If it isn't enough that the New York Knicks' Bill Cartwright and Truck Robinson have suffered broken feet, Bernard King a bruised shin and a pulled groin muscle and a sprained ankle. Butch Carter a sprained ankle, Marvin Webster acute hepatitis, James Bailey a sprained ankle, Trent Tucker bruised ribs, Rory Sparrow a hip pointer, Eddie Wilkins a sprained ankle and Ernie Grunfeld a bruised knee, Dave DeBusschere had a toothache. A bad toothache.
"I've been taking Anbesol," said DeBusschere, the Knicks' executive vice-president, in his office last week, "but it has this sour taste that goes right down to my stomach."
Sour is also an appropriate description of the Knicks' season, for which there was once great hope. New York had taken eventual NBA champion Boston to seven games in last spring's Eastern Conference semifinals. But as of Sunday, the Knicks—as in nix, as in no, as in negative—were 20-41 and 27½ games out of the Atlantic Division lead. Their year has become The Debacle on 33rd Street.
A Knicks low-light film might show them losing by a point to the Lakers in L.A. on Feb. 1 or breaking the Golden State Warriors' 16-game losing streak with a 16-point defeat on Feb. 2, then cut to the final moments of their two-point defeat in Philadelphia on Feb. 13. One might edit in Cartwright, the starting center, ostensibly on his way to recovering from a stress fracture of his left foot, pivoting for a hook shot during a practice on Nov. 9—and recracking the same bone. And Bailey, Cartwright's replacement, passing out at a workout on Oct. 29. "Eve been in pro ball since 1962," DeBusschere says, "and Eve never seen circumstances like these."
The circumstances include the losses of Cartwright and Webster (his backup) for the season and Robinson (a starting power forward) for all but two games of it. All told, injuries have cost New York 228 player-games. But, DeBusschere admits, some personnel decisions have been just as injurious.
Last week the Knicks, who only two years ago gave the Kansas City Kings $900,000 and a first-round pick for guard Ray Williams, were forced to let Williams go to the Celtics for two No. 2 draft choices. Coach Hubie Brown had insisted all along that Williams, a free agent, didn't fit into the team's plans. Still, New York might have left room under the salary cap to match an offer like the Celtics' $125,000 bid and then deal Williams for someone it did want.
Of course, the Knicks wouldn't have been at the salary cap if they hadn't sunk $212,000 into Bailey, who's been a disappointment; or let Sparrow entertain a $500,000 offer sheet after the 1982-83 season, when he could have been signed earlier for about half of that; or given forward Pat Cummings, a free agent from Dallas, $3 million over five years.
Thanks to the largess of Gulf + Western, the conglomerate that owns the team, the Knicks are viewed around the league as high rollers who drive everyone else's costs up. Golden State owner Franklin Mieuli ripped them in 1982 after they made King a $4.4 million, five-year offer that the Warriors couldn't hope to match. New York's unsuccessful courting of Boston's Kevin McHale in 1983 and Portland's Jim Paxson in 1984 inflated the contracts both eventually signed with their original clubs. And. by promptly signing Darrell Walker, their top draft choice in 1983, to a spendthrift $230,000-a-year deal, the Knicks precipitated impasses in contract talks between many of the 11 players taken ahead of Walker and the clubs that chose them. "They're arrogant," says one team executive. "They act like money isn't an issue, when it is to every other team."
Counters DeBusschere: "I can't worry about what everyone else thinks of us. We're playing within the rules. We're trying to build a franchise. I can be criticized for certain moves, but we've done some good things, too. It's only fair to mention them."
From the Knicks' point of view, the primary good thing was the October 1982 acquisition of King, in exchange for guard Micheal Ray Richardson. Win or lose. King gets his points—32.7 a game, far and away the most in the league. Meanwhile, Cummings has played well at starting power forward, and Walker is slowly improving at point guard, taking the late shots that Williams used to and sinking his share. He has won two games with buzzer jobs.
Brown, for his part, is squeezing the maximum from his team. "They're like alley fighters," said Los Angeles coach Pat Riley after the Lakers struggled to beat the Knicks 119-114 on Feb. 24. "Hubie's done a great, great job." Brown alternates encouragement with chastisement, putting his players in an effective trap press and, sometimes, in his doghouse, which has been described as a duplex. "The good thing about doghouses," explains Grunfeld, a reserve swingman, "is that when one guy goes in, another guy usually comes out. He gives you a chance to show what you can do."
But, just as in Atlanta, Brown is having his differences with the front office. Says one player agent, "The internal fighting between Hubie and Dave is to a point where they don't even talk. The buck has to stop somewhere, but neither I nor anyone else knows where."
DeBusschere denies any rift. "My hand to God," he says, "we're not like little kids carrying grudges. I get so paranoid reading the papers. I get battered enough. And these guys are busting their humps. Hubie's doing a hell of a job."
In fact, one of the very first things DeBusschere did after taking over in 1982 was to accommodate Brown, who had been appointed head coach the same day. He traded Maurice Lucas to Phoenix for Robinson, because Brown and Lucas had a personality conflict dating back to the ABA. "If you're going to have a problem, you can either nip it in the bud or let it become a cancer," DeBusschere says. But while Lucas thrived with the Suns, Robinson played erratically, even pouting and wondering aloud why, with all due respect to this guy King, the offense didn't revolve more around himself. Instead of a cancer, Brown and DeBusschere had the plague.
Robinson is one of eight players whose contracts expire at the end of this season, thus freeing up some $2 million of New York's payroll and giving the front office more flexibility. But, among the currently hale Knicks, next year isn't yet a consideration. "Just because we're not winning doesn't mean we're going to stop going the route," says Knick forward Louis (Gandhi) Orr, the wraithlike reserve. "We still have a chance at the playoffs."
The Mahatma is correct, thanks to the league's open-admissions playoff policy, which permits all but the seven sorriest teams to participate in postseason play. The Knicks are 5½ games behind Atlanta in the race for the last playoff berth in the East. If they don't qualify, they enter the lottery for the college draft and a shot at Patrick Ewing, the Georgetown center who's certain to be picked No. 1. It's hard to believe a team as chronically snakebit as New York could land the big prize.
"Hey Hubie!" yelled a fan at courtside last week during a 129-122 win over San Antonio at Madison Square Garden. "Put Ray-Ray in!"
"You're the same [discourteous gentleman] who was telling me to take him out during the playoffs last year," Brown shot back.
Bless the Knicks. They're learning to live with injuries. But if their coach gets laryngitis, it's curtains.