The Knicks, In The Hospital

The New York Knicks stage-managed their team's media rollout as best they could. Plenty of humanity still seeped into the proceedings.
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I will not agree with any sentence that begins, “There are two kinds of people…” This is the sort of thing people say when they're trying to be witty, but it's a silly and stupid sort of bisection. It assumes that the world and the people in it are simpler than they are, and moreover that with a great sweep of your hand you can shove 3.5 billion humans over to one side and 3.5 billion to the other and be more or less done with it, and it's tough to fathom how anyone who lives in this world, around people, could believe as much. There is, however, one version of this ancient platitude that I get a bang out of. This is it:

Everyone in the world is either a patient or a nurse. That is, you’re either in some form of chronic, torturous physical or mental (or both) agony, or you’re one of the lucky ones and so do your best to perform the alternately dull and repugnant tasks necessary to help another human that is suffering beyond comprehension.

There are no doctors in this paradigm, mind you, just an underpaid, overworked schlub—a kind, caring, admirable schlub, but no superhero—trying to change some miserable patient’s bedpan or perhaps place a damp cloth on his/her forehead. If there were doctors in the equation, it’d imply that there’s some kind of cure, or people with the secret knowledge to remedy these non-negotiables. There aren't, because there aren't. This is bleak, I know.

I mention it because it has been scrolling like a doomy stock ticker through my mind since I wandered out of the Knicks’ training camp facilities on Media Day. This was not a place of existential crisis or even much depth. I just spent a few hours there trying to dragoon vaguely interesting quotes out of bemused/bored professional basketball players. But I can see how this bleak binary made its way in there.

***

On the drive up to Greenburgh, NY, we found ourselves feverishly lost amid suburban sprawl, just row after row of manicured highway and indistinguishable office park. We realized, late, that we were at the turnoff, though the only distinguishable sign read, “Trauma Center.”

Inside the facility, rows of standard-brand folding chairs were set up before a mini-stage, on which there was a table and a Knick-emblazoned backdrop. We were informed that the players would be there to answer questions, as would newly minted President/GM Steve Mills and Coach Mike Woodson. Evidently, this was a bit of a departure, as in seasons past the players were strewn about the gym and available to answer whatever asked; like a state fair, in that sense, but with very tall individuals in shorts standing in for livestock, pulling tractors, Dippin’ Dots and deep-fried everything.

Which is too bad. Even in so an artificial setting—state fairs are not spontaneous things—there is something about talking to a person, looking in that person's eyes, and so on. The opposite of that something is a press conference, which is by nature a dreary, turgid affair dedicated to the dissemination of official stories. Naturally, the Knicks PR team was hugely present; there was a gentleman taking notes just to the side of the podium. Not of what the players/coach/front office says, but noting which reporter asked which question. A team of kids milled about the perimeter, and the resemblance to the dead-eyed staff that ran Tim Robbins’/Bob Roberts’ campaign for the Senate in ’92 was eerie. We were being managed.

First up was the Mills. Who has, as it happens, had this job before. Mills was present for both many of the high crimes—say, the multimillion dollar lawsuit that Madison Square Garden had to dole out in a sexual harassment suit that involved then-GM Isiah Thomas and other Knicks power types—and comic misdemeanors (Jerome James) that defined the reign of fedora-ed bluesman/walking embodiment of oblivious self-indulgence James Dolan at Madison Square Garden. In Dolan's paranoid, upside-down world, those accumulated disgraces are actually qualifications for a restoration.

So, for reasons known only to God and Dolan, the Knicks booted the fairly successful GM Glen Grunwald a mere five days before the start of training camp and returned Mills—a rather connected gent with ties to NBA uber-fixer William “Worldwide Wes” Wesley—to the captain’s chair. No explanation for the change in leadership was given and anyone with a functioning cerebral cortex knew that none would be forthcoming. There were a great many questions to ask Mills, but foremost among them was, "What are you doing here?"

And this is when I started to feel like I was in a hospital.

THE RESIDENT

If you’ve ever had to visit a friend, relative or a love one who has been admitted, you will at some point speak to a doctor. She won’t be the main physician actually treating your friend/loved one/relative, but she will provide you with the baseline information about what’s occurring and/or what plans for treatment may lie ahead.

Which is to say, you won’t be getting much information at all. You’ll get some bland statements about “awaiting the results of procedures” and “waiting to hear what the surgeon/specialist says.” These statements will usually be delivered with a parched, flavorless optimism. This is unless you've spent the entire day researching whatever malady is being treated. Then you'll have questions about whether, say, an 80-year-old man with a broken hip who’s developing persistent nighttime pain and showing signs of a thrombosis—a deeply embedded blood clot caused by pooling blood due to inactivity—Coumadin is really the best drug to prescribe. (Because of course blood thinners such as Coumadin, which is FYI basically rat poison, can cause internal bleeding and lead to strokes, which is why any invasive procedure is incredibly dangerous after you’ve hit a certain age.) In that case, you will get a different sort of not-quite-answer—either "ask Dr. Specialist" or a cool disagreement with the inexpert conclusions you've reached over hours of fervid, manic research. This manifests as a kind of steely-eyed objectivity that’s meant to convey the unassailable nature of his assertions/diagnosis. There are many ways to be dismissed, and few appealing ones.

So Mills was delivering a meandering soliloquy about his time working on other facets of the league and how excited he was to BOILERPLATE CORPORATE/SPORTS SPEAK vis-à-vis the New York Pro Basketball team. He mentioned analytics as an important component—not so much, one sensed, because he really believed in the brave new worlds that data analysis had opened for smart GM’s, but because it is now a mandatory bit of jargon. He slung some more of that, with confidence, and the floor was opened to questions.

The first one was, naturally, why the change? He answered:

"[Dolan] didn’t express anything about the job that Glen had done or any problems with the job that Glen had done. But he did express that he felt in today’s environment of the NBA with the punitive nature of the tax structure and the salary cap, that he wants to have an organization that is the best in the NBA. He felt it was time to bring someone in who can take a look at every aspect of running a basketball business from the use of analytics in terms of evaluating the players that you have and the players you should have. What is the best structure in terms of creating and developing a scouting staff? What is the best way to prepare your players and evaluate how your players are doing and how you can make them the best they can be and to create an organization that allows players to perform at their best. Those are the things he was looking at and he thought I was the person to do it.''

This is a long way of saying that Mr. Dolan wanted The Best Person For The Job. It's how Steve Mills talks. It was, as such, how he answered the follow-up questions. Why now? What, on the above list, did Glen Grunwald fail to do?

The answer was invariably; “You’ll have to ask James Dolan about that.” It has been six years since the Knicks' chubby-fingered despot deigned to give the peasantry so much as an inkling of his thoughts. We’ll find out why Mills was hired in 2019, when he is replaced by someone who explains the things that he was brought in to do, and is unable to say which of those Mills did not do. We will have to ask James Dolan about that, and he probably won't answer.

And then Mills was asked if he had any regrets about his prior tenure—you remember, the one where the Knicks became a bleak joke. He said, “No,” and I stopped taking notes. I recall him adding that he thought he did a “great” job and that he wouldn’t change a thing.

Which is clearly madness. During Mills' five years as President of Madison Square Garden, the Knicks were a howling garbage fire. But which, also, was the only answer Mills could have given. If he'd said, “In every situation I try to look for places to improve/ways in which I could have done a better job and so on,” the follow-up questions would be versions of, “And what were those mistakes?” Had Mills dodged that by repeating a slightly altered version of his first statement, the next question would have been, “So what did you learn? Was it not to hire Isiah Thomas?” And so on and on, until eventually there is enough juice and Haunting Isiah Memories to produce a few back page stories. Mills had to have known that his prior stint was not rainbows and concord, but made a knowingly incorrect statement because he wanted to end the conversation.

Which I guess is the mark of a good executive, and also more or less the tact that residents take when fretful family member types start with the grilling on this medication versus that one and what is or isn’t contraindicated. Each answer—any answer—would only prompt further questions, and there are rotations to make and a job to do. If she really were to take my hand and walk me—and every other sad-manic individual sweating bedside—through every step of his decision-making process, she’d be screwed. That is not her job; she cannot do her job if she does that. We might not like it, but what she does all that can possibly be done.

PATCH ADAMS

A terrible movie. The absolute nadir of weepy manic-serious Robin Williams, before he descended or ascended or otherwise disappeared into whatever it is he does now. But if you’ve ever been forced to spend long stretches of time in an institution of healing, you’ll realize that it’s based on an actual thing.

Invariably, you’ll encounter a medical professional who takes the whole ‘curative power(s) of laughter/joy/merriment’ thing very literally. He/she will sling terrible, groan-inducing jokes and/or wear some form of comical, notionally mood-lightening garment. Of course, the jokes invariably tend to be far more for the teller’s benefit than anyone else’s, and I get that—hospital work is really effing hard, and demoralizing, and often heartbreaking. If skipping down the corridors in a pair of Zubaz swinging a rubber chicken is what’s necessary to get you through the day, go for it. If it somehow makes a difference somehow, all the better. But for the most part, mirth doesn't fly in these environs and circumstances. It scans as an insult, whatever its intent.

Enter Metta World Peace. Metta kicked off the proceedings by grabbing a microphone and interviewing the audience/reports, asking, “What did you have for breakfast?” and “You just got a big new job. What’s the job?” before finishing up with, “If you see me out on the street doing anything, make sure you put the camera down and never report anything bad, OK?”

None of it was funny, and yet the assembled members of the fourth estate were tittering anyway. This was mainly because it was, if nothing else, a respite to the tightly controlled environment and the general air of bore, low-simmer dissatisfaction at the exchange of non-questions and non-answers.

My inner Arnold Horshack was, at this point, bouncing off the walls. I desperately wanted teacher to call on me because in the midst of all this forced jocularity, I thought up a real zinger. I wanted to tell Metta that I’d dropped 10 pounds this offseason and was in the best writing shape of my career. I even had a follow-up. If he asked about my training regimen, I was going to say, “I stopped brushing my teeth with fudge.”

But this was not an interactive set. Once his bit with playing reporter seemed to get stale, Metta made his way to stage, there to continue his set at the Ha Ha Hut. When asked whether he prefers to ply his trade at small forward or power forward these days, he said, “As far as me being comfortable, I am most comfortable in the bed. All right? I am not going to lie.” He wondered where he could purchase a good bed in New York City. Raymond Felton, seated by his side and more or less a forced participant in this Commedia dell’NBA lazzi, added, “He means sleeping, by the way.”

Because there was a job to be done, an intrepid journalist returned to the current Knicks roster, asking Metta to could compare his new teammate Andrea Bargnani to his old Lakers cohort, Pau Gasol. And here you began to glimpse a method to Metta’s apparent madness. There is no comparison to make, there, save for the hackneyed one—big pale gentlemen from foreign continents, in some way all conjoined by their other-ness. Metta knew this:

“Not really…Foreigners, not from America…I can’t give a comparison. I haven’t played with Bargnani yet. They are good guys. They like to read. Read to achieve. I love you guys. Melo is here. Bye." Which is, truthfully, probably the best way to deal with a silly question. Give a silly answer that points to a greater truth; a hoops-centric version of King Lear’s Fool.

The general consensus is that covering Metta for a full season will be an enjoyable thing, if only because his quotes and post-game assessments of all things Knickerbocker will be colorful or at least a departure from the daily grind of the beat reporter. Even if he wasn't saying much, there was a pleasingly different rhythm to Metta's patter. It was perhaps more amusing to imagine an emissary of the Knicks' paranoid front office summoning the courage to try to impress upon Metta the importance of staying on message, or all the hateful imported-from-politics bullshit that teams—and in particular, the Knicks—have done such a dandy job of importing these days. It would not work. In a dark room, diodes attached to the delicate parts of his person, forced to undergo hours of negative reinforcement conditioning, Metta would not, could not stop being Metta. This is something.

Sadly, Metta left. And after a brief period with Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler and more chatter about offseason injuries and assorted platitudes about expectations and championship aspirations, Amar’e Stoudemire appeared.

THE PATIENT

There's a certain pathos in just watching Stoudemire fold a Michelangelo-sculpted body into a tiny and painfully prosaic folding chair, definitively of a kind not designed for a gentleman standing at 6’11. “Hold on a second, ” he said. “Let me get these legs straightened out, brother. Jeez, Louise. Tight squeeze up here.”

It was like watching a much older man negotiating massive arthritis, not a player we’ve grown accustomed to seeing flying around the court and above the rim. Stoudemire started out optimistically enough, but after several questions that hammered him on the lack of disclosure about an offseason knee injury—“Was it a debridement? How serious was the procedure? When do you think you’ll return? How do you think you’ll play when you return?”— Stoudemire’s spirit seemed as beaten up as his body. And for a player who uses the word ‘phenomenal’ in every third to fourth sentence, who does think—or did think, and was not quite crazy to think— that he was the equal of LeBron et al, the physical handicapping seemed less poignant than these sudden and unavoidable reminders of his limitations and new mortality.

"Right now, unfortunately my career has been somewhat tainted by injuries during the last few years," he said. "So it's a matter now of trying to maintain strength and health to have some solid and very productive years."

And: "The whole goal is to get a strong recovery so hopefully by the time training camp’s over I should be ready to go. If not, we’ll see. We’re still taking precautionary measures, we’ll see how it plays out."

And: "My career isn't over yet…I think miracles can happen any time of the day. My goal is to stay faithful and understand anything can happen and continue to work as hard as I can as I always do. Bounce back and try to be the player that I know I am."

That was when I nearly lost it. It was certainly when I ditched any notion of ‘covering’ this event under the holy rubric of objective journalism. I was a fan, suddenly, and one that wanted to run up and hug him or shake him and tell him not to let the haterz get him down. That he was STAT for Pete’s sake.

Although of course he's not quite STAT at this point. This was like watching a patient that you know is critical and beyond a doctor's help, with only so many days or weeks or months to go, putting on a brave face for your benefit as much as his/her own. The alternative is confronting something not readily confronted, and the two of you bawling like scared children, which isn’t going to change the situation or make it any less unbearable. So: smile, and try to forget, and talk about something, anything but the maw that has opened up under your feet, the rows of razor-sharp sharks’ teeth that the two of you will traverse eventually, like it or not.

Which, yes, Amar’e isn’t dying. I get that. But hearing him invoke the Almighty, resort to hope and faith and prayer as the only forces preventing him from giving up the thing that’s defined his existence for the vast majority of his life—this was heartbreaking, a long look at something dark, and impossible to manage.

And that’s the thing, and the thing all this stagecraft can't possibly prevent. Humanity survives, and makes itself felt, even in such a highly controlled, sterile environment. Sometimes it’s ugly and terrifying, and sometimes it’s kind of beautiful -- 14th man on the roster, combo guard Toure’ Murry, checking messages on his phone, surprised and sort of excited that someone would ask him a question, or the EMT that lends you cigarette while, you, clearly flustered in the parking lot, manically scan your pockets, because it’s clear that at that moment you really just need someone to talk to that isn’t a relative or a medical professional. There's no way to stage-manage/talking point these moments out of the experience; there is not enough Purell on earth. Those all add up to the whole thing, and the rest is show.


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