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It's No Dope: Knicks Have Hope

The Mike Master

By Michael R. Grunwald

The Miami Heat are off to a bad, bad start.

Five wins. Thirty-nine losses. Humiliation. Ridicule. Riots outside the stadium. Awful players. Retreads like Rony Seikaly, the Heat's Great White Hope who cannot even shoot layups, have made Miami Coach Larry Rothstein look like a Great White Dope.

But Rothstein shouldn't mope. Lousy teams can gain respectability as quickly as you can say, "The Chicago Bulls select Michael Jordan."

Just look at the New York Knickerbockers. Long-suffering Knick fans have watched their beloved five rise from the Atlantic Division cellar to the attic loft in just three years, CBA rejects like Ken "The Animal" Bannister--who once shot a free throw off the side of the backboard--have been replaced by legitimate NBA stars.

They have done it because great basketball teams are born, not made.

Basketball powerhouses seem to magically materialize. Rothstein should look at the Knicks' journey as evidence that a little wisdom and a lot of luck can change the fortunes of even the sorriest teams:

The Horseshoe: May 12, 1985. Representatives from the NBA's seven worst teams pile into Madison Square Garden for the league's first lottery. Knick general manager Dave DeBusschere, desperate for the Knicks to acquire the rights to Georgetown monolith Pat Ewing, brings a lucky horseshoe to supplement his home-court advantage. It works. The Knicks get Ewing, quickly tagged "The Franchise" by New York reporters. Led by The Franchise, the Knicks come in last again.

Sleep Walker: June 18, 1986. The horseshoe returns to lottery action under new Knick GM Scotty Stirling. The Knicks receive only the fifth pick, costing them the chance to draft Chris Washburn or William Bedford, both now in drug rehabilitation, or Len Bias, who died the next day of a drug overdose. The Knicks choose Kenny "Sky" Walker, a terrible lottery pick, but at least a decent reserve.

From Austin Peay to MSG: March 13, 1987. Providence University, led by its 3-point shooting "Rainbow Coalition" and such household names as Jacek Duda and David Kipfer, squeeze out a secound-round NCAA tournament victory in overtime over Austin Peay State. Providence goes on to the Final Four.

New Knick GM Al Bianchi hires Providence Coach Rick Pitino that summer to coach the Knicks. The Knicks finally make the playoffs.

Since that day, the Knicks have done no wrong. They drafted Rookie of the Year Mark Jackson with the 17th pick in 1987--the horseshoe had nothing to do with that one. Jackson immediately assumed the role of team leader and top assist man.

Bianchi also traded the soft, aging Bill Cartwright to the Bulls for rebounding workhorse and team enforcer Charles Oakley.

But Pitino has been the major force in the Knicks' resurrection.

Under Pitino's tutelage (with Jackson's help), Ewing has developed into one of the most dominant centers in the game. He no longer jumps into the rafters after pump fakes, he no longer picks up the dumb fouls and he has even learned to pass the ball out to the perimeter, where Pitino's "Mad Bombers" have consistently nailed the open three.

Most importantly, Pitino has brought the team together. Last week, swingman Gerald Wilkins volunteered to give up his starting role. Volunteered.

Pitino is best known for his innovative press, which Lakers' guard Magic Johnson and others have called the best in the NBA. By forcing opponents to worry about protecting the ball, Pitino slices opponents' 24-second clocks in half.

Three years ago, the Knicks had Ron Cavenall, who played because he was 7-ft. tall. They had Chris McNealy, who played because he hustled. They had Bob Thornton, who played because...well, why did he play? Maybe it was his ball.

The Knicks have come a long way to this week's cover of Sports Illustrated. They may still be a player away from a championship, but at 32-16, they are the team to beat in the Atlantic Division.

As for the Heat, before Rothstein reaches for the Great White Rope, he can take solace that 1) the Heat's long-term success is a short-term possibility and 2) the Minnesota Timberwolves and Orlando Magic are slated to enter the league next year. So Rothstein should be able to cope. But compete with the Knicks? Nope.

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