It was 2001, and the Knicks and the were tied, 2-2, in a best-of-five first-round series. On the eve of Game 5, they reported for practice at SUNY-Purchase, only to find trapezes, balance beams and jugglers on their basketball court.
“We got kicked out for a circus class,” , then the Knicks’ coach, recalled in a telephone interview, his voice still tinged with indignation.
“We couldn’t practice. We had to go to a side court, like the rec league at the , because the circus class wouldn’t move its time.”
It was early May, the air was sweltering and the gymnasium was not air-conditioned. Needless to say, Van Gundy’s team got little done that day.
The next night, Toronto took a 93-89 victory at Madison Square Garden and sent the Knicks into a decade-long tailspin. The franchise has not won a playoff game since.
A new era is set to begin, with Amar’e Stoudemire, and Chauncey Billups leading the Knicks out of the wilderness and back to the postseason. Game 1 will be next weekend, in either Boston or Miami.
The Knicks’ last token playoff appearance, anchored by Marbury in 2004, ended in a 4-0 sweep by . That leaves 2001 as the last fleeting moment of spring glory.
It was a series of controversy, crisis and , and the Knicks’ first postseason in the post-Ewing era.
They were smaller, quicker and flashier than previous Knicks teams, with and forming a potent perimeter scoring punch.
and , capable but undersized, filled the enormous gap left by , who had been traded the previous summer.
and provided the playmaking.
It was not an overpowering roster, but the Knicks still carried the pride and grit of the 1990s and scrapped their way to a 48-34 record, fourth best in the Eastern Conference.
The Raptors, who won 47 games, were riding the pyrotechnic talent of Carter, who averaged 27.6 points. Toronto’s muscular frontcourt featured Antonio Davis and the former Knick , who was traded for Camby three years earlier.
“That was the first year where our physicality wasn’t kind of our advantage anymore,” Houston recalled recently.
Initially, the Knicks’ greatest concern was a late-season swoon. They lost four of their last seven games, with Larry Johnson missing the last six because of back problems. Camby was coping with a sore hip.
Then came the distractions.
A week before the playoffs, comments attributed to Ward in a were criticized as anti-Semitic and drew a rebuke from Commissioner . Although he apologized, Ward was booed at home in Game 1.
The Knicks won the series opener, 92-85, with Houston scoring 23 points and Sprewell holding Carter to 13 points and 5-of-22 shooting. Camby grabbed 18 rebounds and blocked 4 shots. It was the Knicks’ last unfettered moment of elation.
Hours after the game, Camby learned that his mother and two sisters were being held hostage at knifepoint in their Hartford-area home. He rushed to the scene in the early-morning hours and watched the drama unfold as the police negotiated with and eventually arrested the assailant.
“He’s emotionally distraught,” Camby’s business manager, Rick Kaplan, said the next day.
Camby played in Game 2 but was a f, finishing with 2 points and 2 rebounds as the Knicks were routed, 94-74.
“Frankly, I made a mistake,” Van Gundy said of playing Camby. “He said he was O.K., but I could tell he wasn’t. He was trying to tough it out for the team. But I should have done that one differently.”
After a stellar Game 1, Camby averaged just 4.7 rebounds the rest of the series and missed Game 3.
Looking back, Houston said there was “an emotional void” for both Camby and his concerned teammates.
“Marcus was so undervalued on those teams,” Houston said. “I think Spree and I got a lot of the spotlight, but Marcus, he was like the soul and the heart.”
The Knicks won Game 3 without Camby, as Houston and Sprewell combined for 44 points. Game 4, scoring 32 points in a 100-93 victory that tied the series. — who had been traded by the Knicks for Jackson in February — scorched his former team for 25 points.
Carter struck again in Game 5, with 27 points, and Childs hit several key shots as the Raptors at the Garden — the Knicks’ first first-round exit since 1991.
As it turned out, it was also the end of their glory years. Johnson, who missed the entire series, retired that year. Van Gundy resigned in December. In the off-season, Houston signed a $100 million contract that became a payroll albatross after his .
The rest of the decade was a blur of ill-conceived trades, bloated contracts, infighting and general mayhem.
Next weekend, at long last, the Knicks will get the chance to create a new story line and put to rest the ghosts of the last decade.
“We lost to the Raptors?” the director said when asked about the Knicks’ last meaningful playoff run. “We lost to the Raptors? How? I don’t even remember that. That tells you how bad I wanted to forget it.”