The Garden was a mecca again last week. That means the mecca of basketball’s past glory. Even in the good old days – and this current Knicks team has delivered so many good times this season and so many great nights – the Garden, until further notice, remains just the capital of the good old days.
It all came back suddenly due to the death of Willis Reed at the age of 80, heart failure took him and his big heart. Then, of course, it was Game 7 against the Lakers again this week, and it was the Knicks’ last title, 50 years ago, the 1972-73 Knicks team being honored not too long ago. Some of them were there for the celebration. Walt Frazier was there, because he’s become the ambassador of everything with the Knicks and the Garden, mainly because he’s still here, and he’s so wonderfully vocal and so present.
Bill Bradley was there, and so was a good old basketball player named Earl Monroe, the boy from Philadelphia and the old Bullet from Baltimore who, through his grace and dazzling play, became one of us. Dick Barnett, bless him, was still there.
“It doesn’t take much,” Earl told me over the phone the night he found out Willis was gone, “for all of us to remember what a time we had and what a time it was.”
We know where the bar was set with those teams. We know that they weren’t just built to play as beautiful a game of basketball as any team in any era has played, even when a player like Willis, once a giant, was nowhere near what he had been. They were built to win championships. Ultimately, they were built for the Garden’s rafters.
We now have a Knicks team whose success this season can only be measured in one way:
They need to win a playoff series.
If they don’t, it doesn’t mean they haven’t given their fans some time this season. They have. They have done what in sport is always so important to fans: they have surprised us. They have been better than we thought they were going to be. Despite some incredibly sketchy losses, even recently they have shown the ability to go toe to toe with most of the best teams in the league. They have seen Jalen Brunson, son of a former Knick, become a breakthrough star. They’ve seen Julius Randle play like the star he was a couple of years ago, when the Knicks came from nowhere to go 41-31 and clinch the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference.
But that team couldn’t get a playoff series out of Trae Young and the Hawks. So the Knicks have still won one playoff series since the 2000 season. One. The New York Knicks. The Knicks of Captain Willis and Clyde and The Pearl and Dave DeBusschere, and Red Holzman waving that rolled-up schedule when he wanted to call a timeout like a cane. Then there were the Knicks of Pat Riley and Pat Ewing, and Jeff Van Gundy, and Oak. And they also gave us a time, in the 1990s, when they reached two NBA Finals, reaching Game 7 once against the Rockets at the old Summit in Houston. They couldn’t get past Michael Jordan, but it sure was something to see them try.
( Marv Albert, the Voice of Basketball, shares his memories of the 1970 NBA Champion Knicks )
I recently told Dave Checketts, who changed everything by signing Riley and who ran the Knicks and Garden in those days, that we didn’t know how good we had it.
And Checketts smiled and said, “Oh, yeah. We did it.”
But then Checketts left and Van Gundy left soon after. Before he did, the Knicks couldn’t get out of the first round against the Raptors and it was James L. Dolan’s Garden. And the only time the Knicks would win a single playoff series under Dolan’s watch was against the Boston Celtics ten years ago, and even that one left them bloodied. The Knicks didn’t sweep the Celtics at home when they had the chance and nearly blew Game 5 in Boston on a Friday night and then the Pacers stole Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Sunday afternoon, and the Knicks they never recovered.
Now here they are, and it looks like they’re going to finish fifth in the conference, though that could change and they could go up or down. It looks like it will be them against the Cavaliers if the current standings hold up and guess what?
The season, with all its shining moments and all the promise the Knicks have shown, is a failure if they can’t win a playoff series for the first time in a decade and for the second time in this century. It just is, for many reasons, starting here:
If the Knicks lose to Donovan Mitchell, they’ll be kicking themselves into next season and beyond for not turning Mitchell into a Knick when they had a clear chance to attack him.
The Knicks have to pull off a playoff series, or a truly incredible losing streak will continue for what was once one of the NBA’s proud franchises. It’s not just that they’ve only won one playoff series this century; it’s that they’ve only had five winning seasons, including this one. The Knicks. The Knicks of Willis and Clyde and Pearl and Bradley and them.
They need to finish strong and see if there is still a way for them to get home field advantage in the first round if they can. They have to see if Brunson and Randle can get them through at least one round of the playoffs the way they have gotten them to the record they have now. They have to find out, perhaps in the biggest way yet, if RJ Barrett still has what it takes to be an NBA star, even if the kid doesn’t turn 23 until June.
( RJ Barrett isn’t ready to brag about his ‘shock the world’ prediction )
We know the Knicks still matter. More than ever, in this emotional week that focused on Willis Reed, we know why they matter so much. You know how much people like to call the Garden a mecca. It is part of the enduring romance and legend of the place. But until the Knicks do something and they do it at the time of year that DeBusschere used to talk about money being thrown on the table, it’s nothing more than a capital of the past in New York sports.
They don’t need a parade. They need to win a playoff series. Everyone else does. Why can’t they, and why not now?
Michigan State great coach Tom Izzo was criticized the other night for talking about Kansas State’s luck in the Garden.
That was not an insult, nor was it a dig at Kansas State.
It was just Izzo telling the truth, about the bounce of the ball that decides who goes next this time of year and who goes home.
You think luck doesn’t factor into the whole March Madness thing?
You rack up a couple of 3-pointers down the stretch and guess what?
You were lucky.
I hope it’s Anthony Volpe.
Julius Randle needs to shut it down.
If Rick Pitino can’t bring St. John’s back, they won’t come back.
The Nets have had two different teams this season, and they still entered the weekend a game behind the Knicks in the loss column.
All those who didn’t appreciate the magic of Ohtani facing Trout to end the World Baseball Classic, not only facing his Angels teammate but striking him out, should go bowling.
That is if bowling will have them.
It was the ending we wanted, and the two players we wanted to provide, and he did what the sport does best:
Made a keepsake for all who saw.
That is what sport is, in the end.
It is the business of making memories.
And so this tournament came down to the greatest two-way player since Babe Ruth and the greatest all-around player of his time, in a single-run, winner-take-all game.
Great pitcher against great hitter.
Here it comes, see if you can hit it.
That wasn’t just the beauty of baseball.
It was the beauty of sports.
My colleague Stanton is right: raise your hand if you thought the WBC, even after what happened to Edwin Díaz and José Altuve, was going to be this good.
All Rory McIlroy did the other day in the Dell Match Play at Austin Country Club was take his drive 349 yards on the 18th hole, and 375 yards overall, until he finished within five feet of the cup.
I have followed golf all my life and have been playing it since I was nine years old.
The best single unit I have ever seen.
By the way?
I hope McIlroy finally wins the Masters this year.
At this point, you really wouldn’t believe them on Fox News if they told you that water is wet.
I can’t lie to you
Aaron Rodgers’ prayer vigil is starting to wear me down a bit.
Sign me up for the new John Wick.
Just two episodes into “Ted Lasso” season 3 and it just keeps getting better.
the striped express
The Daily News sports editors curate the best Yankees stories of the week from our award-winning columnists and writers. Delivered to your inbox every Wednesday.
I think the Panthers are about to make a big mistake with Bryce Young because they think he’s too small.
It happens every year, and it’s about to happen again:
Spring training is going fast.
Didn’t we just have pitchers and catchers about 20 minutes ago?
I’m not as interested in Josh Donaldson’s new swing as I thought I would be.
I hope it doesn’t sound impersonal.