Saturday, April 22, 2006

New Orleans Knicks

One of the ugliest seasons in New York Knicks history ended this past week and I for one stupefied by every minute of it. Going into the season I was genuinely moved by that scene of Stephon Marbury breaking down during the NBA press conference discussing Hurricane Katrina. In that press conference he gave us insight into Stephon, stripping himself of the “Starbury” moniker for a moment and reminding us—and more importantly himself—that there were larger events occurring that one needed to contend with.

It seemed that within moments press coverage around Stephon went back to being about how selfish of a basketball player that he is and that his “style” of basketball will eventually run its course with new coach Larry Brown and the two would end up feuding. Not to dismiss the plausibility of the Marbury and Brown feud, but I wonder if it had to be so inevitable? I ask because if you watch and follow sports enough you’ll hear enough about the unwillingness of athletes and coaches to open, to give writes anything beyond trite sound bites: “give 110 percent” and “take it one game at a time” are two of the more popular ones. But there on that late summer day, Stephon gave the world 110percent of Stephon, he took it “one game at a time” and that game was the dramatic disaster known as Katrina, and it seems as if no one took notice. No one really took into account that this man may have broken down—to the point that being engaged in a petty feud or head games with his coach, are the last things on his mind.

Instead of really exploring this, trying to figure out why this kid from Brooklyn cared so deeply about the faces and lives of the people from New Orleans, writers went back to the game of basketball…well sort of.

I have not live long enough to know really how great sports writing was in the good ol’ days, but I doubt that it was all that great, better than now—maybe—but not great as a whole. What I do know is that most writing about basketball and sports in general is often not about the sport at all, it’s about the men and women who play the sport. Writers have led us to believe, partly because they themselves have been led to believe that these men and women make their sports, reinvent it to fit their generation. The best example of this phenomenon is when writers and commentators refer to Allen Iverson as being of the hip hop generation because of his cornrows, tattoos and baggy shorts. Not that that they are wrong, Allen Iverson is definitely hip hop, but so is Ray Allen, who as far as I can tell does not have any tattoos, and seems to wear baggy shorts as a common sense alternative to the John Stockton shorts that surely must have caused a fair bit of chafing. In fact, Iverson is Allen’s senior, older than him by a month. He’s even a year older than Tim Duncan, with whom I share not only a birthday, but a connection to the same hip hop generation that Iverson is affiliated with, at least by birthright if nothing else.

And of course Marbury is also hip hop, which of course is one of the reasons that he and Brown did not get along. You see Brown is old school, a product of days gone by, a day when things were better, when guards passed first and shot second, deferred to their coaches and everyone lived happily ever after as big men launched outlet passes down the court. Hmm. Brown is old school eh. Guards passed first and shot second—kind of like how Oscar Robertson and Pete Maravich used to do right?

All joking aside, what I am trying to say is that in Marbury is also old school in his own way; and I do not just mean old school because he’s practically a ten year veteran in the league. He’s old school in the sense that he remembers a hip hop era where artists and musicians were trying to say and do something—and that something often mean standing up to authority. He’s old school in the sense that he knows his New York Knick basketball history too. However he does not fawn over Red Holtzman and Al Mcguire like Brown does; Marbury’s sharpest Knick memories probably revolve around the matriculation of another Brooklyn bred New York point guard to the Knicks, Mark “Action” Jackson, who himself was considered “hip hop,” and was overshadowed and pitted against superstar coach to be Rick Pitino. Jackson was not the only New York point guard jettisoned out of the garden prematurely so was “uncoachable” hip hop point guard Rod Strickland. Marbury has to be forgiven if he might have been a little defensive and apprehensive in his play and approach to this season because in his mind the writing was on the wall. If one needs to know one’s past in order to know where thou art headed, then Marbury surely knew as soon as Brown was hired if he does not play Brown’s way, he’s hitting the highway.

So what does he do, he tries being a good soldier, produces his worst individual and team statistical seasons in his career. Not only that, while he’s trying to play nice, his coach is bashing him in the media, sports commentators are calling him selfish and a locker room cancer—yet every time I turn on a Knicks game Marbury is at center court right in the middle of the post game prayer (an activity that if I remember correctly he did not take part in when he first joined the Knicks) and during the game jumping up and down ready to praise the accomplishment of a teammate. If anything, lying prostrate while he took this character assault was far from hip hop, it was human.

And now I am back to that original scene, Stephon Marbury, being consoled by Antonio Davis and NBA players’ association president Billy Hunter, as he tries to speak on the tragedy that occurred in Louisiana. He was not showboating. He was not disrupting the offense or playing the wrong way during that press conference. He was doing what the world, the media, refuses to let him be—be human.

If I were to venture to guess, this must have been the most difficult year in Stephon Marbury’s professional basketball career. If you go back to that scene at the press conference when he started breaking down he compared the faces of the kids in New Orleans to the faces of his own children. This was not Latrell Sprewell randomly implying that seven million per annum was not enough for him to feed his family. No what Stephon was saying is that in those faces he saw the possibility of losing it all, his family, everything that he’s worked for, his own life and to reiterate, the lives of his children. This must have been a daunting realization for Stephon because if after three years of doing the Chapelle Show Dave Chapelle could walk away in order to reassess where his life was going, I could only imagine what it must be like for the man once deemed the best sixth grader in the country, as he inches ever closer to thirty, to mortality. It must be a strange moment to be Stephon Marbury and trying to suppress reconsidering those days spent at the “Garden,” the legendary Coney Island playground where he honed his basketball skills. “Would life have been simpler if I were a lawyer—or a music producer behind the scenes?” I imagine Stephon asking himself from time to time before punctuating his thought with, “I may not be as materially rich, but my kids would not have to read this trash about me in the paper everyday!”

Similar to how I did not believe that America needed baseball and football to move forward after 9/11, I was not convinced that Stephon Marbury needs basketball to move forward with his life. I could be wrong—and I probably am wrong. However if you looked at this season, you could see where I am coming from. Instead of giving the man the time to rebuild and provide him with the necessary support in the media, writers abandoned him, left him to be and outside of some salacious stories about corruption and supposedly outlandish proclamations, Stephon Marbury was left behind. Ironically, this is arguably the same fate that befell the city of New Orleans.

This year’s New York Knicks, I would add are this years New Orleans. While on the flip side, the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets had the season many optimists predicted for the Knicks. In the ideal world, Stephon Marbury and Larry Brown would have hit it off like Byron Scott and Chris Paul and the Knicks would have given every team in the league a run for their money, and judging by the lackluster records of the bottom four Eastern Conference Playoff teams, maybe even made the playoffs. Instead while the Hornets became this year's feel good story, the Knicks became a monumental disaster that to hear Malcolm Gladwell say it, people will be studying for years to come. Gladwell was talking about business students picking through the deals made by Knicks executives, while I am referring to the years of investigation that will go into figuring out what exactly happened and is happening in New Orleans.

Back to the comparison: the Knicks had a six game winning streak. New Orleans had Mardi Gras. The Knicks have Isiah Thomas and Louisiana has Mary Landrieu and Kathleen Blanco in executive offices, the Knicks have Isaiah Thomas and Larry Brown—all four of whom seemed to be over their heads and wallowing in their own messes this year. James Dolan plays the uberwealthy scion making him the doppelganger for George W. Bush. Because of their innocent pronouncements that are blown out of proportion, shaved heads and beleaguered looks on their faces during the past eight months, Stephon and New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin seem to be perfect matches. Except, I think New Yorkers—especially black New Yorkers really like Stephon. I am not convinced that the same applies for Nagin.

However, all of this will be decided within the next few days and months as the people of New Orleans—whatever that means after Katrina—return to the polls and the New York Knicks brass makes decisions about the future of their franchise. I hope for the sake of both institutions that the people in charge make the right decisions.

More importantly, I hope that Stephon enjoys this offseason, gets a chance to spend time with his family—moves away from the circus that was the 2005-2006 New York Knicks and comes back, if he comes back as “Starbury,” then so be it because even that would still only be the human thing to do.

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