Ambition has been home in New York, the allure of jumping into the heart of the city’s intense fray has, for generations, driven migration, movies and music.
Some see the semi-organized mayhem of the place and turn around. Others want to see if they can make it there … and then never leave.
You can apparently count Zion Williamson, the 20-year-old native of Spartanburg, South Carolina, and current resident of New Orleans, Louisiana, among the latter.
Williamson made his first NBA appearance in Madison Square Garden Sunday, scoring 34 in a Pelicans loss to the Knicks. A reporter wondered what he thought of the place — even if attendance inside was limited to about 2,000 fans and the city blocks on the outside are still in the reopening stage from the pandemic.
“I’m glad you asked that,’’ Williamson said with a smile. “New York is the mecca of basketball. I love playing here. I played here in college [at Duke]. This is my first time playing in the pros. This atmosphere, whether they’re cheering for you or booing you, it’s amazing.
“Outside of New Orleans, obviously, this might be my favorite place to play,” he continued. “I can’t lie to you.’’
Zion, who openly stated he wanted to be drafted by New York two years ago (“I’d love to play for the Knicks”), is clearly still enamored with the place, even if he isn’t leaving New Orleans anytime soon — he’s contractually bound to the Pelicans until perhaps 2024 (although forced trades can occur).
For most of this century, even that thin possibility that Zion might one day show up would have fed the hope of this frustrated fan base. It was all there was, really.
The Knicks have won just a single playoff series (2013) since the spring of 2000, so they’ve consistently sold the promise that some megastar would look past the smoldering ruins of the franchise and come save the city.
Essentially the plan was the appeal of New York overcoming the revulsion of the Knicks, the ferocity of the fans mattering more than dysfunction of the front office. Someone would come because, well, they just would.
LeBron James. Kevin Durant. Anthony Davis. Dwyane Wade. Chris Bosh. How about all the way back to Jason Kidd and Baron Davis and Rasheed Wallace? The speculation filled up the tabloids but no one ever actually came in their prime. KD actually went to Brooklyn with Kyrie Irving, an outer-borough comeuppance.
Some basketball savant proving to be Manhattan’s basketball savior was nothing but a fairy tale. You don’t need to play near Madison Avenue anymore to make huge marketing money. You don’t need the New York media to make you a star. Players want to win. Where hardly matters anymore.
So the Knicks have churned through 14 coaches (interim included) and 10 general managers (or whatever the official title) since 2000. From 2001-2020, the team averaged 31 victories a season.
Now everything feels, and perhaps is, different. Zion batted his eyes on Sunday, but the buzz around the club was its six-game winning streak, its likable young core of talent and its old-school, hard-nosed coach from what passes for the glory days.
Zion sure would be nice someday, but Julius Randle is nice right now — 33 points and 10 assists against the Pelicans. So is RJ Barrett (Williamson’s old Duke teammate), not to mention Reggie Bullock and Immanuel Quickley and even a rejuvenated Derrick Rose.
The Knicks aren’t just 31-27 and a potential four seed in the Eastern Conference, they are winning with flair and spirit and fun that hasn’t graced Jim Dolan’s franchise in a long, long time.
New general manager Leon Rose and coach Tom Thibodeau actually inherited a decent situation this year, but they’ve spun it forward — notably trading for Quickley on draft night and Rose in February. They added depth via Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson (although the jury is still very much out on lottery pick Obi Toppin, who hasn’t done much of anything).
Meanwhile, Thibodeau, a chief assistant to Jeff Van Gundy during the Knicks' title-contending run of the 1990s, has brought defense back in style. “That period is long gone,” Thibodeau said, “but when you look at it, the same things go into winning.”
New York leads the NBA in allowing just 104.5 points a game, which isn’t the low 90s of the Patrick Ewing days, but is a full 7.3 points per game below the league average this year.
The result is a real team, one with real promise. No, the Knicks aren’t the Nets, the local club filled with free-agent stars and a real chance at a championship. And improvement will be enough for only so long.
But New York should make the playoffs, and at this point that means something. They can win a series, which would mean more.
Mostly they are building an actual team, one that is constructed for the long haul via the right pieces and the right strategy.
It’s enough that if Zion Williamson, or anyone like him, ever really does want to come play there, the Knicks can offer themselves as an actual contender, not just a hyped arena and a big-city lifestyle.
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