Do you watch Mad Men? Yeah, there are vast gobs of great TV shows out there, and between, you know, working and living an actual life, I wouldn’t blame you if you weren’t a line-and-spoiler-quoting fanboy.
For the uninitiated, the hero’s an advertising executive in the 1960’s named Don Draper that has crafted a Gatsby-esque false identity. Unfortunately, by the end of the first season, said deception is on the verge of being uncovered. In the last episode, in the midst of his panic and torment, he comes up with a campaign for Kodak’s newfangled slide projector. Renaming it, “The Carousel,” this is his tour-de-force pitch to the awed, enraptured Rochester execs:
My first job, I was in-house at a fur company, with this old-pro copywriter, a Greek named Teddy. Teddy told me the most important idea in advertising is new. Creates an itch. You simply put your product in there as a kind of calamine lotion.
But he also talked about a deeper bond with the product. Nostalgia. It’s delicate, but potent. Sweetheart. (lights switch off) (changes slide) Teddy told me that in Greek, “nostalgia” literally means “the pain from an old wound”. (changes slide) It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. (changes slide) This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. (changes slide) It goes backwards, forwards, (changes slide) takes us to a place where we ache to go again. (changes slide) It’s not called the wheel. It’s called the carousel. (changes slide) It lets us travel the way a child travels. (changes slide) Round and around, and back home again. (changes slide) To a place where we know we are loved. (changes slide) (changes slide) (changes slide)
The brilliance of this monologue is that it absolutely nails the contradiction (or one of many contradictions) at the heart of the American experience/ethos. We’ve always been a nation that’s defined itself by what-is-to-come, whether it’s the frontier (both on the continent and in space), the next shiny technological gee-gaw or whizbanger or even the somewhat weary, creaking notion that by dint of copious amounts of pluck and elbow grease and bootstrap-pulling, any strapping young lad with the proper glint and twinkle in his eye can grow up to be President. The most American thing one can do is redefine one’s self, remake one’s self in by force of will and be a “Self-made man.” You know, The American Dream™ n’ stuff.
The paradox is that within this state of perpetual, constant forward motion/progress and our love of the new and the re-imagined, there exists a gnawing awareness in the back of our collective psyche, that amidst all this striving, everything is a priori imbued with a persistent nostalgic sense of loss or failure. Because if your goal is always somewhere off in the near-to-distant-future, whatever you possess or encounter in the here and now is going to feel tarnished somehow. It’s a pre-ordained, pre-nostalgizing of everyone and everything.
That’s what I think about when I think about Kurt Thomas’ in this, his final turn around the wheel of the carousel with the New York Knicks.
Back in July 2012, in the midst of what was (for some) a truly nightmarish couple of weeks, when the dream that was Linsanity imploded in such a sudden, jarring and dumbly ego-driven and utterly pointless manner, the word came down that Kurt Thomas, who hadn’t graced the JD and the Straight Shot-blaring corridors of Madison Square Garden since he was jettisoned in a deal with the Phoenix Suns for Quentin Richardson and the rights to the 21st pick in the 2005 draft, Nate Robinson.
I’m sure the harried, toady-ish Knickerbocker brain-trust, working the phones like fiends in the ill-lit, windowless existentially doomed Knick cubicles weren’t thinking of the fan base’s collective agita/sense of foreboding doom when they reacquired Ol’ Crazy Eyes in the Felton trade, but it certainly felt like a nostalgic bone was being tossed to the beaten, bedraggled, emotionally-scarred masses.
Prior to the start of the season, very few thought Kurt would be a key part of the rotation, just another member of the AARP mailing list that the Knicks had culled through to bolster a what looked like a wobbly, hastily-constructed roster, falling somewhere between Rasheed Wallace and Marcus Camby on the adorable-yet-grizzled scale.
Though he contributed in fits and spurts and even started (in name only) for a brief stretch in late November-early December as one of Woodson’s ill conceived four-minute heroes, for the most part, he was a forgotten man, as his injuries and Carmelo Anthony’s installation at power forward led to a slew of DNP-CD’s. There’s a Bill James line (I’m paraphrasing) about how ballplayers never really lose their skills via age—they’re just able to employ them with ever-decreasing frequency. E.g., Rod Carew could probably still whack a slider at the knees to the opposite field for a single, but it’s not something he can summon on a regular enough basis to hit .330.
That, sadly, was Kurt Thomas. He could still unleash all the crafty and at times ungentlemanly gifts he’d amassed over the years, but for shorter and shorter stretches. Even though his Per36 numbers are more or less indistinguishable from the rest of his career, sending him on to the court for anything over ten minutes in a close contest seemed unwise, regardless of the fact that his strengths – defending the post, erecting impenetrable picks and cleaning the glass – were exactly what the Knicks’ were desperate for from their front court for the huge chunks of the year.
It looked like 2012-13 would prove to be a sad coda to what had been a more-than-respectable career. But then, for one game, for one brief, glittering, improbable moment, he came roaring Lazarus-like back to life, and absolutely pulled the team’s foundering fat out of the fire.
At the end of a brutish five-game Western Conference swing in which they were pummeled into a fine paste, their options at center whittled down to Kurt or possibly reactivating a heavily PED-fortified Herb Williams, their lead in the Atlantic hanging by a one-game thread, Carmelo Anthony unavailable with a dodgy knee after exiting Denver to a chorus of Schadenfreude-laced boos, three games, Amar’e’s knee in need of re-de-bridling, and Tyson Chandler’s neck resembling worn-out Slinky, things looked Cormac McCarthy’s The Road-level bleak.
So like a weary, rum-soaked gunslinger, Kurt strapped on his gun belt, dusted off his chaps and went to work v. Utah, even though the chatter throughout the day suggested he too was struggling with an injury of indeterminate nature, possibly a bone spur, Rickets, Scurvy, Shingles or some other old man’s disease.
He stared down the law firm of low-post beasts Jefferson, Millsap, Favors and Kanter, using every ounce of grit and guile that he could drag out of his rusty toolbox. Rumbling, nay dragging his carcass down the court, fixing his cock-eyed, imposing glare on any impetuous young Turk who dared to invade his turf and swatting away interior shots from ballers nearly half his age.
At one moment of pure folly in the fourth quarter, he received a pick and roll feed and, instead of settling for his trademark no-lift 15 foot jumper, he sashayed down the lane with the grace of a Nijinsky and dumped the biscuit in the basket. The Knicks won, of course, and improbably proceeded to rattle off an additional 12 straight to secure the Atlantic Division and head into the playoffs with their fickle chum, Morris “Mo” Centum, riding shotgun. After the game, his ‘mates slung terms like “warriors” and “guts” and “heroic.” Normally that just smacks of so much sports cliché bukkake/sloppy equating of sports with war, but for once, it was just the plain, honest truth.
As if it had come straight from a tossed draft of a hackneyed Hollywood script, a post-game MRI revealed that Thomas’ trip to the way-back machine was executed on a broken foot. He was out for the remainder of the season and, in all likelihood, ever. That was it. One last burst of glory, one final battle, only to be brought home on his shield and set upon the funeral pyre. 27 minutes (a season high) 6 points, 3 ‘bounds, 3 blocks and 2 assists. Nothing to write home about. But considering the acute agony that he must have experienced in amassing those totals, they’re positively Herculean.
But for all the joy that Kurt’s last, hobbled, wincing, oh-so-clutch battle brought, like Don Draper’s poetic sales pitch, you couldn’t help but feel the pain of nostalgia—a pain beyond empathy for a mangled hoof that seemed to reflect something that was already gone and yet still sitting right in front of you.
Like Draper’s carousel, we and Kurt took a trip back into the past, into memory. For brief moments, you could almost make out the ghostly specter of a young, cornrowed Thomas, wildly flinging his frame around under the hoop, trying to make his mark with the rough-and tumble Van Gundy Knicks, somewhere just off to the side of 40-year old Kurt. Losing his cool. Blowing a gasket. Striving. One of John Osborn’s Angry Young Men, threatening to beat the absolute living shit out of Stephon Marbury.
And like Draper, urt Thomas had reinvented his game. There’s that hoary joke about how, “Kurt Thomas once led the nation in scoring and rebounding! Oh really, what nation…Bratislava?” After shredding his knee during his sophomore season in Miami and slowly but surely devolved into a player with all the grace and athleticism of a ’74 Dodge Dart up on blocks in your alcoholic, deadbeat, unemployed neighbor’s unkempt backyard, through what must have been countless hours of determination and repetition, with a monk-like level of dedication, devotion and pure will that most folks can never hope to approach, he developed a dead-eye spot up jumper, compensated for a near-total lack of ups by mastering the lost arts of positioning and boxing out, and became invariably one of the highest IQ players on the multitude of teams that he toiled for. Even if he was never more than a solid pro, it’s a remarkable feat.
And now, after a meaningful and meaningless game in Salt Lake City, that was beautiful and yet tinged with an unshakeable sadness, for Kurt Thomas, it’s all over.
My Mom (age 75) says that she’s still shocked when she walks down the block and snatches a glimpse of her reflection in a storefront window. For a moment, she can’t help but thinking, “Who is that old lady?” In her mind’s eye she still feels and looks the same; that she’s still a young woman navigating the streets of New York City. I wonder if Kurt Thomas does exactly the same thing.
So if he is going to hang up his Nikes and not go gentle in to that good night, before we hurtle forward into the next season and the dramas and beautiful victories and crushing defeats that are sure to come, it’s fitting that we stop the great wheel of basketball history to say thanks, Kurt. Thanks for all of the wobble-eyed psychotic stares and the yeoman defensive efforts and the illegal picks that often left an impression of your hipbone in the midsection of many a ‘Bocker and non-‘Bocker alike and the mid-range and beyond heaves that found the bottom of the net and the slump-shouldered, suffering-of-the-world-bearing gait.
Thanks for all the memories, Kurt.
Grades (5 point scale):
Performance/Expectations: 3 (2 for most of the season, 12,309 for the Utah game)
Final Grade: C-
 Q also rejoined the orange and blue this year. Maybe there is something prescient to the creepily zombified mantra, “Once a Knick, etc.” that’s stitched inside the collar.
 Speaking of reunions with former friends… Yes, Felton proved a more-than-capable replacement for Lin, and for far fewer ducats. But he (and Thomas) didn’t arrive at a factory irregular price tag: Jared Jeffries, Dan Gadzuric, the rights to Kostas Papanikolaou, Georgios Printezis and a future 2nd round pick, because the Knicks always have to give away picks in a deal, what with said picks cluttering up the previously mentioned dank office space, falling into the Xerox machine, getting all gunked up with toner and all. Considering the pure venom the Portandians felt for…Felt, how desperate they were to assure that they never darkened their rain-soaked doors; the Knicks gave up a lot. That’s how they rolls, yo.
 James White to the white courtesy phone. James White, pick up the white courtesy phone please.
 All Knick injuries are of an indeterminate nature. And are considered day-to-day.
 It seems a lifetime ago, but during the improbable run in ’99, the fanatics would audibly groan whenever Kurt threw the rock rimward. Like Oakley and Lee, over time, it became his chief offensive weapon.