Unsung Knick History – How the “Marion Flu” Ailed the Knicks
This is the twenty-ninth in a series (of indefinite length and regularity) of examinations into different games, events and decisions that impacted Knicks history in some way, shape or form. Stories that are not as famous as, say, “The Dunk” or Willis Reed playing Game 7, but still have a place in Knicks history, especially for die-hard fans. Here is an archive of all the stories featured so far.
As of right now, due to the Houston Rockets currently being on the outside of the Western Conference playoff race, the New York Knicks will be making a pick in the teens for the first time in over a decade (as they were either picking in the single digits because they were awful, picking in the 20s because they were good or just not picking at all because they traded their pick). Actually, they’ll be picking in the teens either way, it just matters where in the teens (if the Rockets make it to the playoffs, their pick will be worse). In any event, the last time the Knicks drafted in the teens, they infamously picked the French center Frédéric Weis, who never even made it to the NBA and is now best known (besides being a wasted pick by the Knicks) as the guy who Vince Carter posterized in the 2000 Summer Olympics. That pick was particularly notable because the Knicks passed over St. Johns University star Ron Artest, who went to the Chicago Bulls with the next pick.
A reader named Chico asked me the other day what the reason was behind that pick, so today we’ll discuss how the “Marion flu” made the Knicks sick for years to come.
In June of 1999, the Knicks were still flying high from their dramatic run to the NBA Finals. As the #8 seed, the Knicks were drafting 15th in the first round. Meanwhile, St. Johns forward Ron Artest had declared for the draft and was hoping to be drafted by the New York Knicks. The Queens native was so pumped up for the draft that more than 60 friends and family of Artest had chartered a bus to be at Madison Square Garden to see where Artest would end up. Everyone was privately hoping for New York.
The Knicks had fired their general manager and team president, Ernie Grunfeld, at the end of the 1999 season and his temporary replacement was Ed Tapscott, but naturally, Madison Square Garden president Dave Checketts was heavily involved in the running of the team.
When Weis’ name was called out, Artest’s entourage booed and when Artest was announced with the next pick, as he went to the stage you could tell that he was still a bit shocked (and a bit angry). ”I was like ‘Thanks, whatever, I’m in Chicago.’ I’ve never seen the big guy play. They need a center. Patrick is about to be gone. His knee is gone.” Artest is, of course, referring to Knicks center Patrick Ewing, who had missed most of the Eastern Conference Finals and all of the NBA Finals and was certainly on the down slope of his legendary career.
Obviously Weis was drafted specifically with the intent of being the Knicks center of the future. Tapscott spoke of the pick a year later: “I don’t feel I have to defend my draft. There was a need for a big man and he was the best big man available at that time. The logic behind the pick has not changed. There is a luxury tax and with little cap room it is difficult to just sign a big man. Teams will have to start developing players. I know that is tough to do in New York. But the logic hasn’t changed. Only the circumstances have.”
In addition, the Knicks already had Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell, so Artest did not fit a need.
However, the Knicks actually had reasons other than position for skipping over Artest. In fact, had they not taken Weis, their next choice would not have been Artest! In his book about the years following the trade of Patrick Ewing, Living Without Ew, Marc Berman interviewed Tapscott, and Tapscott’s thoughts of the draft echoed comments made by Dave Checketts, as well.
Both men were worried about whether Artest could handle playing for his hometown team. They both knew that Artest desperately wanted to play for the Knicks, but they were unsure if that desire was not symptomatic of a certain instability. In Berman’s book, he tells the story about how the Knicks had scheduled a workout with Artest and fellow prospect Shawn Marion (who ended up being drafted by the Phoenix Suns at #9). A week earlier, the pair had had a workout for another team, and Marion had done extremely well against Artest. When Artest arrived at the facility for the workout, he said he could not go through with the workout as he had a stomachache.
Artest re-scheduled and had a very good workout for the Knicks (sans Marion). However, many in the Knicks organization, fairly or unfairly, began to term Artest’s illness as the “Marion flu,” as they felt that he was so desperate to look good in front of the Knicks that he didn’t want to risk Marion making him look, well, not good.
So whether their reservations were accurate or not, the Knicks actually had Artest not only behind Weis, but had they not taken Weis they were prepared to take Xavier University forward James Posey, who ended up going #18. Posey has had a strong NBA career, so it sure would be interesting to imagine him on those Van Gundy Knicks.
Van Gundy, for what it’s worth, was a fan of Artest’s (obviously).
So there you go, Chico, that’s the story behind the Knicks skipping over Artest!
Thanks to Marc Berman for the information!
If you folks dig these stories, you’d probably also get a kick out of my Sports Legends Revealed site. There is an archive of the ones about basketball here. I also have one Sports Legend featured every Tuesday at the LA Times.
If you have any suggestions for future Unsung Knicks History pieces, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org! I’d prefer you share your suggestions via e-mail rather than in the comments section, so we can keep them a surprise! Thanks!