NEW YORK — The 1984-85 New York Knicks set an NBA record for most manpower games lost to injury, a dubious standard that lasted only until the 1985-86 Knicks came along.
"We had 339 games lost due to injury last season and that was an awesome stat," Coach Hubie Brown said. "And we'll surpass that this year."
The misfortune of last season seemed to be reversing itself last May when the Knicks won the chance to choose first in the June draft, and walked off with 7-foot Patrick Ewing, the most ballyhooed center to come into the league in a decade.
Spirits were high as the Knicks spent the summer taking season ticket orders, which resulted in their best attendance at Madison Square Garden since 1978-79.
Never did the did the team expect to have 373 manpower games lost to injury, which is the number the Knicks will reach if they avoid any more setbacks in the last days of the regular season.
Seven players--Ewing, Bernard King, Bill Cartwright, Pat Cummings, Rory Sparrow, James Bailey and Eddie Wilkins--suffered injuries that ended their seasons. King was the NBA's leading scorer in 1984-85, and all the others were starters when they were hurt.
Here's what happened:
--King and Wilkins, with knee surgery, did not play at all;
--Cartwright made two appearances at midseason before he fractured his left foot for the third time;
--Cummings played 31 games before ankle surgery ended his season;
--Ewing played brilliantly for 50 games before knee surgery;
--Bailey missed several games early in the season before returning to become the best healthy player in February. A sprained wrist ended his season after he played 48 games;
--Sparrow was the starting point guard for 74 games before breaking his left ankle on March 24.
"If everyone had been healthy at the start, we would have been a contender," Bailey said. "You look at the way we're playing, nobody's giving up on any night. It's tough, but you've got to keep a positive outlook. You can't cancel any of the games. It's depressing. We're outmatched night after night."
To his credit, Brown has kept a team of castoffs and low draft choices competitive on the court, if not the standings. Although the Knicks have the worst record in the NBA, only a handful of their losses have been by more than 10 points, and for most of those, they were in the game in the fourth period.
"Before every game with New York, I tell my players that no matter how depleted that team is, every time out will be a war," said Atlanta Coach Mike Fratello, a former Knicks assistant. "Brown has done a fantastic coaching job. What happened to the Knicks this year, after the string of bad luck last year, is unbelievable."
"It's been a helter-skelter year," said 6-9 Ken Bannister, a former seventh-round draft pick and the highest-scoring Knick since the others were injured. "The only way to prepare yourself night after night is just go out there intending to play hard. Hubie encourages us to go on and not give up on ourselves."
"It's hard on the coach and the players," Brown said. "Since the All-Star Game, Patrick Ewing has played two games. When we play huge teams like Houston, Boston and Philadelphia, we are really outmanned. We have a feisty bunch of guys, but we're underdogs every single game."
Several Knicks who were on the team two years ago when they took the Celtics to seven games in the conference semifinals are finding it hard to deal with the team's downfall.
"It's been a drastic change," guard Trent Tucker said. "When we opened the season, we knew that if everyone stayed healthy, we would have finished second or third in the Atlantic Division. Being snakebitten again this year is something I can't explain."
"I've been in this league nine years and I've never seen anything like this," swingman Ernie Grunfeld said. "We've lost our top six players and it's disheartening.
"Still, I'm proud of the guys. We're in a position to win each game, even though we come into every one undermanned and outgunned. When we started the season, I thought we had one of the five top teams. It was the same team that took Boston to seven games and we had Patrick Ewing joining us. It's been weird."