Darko Is Injured, Amare Is Real, The Knicks Are… Alive?
David Roth is a champion writer. Over at the Awl, he’s perfecting the art of the avant-garde NFL preview. And while his contributions to the Wall St. Journal’s Daily Fix are (understandably) a bit more muted and less kaleidoscopic, they still hum with a wit and energy that few (no?) daily media roundups can match. “But as great as he is on the page, he’s an even better human being” (that was Joe Buck writing that last sentence); as such, he’s agreed, for today at least, to open a branch of AWAW: NYC. Thanks, David. Enjoy, reader.
Madison Square Garden is a strange place. If you arrive there by subway, you’re coughed up into one of the worst places in all of New York City — the Cinnabon-reeking retail catacombs underneath Penn Station, which are choked with some of the slowest and saddest-faced commuters the city has to offer, flak-jacketed, extravagantly well-armed military dudes and a general ambient fluorescence of the most hope-melting variety. The idea, obviously, is to get the hell out of there as fast as possible. Of all the ridiculous places that Starbucks has tried to make home-y and approachably funky and relaxable-in, the Starbucks under Madison Square Garden might be the most poignantly failed — those couches are toxic frauds. Do not sit on those couches. Get the hell out of there, not now but right now.
If you are concerned about missing tip-off in a basketball game, getting out of there means that you will need to fume to yourself and stutter-step and veer and hopefully not bump any of those toddling homeward-bounders too egregiously, and then get yourself up to street level. Street level where it is also terrible — the city’s grimmest vagrants are there, arguing with one another at full voice, and there is also the grimmest of urban TGI Friday’ses (and with it the more grimy than grim ham-waft that hangs around outside TGI Friday’s). There are stores selling crummy off-brand jeans and there are seemingly permanent construction obstructions. Get out of there, too.
The press entrance, I found out from a cop, is right near, okay, you see the blue bike racks? That’s, you go in there. And while it doesn’t get appreciably less-strange or discomfiting once you are in fact past the bike racks and in the door and actually inside Madison Square Garden, you are at least no longer under or outside The World’s Most Famous Arena. Inside Madison Square Garden, I felt a little bit more human, if not notably more at home — part of this was because I felt like an outsider in the suffocatingly wry press room, which was stooped and male and choked with the smell of steam-table baked ziti and generally a place in which I did not belong. But also, despite the fact that I grew up out here — in New Jersey as a kid, and then that second post-college grow-up in New York City — and have been to a lot of Knicks games, I’ve never felt at home at Madison Square Garden. It’s not my place, and my team doesn’t play there, but the Garden is, undeniably, a pretty good place to watch a basketball game. There just hasn’t been a lot of good basketball played there in a while.
The World’s Most Famous Arena has also been, in recent years, the place in which Eddy Curry ran around a basketball court for 30-odd minutes without somehow having more than two or three rebounds bounce off his Bosc Pear of a body. It drove Larry Brown into ulcerous catatonia, and perhaps the most reasonable bailing-on-job of his career. It’s the building in which Stephon Marbury’s less-employable cousins made things really unpleasant for everyone in every conceivable way, home to the offices from which Isiah Thomas smugly burned down an organization. They say you can still see Shandon Anderson’s ghost on the floor some nights, missing jumpers. The building is haunted by a decade of bad basketball, bad vibes, and a mock-turtlenecked vanity-bluesman of an owner. I grew up a Nets fan in New Jersey, which lent a masochistic warp to many facets of my life and made me exceptionally susceptible to lost causes. Even by my standards, though, the Knicks of the last few years have been hilariously and unrelentingly unpalatable — proof that not all losers are lovable, but more concretely just a terrible basketball team playing an unrecognizably be-pooped version of Mike D’Antoni’s epically lovable old Phoenix Suns offense. and an even more desultory and ineffective version of D’Antoni’s epically ineffective old Phoenix Suns defense. Or that was the case, until recently.
The Knicks team that the Wolves met on Monday was different from the goon squad against which Kevin Love got all world-historical last month, but not really all that different. The two adjustments to the rotation which D’Antoni has made in the three weeks since Love reduced the Knicks to highlight-reel extras in that 31/31 game don’t look like much — pharaoh-bearded Ronny Turiaf is back in good health, and Shawne Williams is in at Designated Gunner; terrified beanpole Anthony Randolph is no longer in the rotation. And these are useful changes: Turiaf delivers some furious, spazzy helpfulness amid all those panicky handoffs and hyperactive screens; Williams, a lottery pick-turned-vagabond who looked to be circling the drain in a non-basketball/existential sense as recently as August, is in the middle of an amazing and patently unsustainable hot streak from the perimeter and remains a pretty terrific athlete. But the rest of the team is the same, and for much of Monday’s game the Knicks looked very much like a team that would give up another monster game to Love and get out-paced and out-worked by the Wolves.
For awhile, they were. But what started with the Wolves making 14 of their first 15 shots, from layups to a passel of straight-away threes from Love, ended with an exasperated Beas balling out of control at both ends and casting frequent confused benchward looks, a flushed Love frantically signaling for help every time Stoudemire got the ball — “We knew he didn’t want to pass,” Love said afterwards — and Sebastian Telfair steering the offense in no discernible direction. By game’s end, the home crowd was alight and alive in a way I haven’t seen a Knicks crowd be in years and years — thrumming eagerly on every Knicks possession; chanting and clapping along with even the goofiest PA prompts. The “Ev-ry-bod-y Clap Yo Hands” thing got like 100% participation, and the crowd gamely chanted along with the weirdest music drops — if you ever wondered whether or not people would or could sing along with the King Crimson sample from Kanye’s “Power”, now you know. (After the game, Beas whistled the same bars as got dressed, and the palpably absent way in which he answered reporters questions suggested that he was having something of a listening party in his head) That Danilo Gallinari’s 3-point killshot with 47 seconds left came out of desperation at the end of a ghastly non-set for the Knicks offense that doubled as some pretty good work by the Wolves defense. That the shot went in tells you what you, as a reader of this blog, already know — the things that happen to losing teams, the bleak cold streaks and minutes-long interludes of manic inertia and bad end-of-game breaks, happen to the Wolves. The difference, though, in this game and during what is now a 10-1 stretch for the Knicks — and the difference in a broader and deeper and more exciting way for the Knicks — is Amare Stoudemire.
It’s not just that Stoudemire, who just won his second straight Eastern Conference Player of the Week award, is beasting right now. That helps, and so does the fact that the way in which Stoudemire’s brilliance manifests is so fun to watch — the same ultra-emphatic dunks and pouncing bound of a first step that Benjamin and I saw Amare demonstrate as a rookie during a long-ago Suns game at MSG are still in effect, but he now has an ace midrange game and what has to be the best attitude for any major NBA star. Stoudemire bounded out to halfcourt to welcome his teammates into timeout during a second quarter rest, then idly danced his way back to the bench; before the team re-took the court, he could be seen giving some coaching to Timofey Mozgov, whose glacial defensive reactions suggest a promising career as a model in other players’ posters. On the court, Stoudemire is assertive without being overdetermined, and has developed an offensive game that’s pretty astonishingly complete. (He also looked terrible on defense against Darko in the earlygoing; this paean might not have been written had Darko not contused his quad and left the game after just eight first-quarter minutes) More than all that, though, Amare plays with what scans, oddly and appealingly, as good humor — where the free agents that the Knicks didn’t land last offseason seem to run on high-test narcissism and grievance, Stoudemire plays with a gleeful cool that I never really noticed during his Phoenix tenure.
Throw in the fact that Stoudemire identified his celebrity lookalike as Idris Elba and named Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” as his favorite song during one of those goofy get-to-know Jumbotron interstitials, and it’s easy to like the dude. After the game, when Stoudemire emerged from the locker room, he was briefly waylaid near the court by Allen Houston, who had brought a pair of twentysomething nephews to the game. Stoudemire did what he was supposed to do — a round of daps and polite conversation, that sort of thing. The nephews were incandescent with delight. When I saw them last, they were tussling away down a tunnel back under the stands, harvesting discarded Thunderstix from the area behind one of the goals and bopping each other on the head with them and generally appearing half-crazy with joy. What’s working for the Knicks may not continue to work when they start playing good teams again — among the teams the Knicks have beaten over that 10-1 stretch, only New Orleans has a winning record. But however illusory the team’s current success is or isn’t, Amare, like it says on Twitter, is real.