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Morality Playoffs

Spike Lee critiques the Knicks' narrative arc.

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Maybe it's because there were two auteurs, Woody Allen and Spike Lee, and an all-star screenwriter, William Goldman, at courtside. But with a major assist from overwrought sportswriters, what was supposed to be a short Knicks show turned into a melodramatic saga about "heart" and "character" instead of jump shots.

The moralizations swung with dizzying speed: One day Latrell Sprewell shed his image as a selfish thug and was rewarded with a starting role; then he was once again an erratic, shot-happy jerk; 48 hours later, he was the free-flowing soul of the new-school Knicks. Marcus Camby -- formerly known as the underachieving, flashily tattooed patronizer of prostitutes who replaced noble forward Charles Oakley -- was suddenly a thrillingly youthful seven-foot savior. Patrick Ewing, distant and underappreciated for most of his fourteen seasons with the Knicks, tore an Achilles tendon and was forced to watch from the bench -- thereby attracting the sympathy he could never win when dragging himself up and down the court. Even Lee couldn't film this story and make it believable. "It's perverse," he says. "That's some Greek shit, some Greek mythology there. It would just be Patrick's luck -- the year the Knicks get the ring is the year he gets hurt."

As for the battles in the sports pages, on WFAN, and in the stands over the significance of Sprewell, Lee traces psychological motives that are older than Euripides. "People feel they have to protect the great game of basketball from the likes of Latrell Sprewell, someone who choked a father figure, a figure of authority," Lee says. "Latrell's done a great job trying not even to listen to that stuff."

The surprising playoff run seems to have earned Sprewell and Camby absolution. But, like some over-budget summer blockbuster that studio executives can't stop focus-grouping, this morality play resists a conclusive ending. Even now, the character and future of Jeff Van Gundy are hotly debated. Is he the hardworking, egoless longtime assistant who has proved his sagacity as a head coach? Or is little Jeff a devious, Machiavellian manipulator who stubbornly refused to acknowledge the brilliance lurking within Camby? Stay tuned for more hairpin reversals, followed by high-handed judgments that will endure only until the next missed free throw.

For now, however, there's one last implausible twist: Lee, the ultimate Knicks fan, could miss the final act. He scheduled a long-overdue family vacation that began Saturday. In Hawaii. "I might miss game one of the finals," he says, sounding like a man who hasn't finished negotiations with his wife. "I'll be there for game two in San Antonio. And three, four, five, if needed. I've got the flights scheduled. This stuff is great drama."


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