Starks, Not ‘Melo

March 2011, The New York Knicks acquired Carmelo Anthony.

On the surface, this was great news. For the first time since Patrick Ewing roamed the paint, it The Knicks had a legit franchise player; a 25-points-a-night scorer; a guy who had led his team to an NCAA Championship; in short, a star.

In a fortuitous turn of events, I happened to be in New York on business the day of ‘Melo’s first game as a Knick; my hotel a stone’s throw from Madison Square Garden. I had to visit an ATM to get the kind of cash the scalpers were looking for (I never carry that kind of cash) and soon enough I was seated in the upper rows of Garden for a historic game.

As much buzz as there was around Anthony’s arrival in New York, let’s be clear that there was also a fair amount of skepticism. A collection of lesser known players, many of them from abroad, collectively nicknamed “The European Union” had played team ball and brought the Knicks back to playoff contention over the last two years. A goodly portion of these players got shipped elsewhere to bring Anthony into town.

The new-look Knicks struggled that first night, and while they did ultimately pull off the win, it was far from decisive—just edging out the lowly Milwaukee Bucks in the final seconds of regulation.

That very same night at the Garden, a ceremony took place at half time to honor great Knicks of the past. Among those honored was John Starks.

John Starks. A hothead. A streaky shooter. The kind of player who probably had more fire than talent, but who had enough fire that when he got going and channeled all that piss and vinegar, he was among the very best in the basketball world.

The crowd at the Garden gave Starks a standing ovation that night, and there’s little wonder why. Although he had his moments when he had let The Big Apple down (e.g., an utter collapse in the final game of the 1994 Finals), he was the sort of player that the just same electrified a fan base, carrying the team on his shoulders for a full rollercoaster ride of ups, downs, and out-of-control moments. He was exactly the sort of player who could rally a crowd behind the Knicks for storied, oddly personal rivalries with The Indiana Pacers and later The Miami Heat.

In a nutshell, he was New York.

On paper, a player like Anthony is a safer better than a player like Starks. He’s a better scorer. He’s more consistent.

But he doesn’t really capture anyone’s imagination.

We live in an NBA era in which profound scorers like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Kobe Bryant have embraced superstar pacts; sacrificing individual statistics to ally themselves with other great players in pursuit of championships. Anthony is an outlier as a player who seems content to score, score, score and bend a team to his will (see the departure of coach Mike D’Antoni) with little regard for whether his squad ever makes it past the first round of the playoffs.

Anthony’s shortcomings went on display when the last year’s greatest NBA phenomenon took hold: Linsanity.

On a Knicks team plagued with injuries (benching many, including Anthony) unlikely hero Jeremy Lin got some minutes. The Harvard grad averaged 22.5 points in 12 starts, leading New York to a 9-3 record (a far better clip than their sub-.500 record up to that point). He enjoyed the kind of transcendent sports story that reaches well beyond Knicks fans, or NBA fans, or even sports fans in general, to the general populace. For about a month, he was the biggest story in basketball.

That’s how you capture the imagination. That’s how you make people believe.

Behind the scenes, there was more to the situation than Lin’s excellent play. It was the synergy between his game and the type of ball Coach D’Antoni had previously built his name off—high-octane, run-and-gun basketball. Lin ran. Lin passed. Lin scored. The Knicks won.

Then Anthony came back. He insisted on running the slower, half-court offense, centered around him touching the ball on every play. Management took his side.

D’Antoni left.

Lin lost his luster, before getting injured and sitting out the last leg of the season.

The Knicks limped into the playoffs and got swept in the first round.

This year, Lin will have a chance to prove that his abbreviated star turn in New York was no fluke when he laces up his sneakers for the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference. That’s right, the Knicks’ greatest “home-grown” star of the last decade or more has left town.

And The Knicks? They’ll carry on. Anthony at the helm, Amar’e Stoudamire and Tyson Chandler backing him up, and a cast of 1990s and early 2000s NBA all-stars behind them (Jason Kidd, Rasheed Wallace; former-Knick-favorites-come-home Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m hardly an expert on today’s NBA, much less on what makes Anthony tick, or what might lie beneath the surface of this New York bench. I hope I’m wrong when I predict little better than .500 record and another first-round exit from the playoffs for The Knicks this season.

I hope, but I don’t believe.