There recent success of the New York Knicks can be described in numbers: eight wins in their last nine games through last weekend, 11 out of 13 on the road, 22 out of 27 overall, all reflecting a decidedly bullish trend after the Knicks' dismal first half of the season. Yet for some New York masochists, apparently intent on making a sow's ear out of a silk purse, the Knicks' resurrection from the ashes of December presents an odd problem. "Things were so much easier then," said one fan after a recent 119-97 win over the Atlanta Hawks. "You went to the Garden to boo the Knicks. I'd be going 'Booooo, Hubie Brown,' and the guy behind me would be going 'Booooo Bill Cartwright.' Everybody was united. The Knicks stunk. Now...."
The rapid turnabout has astonished and embarrassed all sorts of would-be experts who were ready to write off New York when its record dropped to 14-26 on Jan. 21. Now the Knicks, 36-31 at week's end, have all but clinched a spot in the upcoming playoffs. Even last Saturday's 96-90 loss to the Washington Bullets hardly diminished their status as the hottest item in the league short of Philadelphia, which before Saturday had been the only team to beat the Knicks since the beginning of March. Sandwiched between those two defeats were eight consecutive wins, seven of them against clubs with winning records. The New Yorkers also had six straight victories on the road and since Christmas hadn't lost any game in which they had scored 100 or more points. "We're not blowin' any smoke about what we're doing," says Brown, who's in his first season as coach of the Knickerbockers. "It's an old story—good things come to those who work hard."
A few months ago, however, hard work was paying off only in hard knocks. Despite the fresh presence of Brown, a confirmed workaholic who had guided winning teams in Kentucky (ABA) and Atlanta by emphasizing defense, the Knicks began by making last year's 33-49 performance, worst in the Atlantic Division, look like That Championship Season.
For starters they lost their first seven games. Much of that time was spent playing Getting to Know You. Only four of 12 Knicks had been with the team in 1981-82. Three of them—Forward Bernard King, acquired in a trade with Golden State, free agent Louis Orr and first-round draft choice Trent Tucker—had joined New York after training camp had begun. Like everyone else, the three had difficulty mastering Brown's complicated system, which on defense employs a series of traps and switches that has held opponents to a league-low 97.6 points per game.
On offense, though. Brown's plan for the Knicks appeared to be "Don't shoot." Only seven times in their first 20 games did the Knicks score 100 or more points, which often meant that New York's defense would manage to keep things just close enough for the offense to come up wanting at the end. Ten times the Knicks lost games in which they were ahead or tied entering the final minute of play. Five of those losses came on last-second shots.
"But people didn't want to talk about that," Brown says. "The thing you have to do is stick to what you're doing and not get depressed. I built winners in two places by using this system, and I haven't changed a play. The style has worked in the pros for years. The important thing is to have the players believing in it."
Atrocious record and all, the Knicks somehow hung together and on Jan. 14 faced the Hawks in Atlanta. Two injuries that occurred in that game have ironically provided the two biggest keys to New York's eventual turnaround. At the time, of course, the losses of King, who severely sprained his right ankle and would miss 14 games, and Guard Edmund Sherod, who was kneed in the groin by the Hawks' Eddie Johnson, seemed a disaster. King, the Knicks' leading scorer in each of the previous 18 games, was as much of an offense as New York could muster, and Sherod, an untouted play-maker from Virginia Commonwealth, had been one of Brown's favorites from the beginning of the season.
That was partly because Sherod, not especially quick or overpowering on offense, was at least smart enough to follow the instructions bellowed in no uncertain terms by Brown from the sidelines. "Give the ball to King" was the most frequent command. As a result, the Knicks performed like so many programmed home computers out on the floor.
Sherod's injury, which cynics suggest makes Atlanta's Johnson the most valuable Knick, forced Brown to give more playing time to Paul Westphal, who had been in and out of the coach's doghouse. If he didn't actually improvise more, Westphal at least provided a backcourt threat on offense that had been needed even before King was hurt.
Also because of the injuries, other changes had to be made. One was that the Knicks were forced to run plays through more than one or two options—something they have continued to do even after King's return. The second was that new offensive options had to be found. And the third was the development of the Knicks' bench. Led by Guard Rory Sparrow and Forward Sly Williams, the second team plays a quicker, more frenetic game than the starters do and has suddenly become no less than devastating. Last week in four games the New York's Not Ready for Prime Time Players outscored the opposition's subs 171-109.
Cartwright has been the main beneficiary of the search during King's absence for a new offensive mainstay. Before King's injury, the much maligned Mr. Bill had averaged only 12.9 points per game and had inspired, or uninspired, a whole new series of nicknames in the New York press: impossi-Bill, improba-Bill, invisi-Bill. Since Atlanta, however, the 7'1" Cartwright has not only been scoring—20.1 points in the last 31 games through Sunday—but also rebounding, blocking shots and mixing it up effectively inside with heavyweights like New Jersey's Darryl Dawkins and Buck Williams and Washington's Jeff Ruland and Rick Mahorn.
Cartwright has taken success in stride. "It's really strange," he says. "Ever since I've been in New York I've either been great or horrible. There's been no middle ground. It appears to me that I'm doing the same things I've always done; it's just that it's a different situation now that we're winning.
"I just think it's been easy to blame me for any underlying reasons why the team has not done well. For example, the big thing was that I had to learn how to block shots. Now, someone like Kareem is considered an intimidator. He blocks two shots a game, I get one point eight; and he's great and I'm mediocre. It's just how you look at it."
During the Knicks' hot streak, Cartwright has become a power down low on offense, often forcing the opposition's center into early foul trouble with moves that Brown says have elevated Cartwright's good-looking but sometimes infuriating fadeaway jumper to "a third option now."
Unlike Cartwright, Westphal doesn't pretend he's the same player who four seasons ago with Phoenix averaged 24.0 points per game. That earlier version of Westphal would not have been able to function in the team-oriented structure that has triggered the Knicks' success. "When you're younger you tend to worry more about things such as statistics and individual achievements," Westphal says. "Later you tend to see that things like winning and picking up the check on a regular basis are more important." Assistant Coach Mike Fratello adds, "Paul's been a dream to work with all season. Some guys who have been around a number of years wouldn't put out like he has or might have jumped ship when we were going bad, but the entire time he was the one telling everybody else, 'Hey, we're going to be all right.' "
At the start of the season it seemed that Westphal's next check might be coming from his medical insurance plan. Hobbled by a stress fracture in his right foot, Westphal had sat out the previous 13 months before joining the Knicks for the final 18 games of last season. After Brown was named coach, speculation was that the two might not get along and that Westphal might be sent packing along with Maurice Lucas and Michael Ray Richardson.
Although Brown has a tendency to roll his eyes and flap his arms at the sight of an errant Westphal pass, there apparently was never any serious problem between the two men. "There was one point in training camp when Westphal was nursing a bruised thigh and Mike Newlin had a bad back," says a Knick insider. "I was sitting on the bench with the team doctor when Hubie came by and pointed to Newlin [who was later cut] and said, 'Don't worry about him, Doc, but I really need Paul.' "
Never noted for his quickness, Westphal suffered more than a couple of early season defensive embarrassments that led to speculation he might be finished as a player. Says Westphal, "Even I had started to think that maybe I was getting old." Nevertheless, he has added diversity if not outright improvisation to the Knicks. "I decided that I was going to go out there and try some things, make the pass even if it wasn't exactly what Hubie wanted. I mean, everybody else was hurt so I knew he wasn't going to take me out."
With the playoffs on the horizon, no one is predicting the Knicks can knock off Boston or Philadelphia, but merely suiting up beats what they were doing at the same time last year. Besides, it will give all those New York fans a little more time to decide what to do, now that they can't boo.