NEW YORK, FEB. 4 -- After last Thursday night's game at Madison Square Garden between the Knicks and Bullets, former New York Coach Stu Jackson, fired earlier this season, skipped merrily past a pack of cynical, doomsday beat reporters.
Jackson, one of many people whose careers have flowered after departing this fabled arena, was smiling broadly. "Hey fellas," said the NBA's new director of operations. "Good to see you all again."
Jackson scurried toward freedom. He left behind a coach, John MacLeod, who would try again to explain one of those nights when the sputtering Knicks had lost to another overachieving side. Somehow, in the course of a few puzzling seasons, the Knicks have devolved from legitimate contenders into serious lottery material and a graveyard for coaches.
In New York, where this sort of digression is usually cause for prompt action, the natives are indeed getting restless. The Knicks are just one-half game ahead of ninth place in the Eastern Conference, and oblivion. Chants of "Al Must Go," directed at General Manager Al Bianchi, are becoming third-quarter rituals. MacLeod, who replaced Jackson after a 7-8 start, is a target by default. If Bianchi goes at the end of the season and the completion of his one-year contract, then MacLeod is sure to follow.
"Tomorrow is another day," said MacLeod, an upbeat Midwesterner a bit out of place in the negativity capital of the world. "We'll put our socks and shoes on, and be heard from before the year is through."
But while MacLeod waxes optimistically, his players are noticeably downbeat. The local media have fingered chemistry problems, substitution vagaries and even Patrick Ewing's alleged leadership failings as reasons for the Knicks' embarrassing 20-25 mark.
The theories are relentless, and quite often farfetched: Power forward Charles Oakley, averaging fewer than eight shots per game, is shooting too much. Mark Jackson, point guard of the future in 1989, is suddenly too slow. Ewing, among the league's top five leaders in points, rebounds and blocks, hasn't stepped up in the fourth quarter.
In truth, this team, no longer young, has been badly depleted of depth and talent, and might not be underachievers at all. Since 1987, when rivals Bianchi and then-coach Rick Pitino took over the club, the Knicks have traded away or dumped more than an entire NBA team -- one that is arguably better than the team that has remained. Washington forward Bernard King, Chicago center Bill Cartwright, San Antonio power forward Sidney Green, San Antonio guard Rod Strickland, Charlotte swingman Johnny Newman and the 22nd pick in the 1989 draft are all gone. Only Oakley and much-injured Kiki Vandeweghe have come in exchange.
For the first time, Ewing has been frustrated enough to demand action from management. Armed with the threat of restricted free agency in June and unrestricted free agency in 1992, Ewing no longer wants to hear how his $4 million-per-year contract is clogging the team's salary cap. "They could go out and get everyone they want right now," Ewing said.
Ewing was particularly depressed Thursday, after watching King take apart the Knicks with a 49-point performance. Ewing never played with King, because the former Georgetown great was injured in the spring of 1987, at the start of King's comeback. Back then, Pitino and Bianchi decided King wouldn't fit into the team's up-tempo system. "I think we would have been very good together," Ewing said. "We'd have two outstanding players we could go to down the stretch."
Instead, the Knicks have only one, and opponents have discovered it is all too easy to sag on Ewing during crunch time. Two seasons ago, when the Knicks finished 12 games ahead of the Bullets and were 35-6 terrors at home, their energy and full-court press drained opponents of all will. After Pitino left, however, Bianchi and Stu Jackson asked the same team to play a half-court style. The Knicks weren't very good at it.
Under MacLeod, the Knicks have tried a modified press and countless lineup permutations. Every active player on the roster has started, with the exception of forward Kenny Walker. Former Maryland star Jerrod Mustaf has gone from backup at center and power forward to starting small forward to the last seat on the bench. "I don't understand it," Mustaf said.
Aging Trent Tucker was resurrected, thrust into the starting lineup at off guard, then forgotten again. Finally, this week, MacLeod announced he would return to the same standard lineup that his predecessor, Jackson, was using. "It's time to settle down and build some chemistry for the playoffs," he said.
Nothing has worked yet, and the Knicks have an awful 10-13 record at the impatient Garden. Bianchi, under great pressure to make a deal before the Feb. 21 trade deadline, insists he will not make a desperate move. Some wonder whether he even is empowered to make a major transaction. "If it's not a good deal, we won't do it," Bianchi said. "I'll put up with the fans, and the chanting. It's all part of New York."
But New York is starting to write off the Knicks, an integral part of the city's sporting consciousness. As the relieved Jackson knows, the team's showbiz owners at Paramount aren't likely to put up with this much longer.