September 25, 2000 - Cripes, it's been ten years already? What anniversary is this: paper, tinfoil, copper, Teflon?
Seriously, don't you feel ten times older, thinking back on it? With his ample hops fast becoming a distant memory, Vince Carter sure looks like he's tacked on a zero to his age, too. But if, like Cher, we could turn back time, we'd take it all back to that simpler era, when "Y2K" was the biggest threat to human civilization, "French Fries" were just french fries, bread was a nickel, and a collection of young high-flyers were emerging in the pros, each with an eye toward seizing the mantle of the greatest player of that generation. If falling short of that goal, at least, they'd gladly take over the nightly highlight reel.
Already the show-stealer of the NBA's 2000 All-Star weekend and now half a world away, in Sydney's Olympics, with the help of some Nike Shox, Vince was about to act upon a whim conceived while watching the high-jump athletes the night before. I remembered the world in the moments before the news arrived in the Northern Hemisphere that something was just witnessed that can only be seen to be believed. "If you haven't seen this," our local sports talk show host barked through my Sony Walkman, on an otherwise mundane, yet bright and sunny weekday afternoon, "you had better get home right now and turn on the news. I won't even try to do it justice. It wouldn't be fair. Get to a TV set and watch it now. And have your VCR set to Record!"
Up to the very moment Vince Carter turned the world of superlative athletic feats upon its axis, heated debates in sports taverns everywhere revolved around the question of whether the greatest pro-sports poster dunk of all time was: "(a) Michael Jordan over Patrick Ewing," or "(b) Scottie Pippen over Patrick Ewing." Poor Patrick! Thankfully for him, Vince Carter was about to make "(c) None of the Above" a very real option.
Now, roll the clock just more than a year further back, to the 1999 draft, and some folks in Gotham were realizing that it may be time to draft a big center that would bring a new lasting legacy to Knicks basketball, anything other than just being dunked on by the best athletes of our time. And the fractured Knicks management team was ready to oblige with a name that would go down in infamy as a symbol of personal, and organizational, futility. A player that was destined to become a laughingstock in New York, even before realizing his destiny as the unfortunate seven-foot-two soul between Vince Carter and two points.
July 1, 1999 – Knicks War Room at Two Penn Plaza, Manhattan
(Cast: Dave Checketts – MSG President, Ed Tapscott – interim GM, Jeff Van Gundy – coach, Ernie Grunfeld – former President/GM, demoted to special consultant April 20)
“So Jeff, tell me… are you over it, finally?” For his query, Ernie Grunfeld receives a finger more pointed than Jeff Van Gundy’s nose.
“Screw you, Ernie! I had to coach my a$$ off to get us to the Finals this year. And I’m not bailing this roster out anymore, not after you let my guys go.”
“WITH THE 11th PICK IN THE 1999 NBA DRAFT…”
“…THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS SELECT…”
“On my way out the door, can’t you be a little gracious I made those moves for you? It’s time for a new approach, man! Besides, Patrick’s era is drawing to a close, too.” Grunfeld settles into the conference room a bit sweaty, not from feuding anew with Van Gundy, or the task at hand, but because he is fresh from a full day of packing his wares. After an illustrious 17-year career playing, commentating, and making personnel decisions, his stint with the Knicks organization ends tomorrow.
“TRAJAN LANGDON OF DUKE UNIVERSITY.”
“What the hell are the Cavs doing?” Van Gundy whispers under his breath, before responding.
“Gracious, Ernie? I’d have been gracious if you didn’t chicken out on the deal Checketts approved with the Warriors for their pick before last year’s draft. For Allan Houston and cash, we’d have had the Rookie of the Year, Vinsanity, right here in the Garden. Half-Man, Half-Amazing, was halfway-here, before YOU in your infinite wisdom blocked the deal! That Sprewell swap was just a make-up trade and you know it! Tell me, Ernie, did you bring me Spree just because I’ve already lost my hair, or because you thought he’d have choked me out by now?”
“Gentlemen, gentlemen! There’s no need for any more disparaging words between you two,” interjects President Dave Checketts, his palms shrugging on his colleagues’ shoulders.
“C’mon… we’re freakin’ Eastern Conference champs! Am I right? The sky’s the limit from here. So let bygones be bygones, shall we? Now, think of today as our Y2K readiness plan. We’re getting the 15th pick, man! We haven’t had a chance to pick this high in almost a decade, and it’s crucial we make the right choice.”
Van Gundy raises another finger, this time in the air. “Well, I am telling you guys, if we’re going into the next millennium the right way, we need a point guard. You wanna talk eras, Ernie? The Charlie Ward era is over. He’s maxed out his potential with us, and I think it’s certain we’ll have William Avery available when we pick. Just imagine the potential leadership we'll have here... another Mark Jackson, only without the big mouth!”
Checketts nods as the secretary knocks on the door. “As much as I love the possibility of bringing Ron Artest here, I think you’re right, Jeff. With all the cash Minnesota’s spending on Brandon and Peeler, no way do they take a guard this high.”
“Mr. Checketts, Ed Tapscott’s on the LAN line from D.C., he’s ready to be conferenced in.”
“There’s your Paper GM,” Grunfeld mumbles to Van Gundy, apparently not far enough from Checketts’ earshot. “I heard that, Ernie!”
“Good evening, gentlemen,” Tapscott offers, receiving “good evenings” in return of various states of genuineness.
“Okay, now I know we’ve rehearsed our game plan already, and we’re in agreement that we’ll take William Avery if he’s available, Ron Artest if he’s not.”
“You’ve got it, Ed,” Van Gundy confirms, and Checketts adds, “I’ve got our PR team preparing our responses for taking Avery over Artest.”
“Now that’s all fine and good, but before we go forward I’ve got one more name to run by you guys.”
Attention turns to the draft board, where Aleksandr Radojevic's name just got scratched off after getting picked by Toronto. “Damn,” ponders Grunfeld, “Toronto’s gonna have a new “twin towers” with Radojevic and that Bender kid.” “Who you got in mind, Ed?”
“I’m thinking we do something we never do, something bold... I say we go European.”
“Ah, Kirilenko!” says Grunfeld.
“Nyet,” Tapscott replies, leaving the Knicks War Room a bit puzzled.
Grunfeld grumbles, “Umm, you know Radojevic just went off the board, right Ed?” “This ain’t a trick, is it Ed?” adds Van Gundy. “You know the Ginobili kid is Argentinian, not Italian, and it’s way too high to take him anyway.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.”
“Who are you talking about, Ed?”
“Frederic Weis,” Tapscott replies, now leaving the Knicks War Room more than a bit puzzled.
“Ed… why are you bringing up names just minutes before we pick?”
“You guys didn’t get my memo with the “Best Center in Europe” SI article attached?”
“We thought you were joking!” Van Gundy retorts. “We’ve seen no tapes of that guy. He’s got a bad back, I hear he’s a softee, won’t work out over there for anybody, and he didn’t bother to come over here to show our scouts what he’s got…”
“But Donnie Nelson from Dallas got a good look at him over the years, and so did I. I met with his agent, Didier Rose, outside of Paris, he’s a stand-up guy. He owns the team, and he reports that his back is just fine.” Grunfeld wonders quietly whether it was something the French put in the cheese or the wine that got to his replacement-in-waiting.
“Hold up,” Van Gundy butts in, laughing. “He’s his agent AND his owner? How do they get away with that over there?”
“Never mind that, Jeff, they’re cool with that in France. Weis isn’t here, but Didier is here in D.C. right now. Trust me, with guaranteed money he’ll be on the first one in camp, showing you all his wondrous skills. Once he arrives, he will be the talk of the rookie camp. Heck, he’s 7-foot-2, it’s not like he can hide! Noone overseas wants to be here in the NBA more than this Weis kid. Don’t worry about the foreign angle! Heck, in Donnie’s first year he had y’all scratching your heads about taking that German kid that high.”
Van Gundy interjects again, “I’m still scratching my shiny dome, Ed. That Nowitzki kid is a shooting forward that can’t shoot!”
“But he’s showing some promise, and that’s all you want out of a project after year one. Look, this guy can come in and can learn toughness and defense from Patrick, and he has time to get groomed for that starting center spot. Over time you can slide Camby over to forward. Just as sure as those twin towers outside your window aren't going anywhere, I'm telling you, nobody’s going to get points over the top of either of those two! I assure you, in a few short years from now, people are not gonna even remember Kandi Man from last year's draft, but they’ll remember the projects that pan out. And this here is the project with the most upside in this year’s draft, at the perfect position when Patrick retires. Heck, he could be such the franchise center for so long here, by the time he retires, Patrick's kid will be ready to play for us!”
The War Room, dumbfounded, continues to listen as Tapscott passionately makes his case for the Frenchman. “You guys want Avery and I understand. But point guards are a dime a dozen these days, you can get young guys like Steve Nash or Derek Fisher on the cheap. Decent centers are a hard commodity to trade for.”
Van Gundy asks, “Well, what about Mutombo? He’ll be a free agent soon.”
Tapscott bursts into laughter. “Dikembe Mutombo? Please. Didn’t you see what our boy Camby did to him in the playoffs? Mark my words, and you can’t see but I’m wagging my finger… no way is he ever coming to the Garden. Besides, if you looked at the article, the Hawks are seriously looking at Weis to do for Mutombo what he could very well do here for Patrick. They’ve got four picks, including the one after ours, so if we don’t take him, they will.”
“WITH THE 13th PICK IN THE 1999 NBA DRAFT, THE SEATTLE SUPERSONICS SELECT… COREY MAGGETTE OF DUKE UNIVERSITY.”
“Slow down with the Blue Devil drafting, already, damn!” Grunfeld thinks to himself. “Corey will be a mainstay in Seattle for as long as the Sonics are around.”
Meanwhile, Tapscott rambles on. “And look at our wing options. Spree’s not going anywhere, the fans will insist that we extend him and Allan Houston. We’ve got plenty of defense, and we’ve got Dennis Scott to hit threes for us, so what is Ron Artest and his hometown fans going to do for the next few years, other than induce headaches for you while he’s buried on the bench?”
"We could just put him in the stands behind us, he can deal with all those hecklers when they get too rowdy," Van Gundy jokes, gesturing as if to say, "never mind" when Checketts looks at him to clarify.
“Well,” Grunfeld admits grudgingly, “you make a strong case for going with a project center. But, I hear Artest is having his people call teams above us and tell them he doesn’t want to be drafted by them, he wants to come play here. How are we going to deal with the backlash, especially if we take somebody no one around here has heard of?” Grunfeld begins to wonder why he should even care in the first place.
“Not to worry, we were going to have this Artest problem anyway when we take Avery. And with his personal “party animal” issues, he was going to drop anyway,” Tapscott responds. “He’s got a fighter’s mentality, sure, but he’s not the kind of guy we need here to win a championship. The media will come around once we explain it to them. Look, I’ve got some talking points for you guys to rehearse when we take Avery, and just in case we have to take Weis, I’ve got you covered as well. Jeff, you tell them that Weis is a quick study and has good, soft hands that allow him to catch and shoot, which is just perfect for your offensive game plans.”
“You do have an offensive game plan, right, Jeff?” snorts Grunfeld. He received a different finger from Van Gundy this time, turned upward. Checketts crowed, “Don’t start, gentlemen!”
“You can give them the old adage about always going with size when in doubt, Jeff. And, Ernie, you’ll say, ‘There was a chance to get a talented big man at the center position, and it was too much to pass up. We're delighted to have a center to work with Patrick, to learn from him and then ultimately, down the road, step into his very, very large shoes.’”
“I’ll let you be the fall guy for that one, Eddie. You make the case for him in public… since you’re so eager to step into my very, very large shoes.” Even Van Gundy bursts into laughter at that.
“Alright, enough with the sideswipes,” Checketts demands, “but let’s all be clear, Ed, we’re taking Avery. Period. There’s no way he doesn’t fall into our laps, the Wolves don’t just stockpile guards for no clear reason.” The War Room nods and grunts in confirmation at Checketts’ declaration. “But Ed, we trust your judgment. If you think we should take this Weis kid ahead of Artest as our fallback, then fine. But let’s not waste any more time on this, we’re taking William Avery, got it?”
“Sounds like a plan. I’ve got it, boss. But I’ll just add that we don’t want to be on the wrong side of history here. We can keep our winning legacy well into the next decade with the selection of Freddy Weis...
"While he’s raw, he always has his head in the game, and I guarantee you, his coming out party to the basketball world will be at the Olympics next year. He’ll be involved in a memorable, spectacular play that will have the SportsCenter guys and the New York media crowing, and have our Knicks fans scratching their heads as to why we didn’t pick this guy. Or… making us look real good if we did. Just like Nowitzki, NBA executives will look back and cry at the missed opportunity to draft Weis. And a decade from now, we’ll be remembered fondly for such a bold move. Like I always say, if you’re going to make a mistake, make a big one.”
“Yeah, whatever. Get your Avery card ready, Ed.” The War Room laughs.
“Alright, gentlemen, I’m signing off. Talk to you guys in a few minutes.”
Van Gundy and Grunfeld look at one another and nod their heads. Grunfeld giggles, “Hey Jeff, how does that song they play on the radio go... 'I Don't Want No Scrubs?'" "You and I don’t agree on much, Ernie, but we both agree that Tapscott has some hare-brained ideas sometimes. Frederic Weis, you gotta be kidding me!”
“I know,” Grunfeld smiles at Van Gundy, genuinely, for the first time in a long while. “At least we know we’re going with…”
“WITH THE 14th Pick in the 1999 NBA DRAFT, THE MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES SELECT – WILLIAM AVERY OF DUKE UNIVERSITY.”
In unison, the Knicks War Room lets out a collective: “@#$%^&*!!!!”