Four quarterfinal matchups = a dollar of dearly beloveds
After the second round of voting in the Most-Loved Knick Ever* tournament, a split had taken shape: half the remaining eight Knicks all played together for five seasons in the franchise’s glorious Silver Age, the 1990s; the other four were scattered over 40 years, and some would pro’ly not have advanced this far if not for advantageous matchups. So as we vote for our final four, a change in the structure was in order.
Despite some Chicken Littles thinking I arranged the brackets to benefit my own personal faves — if that were true, I really failed Xavier McDaniel in round one — the truth is I wrote down a bunch of names on a list, going from the present to the past, and once that list was complete I paired the first name on the list with the 32nd, the second with the 31st, and so on. In this round, the contestants are seeded one through eight according to how many votes they earned last round. Hopefully this ensures the semifinals will feature a quadrant of unquestionable quality. Voting is open through Sunday night at 11:59 p.m. Today we give thanks for our octet jock set.
1) Patrick Ewing vs. Immanuel Quickley
Ewing has been the runaway top choice through the first two rounds, something you’d expect if this were a G.K.O.A.T. contest. But it is many feels seeing him perform so well in a popularity contest. The Jamaican Sensation was not always loved in New York, at times openly feuding with the fans and getting booed when he touched the ball. But this time of year we’re reminded of our ability to love more than anything the people who drive us the craziest, and whatever nonse people sometimes hang on Ewing, consider this: the Knicks have completed 48 seasons since their last championship. In the 15 that Ewing was here, they made the playoffs 13 times and won 18 series. In the 33 without #33, they made the playoffs 12 times and won five series.
Without Ewing, the Knicks have been the Detroit Lions for 50 years. Many discussions of Ewing’s greatness and legacy lose sight of him in the glare of Michael Jordan, Veronica Lodge to Patrick’s Betty Cooper. I suppose that makes Archie the Larry O’Brien trophy.
The NBA is a multi-billion dollar industry whose narrative is written by a few teams led by a few truly great players. For a decade and a half, the Knicks had one of those true greats.
Quickley is a rare miracle of a being in Knicks history. He hasn’t been around long enough for anyone to know what kind of player he ends up being, but strictly as far as energy? Like, a vibe thing? A number of the most-loved Knicks ever were big, mean, tough hombres — Willis Reed; Ewing, Charles Oakley; Anthony Mason; Kristaps Porziņģahahaha just messing with you. Julius Randle is a modern version of this.
Quickley is like a sprite or a fairy. He plays defense like he’s dancing and his aura is plain as day and just as pretty. He’s just so easy to love. I don’t see him beating Ewing, and the thought of IQ being eliminated isn’t easy to stomach. I get it. It just kinda sucks. Though it’s not the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.
2) John Starks vs. Derrick Rose
It’s always interested me how the two most important Knicks of the ‘90s teams — Ewing and Starks — seem to occupy more conflicted space in fans’ memories than lesser players like Oakley or Mason. It’s a familiar pattern in our culture with our celebrities: build ‘em up, then tear into ‘em. Starks shot 5-for-36 in Games 1 and 7 of the ‘94 Finals; that helped put the Knicks behind the eight-ball and finish there, too. Less remembered was Starks playing that entire postseason still recovering from late-season surgery to repair torn cartilage in his left knee, the knee he jumped off on drives. The Knicks don’t win Game 7 against Chicago or Indiana that year without him. Less remembered is Starks going for double digits in the fourth quarters of multiple games in those Finals, including nearly winning Game 6 mostly on his own.
Rose is a unique figure not only in Knicks history, but New York athletes in general. How many players come to New York twice? And how many have successful second acts? In his first stint as a Met Bobby Bonilla wore cottonballs in his ears while playing outfield because he was tired of all the boos; he returned years later, with the team actually good this time, and hit .160. Isiah Thomas swore Jared Jeffries was “the missing link” when the Knicks signed him in 2006. Jeffries was as disappointing individually as the Knicks were as a collective. Five years later, like Bonilla, he returned to a much better team, and yet…and yet.
Melo got double teamed on the final possession and passed it to Jared Jeffries who blew an opportunity to put the Knicks ahead with just seconds remaining pic.twitter.com/ZeIouvCPZ6
— CTRL the Narrative (@ctrlnarrative) April 3, 2020
Rose’s production in 2016-17, his first stop in New York, was statistically satisfying: 18 a game on 47% from the field, both numbers the best he’d had since before tearing his ACL. He scored 24 and 27 his last two games that year. But it ended in a haze of messy mental health self-care and media gnawing at his departure, and it all ended the way that whole superteam sans “super” season seemed: disappointingly.
Since his return last year, Rose has been one of the Knicks’ most important, consistent and valuable players. He earned an MVP vote last season and is one of the leading candidates for Sixth Man of the Year this time around. Rose is a reminder to be thankful for surprises, without which life is flatter and less fun.
3) Bernard King vs. Anthony Mason
Brooklyn vs. Queens. Unicorn vs. centaur. The spotlight vs. the grind. King and Mason differ in almost every way besides two critical categories: they’re native New Yorkers and they live as legends in Knicks fans collective consciousness.
King is probably remembered for his great individual efforts, particularly the 1984 playoff performances against Detroit and Boston and back-to-back 50-point games earlier that season. A year later he set a then-Knick record with 60 against the Nets.
Mason is probably remembered better as an accumulation of work and heat.
Both made an impression on those who saw them play that adds up to more than the numbers, more than wins and losses. King and Mason were almost unimaginable talents. Easy on the eyes and the basketball soul.
4) Charles Oakley vs. Jamal Crawford
Ani DiFranco and Jackie Chan once sang “Unforgettable” together.
Oakley and Crawford are both unforgettable Knick players and personalities. Paul Knepper’s book The Knicks of the Nineties includes an entire page devoted to stories of Oak slapping people. In 1998 the NBA players met in the General Motors building in midtown Manhattan to discuss an agreement between the league and the union. Oak was due a $10M balloon payment that season, so he was more than casually invested in how things turned out. He entered the building and saw Charles Barkley, a longtime adversary on the court. Barkley extended his hand. “Instead of shaking it,” Knepper writes, “Oak chastised ‘Sir Charles’ for talking about him, then smacked Barkley across the face. Billy Hunter, the executive director of the NBPA, was one of many witnesses. ‘He slapped the shit out of Charles. KA-POW!’ Hunter said.”
Oak also slapped Tyrone Hill over $54,000 Hill owed him from a dice game, a separate incident from years earlier where Oak knocked Hill out over another gambling debt. Perhaps the most Oak quote ever came years after a third run-in with Hill. Per Knepper:
“Later in the season, Oak fired a ball at Hill’s head and ordered him to get off the court when it was time for the 76ers’ shootaround to end and his team’s to begin. With both teams watching, the 6’10, 250-pound Hill lowered his head and meekly walked off the court. Oak said years later of the incident, ‘Nothing personal. When you beat your kids, you love them still.’”
Crawford was an entirely different energy, a bright and joyful showman who played on a string of lousy Knicks teams but who never let it affect his effort or his style. After being traded for cap space Crawford would go on to win three Sixth Man of the Year awards, along with Teammate of the Year in 2018, an award I literally only just heard of while researching him. Crawford didn’t go around smacking people, at least to my knowledge, but he could embarrass defenders just as easily with a crossover, a hop step or a behind-the-back action, sometimes all in the same move. One of the great what-ifs this century is what might have happened if the Knicks kept Crawford as the Mike D’Antoni teams began to build toward competing. We’ll never know. But we’ll always be thankful for that little bit of light during the long night.