East future belongs to King James
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

Christmas Day is the start of the NBA season for me. As for Dog, he's been out on the shake-down cruise since November, already locked in, poring over the boxes, kissing off the Nets and calling Frank Williams "do-do," which as it turns out he isn't. I don't approve of all his rants, but I understand. When, on your personal Sistine Chapel of Hoop, the guy lying supine about to get touched by the hand of God is Clyde Frazier, everybody's do-do.

At first.

Myself, personally, I bide my time, check it all out with my left, unjaded eye while going about my football business, catching a game live every once in awhile and, like the rest of you, assuming the obvious, that the Western Conference is Goliath and the East is just a bunch of would-be Davids -- including the One In Particular.

We assumed this position as we settled into our courtside seats on Christmas Day past at the run in Orlando, between writers Cal Fussman and Bran Wright on one side, and the Nike/Griffey party on the other. We began at the beginning, with the Alpha and Omega.

In the immortal words of Woody Woodpecker: Guess who?

LeBron James
Don't look now, but the Eastern Conference will soon belong to King James.

By Christmas Day, the Cleveland Cavaliers had shed Ricky Davis, sending him and 7-0 Chris Mihm to Boston (Mihm must be the key to the deal, from Boston's perspective, one hopes; either that or it's a peculiar form of charity) for Eric Williams, a serviceable pro, 6-10 Tony Battie, good for length and will at least stick his nose in there, and Bad Bad Kedrick Brown, a second-rotation 2, best-case.

What they had really traded for was the basketball intellectual freedom of LeBron James. Since the trade, the Cavs had won two on the road for the first time in a year, and three straight overall. LeBron had averaged 27.8 points for the previous eight, including 14-of-24 from the field for 36 points, 4 rips, 5 dimes, 4 picks and 4 turns in a 88-81 win over the Sixers in Philly, followed by 11-of-22 for 32, 6, 10, 2, 2 and 4 turns in a 95-87 road win over the Bulls. LeBron's Nike kicks debuted No. 3 all-time in the history of Nike, behind Jordans and Air Force Ones -- a deceiving stat, as most are. Can't think of many shoes Nike "launched." Nike will do fine judging from the goofy, beatific smile on exec Lynn Merritt's face. His teenaged son and daughter sat between us and the Griffeys.

Merritt said Junior Griffey played host to LeBron for Christmas Eve dinner. I asked Junior how dinner went. Junior looked oddly polexaed and said, "What dinner?" I sighed and went back to work.

Nike may need to re-think lumping clients together. So far nothing really negative has rubbed off on the Big LeBronski. Perhaps the hope of Nike, not to mention the Cavs, is that it will be the other way around: LeBron's admirable but rare combination of athletic purity and humility will rub off on his world instead of the world rubbing off on him. Good luck. Junior could use a little LeBron.

As a high schooler, LeBron hung out with Ricky Davis and Darius Miles last season, and this season has watched Davis' younger brother play high school games in the Cleveland area. LeBron genuinely liked and admired and looked up Ricky Davis. How could he not? In the first place, Ricky Davis can see. Can really stick it. Got a gun. LeBron, above you and me, sees this. Thus, he bent over backward for Ricky Davis, making sure that he, LeBron, wouldn't intrude on Ricky's game, to the point of a now-famous highlight vs. the Sacto Kings, in the King James World Premiere game, when LeBron, out front on a breakout, caught Davis in his peripheral V and left the ball there for Davis for a twisto-rama dunk.

People said this showed how unselfish LeBron was, and I guess it did, I know it did, but it also impinged on his true genius -- the same genius Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and Michael Jordan possessed. The genius of basketball is what is the quickest, fastest methodology to get the ball closest to and into the basket, given the oppositional data, and then, what is the best way, if possible, to impede the opposition from doing same. Davis did not have such genius/vision, for all of his vertical scoring abilities. Thus, part of LeBron's genius had to become impure, not part of the game of hoop, but the game of handling the people in hoop.

There's a difference.

Paul Silas knows he's on a mission, like a light colonel in infantry calvary; with a responsibility to himself, LeBron, the Cavs, to the future of the game itself. He also knows, I'd imagine quite well, that he might not be there to see the fruition of the groundwork he now lays. He can't show LeBron what to do, only what not to do. Imagine being Mozart's piano teacher, for example. And Silas had not gotten along that well with Ricky Davis anyway, going all the way back to their days in Charlotte. The day after Thanksgiving, in a pivotal game as far as Davis' future with the Cavs was concerned, Rip Hamilton of the Pistons dropped 40 on him. It was the way he did it. You got the feeling, even though he has more physical ability that Rip Head Ham, that he would never beat him. Davis was out. (In that same game, LeBron could've had 16 assists easy, but his inspired dimes kept hitting the Cavs in bad places like in the hands, the stomach and right between the eyes.)

LeBron James
It won't be long before LeBron and the Cavs soar to the top of the East.

Now waiting for the backup truck is 7-2 Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and 6-10 Darius Miles, defensive liabilities both. Owner Gordon Gund would prefer not to move Z, according to Bran Wright, the Plain D Cavs' beat writer, another one of my proteges. Suddenly I feel wise. These younger guys, the Fussmans, the Brans, they're getting better all the time, and having met them, I can take credit for their successes and disavow all knowledge of their failures. Plus they often act like they respect me, while Dog, my so-called boy, is always and forever looking to bust my chops. Be-atch.

At any rate, Gund feels that Z was an All-Star, last season, and that he could've taken a powder with many, many millions of dollars after his foot broke up and betrayed him -- some baseball and basketball players do it. This is part of the trick to it, running a club, figuring out who has the character and will to fight through these things and who doesn't. The lessons are expensive. Z came back and does try, especially if the Cavs feed him, crossing in the post. But that slows the game down, like thirty-odd-year-old Kareem slowed the game down when Magic first came in. It ain't personal. At least Kareem could go block a shot, have some defensive influence. This is not the case with big Z. So Silas has little use for him. He's done. Silas likes Carlos Boozer's implacability; he has certain limitations, but at least you will get the limit from him every night. Boozer's a walking 12 and 10, and you can always use that, especially at the bargain rate of under 600K a year. Somebody throw this guy a parade.

Silas really likes young DeSagana Diop, for his physical abilities, and deep down because Diop reminds Silas of a young Silas. It is human to feel this way; as long as it's not hurting the team there is no harm in indulging it. Another coach might come in and get rid of Diop, but probably not after Paul Silas is finished refining him. It's a challenge for Silas.

I don't know if I would've traded Eric Williams if I were the Boston Celtics (which, as I'm sure they will be glad to point out, I most certainly am not), except maybe he is best suited as a 3, and in Boston, 3 is the domain of Emperor Paul-us Pierce-us. Williams can play 3 in Cleveland, or, better, he can guard 3s. Meanwhile, we admit we don't quite know what the Celtics are doing, but you can always click on the Sports Guy for that. We are willing to give Ainge & Co. the benefit of the doubt -- which is more than some in the organization were willing to give Vinny Baker. Cruelty is its own reward, I suppose. I know I indulge, but only occasionally.

* * * * *

We will today discuss the entire Eastern Conference, the prospects of the teams for this season and their futures, and that's the reason we're leading off with LeBron, and it ain't got nothing to do with hype or sneakers. This is pure raw ball. Cleveland has the Future in hand; it has the one true David, and nobody else does. It's just a matter of time. There's nothing any team in the East can do about it but batten down the hatches, shore up best we can, hope for a break here and there, a year or two we might steal in the next 10, or 15, generally postpone the inevitable as long as possible.

LeBron was balling at the top of the world with Tracy McGrady on this particular Christmas Day. He had 20 by halftime, including 5-of-7 from deep, with 6-11 guys like Drew Gooden flying at him. Can't go out there by yourself and hit 5-of-7 NBA 3s. I'd heard Greg Anthony and Bill Laimbeer talking on ESPN, with Laimbeer saying the low scores are a result of guys not being able to shoot, and Anthony saying nobody can shoot with a 6-11 guy flying at him and another guy having a hand in his face. At which point Dog turned and said, "Dub, when these young boys on Coney Island be trippin', talkin' 'bout how they'll clean Sebastian's clock and bust a move right up into this piece, in my league, I don't say, 'You don't shoot good enough.' I say, 'You can't even get a shot off in my league. Can't even get a shot out of your hand."

LeBron James
Without Ricky Davis, LeBron will have more freedom to run the Cavs his way.

(LBJ has studied Laimbeer on tape -- his shot, not his broadcasting style -- and pointed out to Silas angles of that cute little jab-step Laim used to balance up for his deep setter. Bet you Ricky Davis never studied that. Bet you Ricky never even bothered to look.)

LeBron shot lights out in the first half. Pure. "Like night and day," is the way Silas has described his shooting, since the shedding of Ricky Davis. Watching him is amazing -- in all facets, amazing. He will not shoot like this every night, not yet knowing how the vagaries and variables of playing 82 games in over 30 different gyms across four time zones will burn your synapses and biomechanics. But eventually, quite soon, he will shoot that way when it counts, i.e., in the playoffs. Will the Cavs make it? Will say this one time: Wait 'til next year. After that, light the signal fires, pilgrims ...

By the good teams, every good look is contested, if the D knows you can shoot it beforehand. But LeBron, not yet 19, was dropping bombs in over everybody. Once on the left base, T-Mac decided he was going to grab the boy-king's J. LeBron pump-faked. T-Mac didn't bite. Now it was skill on skill. A hop-fest. Either you relent and pass, rook, or put it up jump-ball style and I grab it. You could read this in the look on T-Mac's face. I have seen him grab Kobe's full-extension jumper. McGrady is 6-8 with a 50-inch sleeve drop and a 40-plus inch vert. You do the math, pilgrims. LeBron shot it up in a sub-orbital trajectory to get it off. Whop! Buckets.

All McGrady could do was smile and shake his head on the way back down and try to get some off himself, which he ended up doing, with 41 points, 11 boards and eight dimes. Cal Fussman of Chapel Hill -- good guy to watch a game with, by the way -- said this was the best game he'd seen all year. It was, until T-Mac was the one who relented, gave in. He raked him. Raked LeBron across his face. Advertently, inadvertently, what does it matter? McGrady raked the s--- out of him, after LeBron did a Pearl Vision spin at full speed in the open court, around Tyronn Lue, who, against anybody else seems quick. LeBron was blinded by the slap, which came as he was on his way up and T-Mac was on the floor nearly under the basket. T-Mac had no play on the kid. So he raked. CYO move. Redoubtable T-Mac, reduced to this, by an 18-year-old!

Magic coach Johnny Davis shook his head. "Unique. Sensational. Poised. Polished. Confident. Already!" Davis said. "Both the hip-hoppers and purists have something to watch for the next I don't know how long. At least we have somebody who can stave him off." T-Mac, the Kwisatch Shaderac, reduced to stave-r-off-er.

LeBron didn't score against after that, finishing with 34-2-6-2 and and an unseemly 8 turns as the Cavs lost in OT, 111-103. Reality was not lost on T-Mac, who said, "This will be his league one day ... it's gonna be ugly," Presumably he meant for everybody else.

Silas didn't offer much sympathy on the rake job. LeBron might pick up on any sympathy. There ain't no pity in the Naked City. That's life. Par. Jerry West got his nose broken nine times. Urban legend says he had it broken 14 times, but the Logo says it's nine, and it was his beak. "He said he had a headache, or something," Silas said dismissively. "Without him at the end, we have no chance." "No, that wasn't a factor," LeBron said later, trying to blink away the double-vision and the headache the slap had given him. No excuses. It was a lie, but a regal lie, a lie befitting the future King, a lie he had to come to Orlando to learn how to tell.

* * * * *

LeBron already had bought a house in Bath, Ohio, the ritzy southern suburb between Cleveland and Akron. He bought his Mom one too, nearby. Clevelanders, although sort of pleased with developments, don't know quite know what to make of it all, don't yet realize that their long-forgotten Cavs have become the Chicago Bulls, and the Chicago Bulls have become the Cavs. Jim Paxson, Gund and Silas will work out the details.

LeBron James
Just wait until the King is no longer a teenager.

D-Miles was out of the locker room fast, being a DNP-CD. He co-stars in "Perfect Score," upcoming comedy about high schoolers trying to cheat the SAT. What's stopping him from aceing the NBA SAT is he has no absolutely idea on defense. He never had any training at it, seems to have no instinct for it. He follows the ball, and can be regularly fooled by it. He is a very likeable kid, though, and he and LeBron are pretty tight. I like him, and love that length. If he weighed 60 more pounds, Silas might not give up on him so easily. But he's probably gone too. Dahmn! So. When Dajuan Wagner comes back, the Cavs will have the stand-still shooter at 2, looking and sticking it much like Norm Nixon or Byron Scott did with the old Lakes, alongside Magic, or even like Craig Hodges, John Paxson and Steve Kerr looked with the Bulls, when they got all those wide-open looks because Jordan with the ball demanded the double-team. LeBron already demands it. The Magic didn't even screw around in overtime on Christmas past. Screw that, we're doubling you as soon as you put it on the floor.

D-Wags didn't re-hab worth crap after surgery, being nothing but a kid himself, not having the vision to see the whole deal. LeBron is not the norm, vision-wise, in the NBA, or anywhere. But if he can influence a new generation ... Wagner does have enough sense of the game to say, "With those eyes (meaning court vision), he'll be finding me," about LeBron. The Cavs are also looking for mobile size, and a 3 who can score and play D. Who isn't?

* * * * *

The real key to the Christmas Day game, and the Orlando Magic season, was Rod Strickland. Magic GM John Gabriel should be thanking his lucky stars for Strick, picked up off the street after the Magic lost 19 straight, T-Mac or not. Strick buys Gabe a little time. Even at his advanced age, Strick is a proper point -- he can feed and set up the other players, he can get into the lane, can penetrate, can finish if the other defenders stay at home, and you can't effectively press his handle more than once or twice a game even now; never picks up his dribble until he wants to or until the defense over-commits. He will play a lane and get a steal or two per game. So the Magic was no longer an embarrassment to the game, for a little while. They won seven of 12 after Strick arrived, but since he is now eligible for Medicaid and Social Security, he'd be out of gas soon, Davis would have to get Lue back in as starter, and that would be that.

The Strick pickup came too late for Doc Rivers, fired after a 1-10 start. The Magic had released Darrell Armstrong and started the season with Lue as their starting point guard, so their team was all out of balance. Lue is a fair second-rotation point, an interesting specialty player. (Did he make a career and some money or what, by playing with the Lakers and quasi-matching up with Alley I. in the Finals three years back?) But he cannot start if you want to be serious over the long haul. So Magic is another word for ennui.

Tracy McGrady
T-Mac's one-man show isn't enough for the woeful Magic.

People point to the guy with Helter-Skelter eyes, Grant Hill. But even that was the Magic brass' fault. They signed him in a cast in the first place. When I saw Doc in the Orlando airport on his way out to L.A. to be embraced by Al Michaels and ABC, he didn't feel a lack of Hill did him in. It goes back several years to a move made by Gabriel to keep John Amaechi over Ben Wallace, believe it or not. That whole British accent thing can take you a long way in America, even today. It can fool people. Amaechi was a poseur, an imposter, and if you don't believe me, ask Jerry Sloan; he was a lovable, tea-sipping imposter, maybe, but an imposter no less.

Doc Rivers isn't posing. He is a student of the run. I'd rather have him on the broadcasts anyway, and told him so. "Now you get to coach all 30 teams." He smiled. "Especially the Lakers," he said.

ABC will broadcast 12 Laker games over the course of the season. In the first broadcast I caught Christmas night, ABC got a bump over last year, a 3.6 over a 3.5, partly because of the ESPN/LeBron lead-in. Doc was nervous in the intro/setup; once the game started, he put us there. Al Michaels says he'll never let Doc go back to coaching, but even if he does, I suspect the games will still be on; the pleasant surprise-that-shouldn't-be-surprise was how good Al Michaels was on the basketball play-by-play. Hmm. Monday Night Football (where he's a little too strategically opinionated for me), and the one hockey game that mattered above all others, USA vs. USSR, the '80 Olympics, "Do you believe in miracles? ... Yes!" And then to think that I first met Al when he was doing smooth and natural baseball play-by-play for the Giants at Candlestick, way back even before back in the day. Not dating you or anything here, Allie me boy. And, apparently, it doesn't matter anyway, for Al was immediately the best hoop play-by-play broadcaster I'd heard in years. Maybe ever. Knew when to lay-out. Knew when to punch it. Knew his stuff. Beyond professional. Masterful. Maybe it was just by comparison. No offense to Brad Nessler, but ... wait, I'm not supposed to be writing these things. Let's move on.

* * * * *

I'm in the bag for the Knicks. I admit it up front. Like everything in life, good and bad, this is the result of early childhood trauma. It can be written off to that, at least, which alleviates any degree of personal responsibility on my part. Back in 1970, when I was 8 years old (or younger, depending on if you are a man or a good-looking woman), I couldn't watch Game 7. That's how badly I wanted my Knicks to win it. I liked the whole club and the way they played, but it was all about Clyde. Listened to TV broadcast with my back turned; whenever something good happened, which was often, I turned around in time to see Clyde loping back down the court, pointing at somebody. What was it ... 36 points, 18 assists, estimated five steals? What a game! Hasn't been the same since.

And, truthfully, how could it be?

This is brings us to what may be the first positive development in Knicks history since that day 34 years ago, then '73, not counting the drafting of Patrick Ewing, which half the time I don't.

Isiah Thomas
R-Dub says Isiah is exactly what the Doctor ordered for the Knicks.

Isiah Thomas is now the general manager of the Knicks.

Well, now if the Knicks go down, we (I used the term advisedly) go down behind one of the five best 6-foot-and-unders of all time, Cooz, Tiny, Zeke, Alley I., and Jerry "Young Boy" Dover, who I'll tell you about at another time if you're really curious. Isiah's hiring by Jim Dolan, if nothing else, ended the malaise brought on by Scott Layden, architect of the New York Jazz. I can't tell you how bad it's been the last few years watching the Knicks become irrelevant. It wasn't right. This is New York City, home and capital of hoop. It is of a paramount civic psychic import that the New York Knicks be competitive, and for that (and nothing else) we thank Pat Riley and Patrick Ewing. For maintaining. Layden was something else. I'd met his father, Frank Layden. That jolly old elf was running the shop for the Utah Jazz back in B.S. (before Sloan) days. He was overweight and garrulous. The Illy had sent me out to do a piece on him. Dr. Dunkenstein, Darrell Griffith, was in enervating career process of learning to accept the limitations of the whole Salt Lake sitchie. Wasted potential. The bane of pro ball.

Not that Frank Layden pointed this out to me. He instead was very pleasant; he sized me up, and then spun a p.r. dream, a Pagliaccian tale of woe and sadness brought on by his weight. He could hide the warm-up balls and several waived players in his jowls alone. He'd laugh at the joke even though it's not that funny. Deep down inside there was a thin man aching to get out. Deep down inside I thought he was pulling my leg, but I wrote it up that way anyway, because basically I was a naf. I never even noticed the ballboy.

That would have been Scott.

Fast-forward to the new millennium.

Scott Layden grossply overpaid for the likes of second- (or maybe third-) rotation point Howard Eisley, and second- (or third-) rotation 2, or 3, Shandon Anderson. Allan Houston, a real sharpshooter, was signed for a max contract of that type that are most often given to all-court comets like KG, Kobe, Alley I. or T-Mac. Keith Van Horn was brought in. We didn't call them the NY Jazz for nothing.

I'd given up and moved on.

Now here comes Isiah, to much derision, or, as I prefer to call it, whistling in the dark past that graveyard. Everything negative that the general public outside of New York sees about this move, I see as a positive. For those of you who see Doctor Thomas! (as the hero was called by Blacula in the "movie" of the same name) as a mad executive hoop failure -- fail this. A relatively short tenure as assistant veep or whatever with Toronto, seeing the CBA into the ground, coaching the Indiana Pacers until the Bird Man came back off hiatus as, well, I don't know Larry's title, and I do know Donnie Walsh is still in Indy, but I think Larry is Executioner or something like that -- I hope Zeke has learned from trial and error.

In Toronto, other than showing a preference for point guards (at least Mighty Mouse is still in the league), he did OK. The CBA went bankrupt on his watch? Like the CBA was Time-Warner or something. Then the Pacers; now, as to whether Isiah knows how to call for a set, butchers or bench coaches a ballgame, can execute a simple player rotation, is the stuff of your twisted fantasies, not mine. I'm not a naf any more. And I do know this. I know you usually fail before you succeed, truly succeed, succeed with any depth and substance to your success, and not the usual superficial temporal brevity that characterizes much of what we call success these days.

So, all that bitter derision means nothing to me. Nor do I feel inclined to lynch Isiah Thomas for the famous incident back in 1987 when he threw a late-game inbounds pass that Bird Man intercepted and flipped to DJ for a layup to basically win the playoff series, extending Detroit's miseries at Celtic hands. The action occurred afterward, when, again, ballplayers proved not to be statesmen. You know what I mean, don't you. Sure you do. I always felt Isiah Thomas took the hit for the ignorance of Dennis Rodman on this one, but back then people were rather entranced and drawn to the presence of Worm Rodman, he of piercings, hair dye, wedding dressing and kicking cameramen (after looking and making sure they are black) and the obvious, overwhelming and sad self-hatred, and an utterly single-minded willingness to whore himself in any way possible for publicity (not to mention, much more agreeably, to the likes of Madonna and Carm Electra).

Stephon Marbury
Marbury brings some Coney Island flash to the Knicks.

Actually, as I recall, Isiah was wallowing in locker-room misery, and it was actually Rodman who exploded that if Bird Man was black, he'd be just another ballplayer! So there! Now I don't recall if Worm even said just another good ballplayer or not, but knowing Rodman and his limitations, I don't think so. Again, as I recall, the local Boston and national press then took this conjecture to Isiah for rational comment. Instead of saying what he should've said, that Rodman was a fool, he said people did act like he'd come dribbling out of his mom's womb, implying it took work and not pigment to make a ballplayer good as he and Bird Man were.

On that level, the level of play, Rodman had nothing to do with it, and if at this moment you are inclined to defend Rodman as the greatest rebounder in history, and one of the best defenders of all time, then you make my point for me. Rodman is not on the same planet, not in the same universe as Russell and Chamberlain or an Elgin Baylor, for that matter. In the sense of hoop, between Isiah and Bird Man, Dennis Rodman doesn't even exist. He is a mere meteorite -- pretty to look at, briefly, but of not consequence, weight or gravity (or gravitas) in the universe of the Game.

As Bird Man said of Moses Malone in another context, "Eat s---!" And apparently Rodman knew how to start s---, too. Somehow, this has come to be seen as Isiah's great blunder.

It is instructive that, at the time, Bird Man blew it off, saying only, as I recall, "They lost." Which, of course, explains everything. As for Rodman, where has it all left him now? Pathetically submitting to reality (read ridicule) shows, begging for another shot to do the one thing he knows how to do -- put a jock strap on correctly. His game was all hops. Now his legs are gone. Move on, Sad Sack.

Move on to what? GM of the Knicks? Now that would actually be laughable. Then the Knicks would be dead.. No, Rodman is no Isiah, not in any sense, and we all know, deep down inside, not to underestimate Isiah's capabilities in any basketball area.

More disquieting to me was when Isiah, who later overcame the Celtics and played Bird Man to Jordan's Chicago Bulls for a few years until Jordan finally broke through in 1991, slunk off the court without giving Jordan some love or at least a limp handshake or nod after Chicago finally beat Detroit in the Eastern Conference finals to advance to the NBA championship. I always thought that this was a more classic bitch move than what happened in Boston. Although what happened in Boston was related, in the sense that Isiah turned into a spitting whiner whenever he lost. Bird, and Magic, and even Jordan, they understood that as incredible as it seemed, they could lose, because they often played each other. I'll never forget the one year, maybe it was the same year, after the Lakes had beaten the Celtcs, Bird Man was at a loss for words, and finally just said, "Magic's ... the best I've ever seen." Simple.

I wish Isiah had been equally gracious, but ... just make things right for the Knicks, Zeke. Right the ship and all is forgiven. And if it isn't, you won't be able to tell. Paraphrase screenwriter (can you tell my avocation?) David Webb Peoples's "Unforgiven" character, William Munny, responding to being called a baby-killer: " ... I've killed women and children; I've killed everything that walks or crawls ... and I'm here to kill you, Little Bill."

Sub "Eastern Conference" for Little Bill.

Isiah came in and immediately, for some odd reason, the Knicks won four out of five. Isiah said things that I myself felt about how it meant something important to be a Knick. For starters, he meant business, dumping chaff off the roster. C-Spoon should never have been in New York wasting our time and stealing money. Certain guys can't play the outfield for the Yankees. They can play, some, just not in the manner befitting a Yankee. Certain guys can't play guard and forward for the Knicks; if they do it's only as a stop-gap. That's how I see it. I like that Zeke sees it, too. I also liked how he tried to get Eddie Griffin, and (figuratively) slapped the box of popcorn out of Lampe's hand, told him what he was representing.

Mostly, I like how Frank Williams all of a sudden woke up.

I'm sure this was a coincidence. Right?

Actually, the reason I was so high on Frankie in the first place (remember?) was that he'd gone to Peoria Manual High and started four years, beating a team with Antwaan Randle-El at point, Tai Streets at forward and Ron Ely at center and as Mr. Hoop in Illinois. I liked how Frank could handle, get in the lane and do some real business. He didn't seem to be moving fast, yet he seemed to be in control. There were complaints when he was at Illinois that he didn't hustle. Billy Packer said he was dogging it in one TV game. Packer's dissing is my testimonial. Hey, they once said that about me at the Illy. Guy's not a self-starter. It's the perceived pace that confuses. It's not how you look doing it so much as results.

This deceiving pace also reminded me of ... dare I say it? I could not even fix my mouth to say it. Yes, like Ali, Clyde was in me too. But we need for him to be in Frankie. When the McDyess trade came off, through Scott Layden, his one grocery was Frankie Williams. Then Frankie got here and broke his wrist, and also saw how tough it was to have an impact in the league and of course this sobered him quite a bit. Road Dog sees maybe 35 home games a year live at the Garden. He took to calling Frank, "do-do," mostly to bust me. I dropped head. But then here came Isiah, taking the reins and saying what in my mind I had thought (hoped?) could be true; this might be the guy who was the next best thing to Clyde. He's not Clyde, but in that image. Clyde today would be more like a combination of, say, Aaron McKie and LeBronski.

Isiah said "Walt Frazier" out loud. What I like about Zeke is, he's from the West Side of Chicago, and he ain't scared, and if you are, come with him because he won't let you to be scared. Frank started to play. He started to score, a little, in the teens, 14, 18. He started driving and dishing dimes, dropping that little setter of his from deep. Now, you get five and six guys scoring 15 to 18 a game, then you got something New Yorkers can be proud of and relate to and deep down remember. Frankie could hit that deep setter. Got the ball moving. Found people at their spots. Could wind his way into the lane and kick it out. Can't run isos for the Knick scorers, Van Horn or even Houston. That is not their forte, beating guys off the bounce; they can catch, shoot and curl around screens and score, if only somebody can get 'em the rock. This puts Charlie Ward, who, admittedly, should be QBing the 49ers right now, in second rote, and he'd be a beautiful second rote point, if only we could keep him, which we can't, because we're joined at the hip with Eisley.

Well, Isiah gets and takes his shot. Laugh all you want. We'll see.

Isiah Thomas
Maybe Isiah will bring some of that Detroit magic to New York.

Well, I guess we saw already. This is better than a Knick fan's wildest dream. This is one of those where you wake up in the middle of the night damp, wondering if it really happened or did you dream it. Catch a team stuck on hopeless (see, Suns sinking in West), with a high cap number and minimum of two rising stars who will have to get paid (Stoudemire, Swamp Fox Marion), and an ownership/management team that will back up the truck on a superstar in a heartbeat (see "Colangelo"). Presto-changeo, ipso-facto, Knicks get Stephon "Coney Island Jesus" Marbury, for Antonio McDyess (see "inarticulate damaged goods") and Charlie Ward and the popcorn-eater, Lampe. Not only that, Penny Hardaway gets throw into the deal!

That's not Isiah Thomas. That's St. Thomas of Assist-I.

Who cares how much it costs? Who cares about two No. 1 draft picks when there's nobody left in college to draft anyway? LeBron's already out of the barn. Who cares if Howard Eisley is gone? Let him go join the Howard Dean fund-raising committee. We've got Frankie to back up Starbury. ... Who cares how much over the salary cap we'll be? It's like a Rolls Royce -- if you have to ask what it costs, you shouldn't be in the market for that car. So what if the Knicks have to pay three bajiliion dollars in luxury taxes? You think Steinbrenner cares about minor details like that? No he doesn't; he understands that he runs the Yankees in the greatest city in the world, the city that never sleeps, that city that, like any decently spoiled child, wants it now.

Now the Knicks are literally on point in town again. David Stern is happy. I'm happy. Dog is -- actually I'm worried about Dog. After he heard the news, last I saw of him he took off running down the middle of Flatbush Ave, screaming his head off and setting off car alarms. I'm so excited I can hardly type due to the screaming, hyperventilating and Parkinsonian shaking all over. Starbury is the best point to hit town since Clyde.

In other woids ... we're ba-aaack. Heh-heh-heh.

Well, frankly, there's nothing else to say, but we'll say it anyway. Capice?

* * * * *

My bud and collegue Shake-N-Bake went out of his way to let me know that Larry Brown told him Darko Milicic is garbage. A waste of time. "Whaaaat?!" I said. "Naw. C'mon Shake. Not total garbage?!" "No. Total puke garbage," said Shake.

Well, Shake wouldn't lie to me, not about hoop, anyway, so although Larry Brown and Joe Dumars put the best public face on it, Darko's been MIA all season, even though he's 18, he's 7-foot. I don't care how tough it was in the economically ravaged, war-torn Balkans, that doesn't really matter when you're under an NBA backboard trying to comb Kenyon Martin out of your hair. Ain't nobody to blame. I bought the hype too. But that's how the Lakers became the Lakers and the Celtics stayed the Celtics, by having good teams and then adding a superstar like James Worthy or Kevin McHale or Magic Johnson or Larry Bird too the blend. That's why the Detroit Pistons blew it when they didn't take Melo.

Ron Artest
There is no hiding the fact that Ron Artest and the Pacers are the favorite in the East.

So. This means the Indiana Pacers are the chalk pick this year, even though they got issues. Yeah, Jamaal Tinsley is great until you slow the game down and shut off his penetration, and that's exactly what Rick Carlisle does, so the Pacers can run his precious sets. This only ticked off everybody from Artest to O'Neal to Harrington. Even before that, Harrington told me and Dog at courtside during the warmup for the run at the Garden that he would love to come to New York and play for us, and this was long before Zeke hit town. Slowing the game down takes all of Tinsley's game away. O'Neal is the difference for them, but what's up with Artest? He bucking for a trade to the Knicks too?

Gee, I hope so.

Washington Wizards? Eh.

Miami Heat? Eh. Though rook Dwyane Wade's 16.2/4.2/4.4 line every night makes the inevitable go down easier in South Florida.

Milwaukee? Happy to be .500. And I'm happy for them. Kohl should've sold to Jordan's group, just so I could watch Jordan go bonkers when they went .500 for him too. That's what Milwaukee means. Five hundred. NASCAR or CART should hold a race there.

Atlanta? Don't make me throw up.

Philadelphia 76ers? Alley I., and a bunch of guys named Schmo. Well, not really. I always did like McKie, and Derrick Coleman is the best bad player I've ever seen. But Big Dog? ... Nahhh.

Toronto? Stay tuned here. Athletic as all hell, but soft in the center, although Bosh will turn out one day, it's just that the day won't be in 2004. If Vince Carter's pain threshold ever makes the needle move at all, they might even steal a playoff series. Maybe two.

Boston Celtics? If they are fortunate enough to get out of the first round, Ainge will light a cigar and declare victory. Pierce-us gives them hope. The rest of the roster will crush it out soon enough. New Orleans? Baron is a better all-around player than J-Kidd, but he's not a better point guard than J-Kidd. The real key for them is, no, not Monster Mash, but Mangler Magliore. They can get there. Can definitely see them, Indiana and Detroit in a round-robin to get to see who will be the sacrificial lamb to the Western Goliath.

Kenyon Martin
Something isn't quite right with K-Mart and the Nets this season.

New Jersey Nets? Somehow they'll find a way to fall, either to the Hornets or the Pacers, maybe even to the Raptors; then they'll blow it up, tear it down, start all over again. In Brooklyn? Something's just not right about Kenyon Martin and Richie Jeff. Athletically, I love them, but the dumbass good-natured taunting that turned into the Alonzo kidney-baiting by K-Mart was not only not good, it was instructive. I like Jeff's manner better, but I swear, get him out in the open court and he looks like he doesn't know what to do. (And that voice -- is he a baller or new lead falsetto tenor for the Sylistics?) The blend does not exactly inspire overconfidence.

And while I'm sad about the fate of Jay Williams, I'm mostly sad that he could be so freaking dumb. Sad would not be the word the Chicago Bulls would use here. First off, recognize you are mostly media hype, and being a Duke point guard actually doesn't mean you're going to be all that in the league. The only way Williams beats out Jamal Crawford is ... well, there was no way. Seeing that Jay Bilas piece on Williams on ESPN, him at Duke trying to re-hab, was sad. Get a clipboard, son. Be an assistant coach. Go the way of Tommy Amaker, not Bobby Hurley. Face it. You won't be playing in the league. You sort of need your pelvis to do that.

* * * * *
It all comes back to LeBron.

Just televise him, baby.

As of January 7, 2004, LeBron was averaging 19.9, 5.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 1.5 steals per. He turned 19 on December 30, 2003. If you told me in 2002 that such a thing was possible, an 18-year-old could put up such numbers in Dog's league, I would've pulled several ribcage muscles and developed a hernia laughing at you.

No more. It all comes down to the private and public development of an entirely new species of player, this LeBron James. We really have no idea of how fast it will happen, only that eventually it will happen. All that talent, skill, abominable quickness, total game package, will only improve, and the Cavs' roster will likely do the same, in time, because suddenly Cleveland (and, by an incredible declension, New York, I hope) will become a destination of choice for the one or two future mega-free agents that will matter. So the soul of the game is now personified in the East by a boy-man, the once and future King, the Chosen DaVinci's David ... King James.

What? You don't deserve this?

"Deserve's got nothing to do with it."

Note: After the Super Bowl, Road Dog will check in with his own musings about Goliath & the Western Conference. You may contact R-Dub or Road Dog at Ralpwiley@aol.com, if you feel either you or your fave NBA squad have been wronged, and are not the pathetic puddles of miscreant DNA described above.

Ralph Wiley has written articles for Sports Illustrated, Premiere, GQ, and National Geographic, and many national newspapers. He was one of the original NFL Insiders on NBC. His many books include "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir," "Why Black People Tend To Shout," "By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X" with Spike Lee, "Dark Witness," "Best Seat in the House" with Spike Lee, "Born to Play" with Eric Davis, and "Growing Up King" with Dexter Scott King and the children of Martin Luther King Jr. He contributes to many ESPN productions, and bats cleanup on a weekly basis for Page 2.





ONCE AND FUTURE KING

ALSO SEE:


Ralph Wiley Archive

May: Bright lights, big-time player

Anthony: Trade breathes life into Garden

Stein: Isiah's New York minutes





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