NY Sports Day

Knicks Lose In King James’ Broadway Audition

NEW YORK – The New York Knicks are a mere six games into their current NBA season, yet it’s certainly no secret that just about all diehard Knick fans have long been pointing toward who they’ll be watching a little less than a year from now, when their team raises the curtain on its 2010-11 season.

Whether or not next season’s playbills… er, game programs… include the headliner which New York covets for every performance… er, basketball game… won’t be decided until next summer.

Either way, consider Friday’s performance by megastar Lebron James, in his only regular season visit to the World’s Most Famous Theater… er, Arena… his likely final audition for the NBA team which plays just a few blocks from the world’s most renowned theatre district.

It was hard to remember that what took place on Friday night at Madison Square Garden was “just” an early-season basketball game before a sellout crowd of 19,763 fans who were buzzing with anticipation nearly every time James touched the ball during the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 100-91 victory over the Knicks.

After all, with all of the fanfare that took place before and during the contest, the game felt more like a show, with James playing the starring role.

That’s a situation which has always endeared itself to James when playing in New York. With celebrities galore in attendance, including several key members of James’ favorite baseball team, the New York Yankees, coming from their World Series parade earlier in the day, James was enthralled with “The atmosphere,” he said.

“A lot of stars in the building. “It’s humbling to know that you have guys like the Yankees come out and Jay-Z, and it’s really, really humbling to see some of the {New York] Giants out, I see [six-time Grammy winner] John Legend, I see a lot of people, Chris Rock. You almost feel like you’re a performer, sitting on the stage,” said James. “And, they’re watching you perform. So, it was great.”

And, that was exactly the point for the Knicks, who are already going nowhere fast at 1-5 so far this season before next year’s free agent bonanza hits the NBA, with the one they call King James clearly heading the list of those potentially available on July 1, 2010.

While the Knicks are still in the process putting into place the supporting cast to compliment the main star they ultimately want on the MSG marquee, they figured, for now, they might as well roll the dice and make New York itself, if not yet the Knicks’ roster, the main draw to lure James to The Big Apple.

And, roll out the red carpet they did.

They began with a short performance from a high profile artist with a Cleveland connection, Grandmaster Flash, the only deejay ever to be inducted into Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Act II was former Yankee great turned critically acclaimed musician Bernie Williams, playing the pre-game national anthem on guitar.

And, there was giant hip hop star Jay-Z slapping hands with James after one of The King’s baskets, and sitting courtside between Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez and James’ very close friend, Yankees’ starting pitcher C.C. Sabathia, who was introduced at mid-court along with Rodriguez and other Yankee teammates, Mark Teixeira, Joba Chamberlain, Melky Cabrera between the first and second quarters.

Actually, if the Knicks are truly after James, they probably should have kept Jay-Z — a part owner of the Nets, who are in competition to land James for themselves — away from MSG. But, that hardly seemed to take away from the overall experience for James, who was smiling most of the night.

Later, another former Yankee great, Reggie Jackson, was announced.

And, even a former Knick playoff hero with James’ same initials (whether intended or by sheer coincidence), Larry Johnson, was introduced.

About the only thing the Knicks didn’t do was inform James (if he didn’t already know) that the father of Brett Tomko (who pitched for the Yankees this year before moving on to Oakland), Jerry Tomko, gave the Cavaliers their name after winning an essay contest in 1970.

When it was time for James to finally take the stage, er… court… one which James, as a cognizant basketball historian, has a great deal of respect for playing on, the 6-foot-8, 250-pound, virtually unstoppable forward put on an early display that would have drawn rave reviews from even the harshest critic.

James was both sensational and nearly flawless in the first quarter, right from the opening tip. He started by drilling a step-back 22-foot jumper from just inside the three-point arc on the game’s first possession, en route to making his first four shots from the floor while leading Cleveland to an 18-10 lead.

After the Knicks closed to within 23-19 on a 9-5 run, James took over again, making his final four shots of the period, helping the Cavaliers close the quarter on a  17-2 run that essentially put the game away early.

Cleveland led 40-21 after the opening period, as James had as many field goals as the Knicks, on fifteen fewer shots (James was 8 for 9, while the Knicks shot 8 for 24).

“Lebron’s first eight minutes were ridiculous,” said Knicks’ head coach Mike D’Antoni who was an assistant coach when James, last year’s NBA Most Valuable Player, helped the United States win the 2008 Olympic gold medal in Beijing. “That’s why he’s the MVP.”

James sent a buzz through the Garden crowd when he beat the first-quarter buzzer with his second 26-foot three-pointer of the period. In all, the player who normally electrifies basketball fans with aggressive drives and high-flying dunks, finished the quarter making six shots of over 20 feet.

But, the consummate team player also dished out five assists (one more than the Knicks) in the period, while grabbing half as many rebounds (three) as New York (six).

His 19 first-quarter points not only nearly matched the Knicks’ total for that period, but it equaled New York’s scoring for the second quarter, and was one more than the Knicks scored in the third period.

The Knicks, who started their four-game homestand last Saturday, by giving up 40 first-quarter points on 16 of 22 field goal shooting in a loss to Philadelphia, allowed the exact same scoring and field goal shooting numbers to Cleveland in the opening quarter of the homestand’s final game.

With the contest well in hand, James sat out for more than six minutes at the start of the second quarter, and he missed his only two shots of the period, scoring just two more points on a pair of free throws before halftime. But, he made a gorgeous no-look bounce pass to guard Mo Williams for a layup, putting the Cavaliers up 53-29, with 5:18 left in the first half, and after a steal, James started a fast break that ended with a nice alley oop pass for a basket by J.J. Hickson, with 48.6 seconds remaining in the half, for the halftime margin of 63-40, in favor of Cleveland.

James added eight more points in the third quarter before returning to the bench for the start of the fourth quarter, until 6:01 was left in the game. By then, Cleveland still led 89-71, but the Knicks, who trailed by as much as 51-25 in the second quarter, closed to within 91-82, with 3:44 remaining, and the home crowd was roaring.

However, like all great players, James answered to seal the win. After penetrating and drawing a double team, he found Williams for a 23-foot jumper from just inside the three-point line, for a 93-82 Cavaliers’ lead, before grabbing a defensive rebound and then wowing the fans by spinning right, then left, losing Knicks’ guard Larry Hughes, and finishing with a smooth 19-foot, fall-away jumper from the left wing — after which he slapped A-Rod’s hand — to put Cleveland up 95-82, with 2:47 left. Moments later, James dribbled across the top of the key into the right corner, and was chased back to the foul line, where he fired an alert pass into the left corner to guard Anthony Parker, who nailed a three-pointer to give the Cavaliers a 98-84 advantage with 1:57 left.

James finished with a game-high 33 points, making 12 of 17 shots from the field, including two of four attempts from three-point range, seven of nine free throws, while just missing a triple double with eight rebounds and nine assists, and — for good measure — three steals thrown in.

And, it seemed that most of the time, he wasn’t even breaking a sweat.

After the win, Cleveland’s sixth straight against New York, and fourth in a row at MSG, James admitted how much he likes to play at the Garden, saying “I felt great, it’s hard not to feel good coming into this building… It’s a great building. To come here and to be able to play the game of basketball at a high level in this building is great.”

In fact, James seems to like playing at MSG so much, that he’d probably make his decision now, to play in New York next year, if only the Knicks already possessed sufficient enough compliments to promise James a legitimate chance at winning an NBA title in what James regards, like many others do, as the mecca of basketball.

Instead, he’s leaving his possibilities open as the Knicks, albeit with potential, are still young and raw, the fourth youngest team in the league, averaging 24.92 years of age, with Hughes, at 30 years old, the elder statesman and only player on the Knicks’ roster who’s beyond his twenties.

James has carried himself as mature beyond his years since being an 18-year-old NBA rookie straight out of Akron, Ohio’s St. Vincent-St. Mary’s high school. Yet, turning 25 on December 30th, he is still at an age where he sounds impressionable enough to want to be that “performer… on the stage,” to use his own words.

Both a city like New York and an arena like MSG can provide that experience for James far better than any other NBA destination. Thus, until the Knicks can make more future roster moves to bring in better reinforcements to surround James, New York just being New York, may remain the Knicks’ best bargaining chip for at least the short term.

Still, James apparently wants to win, above all else. For now, he says, “I’m very excited about being a Cavalier and trying to win an NBA championship.”

He holds a much different view about his future though, and it’s seemingly not money (Cleveland can offer the most) which might sway him.

“As a kid,” he said, “I visualized playing for almost every team in the NBA. Right now, I visualize playing with a lot of guys in the NBA. There’s a lot of great individual basketball players that I would love to be alongside of and try to contend for an NBA championship. But, at the end of the day, a max deal doesn’t really matter to me. It’s all about winning for me… when that day comes next summer, I want to win, and if I feel like the team is capable of winning, I’ll make my decision like that.”

Reading between the lines, that team is likely the Knicks before anyone else, if James feels they’re capable of upgrading their roster to a championship level (himself included, of course) by next summer.

To become the perfect suitors for James though, the Knicks must not only improve their collective talent level through either the further development of their young core, or via additional free agent moves and trades, but they must also change their culture and the very way they play the game.

That’s something that was pointed out by another former Knick great who stopped by James’ Garden party — none other than Mr. Heart And Hustle himself, Charles Oakley, who doesn’t see the same passion and commitment to defense, hard work, and playing winning basketball that he and his Knicks of the 1990’s displayed. A diplomatic Oakley said, “I try not to say nothin’ if you don’t have nothin’ good to say. I don’t like to make a lot of comments about the team ‘cause I don’t know what they’re trying to do. The game’s about winning, and when you ain’t winning, something’s wrong.”

Oakley, who received a warm, smiling hug from James after the game, is one of the people who knows James best. “I’m like an uncle to him,” Oakley said. “And, when I see him, I get on him. I tell him, you don’t need to make friends. You’re the face of the NBA. Even though Kobe’s still in the league, you’re the face of the NBA.” Oakley said that even on a night when the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant scored 41 points in a win over Memphis to become the youngest player ever to reach 24,000 points in the NBA.

“I think he’s gonna do what’s right for him.” Oakley added. “Whether it’s financial, family, friends, whatever. At a crucial time in his career, [more than] six years in the league, it’s gonna come down to him and what he wants. New York would love to have him. It’s got to be the best place for him to go. If [he doesn’t] come to New York, [he’s still] got to be happy.”

Meanwhile, Sabathia, who now knows exactly what it’s like to come close, but not win in Cleveland (with the Cleveland Indians) before winning it all in New York, was overheard telling someone at halftime that James would “definitely” come to the Knicks.

When asked about the comment, Sabathia backed off a bit, but still expects James to eventually join him as a star athlete in New York. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” he said. “There’s nothing like winning here. So, he knows what that means and we’ll see what happens…Just coming from what we [the Yankees] just did [winning the World Series on Wednesday] and talking to Reggie, too. I talked to Reggie a lot about playing here and what it means to play here, and he told me that from the start, that if you win here, there’s nothing like it.”

Sabathia, who won a wager with James on which player would win a title first, made a few other similar comments, smiling sort of coyly, as if he already knows James’ intentions, each time, ending the statement with that same trailing “We’ll see what happens” comment.

He also said of his friend evening out the bet, “I’m sure he’ll come here and win one, too.”

Interesting choice of words.

It wasn’t that Sabathia said he thinks James could win a title in New York, but that he believes he will.

Before the game, James said, “I’m not going to rush it, I’m definitely going to stay in shape and stay in the gym next summer like I’ve always done and we’ll see what happens.”

Sound familiar at the end of that comment?

Earlier in the day, James slept through the Yankees’ victory parade after losing a tough one-point game at home to Chicago the night before. During the parade, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who went against the odds to win re-election to a third term after the rules on term limits were amended in New York, publicly offered sending a new crystal ball to Philadelphia Phillies’ shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who incorrectly predicted a Phillies’ World Series victory.

Perhaps a crystal basketball revealing James’ impending decision would be a better idea. Maybe even one that would be able to show James what coming down New York’s famed Canyon of Heroes on a blue and orange float might be like.

As James ponders his future, the Knicks are certain of a few things in the present.

They know it would take a king’s ransom to afford King James, but they also know that they are one of the few NBA teams which can afford to pay it.

They also know that the spectacle they put on Friday night to attract James to their big city with the bright lights won’t mean anything if between now and that magical free agent date next summer, they leave D’Antoni pleading for an adaptation of “The King And I” instead of showing James that the Knicks are capable of coming up with enough compliments to produce the “King And We” for a successful run of many years at 4 Penn Plaza.

When the night came to an end, the Knicks had one last song for an encore to end their show…

“New York State of Mind,” by of course, native New Yorker Billy Joel.

The Knicks were certainly putting it on thick by closing with that number, hoping James keeps them in mind and closer at heart until Knicks’ general manager Donnie Walsh, the man with the plan, comes calling next year.

James left the court for which he has so much reverence before heading into the MSG tunnel for likely the final time this season.

On his way out, he stopped for a while to wave and gesture to adoring fans who stuck around for several minutes after James’ post-game television interviews at mid-court, just to catch a glimpse of his basketball royalty.

They were fans who all hope to see James back for many repeat performances in the future.

A fitting end to an elaborate Garden party fit for a basketball king.

And, will it all work?

“We’ll see what happens.”


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