New York City Back in a Basketball State of Mind

by Steve Simineri
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Bruce Damonte

The City is plenty spacious for two talented basketball teams

For what seems like forever now, New York City has been called a basketball town. But, that really hasn’t been the feeling around these parts for quite some time now. The Yankees own the hearts of most of the city, with seventeen postseason appearances during the last 18 seasons and 5 Championships.

Meanwhile, the Canyon of Heroes most recently hosted the defending Champion New York football Giants, who have won two Super Bowls during the past four seasons. Even in hockey, the city was abuzz last spring when the Rangers squared off in the Conference Finals with their Hudson River rivals in New Jersey.

For many years the Knickerbockers were the laughing stock of the league, and Knick fans started to become scarcer and scarcer by the year. But, one of the greatest basketball minds that this very city ever produced came to the organization’s rescue as the President of Basketball Operations in 2008. New York native and lifelong basketball junkie Donnie Walsh cleaned house and built the team back from the ground up.

He is a huge reason why the Knicks are where they are today, and why this newly formed East River rivalry is looking so promising. He took the franchise out from the ‘Dark Ages’, and they are only now reaping the benefits as serious contenders for the first time since the days of Pat Riley roaming the sidelines with his slick backed hair.

Walsh purged the Knicks of the heinous contracts handed out by Isiah Thomas, clearing enough cap-room to put the team in prime position to make a run at the stacked 2010 free agent class. You can say that the Knicks “Modern” Era was kicked off by the signing of Amare Stoudemire, who was given a questionable $100 million deal.

However, the big coup for Walsh and the franchise came in February of 2011, when they nabbed Brooklyn native, and all-world scorer Carmelo Anthony. While Anthony is paying off big dividends for the club now, Walsh is watching from afar in Indiana.

His successor Glen Grunwald has done a masterful job in putting together the pieces around Anthony and head Coach Mike Woodson. He brought in Tyson Chandler, who is the reigning defensive player of the year. He found Jeremy Lin and Steve Novak from the scrap heap, and then turned Lin into Raymond Felton, who has already proven to be the veteran ball-handler Woodson wanted.

Let’s also give him credit for finding Argentinean warhorse Pablo Prigioni, who is getting paid a measly $473,604. He brought in James White from Italy, who could end up being a great bargain for roughly $850,000. He alsostole J.R. Smith at $2.8 mill and Ronnie Brewer for the veteran minimum.

But the most important thing he did this off-season was surrounding Anthony with a plethora of veteran talent. He brought in winners Jason Kidd and Rasheed Wallace, who have been through all the wars. He also added Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas, who are the last two active members from the 1999 Knicks squad that made a surprising run to the Finals.

When healthy, this group is one of the deepest in the league, and arguably the most talented to play in the World’s Most Famous Arena since the days of Patrick Ewing. The Knicks ascendance back to relevancy has created the perfect storm, as the Nets finally completed their move from the dump of a home they had in Jersey to Brooklyn; just a twenty minute train ride away from their new neighbors in the grandeurs of Manhattan.

 The Nets stunk up an empty Prudential Center during their final years there and couldn’t wait to bolt out of town. After Jason Kidd’s departure, the team failed to make the postseason for five straight seasons, and failed to win more than 34 games in any of them.

 They hit rock bottom during the 2009-10 season, when the club finished 12-70, becoming only the fifth team in league history to lose at least 70 games. However, that February the franchise was delivered with some of its best news, as it was confirmed that Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov would buy the team and move them into a high-tech and brand spanking new home in Brooklyn.

Despite the Nets being just thirteen games into their move, this has already become one of the greatest rebranding moves ever, and perhaps the biggest since Wayne Gretszky’s arrival in Los Angeles.

They have settled into their new home on Atlantic Avenue quite nicely, and are now just getting settled into their share atop the Atlantic Division, with, guess who, those neighborly Knicks.

The two were supposed to kick off the NBA season and begin their new rivalry on Nov. 1, but the wrath of Hurricane Sandy postponed the begging of a new chapter in New York City basketball.

During the days between the postponement and the eventual makeup, the Knicks showed the World that they are back after starting off 6-0 for the first time since 1993, and the Nets officially put Brooklyn back on the sports map.

These are no longer the losers from Jersey, or those same old Knicks. Instead, this basketball-starved city now has two teams fully capable of making a run in the Eastern Conference.

The two talented packed squads finally met Monday night in the first Brooklyn-New York meeting of pro franchises since the loveable Dodgers played the Giants at the Polo Grounds in 1957.

Despite over three decades of history as NBA teams in the Tri-State area, the Knicks and Nets really have never developed a true rivalry. When New Yorkers think rivalries, they think of the baseball Subway Series, Giants-Jets, or even Rangers-Islanders.

 Nobody ever really fantasized about a heated Knick-Net rivalry, and the only real rival New York had sitting across the Hudson was the hated Devils.  But, there was something bigger about last night’s game as the Nets are now officially a New York-based team and, more importantly, a threat to the Knicks in the Atlantic Division.

 Last season the Nets went through the motions during their final season in Jersey, and had one of the worst rosters assembled in the league. A whopping eight players from their opening night roster last season are not even in the league anymore.

 Prior to the season, Sundiata Gaines was cut by the Pacers, and Jordan Williams by the Hawks. Jordan Farmer, Dennis Horner, and Sheldon Williams are playing overseas. Damion James is in the D-League. Shawne Williams is still a free-agent, and Mehmet Okur retired.

General Manager Billy King did a masterful job in bringing a winning product to Brooklyn, and may even win executive of the year for it. He may have rolled the dice by traded for an aging Joe Johnson, who like Alex Rodriguez, is still a good player, but has arguably the worst contract in the league. He also gambled heavily by trading the eventual 6th pick in the draft for Gerald Wallace, awarding him with four years and $40 mil.

However, their presence was a key factor in King’s triumph of keeping All-Star Deron Williams, He and Johnson immediately form one of the most dynamic backcourts in the game, and the front court isn’t too shabby either.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Dwight who? The Nets have looked just fine up front with Kris Humphries doing his typical dirty work, and a healthy Brook Lopez clogging up the paint.  The man may need to still work on his rebounding, but no one can deny his offensive presence.

There aren’t too many more talented seven footers, and his 19 points a game is tops among centers, a position which according to All-Star ballots doesn’t even exist anymore. Only fellow bigs Chris Bosh, LaMarcus Aldridge, and the recently healthy Kevin Love are scoring at a higher rate.

Humphries, who aides him in the paint is nearly averaging a double-double, with just over eight points and rebounds a game. The talented front-court is rounded out by “Crash” Wallace, who is still one of the better defenders in the game.

Avery Johnson’s starting five is arguably among the better in the league, and his bench is also one of the deepest. Their second unit may not be as talented as the Knicks, but Johnson has plenty of toys to play with.

The stable of guards off the bench includes C.J. Watson, MarShon Brooks, Keith Bogans, Josh Childress, and old-reliable Jerry Stackhouse. The 38-year old Stackhouse, who King brought in to police the locker-room, has continued to show his value on the court and his impact on Monday night’s game couldn’t be denied in the box score. Coming off the pines, he sank four 3-pointers, including one in overtime from which the Knicks never recovered.

Their second-unit has also been getting big production up front, with Reggie Evans causing havoc on the glass and Andray Blatche proving that he was well worth the training camp flier. 

This roster looks nothing like last season’s talent-plagued one and this depth is why the Nets are sitting at 9-4.

"We're an improved team," Avery Johnson said. "We've made the necessary changes to improve this team. We're better because of it and we have a purpose. Now we just have to go out there and do it. That's the goal every night."

They proved this recently with convincing victories over the Clippers and Celtics, but showed the World and their neighbors on National Television on Monday that they are indeed going to be a force.

The 17, 732 fans in attendance paid to see not any typical regular season matchup, but history, no matter the outcome, and boy did the game live up to the hype. It was the first professional basketball game between two New York-City based teams in over 70 years, when the barnstorming Celtics (from Hell’s Kitchen) and the New York Rens (from the Harlem Casino and Ballroom) last met on Nov. 21, 1940 in, of course, Brooklyn.

Like a great Heavyweight fight between Ali-Frazier, or Tyson-Holyfield, the Knicks and Nets battled it out punch for punch, feeling like a one-point contest seemingly all night long.

 Naturally, the tense, physical struggle needed overtime to decide a winner, and the sellout crowd treasured every precious second of it. All night, Barclays Center was full of similar cheers and jeers.
 

Cheers for every bucket, and boos for every miss. M-V-P chants every time Deron or Carmelo reached the charity stripe. Every rebound, turnover, and foul was equally applauded and prosecuted by the crowd that, probably, was split 60-40 favoring the Nets.

But, as the final seconds ticked off the clock and the B-R-O-O-K-L-Y-N chants rang loudest, you could feel the inauguration of a new rivalry for the City to savor. “It was just a total 180 from what we saw last year (in New Jersey), when it was mostly Knicks fans,” a beaming Deron Williams said after the victory.

This newly formed bond doesn’t have the history that the Yankees-Red Sox or Patriots-Jets have, but the game had the feel of a critical spring playoff matchup, which is quite a thing to say about a basketball game that took place less than a week after Thanksgiving.

In the end, the Nets stood victorious in the historic first matchup between the two neighbors, and owners of the tie-breaker atop the division. "With so much hype around it," Joe Johnson said of the event, "we just came out and showed we were the better team tonight."

The Knicks had monstrous performances from Anthony, and Chandler, who scored a career high 28 points. His night was overshadowed by Anthony’s 35 points, but the two ran out of gas after logging 45 and 50 minutes respectively, and both great outings were overshadowed by the fact that next door neighbors are officially a threat. 

However, the Knicks were without the calming hand of Jason Kidd and his absence was sorely felt. Let’s also remember that the Knicks have started off so well without the likes of both Amare Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert.

"Those were just the circumstances of this particular game," Woodson explained. "That's not normal. Melo's averaging around 35 minutes per game. The other stars in this game, like LeBron and others, are there, and that's where Melo needs to be."

However, the game Monday night wasn’t about the Nets winning, or the Knicks losing. Rather, that hoops is back in a city that has been dying to witness winning basketball for almost two decades and thirsting for a Championship for nearly four decades.

The most densely populated major city in the United States, with over eight million people, has plenty of room for two NBA teams, and this rivalry is only heightened by the fact that both teams are finally legitimate contenders.

This season, the Eastern Conference playoff picture looks to be wide open behind the defending champion Heat. Philadelphia is without Andrew Bynum indefinitely, and Indiana’s Danny Granger is out for three months. The Bulls will have to get through most of their season without Derrick Rose as he recovers from his torn ACL, and Dwight Howard is no longer in Orlando, but Los Angeles.

That leaves the Knicks, Nets, and Celtics as three of the upper echelon teams in this weakened Eastern Conference. The Knicks hot start was enough to get them plenty of headlines, and the Nets victory on Monday was no fluke.

 "We don't intend on going anywhere," Stackhouse said. "We've got something good going on here. We've got a great home crowd. And now we struck the first blow. Over the long haul, who knows what the situation may end up being, but as of today we're the best team in New York."

They are now 7-1 in their new home, and the Knicks have actually outdone them, going 5-0 on their home floor. Both teams are for real, this rivalry is for real, and it’s only just getting started.

Luckily for New Yorkers, they get three more Heavyweight bouts between the two clubs before the season’s over. However, what New Yorkers really crave is a spring time matchup and the first basketball parade in the City since the Knicks took home the title in 1973.

The Knicks may have had a 66-year head start in the city, but in today’s World, it’s about what you’re doing for someone today, and both teams are playing some of the best basketball in the league.

The Nets are now walking alongside the Knicks in the World’s greatest city and in the win column, something not many could have dreamed about say five years ago. But what New Yorkers did dream about was having a good basketball team, and now they have to make room for not only one, but two.