Free Darko on Knicks New and Old

The hyperanalytical basketball bloggers of released their second book, The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, this week to coincide with the first games of the NBA season. We talked to one of the book’s many authors, Bethlehem Shoals, about the project and this year’s Knicks squad.

What are your thoughts on the Knicks this year? It seems like this is the first D’Antoni-appropriate team.
It’d be depressing if they still weren’t a playoff team after all this. I got really bummed out when people were talking about trading them Randolph and Gallinari to get Carmelo. Not because I don’t like Carmelo, but just thinking about getting rid of two young, still developing, exciting, and very D’Antoni players was depressing. When D’Antoni first got here he didn’t have a team that in any way resembled the Suns. Now, not only does he have Stoudemire, but he has some bizarre, versatile players to work with.

So is this team more interesting to you than if the team had been able to land two big-name players in the off-season?
Well, I’d like to go on the record and say this whole idea of pursuing Tony Parker is dumb, because I hate Tony Parker and think he’s kind of overrated. There’s a reason why the offense goes through Duncan, Manu, or George Hill. Parker’s not even as awesome as Rodrigue Beaubois, because his name is not Rodrigue Beaubois. But you know, bringing in Carmelo would make them a better team, I’m just not sure how good. At least there’s something developing here. And Felton is someone who may not have been in the right system yet. If Chris Duhon can get more than twenty assists in one game under D’Antoni, certainly Felton can run the floor and get the ball to people.

With Amar’e, Gallinari, and Randolph all on the same squad, the Knicks seem like the perfect freewheeling Free Darko team.
Yeah, Anthony Randolph is one of our all-time favorite players even though I don’t know if he’ll ever turn into anything. I’ve written in the past about how people just think we like these obscure not-great-yet young players who may or may not be good, but what people miss is that sometimes we just disown people in disgust when they don’t end up being good after four or five years. I just don’t see that happening with Randolph because he is such a weird, singular player. He has such a good feel for the game yet is somehow so stupid about it. And Gallinari has really grown on me because he’s not just a shooter, he’s a very skilled player as well. Amar’e is obviously one of our all-time favorites, but on some level if the rest of the team is a bummer it can kind of bring down the experience of watching him. I love him but that’s not what I want to see. If Gallinari or Randolph can’t do anything tremendous this year and Raymond Felton is sort of so-so, that team turns into, “Hey, do you like Amar’e Stoudemire?”

Do they have the potential to be more than just interesting?
I think they’re still missing something. All the exciting players play too similar a position. They need an explosive wing scorer. For the team to be a consistently great offensive team they need that. On defense, they have a lot of bizarre mismatches that they can create but they also have a lot of people who don’t have very good defensive reputations. Amar’e, when he remembers he’s on a basketball court, can be a tremendous defensive player. Randolph could be an All-Defensive player. Some people compare him to Josh Smith because he’s that athletic and [because of] his shot-blocking ability, but as I said, he has great instincts but his decision-making is terrible.

Do you think Amar’e will do well as a Knick? Is the fact that this isn’t that good of a team going to get to him?
I think he obviously likes playing for Mike D’Antoni. And in some ways D’Antoni is the one who basically set up the blueprint for how Amar’e can be a superstar in the NBA. They’re going to have cap room next year. There are good, young, promising players on the team. He’s in New York, he has a good coach who has coached some extremely good teams over the years. All things considered it’s not a bad situation. If you’re not in Miami, Orlando, Boston, L.A., or whatever team I’m forgetting that’s really good, what are you going to do? You can take that as a knock against Amar’e, but this is not a guy who is going to freak out or give up for a month out of sheer frustration. He’s not necessarily banking on this team winning a championship. That’s not the reason he came here. Although he did think he was going to be the one who would make LeBron come to New York.

What’s going to happen with Carmelo? Is he going to end up a Knick?
I think one of the things people are not taking into account is that it’s not just him wanting to go to another team with superstars because LeBron did it, it’s also because Denver is kind of a dying team. Billups and Kenyon Martin are getting old and their big move this summer was to sign Al Harrington. I just don’t understand how that inspires great confidence. And Karl, he’s sort of what held that whole weird team together, but with his health who knows how much longer he’ll be their coach. It’s always been a temperamental team, and when a temperamental team begins to age and loses the person responsible for it being allowed to pursue its identity, it’s not good. It’s not that he’s an asshole; he realizes it’s not a good situation and he wants to leave. I don’t think he wants to go to New Jersey, and Chicago says that Noah is untradable. It seems like it’s New York or bust. Maybe the Nets will surprise everyone this year, but they still would need another player. What’s the chance of two people saying, “This team is somewhat crappy but might move to Brooklyn at some point and has some money, but is in Newark now. Let’s take a chance together”? People do that when it’s South Beach, not when it’s Newark. I don’t know where he could go but the Knicks. I’m sure I’m forgetting something obvious here, but it’s kind of a perfect storm, no, it’s not even a storm, it’s only two things, you got a guy who wants to go somewhere and a team that has cap room. It seems like the only logical place for him to go.

Your new book is a history of the pro game. How did the release of last year’s similarly ambitious The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons affect you?
When I first read the book, I completely panicked, but there were a lot of things about that book that reinforced my desire to talk about things the way we planned to. We both had a thing that we were clearly playing off of. He wrote stuff about Maurice Stokes and Connie Hawkins and these were players that I became kind of borderline-obsessed with. To me it was then, “okay, he’s gotten this story out there, what can I add to it?” In some cases I’d be angry because he wrote something we wanted to use, but I felt he had laid claim to it. In those cases, we had to find a way to build on what we were going to say. But we could always not put something in if we wanted to, if we didn’t feel we had something good to say about it. There were things about Simmons’s book that drive me crazy, but I’m glad it was written because it made our book better and it proved that people are marginally interested about NBA history.

Your first book was about the present-day NBA, as is most of the writing on your site. Why did you guys decide to focus on the history of basketball this time around?

The NBA of today isn’t that different from the NBA we’d already done a book on. We would’ve just been cleaning up after ourselves, like with Kevin Durant, who we considered putting in the first book, but his rookie season wasn’t good enough until near the end. At that point the only place for us to go was back in history. Like most fans we know that history is important and that there are some names that are associated with some really cool stuff, but we really didn’t have that detailed of a narrative of the history of basketball in our head.

Besides scope, how else does this book differ from the last?
The first book was based on crazy visual gags, graphs, and stats. It was a lot of us coming up with funny ideas on the spot. Our blog is a lot more serious than our first book, which was a lot of fun. It can be a downer at times, when we write about stuff like race and politics. People can get bored of that. And, in what’s a great sales pitch for the new book, we have a lot more of that stuff this time! The first book was much more like a blog, this one is like our blog.

You wrote the essay on the early seventies Knicks teams that won two championships. One of the issues addressed in both the essay and the illustration that goes with it is how much media coverage the team got. With so much having been written about the team, what were you trying to add to the discussion?
That team for some reason is beloved by everyone. “I don’t watch basketball at all but in 1971 I was really into this one team.” So I was trying to figure out what could make one single basketball team so compelling for so many people. That’s why I ended up with a bizarre Knicks-as-seventies-America metaphor, because when people connect so strongly to a team you have to think that there’s something there other than basketball in it. You have to figure out that there’s something deeper going on, and with no other explanation I fell back to my American Studies background. They were just such a good example of different groups of people working together. People fixate on Frazier and on Bradley. Bradley had this whole reputation coming in, and even though he ended up being a very different player than he ever was in college, he writes this amazing book, becomes a senator, and he was a very upstanding basketball player. And Frazier at the same time, he was such an outlandish figure that he’s hard to miss in that period of history. What other athlete from that era, aside from Joe Namath, is more of an eye catcher off the court?

You make clear that your grasp of the sport’s history wasn’t that good before this book. Through the course of your research, were there any players or teams that really surprised you?
With Bill Russell, for example, it was just really getting a better grasp. Not just Bill Russell the great shot blocker who won all these championships, but Bill Russell, the political, intelligent, and sensitive guy who played under really unpleasant circumstances and had very conflicted feelings about American society at that time. For us it was like, “Wow, this is the Bill Russell that people would want to know more about.” I wasn’t aware of the depth of Bill Russell. I knew he was a smart player, but I didn’t realize how much he was thinking about politics and race relations. Most of the stuff on older basketball, the main reason I wanted to write about it was I wanted to learn shit about it.

Free Darko on Knicks New and Old