On one hand, the acquisition of Sprewell signaled the departure of Starks, who win or lose, embodied the heart and soul of the Knicks throughout the ‘90s. Second, been absent from competitive play for 14 months while getting labeled as the league’s bad boy. Concerns lingered that he might become a disruptive force, drawing unwarranted attention and criticism, particularly given the intense scrutiny that comes with playing in the bright lights of New York City, home to some of the most discerning sports critics.
Immediately upon making his Knick debut Spree silenced the critics and became an instant fan favorite, and the favorite Knick of many. What the Knicks lost in Starks, Sprewell more than compensated for on a nightly basis, both in the box scores and through his distinctive personality and attitude that seamlessly integrated into the fabric of Knick culture. Alongside Allan Houston and Marcus Camby, the new-look Knicks made history that season as the first number 8 seed (Coincidence to this article? I think not!) to appear in an NBA finals during which he averaged 26 points per game.
Over the course of his four years with the team, Sprewell evolved into the face of the Knicks, gracing the covers of national magazines such as Sports Illustrated and Slam, and is still regarded as one of the most beloved Knicks in team history.
Earl Joseph Smith, better known to the world simply as JR went straight out of high school and into the pros when he was drafted 18th overall by the New Orleans Hornets in the 2004 NBA Draft. As a member of the Denver Nuggets, Knicks fans were first introduced to the tough grit of JR on December 16, 2006 when he was front and center in what would become one of the biggest brawls in Knicks history. As Smith was driving down the court on a breakaway late in the fourth quarter of a Knicks blowout, Mardy Collins horse collared Smith to the floor, immediately causing both teams to square off in what would become an epic melee. The brawl saw the beginning and what should’ve marked the end of Nate Robinson’s boxing career, Jared Jefferies, and JR Smith wrestling Nate all the way into the fourth row of the stands underneath the basket. The fight only progressed from there with punches getting thrown by Carmelo and an absolutely irate Jared Jeffries who nearly got his jersey torn off from behind while chasing Carmelo down the length of the court. Multiple suspensions would be handed down, including 10 games to Smith, but that evening would only mark the beginning of JR’s legacy in Madison Square Garden.
During the NBA’s lockout in 2011, JR signed a one-year deal to play pro ball overseas with the Zhejang Golden Bulls of the Chinese Basketball Association which did not include an opt-out clause that would allow Smith to break his contract and return to the NBA upon the commencement of the lockout. Smith was forced to remain in China where he was balling, scoring over 50 points on four occasions including one game in which he scored 60 points with 14 three-pointers against the Qingdao Eagles.
Numerous teams had their sights set on JR Smith making a return to the league once his agreement with the Golden Bulls concluded. As the Knicks were making a strong push for the playoffs, they too set their eyes on acquiring the lethal sharpshooter who could still jump out of the building too, and on February 17th, 2012, the Knicks won the prize. Shortly thereafter JR made his team debut against the Dallas Mavericks. Fresh off a flight from China, Smith showed up to the Garden with one of the worst haircuts in team history which was a concoction of high fade, that was part gumby, and part barber’s error with one of the weirdest parts of all time. Immediately upon the Knicks PA announcer called his name, the Garden erupted, and Smith immediately electrified the Garden audience giving them a taste of what would become the norm over the next 3 seasons.
After resigning with the Knicks during the 2012 off-season, Smith would go on to a remarkable season which saw him win Player of the Week honors in March 2013 and the 2012-13 NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award, becoming just the third Knick in franchise history to do so.
Throughout his Knicks career, Smith delighted Knicks fans with an abundance of highlight dunks and alley-oops as well as multiple game-winning buzzer beaters. In March 2013, equaled a franchise record by sinking nine three-pointers in a single game. Then, just one month later, Smith drained 10 of 22 three-pointers against the Miami Heat, setting two new franchise records for both the most three-pointers made and attempted in a game.
Just like when Starks was traded to Golden State, when the Knicks traded JR to Cleveland, Knicks fans were left feeling like their heart was ripped out of them. JR was JR, and his distinctive style and individual flair brought a level of excitement unmatched by any Knick since his departure.
Honorable mentions: Walt Bellamy, Danilo Gallinari, Robin Lopez, Michael Beasley, Kemba Walker
Who Wore it Best #8