If the Knicks had hoped that Sunday afternoon’s game against the San Antonio Spurs would be a return to a semblance of normalcy, that notion did not last long.
With less than four minutes gone in the first quarter, the Knicks’ owner, James L. Dolan, who has been in the middle of the most recent mayhem, sat down at his usual courtside seat at Madison Square Garden. But instead of just sitting with his chief spokesman, Barry Watkins, as is normally the case, he was flanked instead by two former Knicks stars — Bernard King and Latrell Sprewell, with another alumnus, Larry Johnson, just one seat away.
King played for the Knicks before Dolan was on the scene. Johnson currently works for the team. And while their presence near Dolan was notable, that took second billing to the fact that Sprewell, of all people, was beside Dolan.
Sprewell had a dramatic falling out with the Knicks and Dolan after he was traded in 2003, including an obscenity-laced tirade directed at Dolan on his first visit back to the Garden as a visiting player. Now retired, he had not been back to the Garden in more than a dozen years, but there he was on Sunday. As were King and Johnson, and a number of other Knicks from the past.
The message was clear. Four days after Charles Oakley, another former Knicks star, was led from the arena in handcuffs and two days after Dolan indefinitely barred him from the Garden and characterized him as a troubled person, the Knicks were on a full-scale public relations offensive.
Dolan had come under enormous criticism for the way Oakley was treated during the Wednesday incident and for the negative statements he made about Oakley, including an implication that Oakley is an alcoholic.
The Knicks had already created huge image problems for themselves through their generally awful play on the court and from the critical barbs that the team’s president, Phil Jackson, has kept aiming at the team’s lone star, Carmelo Anthony.
So Sunday was less about the game and more about the Knicks trying to change the subject and create some feel-good vibes in an arena that has so few of them when basketball is played. The images of eight former Knicks, including Sprewell, were flashed on the Jumbotron as the game progressed.
Oh, yeah: the game. Although the Spurs are the anti-Knicks, a model organization that has won five N.B.A. titles over the last two decades while the Knicks, under Dolan, have often imploded, it was the Knicks who came out on top on Sunday, beating San Antonio, 94-90, for just their seventh victory in their last 27 games.
The victory came after an ugly loss to the Denver Nuggets on Friday at the Garden, a game that prompted Knicks Coach Jeff Hornacek to rip into his team for a lack of effort, especially on defense.
Maybe Hornacek’s words had an effect. Sunday was just the second time in the last 16 games that the Knicks did not allow at least 100 points to an opponent. Anthony had a solid-enough game, leading the Knicks with 25 points.
It is unclear, however, whether anyone will notice. For this game was more about the sideshow that the Knicks have become as a franchise, and the notion that they do not treat past and current players with respect.
Enter Sprewell. After the Knicks traded him to Minnesota, he returned to play them at the Garden on Dec. 23, 2003. At the time, he was frothing mad at Dolan, who he believed had helped push him out of New York.
Sprewell scored 31 points in Minnesota’s victory in that game but put much of his energy into yelling at Dolan. At one point that night, in the fourth quarter, Sprewell was so mad that he spent roughly 30 seconds shouting profanities about the Knicks’ owner.
The enmity Sprewell displayed that night and that has seemed to live on since then made his courtside appearance on Sunday more than a little startling.
A Knicks official, who was not authorized to talk about the matter publicly, maintained that the Knicks had been working for months to get Sprewell to return, although his presence on Sunday, in the wake of the Oakley controversy, hardly seemed like a coincidence.
The Knicks, the official said, did not offer Sprewell any inducement to appear, including any sort of job with the team. Whether his presence, along with the other Knicks alumni, did anything to soften the problems the team has created for itself is a matter of conjecture.
Spike Lee was also courtside on Sunday, as he just about always is for Knicks games at the Garden. And he was wearing an Oakley jersey.
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