Commentary

Win here, Melo, and be an immortal

Just ask Adam Graves: There's nothing like ending a title drought in New York

Updated: July 1, 2014, 8:15 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

Carmelo Anthony has started his tour of America, or at least his tour of American markets in need of a high-scoring forward, and he will enjoy every precious minute of it. Hey, we all want to be wanted. We all love to be loved.

The Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers have so much to offer him, including star players on their rosters and owners who have won NBA championships. The New York Knicks? They offer familiarity, Phil Jackson, and tens of millions in additional income.

[+] EnlargeAdam Graves
Brian Winkler/Getty ImagesAdam Graves and the 1994 Rangers will be kings of New York, forever.

But along with everything else, the Knicks can provide Anthony a unique opportunity. They haven't won a title since 1973, and deep down Anthony knows that's a pro instead of a con. Someone, at some point, will end this biblical basketball drought in New York, and that man will be lionized forever.

If Anthony re-signs with the Knicks, there's no guarantee he'll end up as the next Walt Frazier or Willis Reed. Of course, there's no guarantee he won't end up as that figure, either.

That would be a hell of a possibility to walk away from at age 30, in the heart of an athlete's prime. Since the close of the '73 basketball and hockey seasons at Madison Square Garden, 81 Knicks and Rangers teams have attempted to win a championship (a canceled NHL season wiped out the 2005 Rangers), and 80 of them have failed. The 1994 Rangers represent the exception, the team with enough fortitude to end the franchise's 54-year drought.

Not yet born when the Knicks last won it all, Anthony was 10 and only two years separated from his move from Brooklyn to Baltimore when the Rangers completed their magical run. He remembers. Everyone remembers. The Rangers won their Game 7 against Vancouver eight nights before the Knicks lost their Game 7 against Houston, with the white Bronco carrying O.J. Simpson speeding through the madness of it all.

The leading goal scorer on that Rangers team was Adam Graves, who set a single-season franchise record with 52. "We were all pulling for the Knicks back then," Graves recalled by phone. "We had our own dressing rooms, but we'd run into them in the training room and in our common spaces. If we weren't playing that night, we were watching them. I think if you asked any Rangers or Knicks players, they'd all say there was a palpable energy among the teams pulling for each other to win a championship."

Twenty years later, the Rangers are the Garden tenants who are a whole lot closer to another title. They just lost in the Stanley Cup finals after the Knicks failed to reach the playoffs. Henrik Lundqvist is in better parade position than Carmelo Anthony, assuming Anthony stays.

Only Jackson is running basketball operations now, and he appears to be active and engaged and less inclined to be that distant figure on a California beach -- counting Jim Dolan's millions and sunning with fiancée Jeanie Buss -- than some Knicks people feared he would be. The rookie team president has already improved the roster (if slightly) through a trade and the draft, and there will be enough salary-cap space next summer to sign a second star.

By the time Jackson has his team ready to contend, if that time ever comes, Anthony might not stand as the team's centerpiece, as the Mark Messier of the Knicks. He might have to be a Mike Richter, or a Brian Leetch, or an Adam Graves -- a big-time player who would certainly qualify for the first float in the parade, but who would belong a half body's length behind the not-yet-acquired Mr. Big Shot.

And that's OK. Just as Knicks fans never forgot Amar'e Stoudemire's commitment in 2010, despite all of his physical breakdowns since, those fans would never forget that Anthony stayed in 2014 when he could've bolted for a team with better postseason odds. Melo would get his due.

Graves, a Rangers team official, is among the few people around the Garden who know what Anthony would feel. Derek Jeter and Eli Manning have delivered a combined seven parades since the last Garden team proved ticker-tape worthy, and Graves will never forget the ride before the ride through the Canyon of Heroes, his morning commute from White Plains with his wife.

"We took a Metro-North train, and I didn't think much of it," Graves said of the day of the '94 parade. "We just wanted to avoid the traffic, and within two stops that's when it first really hit me, just how much this meant to everyone. Our car and the two cars bookending us were suddenly full of fans in Broadway blue, and they were singing and chanting and telling stories about what it meant to them and their parents. It was the best ride I ever had."

Graves had won a Stanley Cup with Messier in Edmonton in 1990, and he recalled his parents drinking from the Cup in the visitors dressing room inside Boston Garden. But the Edmonton celebration was nothing like what he'd experience in New York, where an estimated 1.5 million people gathered to honor the first Rangers' title since 1940.

"I'd seen other parades in black and white from a long time ago, like in the movies," Graves said. "But to be right there and see everything in color, all that ticker tape coming down on you, it was like, 'Where is this all coming from?' It was an unbelievable moment."

In so many ways it was Messier's Cup, his sixth and final. He guaranteed victory in the sixth game of the Eastern Conference finals against New Jersey, the Devils up 3-2 in the series, and he scored a hat trick in the third period, adding a little Joe Willie Namath to a legend that didn't need to be enhanced.

But the other Rangers stars still bask in their own glory. The third-leading goal scorer in franchise history, Graves had his No. 9 retired and lifted to the Garden rafters to join the numbers belonging to Messier (11), Richter (35), and Leetch (2). Nobody from that team will ever again be allowed to pay for a meal or a bar tab in the five boroughs.

"We overcame a lot of hurdles and defeat and adversity along the way," Graves said. "We missed the playoffs in '93. We were down 3-2 in the series with the Devils in '94. We were up 3-1 on Vancouver in the final and they forced a Game 7. It took everything we had to just get by, but nothing worth attaining is ever easy."

Jackson and Derek Fisher, the Knicks' new coach, might make that claim part of their final pitch once Anthony is through with his free-agent tour. They shouldn't bother trying to stuff the 41-year drought in the closet; they should use it as a selling point. Graves might not be a bad Garden employee to have in the room when they do.

"When we won," he said, "we won for generations of people, from grandchildren to grandparents. We were fortunate enough to celebrate it with the city as a much bigger family than just the organization and the players, and there's no bigger stage to experience that than New York and the Garden.

"I'm still a big fan of the Knicks, and I'd love to see Carmelo stay. He's definitely a more skilled player than I was. I was more of a grinder, more of a product of playing with [Leetch] and Messier. Carmelo is a much more talented man."

Despite those talents, Melo might end up as Patrick Ewing, a Knicks great with no parade to call his own. But then again, he might not.

In the end, Anthony would leave behind a lot if he signs in Chicago or elsewhere -- the money, Phil, the Garden, the comforts of home. But he'd also leave behind the drought, and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to end it in the city of cities the way the Rangers did in 1994.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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