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No Quick Knick Fix

Even Larry Brown, who specializes in coaching reclamation projects, might be in over his head with this team

November 16, 2005|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

OAKLAND — Now for the mother of all whirlwind romances.

Brooklyn-born Larry Brown, who has spent his life looking for a home in 11 previous stops (counting his first job at Davidson, where he left before the season because they wouldn't carpet his office) is back where it all started, coaching the hometown Knicks, or what's left of them.

Brown breaks down his new teams, but this one was already broken. He arrived too late to help Knick President Isiah Thomas shape the roster, so they're missing a piece of the puzzle, or two, with a brutal opening schedule to boot.

They were still winless when they arrived in the Bay Area for weekend games against Golden State and Sacramento, and the New York papers were in full cry -- "Isiah Set to Dump Steph.... Brown's down on how Isiah has built team" -- and the Brown versus Stephon Marbury debate was burning up talk radio.

"They booed in the first quarter [of the home opener] in New York," says Brown, laughing in the face of it all. "We got behind 19 in our first game against Washington and came back and took the lead and had a chance to win, but they made some tough shots. But hey, I understand that....

"It's going to get worse before it gets better. They haven't seen anything yet."

There's a scary thought. Fortunately or not, Brown's return has revived long-dormant expectations and in Gotham, what goes up doesn't just come down, it crashes.

"They raised it so high and the team wasn't ready to handle it," Knick color commentator Walt Frazier says. "It's a young team and the schedule was not kind -- 13 of the first 19 games on the road. That includes two West Coast swings.

"But like we say, historically Brown's teams have done this ... but it wasn't in New York."

No one in New York cares where Brown is from any longer, or what he did before this. Frazier owned the city in his fedora-and-fur days when he was known as "Clyde" and led the Knicks to their only titles in 1970 and 1973. By 1977, he was on his way to Cleveland and Gotham didn't weep bitter tears for him.

Now 60, Frazier is their last link to the glory days and has a perspective he earned the hard way.

"They turned on [Mickey] Mantle," he says, laughing. "They turned on Joe Namath. They turn on everybody. And if you play there, you know why. They love the game. Nothing personal."

The Knicks lost to the Warriors too, dropping to 0-5, their worst start in 18 years, before finally winning in Sacramento so everyone at home can climb down from the bridges.

Two nights later, they beat the Jazz for their second consecutive victory. Let the good times roll.

You Can Go Home Again?

If ever there were a team and a town and a league that needed a wizard, this is it.

At the beating heart of the communications industry, anything that is happening in New York is perceived to be happening elsewhere, and anything that is not -- like the Knicks and, by association, the NBA -- is not.

Depending on who's on top, New York has been called a Yankee baseball town, a Giant football town and a National League baseball town. It has been every bit as much a Knick basketball town too, although not recently.

For all the passion they inspire, the Knicks have a tradition of suffering broken by brief golden eras, like Brigadoon rising from the mist and about as often. Red Holzman brought the first with his teams in the early '70s, Pat Riley the second in the early '90s. A third is not in sight.

The Knicks have been sliding from grace for so many years, amid frenetic day-to-day newsstand competition, it's hard to remember whether it was Thomas who messed this up, or Scott Layden, whom he replaced, or corporate boss James Dolan.

Actually, it goes back to Dave Checketts, the apple-cheeked rising star who revived the franchise by hiring Riley and, after Riley left in 1995, promised to keep it profitable in return for a promotion to president of Madison Square Garden.

Checketts' moves became increasingly desperate until he was replaced in 2001 by Dolan, the son of Cablevision boss Charles Dolan. The franchise then moldered for two years before hiring Thomas, whose daring dovetailed with ownership's disinclination to blow up the roster and watch the building empty.

This led to still-more-desperate moves and last season's 11th-place finish in the East with what looked like $120 million worth of shooting guards and 6-foot-7 power forwards.

However, Thomas is never out of moves. He targeted Brown from the time speculation began that Brown would be out of Detroit, which was before last season even began.

Having done things together that went beyond their wildest dreams, Brown and the Pistons have differing views about who wanted to be rid of whom.

Of course, Brown is always sincere about his reasons for leaving. It's like Darrall Imhoff, the former center who once set a record for fouls and was asked whether he remembered the first one he'd ever committed.

"It wasn't a foul," Imhoff said.

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