Because we’re sentimental bastids, Kevin McElroy and I are teaming up on a three-part series talking about the Denver Four/Minny Two, as they shall heretofore be known. We’ll look back fondly (and at times, not so fondly) at the careers of the sextet of ‘Bockers that were summarily dispatched to the Rocky Mountains/Great White North. No analysis of the merits of the trade, mind you (I think that dead horse has been soundly beaten), just nostalgia and sweet/semi-sweet farewells
We continue with two of the tallest (and widest) Knicks, Eddy Curry (via Kevin) and Timofey Mozgov (via Robert)…
Want to stop a room of NBA fans? Try saying the words, “Franchise Center.”
The basketball lexicon abounds with reductive two word labels that brand players for ease of filing. Usually, these classifications are commentaries on style and can accommodate vast gulfs in player quality; Chris Paul and Mike Conley are both “pure points,” Dwyane Wade and CJ Watson both “combo guards,” Dirk Nowitzki and Linas Kleiza both “stretch fours.”
But “franchise center” – that one is all about impact. Even to a basketball illiterate the words “center” and “franchise” so immediately juxtaposed would suggest the foundation and focal point of an entire organization. To an NBA lifer, the phrase suggests all of those who have worn it in the past, from Bill Russell, for whom the term should have been invented, down through Wilt and Kareem and Moses and Shaq. No last names necessary.
The thing about franchise centers, though, is that there aren’t that many of them. That’s what makes them so valuable. And that’s what makes otherwise rational NBA executives – people who wear suits and ties and read stats and scouting reports and make complex managerial decisions with millions of dollars at stake – go a little bit crazy at the scent of one. But simple math cries, “Beware.” Plenty of players that look like franchise centers – 6’10” and up, some meat on the bones, the suggestion of athleticism – come through the league. The number of these men around whom a franchise should be built – well, go to Springfield, Mass. and find out for yourself how small it is.
In 2005, Isiah Thomas believed he smelled a franchise center. Believed it so much that he looked past documented heart problems (both literally and colloquially). Believed it enough to send the Bulls Antonio Davis, Mike Sweetney, and two unprotected first rounders (maybe you’ve heard of LaMarcus Aldridge and Joakim Noah?) for the right to pay $60 million over 6 years to a light-footed 23-year-old behemoth who had never displayed a shred of ability to rebound, defend, block shots, pass, run the floor, or hit a jumper. His entire game – his ENTIRE GAME – was as follows:
1. Catch ball deep in post (too far away from the rim and he’d send it right back from whence he got it).
2. Stick massive rear end into defender.*
4. If double-teamed, disregard teammate left open by help defender.
5. Gather and Spin (with surprising grace).
6. Bank shot/finger roll/dunk. Make roughly 5 in 9 times, get fouled 3 times a game.
7. *****CHECK OUT FOR INDETERMINATE PERIOD OF TIME WHILE OTHER TEAM/TEAMMATES HAVE BALL******
8. Get ball back, repeat steps 1-6.
*He really was the NBA’s answer to Kim Kardashian in terms of relying on an uncommonly large butt to make people look past the disparity between his talent and his earnings.
So now, way too long into this thing, it’s probably time to finally mention Eddy Curry by name. But this isn’t entirely about Eddy Curry. Because almost every franchise has an Eddy Curry – a big, promising would-be franchise center who was missing one ingredient in the recipe. Some weren’t strong enough (but Curry was). Some weren’t quick enough (but Curry was). Some were too soft, others lacked touch, some simply couldn’t stand up to the pressure. Eddy Curry had none of these problems.
Eddy Curry grew up in Chicago. When he played for his high school team, scouts caught the same scent that Isiah later would (Franchise Center!) and put him at or near the top of every list of the best prospects in the 2001 high school class. Made him Illinois’ Mr. Basketball. Made him a McDonald’s All-American. Eddy Curry skipped college, entered the draft, and went 4th overall to the Chicago Bulls. He’d probably been big and athletic enough his whole life for this to be desired, even expected, of him. Maybe he even started to see basketball as less a game than a foregone conclusion. Maybe he just didn’t see what the big deal was all about.
In 2005, Eddy Curry was diagnosed with an irregular hearbeat, deemed to be the result of a congenital cardiac condition. He was then shipped – like any other asset – from one team that had probably told him more times than he could remember that he was their “Franchise Center” to another team that was sure to tell him the same.
By The 2008 – 2009 season, the honeymoon was long over, Knicks’ fans having decided that Curry was an irredeemable bust who would never validate the price the team had paid to acquire him and the years they had sunk trying to make him into something that he quite simply wasn’t. D’Antoni, seemingly in agreement with his supporters, gave Curry a grand total of twelve minutes that season.. Watching Curry on the bench every night, he seemed like he was over it, a maddening development for fans who watched him sit there game after game, week after week, smiling from ear to ear while collecting paychecks for what seemed like nothing. And all the while the Knicks lost far more than they won. We were miserable and Curry, seemingly, wasn’t. We saw this as betrayal of the highest order.
On January 25, 2009, Eddy Curry’s ex-girlfriend and baby daughter were found murdered in a Chicago apartment. Curry was granted a leave of absence from the team, disappeared for a couple of weeks, never really spoke publicly about what had happened. During what must have been the darkest moments of Eddy Curry’s life, we never saw him suffer, never witnessed the pain that surely consumed him. Unsympathetic as we were throughout his struggles on the court, why should he have trusted us with a piece of him that was so much more important? What had we done to earn that?
I don’t know Eddy Curry. I was in the same room as him once – covering a 120-112 Knicks’ win over the Bulls early in this season. A matchup between the two franchises that had told Curry he was their future and eventually given up on him. Curry didn’t play in the game.
I entered the Knicks’ locker room for the first time in my life. A businesslike throng of reporters moved from stall to stall, interacting with players who looked anxious to leave, but accepting of the fact that this was part of their work. The environment was disarmingly professional. Just another job for everyone involved.
Eddy Curry sat in the corner. No reporters wanted to talk to him. He sat on a bench that was too low for his massive frame, his knees higher than his chin for the length of his legs. He wore that grin, ear-to-ear. He fiddled with his phone and patiently waited for the crowd to dissipate. You got the impression that his face would have looked the same regardless of the game’s outcome. He looked transplanted from a high school study hall or a college dorm room.
We spent six years with Eddy Curry on our team, the Franchise Center that we’d waited for, that we’d been told to expect. But he never saw what we saw. He was a big kid that was built like the basketball star he never cared about becoming. He knew pain and he knew loss that exceeded by far the loss we felt every time we saw him come up short of our expectations.
We complained because it seemed like he didn’t care. We complained because he’d robbed us of the Franchise Center to whom we were so sure we were entitled. But he knew something that we didn’t know, something we would have gotten mad if he’d tried to tell us. Eddy Curry knew that no matter how bad it got, no matter the frustration and the defeat and the wasted potential, that it was only basketball. It was only a game.
I’ll admit it, I have a deep personal fondness for backup bigs, (and before you can say, “Gosh Bob, are there any ex-Knicks you don’t have a deep personal fondness for, wait till I rip Gallo a new one [just kidding].) The ones who seem ill-equipped to play professional basketball if they weren’t 7 plus feet hold a particular soft spot, possibly because, even though I’ve got little to no game, I still think, even in my late 30’s, that I’ve got a major growth spurt left in me that would allow me to don the orange and blue someday.
Timofey Mozgov appeared this summer, really out of nowhere, at the end of the interminable “Decision” a tweet came over the wire saying that Walsh had signed a big Russkie that no one had heard of, save for Givorny at Draftexpress.com who had him way up on some semi-obscure list of available un-drafted Euro League free agents.
And it wasn’t a, “Come to camp and let’s see what happens-type contract,” it was a 10 million/3-year deal (though year 3 was non-guaranteed). That’s some serious coin for an international man of mystery but thanks to the interwebs, we all got a whole heaping of grainy clips of a big mofo who seemed to excel in the pick and roll and loved dunking on cats named Pyotr and Alexei. Later in the summer, we actually had a chance o check him out in competition v. whatever iteration of “The Dream Team” the US trotted out and he looked…well…pretty darned good. But more importantly, now that the Cold War is over, Russian stereotypes are far more amusing/cuddly and less “Death will rain down upon you and bring an atomic/apocalyptic hell-scape/dystopia.” (As a former Reagan-baby, the notion that Yakov Smirnov prevailed over Joseph Stalin is still kinda unfathomable.) Even better, Timo was/is a blogger. And like most Russian novelists, brevity wasn’t his strong suit (just like your humble correspondents). Now, given this was run through a google translator, this is probably way less funny than in the original, but it did lead to quotes like this.
Plus, not to sound like Rob Schneider’s annoying early 90’s character (I’m shocked they never produced a godawful movie like “Night at the Roxbury” or “It’s Pat!” around that guy), but he inspired a litany of pun-tastic nicknames: The Moz, Mozzie Bear, Mozgov on the Hudson, The Mozgovernor, Tim O’Fey (like Tina Fey. Get it?) – this stuff just writes itself.
After a solid camp and preseason, to the shock of many, Timmay! Was named starting center on opening night. Similar to Anthony Randolph, he struggled early, botching even the simplest of entry passes, displaying hands of unobtanium, and racking up fouls and nonplussed reactions to said calls, like he’d just heard they were rationing Vodka in Red Square, galore. The nadir came at the start of the Nix 13 -1 stretch in LA. It’s still the highlight of the year in the NBA, due to Blake Griffin’s utter supercalifragilisticexpialidocious-ness and the fact that it involved Timofey’s face firmly planted in his nether regions. Insane dunk + Groin joke = Awesome. That’s as much of a truism as death and taxes. It even inspired one Youtuber to make a seriously involved Rocky IV clip/mashup of the event.
At that point, one could very logically make the assumption that we wouldn’t really see much of our beloved Commie expat the rest of the year, given Coach Mike’s predilection for undersized lineups and downsized rotations. But lo! Like Toney Douglas last year, Moz kept working on his game (and clearly, his confidence in said game) and in late January he erupted with a monster line versus, granted, an underwhelming Pistons outfit – 23 points 9-15 shooting, 14 rebounds, and 40 mins of PT without fouling out. He finished with aplomb/boisterous dunks on dump-off passes, rebounded well, and was a defensive presence for a team in serious need of one. He even heard “Moz-Gov!” chants wafting down from the rafters via the Garden faithful.
I mean, think or a moment about his career trajectory. It’s truly one of the oddest in recent league history. He went from being an unknown (at a time in NBA history when due to the influx of International players and the Internet, there really are no “undiscovered gems,”) to starting for a decent team, (even if his output was more reminiscent of Dwayne Schintzius as “Ivan” in “Eddie.” Skip ahead to 7:37 of this clip. Yes, you can watch the entire film, “Eddie” on Youtube. Why someone uploaded it is utterly beyond me.) to being the key component in a mega-trade. Seriously, would anyone have guessed at the beginning of the year that Timofey Mozgov would be the only thing standing (for better or for worse) between the Knicks and Carmelo Anthony? Ironically, if he hadn’t started playing well of late, there’s no way Denver would have insisted he be included in the smorgasbord that was shipped out west (But w/o Mozgov’s improvement, Dolan Thomas Walsh probably would have probably had to include Landry Fields in the deal, and I’d rather not even contemplate that nightmarish “what if?” scenario. Who knows how deep that rabbit hole goes).
But unlike the first big outlined in this article, Moz evokes no great sadness or solemnity. He’s a solid backup who inspires even more solid jokes. With luck, he’ll turn into Marcin Gortat in Denver (and still be better than any Knick big not named Amar’e). So, in honor of one of the more surreal Knick stints, I’ll leave you with The Moz’s own words about the first road game in Chicago:
“So this bull, and after him the whole herd ran and kaaakkkkk. In general, transport in half bull pleased us – scary. Scary much!”