Julius Randle had just one of the worst games of his career — eight points on 4-for-13 shooting in 27 minutes.
It was a nightmarish start to the Julius Randle era in New York as the Knicks plunged into a 1-6 record after a 113-92 beating at the hands of the Sacramento Kings. They trailed by as many as 32.
Randle expected it to be tough. He knew what he signed up for. But the pain hit him differently when his first season with the Knicks began to unravel.
The weight of the expectation that came with the $63 million worth of three-year contract he just signed a few months earlier is starting to pull him down.
On that night of November 3, 2019, the seed of what is shaping up to be one of the most memorable seasons in the Knicks’ franchise history was planted.
Randle was wallowing in pain in a restaurant somewhere in Manhattan. Then his phone rang. It was his agent, Aaron Mintz from the Creative Artists Agency.
Randle picked up the call. A few moments later, Mintz, along with his CAA associates Leon Rose and Wesley William, more famously known as ‘World Wide Wes,’ sat on the table listening to Randle’s ranting.
Kenny Payne, Randle’s coach and confidant at the University of Kentucky, was also there that night as the Wildcats were in town set to play the Michigan State University a couple of nights later in The Garden.
“They’re like picking me up because I was down,” Randle recalled that night on ESPN NBA Insider Adrian Wojnarowski’s podcast.
They quizzed Randle.
The former Los Angeles Lakers lottery pick was already tired of losing. He hadn’t been to the playoffs in his first five years in the league up to that point.
“What is it that you see? What are you feeling? What’s going on?”
The season has just begun. But it felt like an exit interview.
Randle poured out his heart to Rose and co. He was complaining about a lot of things that’s been bothering him on his new team.
“Wes really took it to heart,” Randle said. “Honestly, they saved me.”
Four months later, Rose became the Knicks’ new team president. Wesley and Payne soon followed.
With that heart-to-heart talk back in November still fresh on Wesley’s mind, he called up Randle.
“What do you need to become an All-Star? What do you need to lead this team,” Wesley asked Randle.
“One of the things that I really told him is [that] I need a coach who will hold me accountable, a coach who will push me,” Randle said.
Enter Tom Thibodeau, a no-nonsense coach who has built a winning culture founded on accountability everywhere he went but whose reputation has been hit because of the same demanding, old-school style.
But Randle and Thibodeau hit it off. It was a match made in heaven. Thibodeau was effusive in his praise. Randle used the past season debacle as his fuel. He reported to Thibodeau’s minicamp with his motor running on fumes.
“I really think that’s where me and Thibs, from the very beginning, hit it off,” Randle said. “He saw how serious I am about my craft. I know that’s how he is. He’s serious about his craft. He loves basketball. I love basketball. I want to get better. I want to improve. I want to be coached.”
Then Randle turned from being New York’s most unwanted to most beloved. The city craved for a star. Randle became one.
All because of his maniacal work ethic that perfectly matched with Thibodeau’s demanding style and culture of accountability.
“For me, it’s about winning. In this league, you have a lot of freedom in certain situations. One of the things I did last summer when the season was over was to look at my tapes. I didn’t want to,” Randle said.
He begrudgingly watched his tapes last season. It was painful to watch. But it was the only way to effect real change. You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.
”You look and see you’re getting away with things that you shouldn’t get away with,” Randle said. “Or you’re not being coached the way you should be as far as pushing me. And that’s what I told Leon, and that’s what I told Wes — I want a coach that’s really going to hold us all accountable for every night that we stepped out there on the court, that winning is the most important thing.”
That’s Thibodeau’s tenet. Winning is everything.
“That’s really what this team is all about. That no matter what’s going on throughout the season, whatever it’s thrown at us — injuries, tough schedule — we always found a way to win.
Randle and the Knicks went through hell.
From the long nights where he heard boos every time his spin moves turned into turnovers to the best nights of his life hearing chants of M-V-P at The Garden, Randle has come a long way.
Fate has a funny way of writing destiny. And Randle can circle back to that one fateful night in November.
“It just really came full circle,” Randle said. A year ago, at that start of the season, it was tough. A lot of things in the league are about opportunity and that kind of stuff. It really came together — coaching, opportunity, and the team and how we believe in each other, and how Thibs has everybody buying in.”
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