You can chart the course of the New York Knicks' season by the breathless back-page headlines of the Gotham tabloids. So far the Knicks have been the victim of PAT THE RAT'S REVENGE—an embarrassing 99-75 home loss on Dec. 3 to former New York coach Pat Riley's current team, the Miami Heat—which contributed to an erratic start that included the Knicks' getting MASED in a 93-86 loss on Nov. 20 to ex-New York player Anthony Mason and the Charlotte Hornets, which supposedly caused some of the Knicks to point fingers at one another and play the BLAME GAME, at which they are not nearly as adept as the New York fans, who have booed the Knicks on several occasions this season, thereby turning the Big Apple into RIP CITY and so inflaming 10-time All-Star center Patrick Ewing that he warned the fans to GET OFF MY BACK, which only caused them to focus their booing exclusively on Ewing, who has since played well enough to turn most of the jeers back into cheers and prompt the kind of mixed reviews that could apply to New York's season as a whole, BOO-RAY, and goodness, is it really only December?
All this may make it appear that the only group that has faced as continuous a succession of crises as the Knicks this season is the cast of Melrose Place. But that's to be expected in New York, where there is no such thing as a minor problem when the local teams are involved. Listen long enough to Vinnie from Queens rail on talk radio about guard John Starks's shot selection and you'll wonder why a special prosecutor hasn't been appointed to investigate the matter. If the Knicks have cause to be concerned, it's not because of their inconsistent play—despite their fits and starts, they were 15-6 through Sunday, winners of six straight games and a respectable second in the Atlantic Division to 18-5 Miami—but because, in radically retooling their team, they have undertaken an experiment that will require patience from an impatient town.
No contending team in recent memory has tried to remain a contender by remaking itself as extensively as New York did last summer. On July 14 president and general manager Ernie Grunfeld signed free-agent guards Allan Houston (formerly of the Detroit Pistons) and Chris Childs (New Jersey Nets) and traded Mason and forward Brad Lohaus for forward Larry Johnson. Twelve days later, Grunfeld added another free agent, former Portland Trail Blazers forward Buck Williams. Other teams made over their rosters significantly in last summer's free-agent shuffle, but none changed its identity as drastically as did the Knicks, who went from being the most physical team in the league (and one of the lowest-scoring, at 97.2 points per game in 1995-96) to a club that was, at least in theory, more versatile offensively but less imposing defensively. Only three players remain who were significant contributors last season: Ewing, Starks and power forward Charles Oakley. Now Charlie Ward, who was New York's backup point guard last year, and five newcomers—Childs, Houston, Johnson, Williams and rookie forward John Wallace—make up the rest of the Knicks' regular rotation.
Grunfeld had little choice but to make such bold moves. With the 34-year-old Ewing's best days growing short, the Knicks, who finished 47-35 last season and were eliminated in the Eastern Conference semifinals by the Chicago Bulls, were getting no closer to a championship, and rebuilding slowly was not an option. In New York there are no five-year plans, only this-year plans. "The market demands that you be good and stay good," says Grunfeld.
It also demands immediate proof of quality. This season's Knicks were presented to the fans as being capable of posing a challenge to the NBA champion Bulls, and the reason these are tense times at Madison Square Garden is that, so far, New York seems about as likely to beat Michael Jordan in the postseason as are the Nerd-lucks in Space Jam. The Knicks' record is somewhat misleading; they did atone for the loss to the Heat three nights later with a 103-85 win in Miami, but most of their victories have come against the NBA's ever-expanding lower echelon. Their only other high-quality opponents, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Seattle SuperSonics, beat the Knicks at the Garden, where at week's end the home team was an unintimidating 8-4. And New York's scoring average was a disappointing 95.3 points per game, 12th in the NBA. "Of the top teams in the league, I think we have the most potential for improvement," says coach Jeff Van Gundy, putting a positive spin on things. The Knicks are lucky they aren't subject to the same vicissitudes as the Broadway shows that share Manhattan with them, because in light of their reviews, they would have been one of those heavily promoted productions that closes after a few performances.
It doesn't help when the lead performer berates the audience. Ewing lashed out at the Madison Square Garden fans following an 89-80 home victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 7, during which the crowd booed the Knicks as the Clippers went on a 21-0 run. "Whenever something goes wrong, [the fans] jump off the bandwagon," Ewing told reporters after the game. "They're annoying me. If they're going to act the way they're acting, they might as well stay home. It's been like that for 12 years, and I'm fed up with it." After a dozen years in New York, Ewing should have been able to handle the situation more deftly, but the nuances of public relations have always escaped him, just as his value has escaped some Knicks fans. "When people see a 7-footer, they automatically assume he's blessed with great talent," says Van Gundy. "But aside from his height, Patrick really isn't an extraordinarily talented player as NBA superstars go. He has worked hard to make himself into a great player. I think 95 percent of our fans respect him for what he's done, and if the ones who don't really saw him for what he is, they would appreciate him more."
Ewing's outburst was not the only cause of the rift between him and the fans. There's also the feeling among the media and fans that, with more offensive weapons in the Knicks' lineup this year, Ewing, who at week's end led New York in scoring (21.2 points per game), does not have to dominate the offense as much as he does. The reasoning, which Van Gundy dismisses, is that Houston (12.9) and Johnson (12.5) have gotten off to slow starts because Ewing is still shooting turnaround, fallaway jumpers instead of making an effort to include the new guys in the offense. While Ewing was taking 17.0 shots per game at week's end, Houston was attempting 12.0 and Johnson 8.9. "Larry and Allan need to be more aggressive in working to get the ball, and we have to do a better job of getting it to them, but none of it is because Patrick is dominating the ball too much," Van Gundy says. Ewing, never one to engage in probing analysis with journalists, says only, "I'll do whatever it takes to win. We have a lot of talent here, and we just have to blend together a little better."
The Knicks' season may turn on just how effectively the new players blend in with their surroundings, both on the court and off it. "We knew what it was like before we got here," says Johnson, referring to Houston, Childs and himself. "In New York, every night you have to show the fans and the media you're a good player all over again."
Some nights Johnson has shown that; other nights he has not. The Knicks acquired him to be the All-Star-caliber scoring sidekick that Ewing has never had, but Johnson, who previously was well known for his bravado, has often seemed to be more comfortable in the background. His scoring average through Sunday was 7.1 points less than his career mark of 19.6 and more than three points less than Mason's average for the Hornets (15.6). Part of Johnson's problem on offense may be the depth of his respect for Ewing. He seems hesitant to assert himself for fear of stealing the spotlight from him. Surprisingly, on defense, where he had a reputation of being soft, Johnson has asserted himself. He harassed the Washington Bullets' All-Star forward Juwan Howard into 2-for-13 shooting in New York's 85-73 win on Dec. 10. Two nights later, in the late stages of a Knicks' 90-79 victory over the Golden State Warriors, Johnson shut down streaky guard Latrell Sprewell, holding him to two second-half points. Johnson's play is one of the main reasons New York's D remained formidable, surrendering only 91.2 points per game.
Johnson, who has never before appeared to lack self-confidence, seemed more likely to adapt well to playing in New York than did Houston, who is more reserved. Yet Houston seems more self-assured than Johnson, even though through the first 21 games he wasn't the deadly outside shooter the Knicks thought they were getting; at week's end he had converted only 39.8% of his three-point shots and 38.6% of his field goal attempts. Last season with the Pistons, for whom Houston averaged 19.7 points, he shot 42.7% from beyond the arc and 45.3% overall. "I still have a way to go before I feel like Allan Houston, the way I felt last year," he says. "The pressure is more intense here, but I don't think that has anything to do with my situation. I had confidence in my abilities when I came here, and that hasn't changed at all."