The last time the New York Knicks won a playoff series, a 15-year-old Carmelo Anthony had just finished his growth spurt. While the Knicks were outlasting the Miami Heat in the 2000 Eastern Conference semifinals in seven games, thanks to a phantom timeout call awarded to Latrell Sprewell (who admitted he hadn’t called one), young Carmelo Anthony was adjusting to what was happening to his body. He had grown four inches in less than a year, transforming from a skinny point guard to a massive Über-prospect who towered over his classmates at Towson Catholic High School outside Baltimore.
Carmelo remembers watching those games, when he’d return home after the 45-minute commute to the Baltimore projects known as “The Pharmacy,” made famous in HBO’s The Wire. “Patrick Ewing was the man,” he says to me. “Though mostly I just remember Spike [Lee].”
Of the seventeen men who played in that Game 7, only two are still in the NBA (Kurt Thomas, a backup forward with the Bulls, and Anthony Carter, currently Carmelo’s teammate with the Knicks). Between that night, May 21, 2000, and Sunday’s NBA playoffs Game One against the Boston Celtics, 3,984 days passed. During that time, the Knicks have hosted eight playoff games, winning only three. Since Carmelo, a four-time All-Star, entered the league in 2003, his former team, the Denver Nuggets, has never missed the postseason, and Anthony has played in a total of 45 playoff games (not counting Sunday’s contest). During that same period, the Knicks played four playoff games and lost each one. For the past six seasons, during the NBA playoffs, the Garden has gone dark.
Among the many attributes Carmelo has brought to this success-famished Knicks franchise, one of the less heralded is the basic fact that, to him, the playoffs are a normal, obvious progression from the regular season, rather than something you have to pinch yourself about to believe is really happening. Knicks fans are doing backflips that there are real, live playoff games to watch. That the last decade of pain—amazing, comical, ridiculous pain—has led to a return to relevance.
But this is nothing new to Carmelo. “The fans and some of the players on the team, like people in the organization, they haven’t really experienced what it’s like being in the playoffs,” he says. “The energy level. How much fun it is to prepare for a playoff game with the fans the way they are. It’s amazing. I wouldn’t be surprised if Knicks fans were tailgating. They’ll be tailgating out there. I’ll be out there with them.”
Forgive Carmelo for not understanding the traffic Armageddon a tailgate outside Penn Station would induce. He is new here, even if this is his home.
This has perhaps been the strangest season in recent memory both for the Knicks and Carmelo Anthony. For all the outrage directed at LeBron James and his much-derided ESPN event “The Decision” (in which he took an hour of prime-time programming to break the hearts of Cleveland Cavaliers fans and sell Vitaminwater), the Knicks and Carmelo have spent every minute since that program trying to be exactly like LeBron.
LeBron’s decision to go to a super-team in Miami (a team that has so far been more super in theory than practice) caused nothing but envy for both the Knicks and Carmelo. The Knicks, having signed Amar’e Stoudemire, immediately set about trying to find another superstar to team with him, Heat style. And Carmelo, in Denver, sullen, bored, and heading toward the end of a contract with a labor war looming, set about trying to get himself out of town, to get himself a superstar running mate or two, and of course to get himself paid. The Knicks and Carmelo were such a match they even flirted at Carmelo’s wedding, held the weekend after LeBron’s decision. (Stoudemire had to apologize to the Nuggets owner for all the Knicks talk at the event.) The Knicks hadn’t had a player of Stoudemire’s caliber since Ewing; the footsie with Carmelo was a wish for two of them.
And then something strange and wonderful happened: The Knicks, with Stoudemire, got good. Not dominant, mind you, but fun, giddy, and occasionally thrilling—an offensive juggernaut that featured Stoudemire, having his best season, surrounded by young, emerging players like Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Landry Fields, and Wilson Chandler, ideally suited for the system that coach Mike D’Antoni had desperately wanted to run for two years. The Knicks didn’t always win, but they lit up the Garden as it hadn’t been lit in years. Following a wild, ecstatic, nationally televised loss to the defending Eastern Conference champion Celtics in December, Boston guard Paul Pierce said, “The Knicks have arrived.” After a decade of Isiah Thomas and Jim Dolan and Stephon Marbury and Anucha Browne Sanders, this Knicks team felt like a purifying cleanse. We had earned this.