In his very first press conference as head coach of the New York Knicks, Mike D’Antoni was asked about LeBron James. Of course he was. He couldn’t say anything, obviously — the Knicks brass have been required by NBA rules not to talk about LeBron for so long that it’s a wonder that today, the first day they can talk about him, they haven’t just been screaming “LEBRON! LEBRON!” in the face of everyone they pass on the street — but it was obvious that the summer of 2010 was the mitigating factor in why D’Antoni was sitting on a platform in May 2008.
Obviously, the money mattered ($24 million over four years was more than anyone else was offering), but at the time of the hiring, Mike D’Antoni was the hottest coaching prospect in the world. His time in Phoenix had inspired countless NBA aesthetes to imagine a free-wheeling landscape of offensive levitation, and a rather brilliant book. D’Antoni had left Phoenix because they lost patience; he was a genius not understood in his own time. The Knicks, even with their haggard roster, would restore him to his proper stature: He was promised, like LeBron is being promised today, that he could run this town.
It hasn’t been a pleasant couple of years for D’Antoni, or the Knicks, or their fans, but all that will be erased if the Knicks can pull off an impossible coup in their meeting with LeBron, which is going on right now in Akron. (We’re a bit concerned about the optics of the pitch, by the way. It’s Jim Dolan, D’Antoni, Allan Houston, and Walsh in a wheelchair. Not exactly four hip guys who make you feel like your franchise is on the cutting edge of anything other than the best places to eat before 6:30.) This meeting today, very possibly the only time the Knicks will talk to LeBron at all, is the reason any of this has happened, the reason D’Antoni is here, the reason Walsh is here, the reason the Knicks are still selling more season tickets than usual, the reason we have sat idly by, passive, as the Knicks have just let two seasons fly away.
If LeBron doesn’t come here, and the Knicks — as many skeptics have predicted — end up with nothing this off-season, back in the same rut, it’s only a matter of time until D’Antoni leaves. (Walsh is already planning his exit.) He will have wasted two, three, four years of his career, and of our lives as fans. This will have been a $24 million mistake. Everything comes down to selling a clearly dubious LeBron on the idea that the Knicks are the future, that all they’ve given up was worth it, that D’Antoni really is the savior and genius we all thought he was two years ago. Can they make that sale? Can anyone? It’s happening right now. We’ll know very soon.