On the other side of the curtain on another night in San Antonio, in another basketball place, Patrick Ewing was filling notebooks speaking of his plight. This was at the old Alamodome, June 15, 1999. The next night the Knicks would begin an ill-fated NBA Finals against the Spurs of David Robinson and Tim Duncan and Avery Johnson.
On this day, Ewing was being philosophical.
“We have other guys,” he said. “They’ve had to step up for us to get here.”
On the other side of that curtain one of those guys, Marcus Camby, was drinking from a bottle of water and talking about his strange 1999 journey from pariah to people’s choice, unloved by fans because his arrival had cost the Knicks Charles Oakley, unwanted by his coach, Jeff Van Gundy, because he was a little different kind of player — and personality — than Van Gundy preferred.
Until Jeff Van Gundy realized something late that year.
And Van Gundy started leaning on Camby. And as a result the Knicks found themselves unlikely participants in the Finals after earning the eighth and final seed in the East and both Van Gundy and Camby had heard Madison Square Garden chant their names at various times in the playoffs.
“Patrick told me this the last couple of days and he’s right,” Camby said. “He said I need to be more than just a feel-good story anymore. I need to be the biggest story.”
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Camby’s emergence was just one piece of proof that Jeff Van Gundy — generally perceived as being stuck in his own ways, better or worse, that whole year — had understood in the nick of time the lessons of trying new things when the old things don’t work, or when circumstances dictate the need for a difference.
Latrell Sprewell was another one who was slow to feel the embrace of the Garden and of Van Gundy; his arrival had made another popular Knick, John Starks, disposable. And yet as the season ground on — and especially as the playoffs played out — there was no greater folk hero in New York City than Sprewell.
Even old coaches can learn new tricks.
If they want to.
But it takes time sometimes. It takes patience. Sometimes it takes desperation. In 1999, it took Van Gundy nearly being fired late in the year (Ernie Grunfeld was let go instead) and then, in the postseason, the looming specter of Phil Jackson and his by-then-still-only-six rings to make him go outside his comfort zone.
Tom Thibodeau faces no such Sword of Damocles, not yet, not as the defending NBA Coach of the Year. And while it sometimes looks like the sky is falling directly on his basketball team lately, the Knicks have still only completed barely a quarter of their season. There is time to regroup, time to get better, time to change the narrative.
And time for the coach to embrace different things.
It is clear that he is willing to listen. He has already benched Kemba Walker. He promised more changes for Tuesday’s Knicks-Spurs game at AT&T Center, likely switching Nerlens Noel into the lineup in place of Mitchell Robinson. There are other things he can do that go against his default position, whether it’s giving more minutes to Obi Toppin, fewer minutes to Evan Fournier, more regular minutes to Quentin Grimes.
This isn’t the preferred path for a coach with strong beliefs and a stronger sense of doing things the right way. It all but took a Papal Decree before he would remove Elfrid Payton from the starting lineup last spring despite all evidence pointing to Payton being in a deep basketball funk. In a perfect world, you don’t “mull” lineup changes in the NBA, where there is rarely a magic elixir available.
But the Knicks don’t exist in a perfect world and their season is depending upon Thibodeau’s counterpunches now. Once upon a time, Thibs’ pal, Van Gundy, embraced life outside his comfort zone and it landed him in San Antonio. Twenty-two years later, same city, same need. What will Thibodeau do these next few weeks? That’s as big a story as the games.