For the final half-hour of his fourth practice as a New York Knick, Tyson Chandler spends an entire dribble-and-shoot drill neither dribbling nor shooting. The seven-foot-one free-agent signee—the hipster-bearded heart and soul of the Dallas Mavericks team that toppled the hated Miami LeBrons in the NBA Finals this past June—takes every pass and just stuffs it through the net with the nonchalance of a man setting his car keys on the kitchen table. If he weren’t smiling so much, you’d almost wonder if it were boring for him.
“These are not your typical stars, your typical scoring stars,” he says of Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, the first and second legs of the Knicks’ new Big Three (the Post has taken to calling them “the Broadway Bigs”). “These are two aggressive scoring stars.” And he’s right: Stoudemire has an explosive, almost primal finishing move to the basket. Anthony is all about the mad inventiveness of his kaleidoscope of scoring maneuvers. The Knicks have been looking for the third leg—chasing after the likes of Chris Paul and Dwight Howard—but they found it in Chandler, a defensive maestro. He’s doesn’t shoot, he doesn’t dribble, he doesn’t even seem to like having the ball at all. This is why he’s here—to do all the other stuff basketball teams need players to do. And he sort of can’t believe it.
“I thought, Wow, if there were any way I could get over there with those two players, it can be a special situation,” he tells me after practice. (Spike Lee was also an influence: “Spike has been recruiting me the last couple of years, like everybody,” he says. “I was like, ‘Does Spike work for the Knicks?’ ”) “And now I am here,” he says, looking around the team’s practice facility in suburban Greenburgh. “I never thought I’d have the chance, but this was my No. 1 option even when it wasn’t an option.”
The union seemed especially unlikely when it looked like the season might be canceled altogether. But Chandler is not the sort to be rattled by such matters: “Things just sort of work out,” he says coolly. He mostly spent his time off at his family’s farm in California, where he was partially raised and where he goes every summer. “There’s just a goat now; the donkey died, and the last chicken, a dog got ahold of it,” he says. He also filmed a particularly amusing Funny or Die skit with James Urbaniak, in which he, Shawn Marion, and Kevin Love misunderstand the nature of the lockout and have a sleepover.
Chandler was such a logical fit for the Knicks that no one considered the possibility; after all, the Knicks have disastrously mismanaged their personnel over the last decade or so and came out of the lockout seemingly totally agog with flashier superstars. Signing Chandler showed the Knicks were realistic about what their team needed; the addition over a week later of veteran point guard Baron Davis, who once owned a beard superior even to Chandler’s, showed they weren’t done yet. For the first time in a decade, the team feels gritty. “Once my agent said, ‘There may be potential for you to get to New York,’ ” Chandler says, “I put everything else on hold.”
Much as he’s excited about the team—and as many times as he’s visited the city over his eleven-year career—Chandler claims he knows nothing about his new home whatsoever. He’s bewildered by New York and doesn’t have the slightest idea where he’s going to live. “The only places I know are art galleries Ari has taken me to.”
Oh, yes, Ari. Chandler’s referring to Ari Marcopoulos, the photographer, Warhol protégé, and, as of this year, one of Chandler’s closer friends—“one of the few guys in town I know.” Turns out Chandler’s a closet art enthusiast; he spends a large part of our conversation praising the work of Albert Watson—calling a particular photograph “one of the most breathtaking shots I’ve ever seen.” Chandler met Marcopoulos this winter after the photographer, inspired by Chandler’s work in the NBA finals, produced a photo fanzine called Tyson Chandler. At practice, Marcopoulos’s muse is clapping constantly and giggles every time lumbering, awkward rookie center Josh Harrellson takes a fadeaway jumper. “I love that his nickname is Jorts,” Chandler says, mentioning a famous picture of Midwesterner Harrellson wearing jean shorts.
Chandler is not the type of player who succeeds if he is his team’s primary option, or even its second. He is here to dig the ditches and get the dirty work done. He is a walking, jumping, dunking sign that the Knicks are serious about all this. “Do I think this team is a championship team?” he says. “You can’t just push a button and make a championship. But yes. Yes, I do.”