It seems fitting on this day that the Knicks and Bulls would be playing one another, a day when the world saw the passing of Malik Taylor, aka Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest. Why, you ask, is it a fitting matchup? Well, you have to go back to Quest’s heyday to get a sense of the thing.
I just turned 45 the other day, which hardly seems possible. Phife passed at the age of 45, which is an especially hurtful and troubling thing for me. We were contemporaries. We shared the world’s stage at the same moments. I was a bit player, and he a main character. When I was in college, Quest performed in our little, dingy gym in New Jersey. Phife took the stage first and then, suddenly, from behind the curtain burst Q-Tip, the single greatest entrance I’ve ever witnessed in person. Those were the days of the Pat Riley Knicks. It’s when we were on top, or damn near the top anyway. They were the days of our most intense rivalry with the Chicago Bulls, who boasted the singular talent of Michael Jordan and the particular genius of his coach, Phil Jackson.
Phife was a big Knicks fan. His lyrics were sometimes peppered with business about the team….from “Baby Phife’s Return”:
The mad man Malik makes MC’s run for Milk of Magnesia
Maybe that’ll ease ya
Master of this microphone macking, master as in great
I’ll have your brain going in circles as my style tends to modulate
I’m making moves, never movies, that’s why y’all MCs lose me
Retrace, won’t, so your stubborn like groupies
Kid, you know my flavor, I rip this whole jam apart
Fuck around and have your heart, like Jordan had Starks
While you playing hokey pokey, there’s no time to be dokey
Cause I come out to play every night like Charles Oakley
It’s been a tough season. The Knicks have no rivalries except with their own 20 year legacy of humiliation and futility. It’s a legacy they wrestle with even as Kristaps Porzingis offers hope of a future that seemed impossible a year ago. It’s a legacy they can’t escape as every move the organization makes is filtered through a shit-stained lens of Scott Laydens and Isiah Thomases and Stephon Marburies. It’s pushed as the dominant narrative in the big media accounts of the Knicks unfolding drama. Cynicism and mockery are the main ingredients in that fare. I rage against the machine of those dysfunctional narratives because I think they’re mainly self-serving to the hacks and loudmouths who get attention for their work by stoking the angst of emotional Knicks fans. There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical. There are plenty of reasons to be measured in your hopes that the franchise “gets it” and is moving in the right direction. Only time will ultimately tell that story. The rest is just masturbation. The truth is always more nuanced. We’re walking an organizational razor’s edge, but it doesn’t mean we can’t do it. It means we have to be careful and step delicately.
Phife reminds us of a time when we did have a rivalry. We’ve had a few great ones over the years. Clyde and company had the Celtics, the Bullets, and the Lakers. Ewing and company had the Pacers, the Bulls, and the Heat. Those days were filled with optimism and the sort of arrogance that marks New York as a bulldog in a kennel full of beagles. Oakley embodied that spirit, as did Mason and Starks. There isn’t a single Knick with that kind of temperament today. The game has changed, sure, but toughness is still a pre-requisite. Arrogance goes a long way as long as you can back it up. Calderon is soft. Afflalo is soft. Melo is pretty soft. Porzingis is still soft, although you have a sense he’s built tough somewhere inside. Lopez is a nice guy. He’s tough-ish, but he doesn’t have enough to define the whole team on his own. Bulls-Knicks was a defining rivalry of the 1990s. Bulls-Pistons shared a similar dynamic. The Knicks and Heat engaged in a terribly unfriendly rivalry that helped create the NBA’s fighting protocols. We had a coach who did this:
The Bulls are in a bit of limbo. They lost some of their tough with the departure of Tom Thibodeau and the move away from Joakim Noah as a primary player. Fred Hoiberg was called out earlier in the season by his own player, Jimmy Butler, for being too soft on the team. The Knicks employed Derek Fisher as head coach, and while he was a tough player, he seemed to be a calm, cool, collected sort of guy on the sidelines and in the locker room. They replaced him with Kurt Rambis, who resembles a marshmallow with glasses, in both appearance and demeanor. Neither of these teams is particularly tough, and really nobody takes either of them very seriously. The Bulls have talent but few guts. The Knicks have almost no talent and even less guts. It’s hard to say where the Bulls are going to go from here, with Pau Gasol entering free agency, Derek Rose a shadow of his former self, and no real identity. The Knicks, at least, have room to sculpt themselves into something better. They can jettison their trash across the next couple of seasons, but they have a couple of VERY critical choices to make that might define the whole damn thing. 1) They need to absolutely nail the head coach hire, and 2) they need to add a lot of toughness. If defense is the key, and everything Phil Jackson has every said tells you it is, the coach and the new players have to be tough. The press and its zombie throng will focus and fixate on the Triangle, but we’ll be alright if Phil Jackson looks for defense and toughness as a winning formula. The system (aka The Triangle) is going to be fine as an offense. It’s the defense that will turn the franchise around. AND…it will bring back something this city desperately needs and want.
Take it from the Five Foot Assassin.