The notion that every player -- or at least every star player -- in the NBA wants to play in New York tickles me.
In the early 2000s, while a Knicks beat writer for the New York Times, I remember being baffled because many of my colleagues and readers thought every skilled free agent was headed to New York -- even though all the Knicks could offer such max-salary talent was the mid-level exception. They thought Grant Hill would leave Detroit for the Knicks (for less coin) and Chris Webber would spurn Sacramento for the Big Apple (and chump change).
Now, New York assumes it's getting LeBron James. At least the Knicks actually have the salary cap space to pull this off. But while New York has a decent shot at LeBron, the idea that LeBron -- or any other great player -- needs New York or harbors this intense desire to play there is a joke.
LeBron, an endorsement king, is already the face of the NBA despite being ringless in tiny Cleveland. The Internet and globalization have largely made where a player plays irrelevant in regards to marketing and popularity. So to suggest LeBron needs New York is nuts. The only thing that can make him bigger is a title, not a town.
New York is not the center, err, mecca of the basketball universe, as advertised. Sure, every player who traipses through the Garden while helping his team wax the Knicks praises the city, telling the local media he'd love to play in New York. But many free agents, not wanting to burn any bridges, do that in every palatable NBA city. Yet in New York it becomes a back page and hysteria ensues.
And where did this idea that the NBA needs the Knicks to be good come from? (Of course, having a contender in the nation's biggest market would be nice, but the league seemed to do pretty well in the 1980s and 2000s when the Knicks were doormats.)
That idea led the conspiratorially minded to think David Stern would fix the lottery to make sure Yao Ming and then James ended up in New York. How'd that theory work out?
Don't get me wrong: I love New York. It's a fabulous city. But that doesn't hold much sway when the best basketball players are deciding where they want to play, especially when someone else can pay more.
Look at last summer. Steve Nash, who lives in New York in the offseason and owes his hallowed status in the game to Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni, toyed with the Knicks but re-signed with Phoenix. Ditto for Hill, who took less money to return to the Suns, and Jason Kidd, who seemed to use the Knicks to get a richer deal from Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
I did not grow up in New York. Neither did most NBA players. And for people who don't grow up in New York, the Knicks are not on their radar. Growing up as a basketball fan, the Knicks were about the 13th team I thought of when it came to the NBA. If I had been an NBA-caliber player, playing for the Knicks would have been the furthest thing from my mind.
I was digging the Lakers, the Sixers, the Bulls, the Pistons, the Spurs -- you know, teams that won. The Celtics, Rockets and Blazers were higher on my list of good franchises than the Knicks.
Why should anyone outside of New York have been a Knicks fan? They were horrible in the '80s, Michael Jordan's punching bag in the '90s and an embarrassment in the 2000s.
When the modern Knicks did reach the Finals in '94, it became a slugfest, Exhibit A for non-artistic, unwatchable basketball.
Even New York's rep for producing great players is overblown. First of all, there only a few recognizable players in the league who are from New York City -- Lamar Odom, Ron Artest, Sebastian Telfair, not to mention Stephon Marbury (just to name a few). And many of them are viewed as underachieving or troubled.
So why in the world would today's young stars grow up dreaming of playing in New York?
Sure, guys love New York, but it has more to do with its hip-hop roots than its hoop roots -- and even its place in hip-hop has waned over the years.
And before you get hyped about LeBron or any other player wearing a Yankees cap, realize that boys and men all over the country are wearing them. Though LeBron is a fan, it's a fashion statement -- like Jay-Z said, he "made the Yankees cap more famous than the Yankees did" -- that often has nothing to do with New York.
I was talking with a couple of NBA guys last year, one a current star and the other a high-profile former Knick. We were talking about where LeBron might go as a free agent. Both insisted he'd stay in Cleveland.
This surprised me because I expected the former Knick to push for New York. But he made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that the only reason to go to the Knicks was if they were paying more money.
"What about playing in the Garden, and the fans, and the prestige of being a Knick?" I asked.
He laughed, then mumbled a curse, then said LeBron should stay in Cleveland.
So much for that Knicks mystique.
You also must realize that Madison Square Garden, the World's Most Famous Arena, is not exactly helping the Knicks' cause. I've heard players, executives and coaches trash the Garden as a dump.
And compared to the new, state-of-the-art arenas that most every other team has, it is pretty unimpressive. Quite frankly, it seems dark and dingy. (This is not lost on Knicks ownership: To its credit, it's spending roughly $800 million on renovations that will be completed in 2014).
The crowd can definitely get hyped, but the only real draw there is that famous actors, actresses and rappers are often in the front row. Otherwise, to most 20- and 30-somethings, it's the place where MJ dropped a double-nickle and where Reggie Miller burned the Knicks in eight seconds.
This may sound like an anti-Knicks column, but I choose to think of it as a reality check. New Yorkers need to realize that nobody's checking for the Knicks; not like the Lakers, the Bulls, the Celtics and others.
Like one of your native sons, Mark Jackson, would say, "You're better than that."
If LeBron comes, more power to you. Enjoy him and support him. And if he brings New York the title, or titles, it's been waiting 37 years for, then maybe, just maybe, the Knicks will become a team youngsters throughout America grow up dreaming of playing for.