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Mark Heisler/ON THE NBA

It's That Old Brown Magic

January 15, 2006|Mark Heisler

There's a new sheriff in New York and his name is ...

George Steinbrenner? No way. It's true he built the Yankees into the last great dynasty, but they won their last championship in 2000. In Gotham, that's a long time ago.

Eli Manning?

It was all Eli, all the time for a while, but the Giants' loss in the first round of the playoffs, in which the second-year quarterback threw three passes for interceptions, did wonders for everyone's perspective.

Surely not Larry Brown?

As Marv Albert, the beloved but banished Knick announcer, used to say, "Yes!"

Things change fast in New York. Two weeks ago the Knicks were 7-21 and Brown called a 10 a.m. practice for New Year's Day, then sent Jerome James home for "not being prepared to practice."

The Knicks were obviously in a bad mood because James has never been prepared to play, which didn't stop them from giving him a five-year, $29-million deal.

Showing that lots of people were grumpy, Brown was then blasted for not personally notifying Trevor Ariza he was benched.

Wrote the New York Post's Pete Vecsey, "As usual, Larry Brown took care of basketball business by adopting a coward's approach."

Brown called Ariza "delusional," adding, "He heard something pretty specific from me before the game. If he doesn't know, it's because UCLA wasn't a good academic institution."

Actually, Ariza was just passing through during his season at UCLA, but from Brown's perspective, you can't sit down with everybody you demote or you'll never get anything else done.

Take rookie forward David Lee. Brown told him his season was over because he had to go with the veterans.

Lee's season has since begun again. He started the last six games as they went 6-0.

There's nothing like a winning streak with victories over the 26-9 Mavericks and the 20-11 Cavaliers in Cleveland to warm the cockles of even the toughest town, but we've seen Knick fans run around in circles before.

Two seasons ago, when the Knicks returned to the playoffs -- with a 39-43 record, before the New Jersey Nets swept them -- corporate boss James Dolan said they could go "all the way." ESPN the Magazine put newly arrived President Isiah Thomas and his prize acquisition, Stephon Marbury, on the cover, asking, "Can Steph and Isiah save the East?"

If this looks like another mass delusion -- the Knicks still are only 13-21 -- there's a difference this time:

They may actually be close to something.

Two years ago, Thomas took over an old, small team with a $93-million payroll, allowed himself to be sucked into trying to rebuild on the fly and wound up with a young, small team and a $130-million payroll.

However, a lot happened before this season, starting when Thomas drafted Channing Frye at No. 8, traded for Nate Robinson, who was the Phoenix Suns' pick at 21, and got Lee at No. 30.

After putting interim coach Herb Williams and everyone else on hold for months, Thomas landed Brown, who needed that long to get out of Detroit.

For the maraschino cherry atop the Knicks' sundae, the Bulls donated Eddy Curry, only too aware of his limitations (effort, conditioning) and so leery of his heart condition, they sent him to an East rival. The Bulls got Michael Sweetney, who was just as round as Curry but only 6 feet 7 and has been benched, and Tim Thomas, who was so much trouble, they're paying him his $14-million salary to sit at home until his contract runs out.

Suddenly the Knicks were big and young but still clueless, starting with Marbury, who hated being yelled at, which is what Brown does, and pouted.

Marbury is averaging 23 points and 9.4 assists in the streak and he and Brown are now pals, but if the Knicks could have found anyone to take him and the last three years at $57 million of his contract, he'd have been gone by Thanksgiving.

The organization writhed through two months of daily-crisis coverage. PR whizzes under Dave Checketts, the Knicks have turned so corporate, Dolan once claimed one of his lame teams compared favorably to the strife-torn 1999 Knicks, who made the Finals under Jeff Van Gundy, because it was so harmonious.

By the same logic, the Knicks dumped Albert for his candor. It was one of Gotham's conceits that its sophisticated fans demanded hard-hitting announcers such as Albert and Walt Frazier, but Dolan ended all that.

Brown had to sit for daily sensitivity sessions before talking to the media. The preferred answer was, "That's in the past. We're moving on, united in our commitment to bringing the world's greatest fans a championship." Of course, Brown then went out and said what was on his mind, as always.

Finally, Brown hit on an unlikely combination: Marbury and the brash, 5-9 Robinson at guard; Lee, a power forward playing small forward alongside Antonio Davis and Curry up front, with Frye and Jamal Crawford bringing firepower off the bench.

Or maybe Brown just drew them out of a hat, but there's a reason people put up with his mishigas (Yiddish for, uh, eccentricity.) He's still the Wizard of Wherever.

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