Plenty of Heat in the young NBA season

The Heat are coming to New York to play the Knicks, renew a rivalry, and highlight -- according to dignitaries assembled in Manhattan on Thursday -- an NBA season that is off to a great start.

NBA commissioner David Stern, ESPN head George Bodenheimer, broadcasters Jeff Van Gundy, Mark Jackson, Mike Breen and Mark Jones, as well as a number of retired Knicks (Allan Houston, Anthony Mason, John Starks) and former Heat player P.J. Brown were loaded with good news (TV ratings are up 30 percent! The game is great! 3-D broadcasts! The Knicks aren’t terrible anymore!) and some hype for tomorrow night’s Heat at Knicks game.

Peppered throughout was a little cold hard realism from straight talkers like Stern, Mason and Van Gundy.

“We didn’t win all the games. But we won all the fights.”

-Jeff Van Gundy on the Knicks-Heat rivalry

The audience at the Good Morning America studios in Times Square was mostly ESPN and NBA staffers and sponsors. The event was hosted by Jones. It was billed as the first inaugural “chalk talk.”

But there was far more talk of Jeff Van Gundy hanging off Alonzo Mourning’s leg in that 1998 fight than breaking down the side screen/roll.

Before Van Gundy took the stage, Jones asked Brown to name his most memorable moment of the Heat vs. Knicks rivalry. Mason and Starks immediately started cracking up.

Brown said it had to be “Jeff Van Gundy.”

He didn’t even have to explain the event. The name, the event, and the hilarity are one.

One of the bigger squabbles between the Heat and the Knicks was between P.J. Brown and Charlie Ward, two winners of NBA citizenship awards and, by reputation, two of the nicest men to have played in the NBA.

Brown says they’re friends now, and if he could turn back the clock he’d have done things differently. “Especially when you’ve got kids,” Brown explains, saying they have “got this YouTube stuff. Call that a ‘teachable moment.’”

When Van Gundy took the stage, he expressed no such regrets, and recounted how this very morning they bumped into each other in the hotel workout room.

“We were staring each other down,” he said with a twinkle in his eye, before claiming the pair had to be separated for fear Stern would suspend them for the chalk talk.

As long as the topic was Heat vs. Knicks, rivalries, though, Van Gundy was clear: The current teams are not rivals, and have not had the playoff showdowns that would make them so. But back when the two teams faced each in four straight years of long, hard playoff series, he says, the feelings ran hot.

“The animosity,” Van Gundy says, “was real. I wouldn’t even talk to my brother, who was an assistant in Miami. We thought they were a bunch of arrogant guys and they thought the same about us.”

Unprovoked, Van Gundy added: “We might not have won all the games, but we won all the fights.”

“I thought shutting people down was pretty.”

--Anthony Mason on the Knicks’ ugly style of basketball when he played

The NBA has been talking about the merits of a higher scoring, more eye-pleasing game, such as that espoused by current Knicks’ coach Mike D’Antoni.

The Knicks, points out Van Gundy, “absolutely carved up the NBA’s best defense” on Wednesday night. Van Gundy says the Celtics are the best team in the NBA right now, but that doesn’t mean every player on their roster is perfect. “If Semih Erden had stayed on Stoudemire,” he says, “Stoudemire’d still be scoring now.”

But who can complain about watching a team score an impressive 118 points?

Anthony Mason, that’s who.

I think the game has gotten real soft. I think it has softened up a lot. … Somebody who has pride in defense, and who has played the mano a mano thing, they don’t respect a game at 130-132. I mean, it’s almost like no defense.”

“I thought shutting people down was pretty.”

“I was actually more worried about Boston.”

--Allan Houston, Knicks’ employee, on facing the Heat

John Starks says that no matter how well the Heat are playing, James can count on a chilly reception at Madison Square Garden: “It’s not going to be pretty.”

Meanwhile, Knick partisans are game in predicting a Knick victory tomorrow. “I was actually more worried about Boston,” says Houston. “I don’t think [the Heat] have an answer for Amare.”

On a contrary note, Van Gundy was asked how the Knicks can prepare to guard James and Wade: “Church?”

Then he added that there may be a way for New York to beat the favored Heat: “Take away free throws and layups, and make it a jumpshooting contest. I think the Knicks can win a jumpshooting contest.”

“If it’s a high-scoring game,” says Mason, “I see the Knicks winning.”

Brown, closely identified with the Heat organization, is unmoved: “We won ten in a row. Tomorrow’s going to be 11.”

Mason -- a vociferous proponent of the Knicks’ old grind-it-out style, picks his words carefully when asked if a Mike D’Antoni team can win a title. “I don’t know,” he says, with a tone of voice that suggests he really means “no.”

“You gotta play D. Things slow down in the playoffs. If they can play D, though, keep people to 100 or so, then they can score like crazy. 118 on the Celtics. If the Knicks play D, I don’t think nobody can beat them.”

“It’s all gelling.”

--David Stern on the young NBA season

Asked why TV ratings are up so sharply, Stern points out that a bad economy can actually inspire more people to watch television at home. But his answer starts with the extraordinary interest touched off by LeBron James and the Heat over the summer.

“It tipped off with a great deal of interest about the Heat, about the decision,” says Stern. “It seems to have gone from there, and the storylines that are unfolding are not necessarily about the Heat but about San Antonio, about New Orleans’ start, about the Knicks’ start, the Lakers’ start and then stumbling a little bit, it’s across the board. A whole variety of storylines that have given our fans the opportunity to look at our players.”

“It’s all gelling.”

Stern is also pleased with how little players are complaining to referees since the institution of new technical foul rules.

“There is an enormous amount of support from around the league, from people I don’t want to identify,” says Stern. “People are saying it’s great. Our players are playing, which is what they do so well, and the focus is on playing.” (Anthony Mason on the new technical foul guidelines: “I think it’s ridiculous.”)

Van Gundy says that the Heat remain a major storyline: “Even as I was moronic enough to predict they’d win 73 games, I still think they’re a championship team.” Their slow start, he says, had a lot to do with a tough early schedule, combined with the reality that in the early going, Dwyane Wade played “way below his standard.”

If the Heat’s three stars, James, Wade and Chris Bosh, play well, Van Gundy says “they’ll be in the Eastern conference finals against the Celtics, and they’ll take their chances from there.”

“I’m working hard to see whether there can be basketball next year. “

--David Stern on a potential lockout

For all the talk about fights and rivalries, the real NBA fight of the moment is between the NBA and the players union.

There is a potential lockout on the horizon for the NBA, which could put a damper on a lot of Stern’s good news. For instance, NBA players have been approving a measure allowing decertifcation of their union – an aggressive step (designed to inspire new kinds of federal oversight of the league) the union may choose to take as bargaining heats up.

“There’s a playbook that’s normally observed,” Stern says of sports labor squabbles. “That stuff’s playing out as expected.”

The union has said a lockout next summer is a virtual certainty. Does Stern agree?

“I’m working hard to see whether there can be basketball next year. Until there isn’t, I remain optimistic that there will be.”