November 18, 1985
Horror Show In The Big Apple
Bad management and bad luck have made for a miserable start to the Knicks’ ballyhooed Ewing Era
By Jack McCallum
Only six months ago the sun over Manhattan seemed to be shining a brilliant Knickerbocker orange. The Knicks had won the NBA lottery and the right to draft Patrick Ewing, and on that day executive vice-president Dave DeBusschere had pounded the table before him in delight. Five thousand Knick season-ticket holders suddenly possessed the keys to heaven, and 6,000 others would race out to join them. Longtime Knick fans began slipping photos of Willis Reed and Walt Frazier and Bill Bradley and DeBusschere out of their frames and replacing them with brand-new Ewings. You could hear that word “dynasty” being whispered in the spring air.
Other words are being shouted now, like “disgrace,” “joke” and “you must be kidding.” Through Sunday, the Knicks have been the Nix, winless in their first eight games of the season. They are 0-20 since last March 23 and only four losses away from tying the Cleveland Cavaliers’ alltime NBA losing streak. The David Letterman joke is still alive. Did you hear about the new diet in New York? You can’t eat until the Knicks win.
The Nix are an amalgam of bad luck and bad management, and unfortunately for Ewing, who has performed heroically, averaging 22 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, and their fans, there’s no relief in sight. In retrospect, it’s a wonder that DeBusschere didn’t chip a bone in his hand when he hammered that table—one of his few decisive actions, incidentally, over the last six months. Consider the state of the Nix at present:
He never comes to the Garden, either to look in on practice or watch a game. His disinclination to do the latter is understandable. King’s last complete game coincided, not coincidentally, with New York’s last win—he had 45 points as the Knicks beat the Pacers 118-113. That was so long ago.
•Sweet-shooting 7’1″ center Bill Cartwright, who missed all of last season with a broken foot, is sidelined until at least mid-December after having fractured—for the third time—the fifth metatarsal bone of his left foot in an exhibition game. But five years and $6 million are guaranteed in the six-year, $7 million contract the Knicks gave him just before the injury occurred. The Knicks gambled—and lost—that the surgery performed last December by team physician Norman Scott would turn Cartwright back into the 17.0 scorer, .561 shooter he was in ’83-84. The word is they signed him only after Scott had told them that Cartwright’s foot would be able to withstand the rigors of regular NBA play.
•Steady Louis Orr, a veteran free agent forward who could make Ewing’s life easier on offense, is sitting in his Cincinnati home waiting for the Nix to pay him what he’s worth. Though DeBusschere offered millions to a medical risk like Cartwright, he has been battling Orr over what amounts to small change. Says Orr’s agent, Ron Grinker, “A lot of general managers in the league are chess players, guys who are always three or four moves ahead. The Knicks do not act, they react. They are checker players.”
•Instead of signing Orr, the Knicks took the absurd step of tendering New Jersey Nets free-agent forward Albert King, Bernard’s brother, a five-year, $3 million offer sheet two weeks ago. King himself motored over to the office of Nets chief operating officer Lewis Schaffel to hand deliver it, his best drive in many seasons. The Nets matched the offer, and though the clubs were still talking about a deal late Sunday, New Jersey isn’t about to send Albert across the river for nothing. It’s a moot point whether King is more valuable than Orr at any price.
•Frontcourtmen Pat Cummings (pinstriped suit) and James Bailey (leather pants) have joined Cartwright (designer jeans) in an impressive bench fashion show. Cummings has recurring tendinitis in his right ankle and admits he’s worried about his future. Bailey has partially torn ligaments in his left knee and will be out at least another two weeks.
•The poor play of the Knick backcourt has nothing to do with bad luck and a lot to do with being plain bad. DeBusschere stands behind the rotation of Rory Sparrow, Darrell Walker and Trent Tucker, which is shooting a collective 38%. The Knicks knew Ewing would need help from a guard who could both shoot from the outside and penetrate, but DeBusschere has not acquired one. Free agent Norm Nixon was practically begging to come to New York; his wife, actress Debbie Allen, is scheduled to open in the Broadway play Sweet Charity next March. But as of Sunday the Knicks hadn’t rung Nixon’s number, and he was reportedly close to signing with Houston.
Ewing could use some sweet charity. His knees are padded, and his left elbow—hyperextended in an exhibition skirmish with Indiana’s Steve Stipanovich—obviously pains him. Tugging constantly at his elbow pad, getting ice in his spare moments, the sweat of defeat racing from every hardworking pore, Ewing sometimes looks more like a 10-year veteran than a rich kid of 23.
Where would the Nix be without him? Well, they’re nowhere with him.
At least Ewing is getting well paid for his agony. DeBusschere claims that most of his time and energy over the summer were spent in the negotiations that turned Ewing into one of the richest athletes in pro sports, but those long hours will hardly go down as management’s finest. Ewing has a 10-year contract valued at $31.2 million; six years and $17 million are guaranteed. But he could make as much as $22 million in six years under certain conditions, such as a career-ending injury. In addition, Gulf & Western, the $4.1 billion conglomerate that owns the Knicks, gave Ewing a $5 million interest-free loan. The way the rest of the NBA saw it, the Nix got their pockets picked on the Ewing deal, and then got taken again on the Cartwright deal.
For his part, DeBusschere contends that Ewing “held the cards.” DeBusschere felt that Ewing’s representatives were prepared to keep him out if they didn’t get what they wanted, and DeBusschere could only imagine the horrific spectacle of 11,000 season-ticket holders, having watched Ken Bannister in the pivot instead of Ewing, storming his office at Four Pennsylvania Plaza. In light of the Ewing contract, what is Bernard King worth if he comes back healthy? And couldn’t an extra million or so have been found and given to a sharp-shooting guard and a Louis Orr? DeBusschere must make a trade. It was a pivotal moment in Knick history when DeBusschere the player came from Detroit to New York in exchange for Walt Bellamy and Howard Komives in December of 1968. One season later the Knicks won the NBA title. But being a good deal and making one are two different things.
At present, the Nix and a legitimate NBA franchise are two different things. But they have been good for a few laughs.
New York is starting two rookies in the frontcourt—Bob Thornton, who last year played for Caja of Madrid in the Spanish National League, and Gerald Wilkins, who will be a good pro someday but as an off guard, not as a forward. Then there is Bannister, (the Animal) whose rebounding and defense have often been likened to that of a kitten. The Animal is threatening the unofficial record for air balls on short jump shots—he had four in a 97-94 loss to the Bulls on Saturday night. During a 92-88 loss to the Bucks two nights earlier, the Animal, a career 47% foul shooter, banked in a free throw, then vigorously nodded his head to indicate that—yes—it was all planned. Over on the bench, even coach Hubie Brown, who doesn’t show a lot of teeth in the best of times, had to smile.
The continued absence of Orr caused some confusion at the Garden during the Chicago game when a few fans shouted “We want Louis!” It was unclear whether they meant Orr or Emmanuel Lewis, the 42-inch television superstar who had tossed up an honorary jump ball before the game. Ewing and his college coach, John Thompson, did cameos on Webster a while back. As for Lewis, the Nix need some quick guards.
On Nov. 3 in Portland, the Trail Blazers got a chuckle or two during their 110-96 victory when the Knicks played a stretch with an alltime all-bad lineup of Bannister at center, Thornton and aging Ernie Grunfeld at forward, and non-penetrating, slumping Tucker (37% from the floor, only five free throw attempts in eight games) and fourth-round draft pick Fred Cofield at guard. Ghosts of bad teams past positively whooshed through Memorial Coliseum, teams like the 9-73 Philadelphia 76ers of 1972-73, possibly the worst team in NBA history. Certainly the Nix aren’t that bad.
Or are they?
They just might be if the backcourt continues its poor play at crunch time. Against the Bucks, Sparrow missed two consecutive wide-open jumpers late in the game (one of them was an air ball, henceforth to be known as a Bannister). Against the Bulls, the Knicks led 83-77 with 8:15 remaining but failed to run any semblance of an offense down the stretch, leaving it to Wilkins (who, like his talented brother, Atlanta’s Dominique, does not have to be urged to shoot) to free-lance. Understandably, in tight situations the guards look for Bernard. But he’s in New Jersey.
Somehow, the Knicks have hung together throughout these depressing days. This is a team that hustles from first buzzer to last.
One gets the feeling that the volatile Brown is due to go off at any moment, but so far he has kept his frustrations reasonably in check. During one postgame press conference he even apologized for being “feisty” in one of his answers. Sooner or later, though, the inscription on the coffee cup that he carries around at practice is bound to hit home: I COULD USE A LITTLE MORAL SUPPORT. A LITTLE IMMORAL SUPPORT WOULD BE FINE, TOO.
For Ewing, the eight defeats are two more than he endured in his final two seasons at Georgetown. And there are many more to come. He was asked how he’s making the mental adjustment. “What can I do?” he answered. “There’s nothing to do.” With customary reticence he deflected questions about his elbow injury. “But thanks for asking,” he added. Thanks for asking?
Meanwhile, players like Bannister and Thornton are getting more than their share of media attention, but wisely have not let it go to their heads. “I never thought I’d get this far in basketball,” says Thornton, UC-Irvine’s third-leading scorer (12.7) in his senior season. “I know one thing,” says Bannister, “I could be gone at any time when people start getting healthy.”
Grunfeld tried to put the mess that is the Knicks into perspective. “Honestly,” he said, “we are trying our best.”
Sadly, he’s absolutely right.