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
Alas, Mr. McElroy and I both came down with a truly nasty virus in the last day or so, so we’re splitting final chapter in two. Here’s 3(a) with my take on…
It was February 1979. I was seven years old and just begun watching Knicks games in earnest with my Pops (technically, I started during the ’72 finals v. the Lakers. When I couldn’t be coerced into falling asleep, the only thing that would work is my father would get in the car and drive around the block with me in the front seat. During these circuitous trips, he’d crank up a playoff game on the radio and Marv Albert’s sonorous voice/rhythms would knock me out quicker than a Thanksgiving turkey with Ambien stuffing). The team wasn’t very good that year, but I immediately latched on to their one “star,” a doe-eyed undersized center/scoring machine that had been pilfered from the then-Buffalo Braves named Bob McAdoo. For those too young to remember, take a look-y loo at his stats. Eerily similar to a proto-Amar’e, right? (At least before an oft-rumored problem with booger sugar totally wrecked his game.) I didn’t even really know that he was good or why I selected him as my fave, I just liked him. Maybe because he had a name that just sounded badass and as a nice Jewish boy growing up on the mean streets of the Upper West Side I had a preternatural/instinctive desire to attach myself however tangentially to urban toughness/cool. Maybe I managed to glean some knowledge via osmosis that he was the best jump –shooting big in the game (Kids just learn things in ways that we can’t ever logically explain). But more than anything, I remember oh-so-clearly the exact moment when I learned he had been traded, to the hated Celtics, of all teams. I was in my bunk bed, my lil’ Sis blissfully asleep below and my father came through the door and told me the Knicks had traded McAdoo for nothing. (Well, not nothing, but multiple first-round picks and a non-entity named Tom Barker [NOT a cool name]) But I didn’t really get the concept of the draft at that tender age and so all I knew was that my team had just sent MY favorite player to the enemy for free! Zilch! Nada! Bupkis!
Through tears I just kept asking my Dad, “Why? Why would they do that? It’s not fair!” He tried in vain to explain how they were rebuilding and draft picks meant they could get new, young players. I didn’t care. Bob McAdoo was my favorite player and now he was gone. When I heard Gallo might be a piece in the trade, like Proust with his cardboard madeleines, all those same emotions came flooding back. (Between semi-sobs, like a stock Fellini-esque bent, old crow of a woman who could be anywhere from 50-90 years old, draped entirely in black even if it’s August in Rome, clutching at Rosary beads, and somehow simultaneously wailing in anguish and clenching her gnarled, tiny fists in rage) “Wait. We traded Gallo? Why? Melo wants to come here and, and, and, he’ll sign as a free agent and, and, and NO it’s Zeke. That Iago-like bastard is secretly pulling the strings and he’s trying to destroy the team so that Walsh gets fired but he gets credit for Melo. No! It’s Dolan. That guitar-wielding fool has a personal vendetta against me! I’m going to find out what AA meetings he attends and call out the bastard! I dunno which portion of the 12-Step Program making a colossally stoopid trade violates, but I’m sure it’s one of them!!!”
To briefly recap his 2.5 year tenure at MSG: Danilo was the first ray of hope to emerge after 10 years of Layden and Isiah. The sixth pick in a (or so they said at the time) loaded draft, it seemed he was destined to go to the Knicks, both because Gallo’s dad played with our freshly minted coach Mike in the Italian league, and because a 6’10” forward who could shoot the lights out would be the perfect stretch 4 in SSoL. At the time, the pick was denounced by the local wags: “Nepotism. We coulda had Brook Lopez! Or D.J. Augustin. We seriously need a PG! Or what about Joe Alexander?” Look how it went down. There’s really no one (aside from the late bloomers) considerably better than Gallo left on the board – save possibly Eric Gordon. In fact, if you re-drafted the lottery knowing what we know now, a very good case could be made for this order: Rose, Westbrook, Love, Gallo, Gordon, Serge Ibaka, DeAndre Jordan, JaVale McGee, Nicholas Batum, Roy Hibbert, J.J. Hickson, Beasley, Brook Lopez, O.J. Mayo.
We get Ibaka? Sweet…Hindsight notwithstanding, Gallo got off to a nifty start in his first summer league game, before colliding with the carcass formally known as Robert “Tractor” Traylor (Great Nickname), resulting in back problems that plagued him throughout his rookie campaign, limiting him to 28 games. Even in a limited role, we saw something. He could, indeed, hit shots from anywhere in the gym and he had a weird confidence/verve that made his moniker, “Il Gallo” i.e. “The Rooster” (or “The Cock” for those get the giggles at that sort of thing), seem oddly apt.
In season two, after being anointed, “The best shooter I’ve ever seen,” by MD’A (More nepotism!) he continued to make in rain from outside, but it was clear that his back woes weren’t entirely behind him. Especially in comparison to the clips of him playing for Armani Jeans in the Italian League. (When I showed these to my then ex, she quipped, “Georgio Armani has a team? Why can’t we root for them?”) Here you see a fleet-ish, lanky slasher with some serious hops who could contort his wiry frame to score in multiple ways at the rack. Not the guy who trotted like someone had just taken a two-by-four to his lower lumbar. But lo, this season, he started to add pieces to his game. Unleashing a heretofore-unseen ability to get to the line and even stretches of defensive prowess, though his shot’s been wonky all year. Still, you could see progress. It was clear that his game was expanding, even if the numbers suggested he was pretty much the same player he was in the season prior.
But whether he fulfills his potential and becomes a poor man’s Dirk Nowitzki (without the Hasselhoff tunes perpetually running through his melon) and/or a much cooler Peja Stojakovic/Detlef Schrempf, losing Gallinari just hurts because, gosh darn it, I liked the guy beyond the usual, “He plays for my team and he might be good” mishegas. It’s beyond (as Seinfeld said) just rooting for laundry.
Honestly, I can’t really say. But as Spalding Gray said, “like any good liberal, I should question eeeeeeeeevvvvvvvvvvvvvvvveeeeeeeeeeeeeeerrrything” (Go to 2:57 of the link. Heck watch the whole movie if you’ve never seen it. It’s unfathomably good. I’ll wait) I’ll ask myself now. Bob, why are you in a glass case of emotion? Why is this Knick different from all other Knicks? (Yes, I just referenced Spalding Gray, Anchorman, and slung some Yiddish in the same article. That’s how I roll, yo.
Maybe it’s because I myself had the good fortune to spend a great deal of time in my youth in Tuscany. Briefly, my father fell in with a group of artists/US expats who had formed a colony in Carrera, the region where Michelangelo got his marble and so most Summers, my family lived there. And we ate schiacciata biked down cobble-stoned streets and walked to the beach and played tennis on clay courts with a leather-skinned pro who continually barked at me, “Muovi le gambi!” (Translation: “Move your legs!”) And the elderly Mammas all thought I was cute as a button and give me rock-hard, practically bitter candy that they seemingly always had stored in their pockets. (Yes, it was as blissful as it sounds. Please don’t throw heavy objects at me) Through my adolescence, I vainly clutched to the (utterly false) notion that I actually had some Italian blood buried somewhere deep in my family lineage. So like the imaginary famiglia that I glommed onto, maybe the thought of a paisan on my favorite hoops team struck a chord somewhere deep in the crevasses of memory that can’t be logically explicated.
Maybe it’s his deeply earnest, almost Chico Marx-esque interviews. Now that I think about it, Chico (my favorite Marx brother) probably is the best comparable to Gallo. Bent, awkward, goofy looking yet clearly spilling over with talent and unimaginable grace. Watch Chico play the piano and you’ll see what I mean He always seemed unmediated – unwilling or unable to craft an easily marketable image and sling the usual sports clichés (and again, this may be due to the language barrier). Hell, he’d even croon Beyonce. Early this season, when asked if he thought he could become a star, instead of ducking the question and muttering something Laloosh-like about, “Just wanting to help the team.” He said, No. Just plain no. And like the feral jackals they are, the tabloidians jumped on that to bellow, “See! He doesn’t want it! He lacks confidence! Get him outta here! NYC needs winners, killers, dontcha know!” But I dug it. It was unexpected and honest and pure in a weird way.
Maybe it’s because I took particular delight that when he drew contact, he looked like he’d just stepped on a landmine in Tunisia in WWII. Either flopping is hard-wired at birth into Europe’s soccer-mad athletes or he really does got knocked off kilter at the slightest touch. I can’t tell if the former or the latter is more enjoyable. As I wrote back in October, “There are very few sights in this work-a-day world more enjoyable than Paul Pierce with a royally pissed-off look on his mug because he can’t fathom how he got whistled for hacking a guy (our Danilo) who runs like a drunk careening down 9th Avenue, crashing into mailboxes/streetlights, trying to avoid an imaginary cop.”
Maybe it’s the way he was willing to go head-to-head with Melo last season, unwilling, like Montenegro going toe to toe with the Soviet Union or Eugene Debs running for president, to back down in the face of far superior force/foe
Maybe it’s all those things. And maybe it’s none of them. Simmons kinda stole my thunder on this last week when he wrote about the pain of losing Kendrick Perkins. In what may be the best line he’s ever written, he said, “You can’t truly love a team until you’ve suffered with it.”
I agree with him 100%.
It’s because we saw Gallo grow, warts and all, only to have him taken away before he truly arrived….well it just feels more like a shot to the gut than any awful Isiah-era mistake.
Okay…I can’t help it. I know I said I wasn’t going to mention whether I think the trade was a good or bad thing (and like Hamlet said, “There is nothing in this world neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so.”) but I know. I know that in a couple of years we’re going to regret this ghastly trade. Just like the Francis deal or the Curry deal or the Marbury deal and on and on, this is going to a be a franchise-altering mistake. A mentor of mine once told me, during a moment of despair in my own life when I was practically screaming/sputtering, “But I’m RIGHT! They’re wrong and I’m RIGHT and everyone knows it so…so…I’m RIGHT!!” And he leaned back in his chair, as he was want to do when he was preparing to dole out some great insight, “Bob. Bob…In most instances in life, you have two choices: You can be happy or you can be right. Very, very rarely do you ever get to have both. Which do you prefer?”
I think you can guess what my answer was and continues to be.
But the Friday after the deal went down, I found myself hanging out with my fellow actors at the conclusion of another performance in an overpriced pseudo-Mexican restaurant/bar, nursing a Diet Coke, eyes firmly glued to the TV screen while my comrades drank and made merry, watching Gallo use his wobbly, careening gait to get to the line time and time again, snatching offensive rebounds like he was channeling his inner David Lee, all to the tune of 30 points and 9 rebounds on 14 shots, while going 15-17 from the charity stripe. And I smiled a bemused knowing smile. It was all there — Bob McAdoo and Spalding Gray drowning himself in the East River and summers in Pietrasanta on the beach and my own laughable efforts to transform myself into an athlete and the years of futility and the painful losses/missed opportunities the ‘Bockers have had and all the underdogs and gloriously doomed causes everywhere.
Watching Gallinari excel, I finally understood what Roger Kahn meant when he wrote (about another tragi-comic NY franchise), “We stand in front of a mirror, naked, hearing laughter that includes our own.”