The story behind Fred from Fresh Meadows: A Knicks Memoir

What started as a diversion during the Covid-19 pandemic grew into a passion.

That’s how the fascinating book Fred From Fresh Meadows: A Knicks Memoir took a life on its own.

Fred Cantor, the author of the book, is a New Yorker and a retired lawyer. The New York Knicks have been such a big part of his life that he thought of writing about his favorite team at the height of the global pandemic last year.

Without Knicks basketball for most of last year, Cantor killed time by remembering the team that captured his imagination when he was just Fred, the kid from Fresh Meadows, Queens.

“The book started out as a personal project to transport me from the pandemic. I am 67 with underlying health conditions, so I have been essentially confined to home since the beginning of March. I enjoy online historical research and writing—and the Knicks are obviously a major passion of mine—so this proved to be a project that occupied my time in a major way; the day would fly by and I would forget what was going on around us,” Cantor told Empire Sports Media.

Book for a Cause

As Cantor put all those memories together spanning six decades of Knicks’ fandom, he thought he has something that will resonate with a broader audience. Positive feedback from his old friends, some of whom are published writers, was all he needed to publish his memoir into a book. And it’s not just an ordinary book because all of its proceeds will go to the John Starks Foundation, whose mission is to provide “monetary grants to NY tri-state and Tulsa area college-bound high school seniors who demonstrate academic excellence, financial need and a commitment to community service.”

This is not the first time that Cantor has been involved with a creative project for a cause. He was also the co-author of a photo history book on Fresh Meadows that is part of Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America Series. They earmarked 100% of their authors’ royalties to go to the Queens Library Foundation to benefit the local Fresh Meadows library branch.

For this Knicks memoir, he went with a charity that is close to the team’s heart.

“I chose the John Starks Foundation because I wholeheartedly believe in its mission of helping college-bound students in financial need, and naturally I was a big fan of John’s play and work ethic when he was with the Knicks during their successful run in the 1990s,” Cantor said.

A Walk Down The Memory Lane

The From Fresh Meadows: A Knicks Memoir was released in November last year in partnership with The Strickland Press.

The book puts readers into a time machine where Cantor entertainingly walked with them down the memory lane. He masterfully weaved his personal life’s twists and turns with the Knicks’ highs and lows—from the drafting of Art Heyman and “Here Comes Willis!” game to Linsanity and the insanity of being a Knicks fan.

To this day, Cantor is still in possession of his first basketball heroes and Knicks’ memorabilia from his childhood years.

“I still have the faded autographs (in pencil) of Art Heyman, Wilt Chamberlain, and Jerry Lucas side by side from the 1963 Maurice Stokes Benefit Game and I still have the autographs (in pen) of Jerry Lucas and Walt Bellamy side by side from the Maurice Stokes Benefit Game that happened in 1964 or 1965,” Cantor said.

“I have kept a variety of memorabilia over the years—not that I thought it was going to be worth something; it was really for sentimental reasons.  But, when we sold our house in 2017 and downsized, I did get rid of a bunch of sports-related stuff, including a number of old programs.  But I still have a couple of programs from the 1960s and the 1973 NBA Finals program, among others,” he added.

Most Memorable Knicks Moment

Cantor’s sharp recollection coupled with obsessive-compulsive attention to detail is what makes this book a must-have for the old Knicks fans who want to relive the team’s past glory and even for the young Knicks fans who want to dive into the franchise history.

“I wrote the first draft in roughly six weeks (including doing revisions as I completed that draft). But naturally, I worked on further editing in the weeks and months after that as well as fact-checking, which included even watching tapes of old games (and I continued doing minor edits leading up to the publication in late November),” Cantor recalled.

When asked what his favorite Knicks moment, Cantor had a tough time choosing, but he ultimately went with the franchise’s first championship.

The 1970 NBA championship holds a special place in Cantor’s heart. He still vividly recalls where he was and how the Knicks won the pivotal Game 5 that set up iconic Willis Reed’s Game 7 moment.

“I would probably have to go with the end of Game 5 against the Lakers in the 1970 Finals when the Knicks capped off a remarkable comeback after Willis was injured and the team fell behind by 16 points (in the pre-three-point era). I listened to that game on the radio in my bedroom—I can picture it like it was yesterday—and the entire season was on the line. To borrow from “The Maltese Falcon,” it was “the stuff that dreams are made of,” Cantor said.

Written By A Fan For The Fans

Sports fans, not only Knicks fans, can relate and will go through a roller-coaster ride of emotions reading Cantor’s journey as a fan.

Oftentimes, we read sports books through the lens of the writers who cover the sports and through the eyes of the athletes. But it’s rare to find a book from a fan’s perspective—how a team and its interesting personalities impact their fans’ lives.

The Knicks may not have been relevant for years, but don’t tell that to their fans who dissect even team staff’s most random hiring.

Cantor remained a Knicks fan through thick and thin. He is the best representation of the Knicks’ fanatics, considered the most loyal fanbase in the NBA.

“My memoir is intended to capture the perspective of the regular fan—in this case, one who has remained passionate through six decades—and how the team has influenced my life in a variety of ways. In other words, I was looking to, in essence, represent the everyday fan; it’s the type of book I had been wanting to read but hadn’t seen before,” Cantor said.

“I would like to impart to younger fans that I have witnessed my share of losing records—especially during the period the Knicks missed the playoffs 7 years in a row when I was growing up—but I believe there is light at the end of the tunnel now (just as there was back then when younger players developed and blossomed)” he added.

Déjà vu?

Cantor endured seven years without Knicks playoff basketball as a kid from 1959-1966. In 1967, the Knicks finished fourth in the Eastern Conference and went on to lose to Atlantic division rival Boston Celtics in the conference semis.

The Knicks have been in the same rut in the last seven years.

Will history repeat itself?

Cantor and the Knicks’ fan base may be looking at Knicks president Leon Rose and his head coach, Tom Thibodeau, as the men who hold the light that will guide these Knicks out of the dark tunnel.

Despite a quiet offseason, the Knicks have been one of the revelations and feel-good stories to start the season.

“I have great faith in the current Front Office. I applauded their hiring of Thibs and I fully supported their choices in the most recent draft. Equally important, they seem committed to developing the younger players—and I absolutely think that is the way to go,” Cantor said.

The Knicks’ 7-8 start has been auspicious. Cantor hopes to see The Garden rock again like it used to be during his time.

“When the pandemic is way in the rearview mirror, I hope to one day see a Knicks game at the Garden again,” said Cantor whose brother’s older son has a share of season tickets.

Perhaps another colorful chapter is waiting to be written.

The From Fresh Meadows: A Knicks Memoir is available at Amazon.com for only $15.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Knicks gift Thibodeau a much-needed birthday win

New York Knicks, Tom Thibodeau

The New York Knicks celebrated Tom Thibodeau’s 63rd birthday with a sensational win that snapped their five-game losing skid.

With their defense sharp and their offense on target, the Knicks obliterated one of the Eastern Conference’s top teams, Boston Celtics, 105-75, Sunday at the TD Garden.

It was the Knicks’ largest win in Boston since a 37-point victory in 1970.

The game was so lopsided that Thibodeau emptied his bench with more than three minutes left, giving the likes of seldom-used Ignas Brazdeikis, Theo Pinson, and Dennis Smith, Jr. some burn.

It was a total team effort for the Knicks, who rebounded from a tough loss in Cleveland.

Julius Randle continued his All-Star play leading the Knicks with 20 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, and three steals. RJ Barrett had another strong game stuffing the stats sheet with 19 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, and two steals.

Barrett has now put together a solid stretch in the last three games averaging 19.7 points on 50 percent shooting, 6.7 rebounds, and 3.0 assists.

Rookies Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin were also spectacular against the Celtics.

Quickley had his third straight double-digit scoring with 17 and added a career-high eight assists. Toppin, meanwhile, had his best game, finishing with 12 points, including an emphatic slam in the second half.

“We came out with energy and aggression right off the opening tip,” Barrett said postgame.

“We put in the work. It really felt good to get back on the track,” he added.

The Knicks improved to 6-8. Last season, they never reached sixth win until their 26th game.

The Knicks put in the work early, racing to a double-digit lead in the opening quarter.

The Celtics, who entered the game with a five-win streak and the East’s best record, didn’t know what hit them.

Mitchell Robinson’s putback slam to open the game set the tone for the rout.

The Knicks led from start to finish riding on their defense. They held the Celtics to a season-worst 29.8 percent from the field, including 7-for-46 from three.

Kemba Walker struggled in his season debut, shooting just 3-for-13 for nine points.

Jaylen Brown’s 25 points on 9-of-20 shooting paced the Celtics, who sorely missed Jayson Tatum (safety and health protocols).

The Knicks will only have less than 24 hours to enjoy this victory, though.

The Knicks hope to build on this big win when they face the Orlando Magic Monday noon at home before flying to West Coast for another back-to-back set.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

New York Knicks: Is it time to rotate Elfrid Payton out of the starting five?

New York Knicks, Elfrid Payton

New York Knicks guard Elfrid Payton struggled against the Cleveland Cavaliers during a painful loss on Friday, January 15th. The Knick point guard finished with 9 points after shooting 4-7 from the field. Payton had 3-rebounds and 3-turnovers. The most glaring and disturbing stat category Elfrid Payton possessed was accumulating 0-assists for the entire game.

Cleveland did what many other teams will continue to do, play zone defense while Payton is trying to run the point- guard position for the New York Knicks. Payton struggled against the length of Cleveland’s team, leading to sloppy turnovers by himself and his teamate RJ Barrett.

Many Knick fans have lost confidence and patience with a few Knick players. However, Payton is leading the race as the most hated Knick by simply frustrated Knick fans. Some fans went as far as mentioning Elfrid’s ability to stay locked-in even when he’s struggling. There are whispers going around stating that Elfrid Payton mentally checks out if things aren’t going right for himself and the squad.

Rumors are circulating about Isaiah Thomas’s availability after a long period of being away from the NBA. Some chatter in Knicks universe states that the Knicks should give Isaiah Thomas a chance due to lack of shooting depth.

Overall, the Knicks are depleted by injuries. The players earning minutes currently are banged up. However, Tom Thibodeau and the Knicks must continue digging deep on defense in order to give themselves a chance for victory. Offensively, the Knicks need a starting point-guard who can shoot the basketball. Many are calling for Quickley to start. There’s definitely a possibility, however time will tell what these Knicks are really made of.

New York Knicks: Tom Thibodeau provides solution to latest struggles

New York Knicks, Tom Thibodeau

Just a few days ago, we were talking about how the New York Knicks ahead won five of six games. Now they’re on a four-game winning streak, and there’s no end in sight.

With a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers coming up on Friday evening, this could be their best chance to snap the losing streak. Cleveland is also 5-7 and has lost five of their last six games, indicating a solid chance for the Knicks to rebound and put a win in the right column.

However, the past few games have been tumultuous, as they have allowed more than 100 points in each and scored 89 points or less in three of the four.

Most recently, against the Brooklyn Nets, they lost 116-109 but found themselves in a 19 point hole in the third quarter, which they crawled back from, but it was too little, too late.

Head coach Tom Thibodeau has clearly been frustrated with the way his team has played, lacking aggression and defensive prowess.

“Disappointed that we could have played better, defensively, yes, but more determined to get it right,” Thibodeau said after Wednesday’s 116-109 loss to the Nets at the Garden. “We have to get back to practicing. I like the fight we showed at the end, but it was too late. We got in too big of a hole.

Ultimately, practice is the only thing that can help the team develop chemistry and more continuity with one another. They are still an extremely new combination of players and one that Thibodeau still hasn’t found a correct sequence for.

“We have to get back to work. Sometimes you go through stretches where you don’t have an opportunity to practice too much, so I think practice would be good for us.”

Thibodeau’s scheme heavily relies on defense, but the Knicks haven’t had a successful defensive performance since the fourth game of the season, when they beat the Cavaliers, coincidentally, 95-86.

“We worked on our defense for a while and then covered some offensive things we wanted to work on,” Thibodeau said. “The main thing was trying to get up and down and practice out of the full court. I felt we needed work in that area, as well.

“I think the big challenge is when you have a number of areas that you’d like to shore up you have to prioritize. You can’t work on all of them every day. So you pick three or four things that you’d like to get into and improve upon and that’s what we did.”

Despite the Knicks’ lackluster performances the past few days, young rookie Immanuel Quickley has been a bright spot for the team. In the loss to Brooklyn, he played in 22 minutes, scoring 19 points. He shot 7-of-15 from the field and connected on 3-of-6 from three-point land.

Quickley only turned the ball over one time, which is solid considering the number of possessions he controlled. The Knicks do have some positive signs, but they just need more continuity within the starting five.

Bullock’s injury forces Knicks to shake up starting lineup

Reggie Bullock of the New York Knicks

As the games keep on coming, the injury bug also keeps on hitting the New York Knicks.

Starter Reggie Bullock will not play Monday night in Charlotte due to a sore right hip, the Knicks announced.

Bullock has been averaging 28.7 minutes producing 8.5 points on 33.3 percent on threes, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.3 assists.

His outside shooting and defense will be sorely missed as Tom Thibodeau’s wing rotation is getting thinner.

The timing couldn’t have come at the worst time with the Knicks in the midst of a two-game losing streak. They have their plate full this week with a four-game schedule, including Monday night’s match against the streaking Hornets.

Bullock joins the Knicks’ injury list that also includes rookie Obi Toppin (strained right calf), Frank Ntilikina (sprained right knee), Alec Burks (sprained left ankle), and new signee Taj Gibson who is still undergoing health protocols before joining the team.

The Knicks are expected to bring Austin Rivers up to the starting unit to replace Bullock. But there’s also a chance that Kevin Knox will get the starting nod if Thibodeau opts to have a veteran leader on the floor for his second unit.

Meanwhile, Toppin is making progress with his recovery, although he hasn’t been cleared for contact.

“Right now, it’s 1-on-0, with some movement, jumping, change of direction, and that sort of thing,” Thibodeau said last Sunday.

“Then he’ll progress to 2-on-2, 3-on-3, and get to the point where he can get to 5-on-5 and get through practice,” he continued.

Toppin hasn’t seen action since the season opener.

Burks, on the other hand, is closing to re-evaluation later this week. The veteran wingman had been on a walking boot since Wednesday last week. He was initially given a 7-10 day timetable before he can be re-evaluated.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Knicks need quick fix after second straight loss

They say home is where the heart is.

But the New York Knicks never found their heart in another dispiriting loss at home.

On Sunday night, the Denver Nuggets’ superior talent not only overwhelmed but also outworked the Knicks in a 114-89 drubbing at The Garden.

The magic of the Knicks’ strong start to the season is starting to fade as they looked lethargic for the second straight game.

Despite losing to the Oklahoma City Thunder last Friday, the Knicks entered Sunday night’s game third in opponent field goal percentage (43.4%) and second in opponent 3-point field goal percentage (30.1%).

That vaunted defense, which propelled them to a 5-3 start, was missing at home.

They looked tired and disengaged.

There was nothing they could do with the Nuggets firing on all cylinders. Denver shot 53.6 percent overall and 42.9 percent from deep.

Nikola Jokic led six Nuggets in double figures. The Serbian big man had 22 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists in 30 minutes.

In contrast, the Knicks’ offense continued to sputter. It was the second straight game they put up only 89 points. It would have been acceptable if this was in the grind-it-out 90s.

Nuggets’ coach Mike Malone, who came from the same Jeff Van Gundy/Don Chaney coaching tree as Tom Thibodeau, threw the Knicks off rhythm with a combination of zone and sticky man-to-man defenses.

After a Julius Randle three-pointer put the Knicks ahead briefly, 16-14, the Nuggets countered with a 7-0 run. And they were never seriously threatened the rest of the way.

Randle and Mitchell Robinson were the only Knicks players who shot above 50 percent.

Randle pumped in 29 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists before sitting out for good in the final 6:56. His fourth assist of the night enabled him to join Oscar Robertson as the only two players in NBA history to record at least 200 points, 115 rebounds, and 70 assists in their team’s first 10 games of the season.

Another silver lining for the Knicks was Robinson, who had zero foul in 38 minutes. The young Knicks’ center had 11 points on a perfect 5-of-5 from the field.

It was just hard to watch the rest of the team, except perhaps an Elfrid Payton scoring outburst in one brief stretch in the third quarter.

Payton finished with 12 points on 4-of-10 shooting and five assists. RJ Barrett continued to plummet. He bled for nine points on 13 shots. It marked the second time this season that he’s been held to single-digit scoring.

The Knicks drew little production from their bench. The Nuggets bench badly outscored them, 54-21.

Immanuel Quickley has officially hit the rookie wall with another dud (4 points, 0-4 field goals). Austin Rivers and Kevin Knox could only muster identical six points on 2-of-6 shooting.

The Knicks, as a whole, could only connect on 42.3 percent of their shots. They were a disheartening 6-for-21 from three.

“The challenge right now is we’re not playing well. We’ve got to fix it. We’re in it together. We have to get out of it together,” Thibodeau said postgame.

They barely have 24 hours to figure out everything as they next face the streaking Charlotte Hornets Monday on the road.

The Hornets have won their last three games with Gordon Hayward rediscovering his old All-Star form while third overall pick LaMelo Ball is finally settling down. Ball just became the youngest player in the league history to log in a triple-double in their Saturday win over the Atlanta Hawks.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Lofty expectations, Thunder knock down Knicks

The weight of expectations has slowed down the rampaging New York Knicks.

Following a three-game win streak and a surprising 5-3 start, the Knicks enjoyed the national spotlight. They entered Friday night’s game against the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder as odds-on favorites for the first time this season.

The result was a disastrous 101-89 loss, a growing pain reminder, as the Thunder caught the Knicks’ defense napping after shaking off a sluggish start.

The Knicks led at the start, but there were ominous signs early on that it would be a long night.

Julius Randle, who is playing like an All-NBA player to start the season, ran into early foul trouble. He was held scoreless in the opening half.

Without Randle, whom Thibodeau referred to as their engine, their offense became stagnant.

The Knicks had only 19 assists and shot just 36 percent from the field.

The Thunder exploited the the Knicks’ woes and took the lead for good in the third quarter.

The Knicks, though, teased another fourth-quarter comeback when Austin Rivers beat the buzzer with a triple to cut the Thunder’s lead to six after 36 minutes of action.

But there were no Rivers heroics nor Knicks comeback this time. Only a hard slap in the face.

“Once we gave up the lead and we got behind, I think we tried to get out of it individually. I think the intentions were good, but we just went about it the wrong way,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said postgame.

Thibodeau pulled out Mitchell Robinson (6 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals, 3 blocks) in the fourth quarter, who he said was not feeling great. His plan to go small ball and generate some offense backfired as the Thunder repeatedly attacked the paint.

After a horrible 21 percent start from the field, the Thunder took command by shooting 63 percent in the next three quarters.

As the game wore on, the Knicks’ defense continued to loosen up with their every miss.

The pair of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (25 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists) and Hamidou Diallo (23 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists) led the Thunder. They were the better ex-Kentucky players on Friday night at The Garden.

The Knicks’ own Kentucky alumni played sub-par with Randle limited to just 18 points while Kevin Knox (3-9), rookie Immanuel Quickley (1-9), and the returning Nerlens Noel (0-1) struggled to find their rhythm all night. Even RJ Barrett’s shooting struggles from the perimeter continued. He had 19 points on 21 shots.

The Knicks appeared poise to coast to an easy win at home when they built an early 17-7 lead. But the Thunder quickly erased their lead. And the Knicks played with fire.

“In this league, as soon as you start feeling too good about yourself, you’re going to get knocked down,” Thibodeau said.

The Friday night beatdown at The Garden was a cautionary tale for these Knicks after a fairy tale start to this season.

There will be more challenges ahead, far more formidable than this one, but Thibodeau hopes his young team will continue to grow and treat this as a wake-up call.

“From top to bottom, we didn’t get it done. We’re capable of doing much better than we did,” Thibodeau said.

We’ll soon find out when the Knicks play three games in the next four days, beginning Sunday against the Denver Nuggets, last season’s Western Conference finalist.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Knickerbocker swagger: Rivers delivers in another Knicks comeback

New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau watched Austin Rivers grew up with the swagger of a Knickerbocker.

It runs in the blood.

Austin’s father and Thibodeau’s good friend, Doc Rivers, played two-plus years in New York.

On Wednesday night, Thibodeau watched the younger Rivers flaunt that swagger in his first game as a Knickerbocker in The Garden.

Rivers delivered dagger after dagger in a scintillating fourth-quarter show. His 14 straight points in the final 4:16 sucked the life out of the Utah Jazz in a 112-100 come-from-behind win.

“I’ll tell you one thing he’s never lacked. He’s never had a lack of confidence,” Thibodeau told reporters, recalling one episode in Boston when he was Doc’s assistant coach.

“When we had all these Hall of Fame guys. I think [Austin] was still in high school. And when he comes up to visit his dad, he wants to play all of them one-on-one. One day, in particular, Kevin Garnett wouldn’t want anyone to score on him. So he’s coming out to practice, and he sees Austin. And Austin wants to play. Austin really believed he could beat him. That’s the mindset that he has. He never lacked the confidence,” Thibodeau continued.

That’s what the Knicks lacked in the past seven years — confidence.

Rivers has injected that to these gritty Knicks that have suddenly become emboldened.

Before the season, Rivers preached that their job is to make New York attractive to stars and make the Knicks great again.

But with the core of last season’s lottery team infused only with a pair of rookies and veteran role players led by Rivers, these Knicks were hardly given a chance.

Rivers talking about playoffs during the media day was as crazy as the idea of him beating Garnett one-on-one.

Then the Knicks routed Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, 130-110.

People dismissed it as an aberration—just a part of the weird day in the NBA where upset became the recurring theme.

And it looked like it was after the 17-point loss to the Toronto Raptors in Rivers’ season debut.

Even after they found themselves at the wrong end of history, Rivers’ confidence remained intact. He went to Instagram to assure the anxious Knicks fans.

Rivers has since walked the talk.

“He understands what it takes to win,” Thibodeau said of Rivers. “He understands the difference between the first three quarters and the fourth quarter and the intensity that’s involved.”

The next three games saw Rivers delivering clutch plays in the fourth quarter. But none were bigger against the Jazz.

With the game tied at 96-all, Rivers scored on a floater and a barrage of three-pointers that could have rocked The Garden if fans were allowed.

“Oh man, I can’t imagine. I can’t wait! They’re gonna be here soon enough. We just keep building and get better for them,” Rivers told Rebecca Haarlow in the postgame interview.

The Knicks (5-3) keep on building and grinding, showing the grit and heart that defines the city of New York.

For the second straight game, they stared at another huge deficit and fought their way back.

The Jazz led by as many as 18 in the opening half before the Knicks cut it down to a dozen halftime deficit.

New York native Donovan Mitchell, French big man Rudy Gobert, and Filipino-American guard Jordan Clarkson each had 10 points in the first half.

After allowing the visitors to shoot a staggering 42.1 percent from three and 53.5 percent overall, the Knicks tightened their defense after the break.

“Everybody is all-in. At halftime, when we were down, everybody just said ‘chip away.’ We have so much spirit. Coach [Thibs] just doesn’t let us quit,” Rivers said.

“EP (Payton) was huge in the second half. Julius (Randle) was huge. RJ (Barrett) stepped up. Reggie (Bullock) hit big shots. Kevin (Knox) played great defense. I can go down the line. Mitch (Robinson) was great. It’s a total team effort,” Rivers added.

The beauty of this Knicks team is the sum of all its parts.

Mitchell Robinson once again anchored the Knicks’ defensive wall in the second half. He continued to hold the fort sans his backup Nerlens Noel (sore knee, ankle sprain).

The youngest starting center in the league held his ground against Gobert stuffing the stats sheet with nine points, 13 rebounds, two assists, three steals, and three blocks.

Gobert, who had 14 points, 12 rebounds, and five blocks, was rendered ineffective in the second half scoring only on two field goals.

The Knicks were also able to slow down the usually prolific Mitchell. The Jazz star was a measly 4 for 14 after the break that was emblematic of their offensive woes.

The Knicks’ suffocating defense choked the Jazz to just 24.4 percent from three and 35.4 percent overall in the brutal second half.

After watching rookie Immanuel Quickley close out the game in Atlanta on the bench, Payton got his turn.

The Knicks starting point guard played sharp throughout (22 points, eight assists, +/- 25). Thibodeau stuck to a seven-man rotation to close out the game after Quickley went scoreless in six minutes in the opening half.

Thibodeau referred to Julius Randle as their engine. And he played exactly like that, especially in the third quarter where the forward pumped in 14 points. RJ Barrett and Payton contributed eight apiece during that 15-point turnaround.

Randle bucked his worst first quarter to still finish with All-Star numbers — game-high 30 points, 16 rebounds, and seven assists.

Reggie Bullock, who was questionable until the warmup, chipped in 12 points, 10 coming in the second half.

“I’ve been on bad teams before. This is not one. I can promise you that. I don’t know where we’ll end up, we have so much work to do, it’s really early in the year, but I do know the spirit is different,” Rivers told reporters after the game. “The willingness to work and learn is different.”

Rivers’ last sentence encapsulates the swagger of these Knickerbockers.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Knicks of Dreams: Inside the culture rebuild in New York

New York Knicks, Leon Rose

If you build, they will come.

That is essentially Leon Rose’s vision for his “Knicks of Dreams,” channeling his inner Ray Kinsella.

The New York Knicks team president has stuck to his summer proclamation that they’re building the right way.

Though it’s a small sample size, the early results have been encouraging.

Basically using the same core as last year in the starting unit, and despite the rash of injuries, Knicks’ new coach Tom Thibodeau was able to make do with what he has on their way to beating a pair of playoff-quality opponents.

The Knicks have a chance to get above .500 for the first time in a long while when they take on the Atlanta Hawks, owner of the league’s second-best offense, Monday night.

Trust Thibs’ process

They were fun to watch when they routed the Milwaukee Bucks at home and pulled out a gut-wrenching win on the road against the Indiana Pacers.

But there were also “growing pains” moments, just like when their starters shot their way to the wrong end of the history with a 0-for-23 three-point mark in a 17-point loss to the Toronto Raptors.

That prompted free-agent acquisition Austin Rivers to plead for patience from the anxious Knicks fans on their team’s page on Instagram.

The next day, he walked the talk and contributed 15 points, including the game-sealing layup, off the bench in a character-building win in Indianapolis. Rivers then took us inside the culture that Thibodeau has been building.

“I’ve never done that. I’ve never commented on a team page. But I just want to let it known that Knicks have great fans. I know they have been waiting a long time to see progress. We’re on the right direction,” Rivers said afterward.

Rivers has nixed offers from several playoff teams, including a reunion with his father Doc Rivers in Philadelphia because he was sold to Rose’s “Knicks of Dreams.”

‘We’re gonna get there’

The younger Rivers said he had not been here long enough to know everything about the Knicks. But there’s one thing he’s really certain about. The Knicks are about to turn the corner.

“I don’t meant to come off as someone who knows everything. But they’ve brought in all these new people from top to bottom, from Leon to Thibs, to players to trainers, I mean everything… the whole nine yards. I just want to let people know that be patient. We’re working so hard. Tonight’s a big win, but we know we still have a lot of work to do.” Rivers said after picking up their third win.

“Every time I get to the locker room, I keep on telling guys we have to keep building, we have to keep building. So we are heading in the right direction. I know we have great fans. We’re doing everything we can, We’re building, and we’re gonna get there,” he continued. “Right now, we just have a whole team that is buying it. It’s the beginning, so, like I said, we have a lot more work to do, but it’s just nice to have good guys, and everybody is buying it.

Building the culture

A couple of months before Thibodeau was hired, he guested on The Platform podcast and had a revealing interview.

“How you build a culture is you have to sell your vision to your best players and your best players have to sell it to the rest of the team,” Thibodeau said in May. “Your first meeting is the most important meeting of the year. You have to begin with the end in mind. What wins in the playoffs, these are the things that you have to do, building habits.”

Thibodeau has relied on his veterans to right the ship. He’s always mentioned Julius Randle’s leadership dating back to as far as before their OTA.

The Knicks’ quiet but underrated offseason has yielded high-character and productive veterans on cheap deals. Rivers, Alec Burks, and Nerlens Noel are proving to be smart acquisitions by this new savvy front office.

The veterans have bought in to Thibodeau’s vision, and they’re selling it to the younger core of the team. 

“We’re coming together great. It helps when you have great guys. It makes my job, Julius’ job, all the vets who are going to lead this team. It makes our job easier,” Rivers said.

“All the young guys that we have are great. Guys who are not playing are real supportive. Everybody is cheering each other on. That’s what we’ve been trying to instill in the locker room. If you’re not playing, be happy for someone else’s success. You got to act the right way. You have to be professional because you never know who’s watching you, you never know when your opportunity is coming. So right now, we just have a whole team buying in. It’s the beginning,” he added.

Tight-knit group

Theo Pinson, another Knicks’ offseason acquisition, is one of those guys who’s been riding the bench that has been providing a jolt of energy. He’d seen this play out before across the borough when he was the Brooklyn Nets’ no. 1 cheerleader on the bench.

“I think team camaraderie is the biggest thing. The more you like each other off the court, it helps the court, especially with a young team. You go out there and start playing selflessly. You just want to play for each other. You want to see the other person succeed. That’s when everybody eats. As you could see, it help the guys in Brooklyn,” Pinson reflecting on his experience with the Nets.

“That’s also gonna help here. The guys in the locker room, we get along really well. We are already a tight-knit group. Even after the loss to Indiana [in the season opener], we already started talking to each other about what we saw on the court, what we can do better, how we can get each other better shots on the court, how we can finish games. So for us to react to a loss like that early is big time, in my opinion,” Pinson continued.

It showed in their rematch. The Pacers couldn’t bully the Knicks the way they did in the season opener. The Knicks flaunted their newfound chemistry and defensive tenacity.

Playing for each other

Rookie point guard Immanuel Quickley represents the Knicks’ future. The dynamic guard out of Kentucky has successfully returned from a hip pointer that caused him to miss four games.

His playmaking and shotmaking has injected a new dimension to the Knicks’ offense and has stabilized their second unit. 

Viewed by fans as a threat to Payton’s starting job, the veteran guard has taken it in stride and is, in fact, mentoring the Knicks’ point guard of the future.

“I say Elfrid is definitely a big one, just showing me little things that would help me on and off the floor. I have really gotten close with pretty much all the guys. I feel like this team is really tight-knit. We love being around each other. I feel like this group can do something special just because of the type of chemistry that we have,” Quickley said after the Knicks’ Monday shootaround in Atlanta.

Payton has rebounded well from his scoreless performance in their earlier home loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. He’s since averaged 18.5 points on 61 percent field goal shooting and 5.8 assists to solidify his stranglehold of the starting job.

It’s just one of those many proofs of the Thibodeau effect in New York.

New image

The Knicks have long been the league’s laughingstock, but Thibodeau’s serious approach to the game has started to change the team’s dynamics and culture.

Their early success has put the league on notice.

Knicks’ biggest acquisition

Thibodeau’s gift of maximizing value out of his players is seen as a curse by his critics.

But for a team lacking in bona fide superstars, Thibodeau is proving to be the team’s biggest acquisition, essentially the team’s superstar.

Rose’s unpopular decision of opting for a coaching retread is paying dividends for this young Knicks team.

“We want to find the right leader that can develop our young players as well as hold everyone accountable,” Rose said in his first public appearance in June. “And take us from development to becoming a perennial winner. We also want someone that we think will be collaborative with the front office and someone that when you’re in that huddle and when you’re looking at that coach’s eyes, every player who’s looking at him knows that person is driving the ship and going to get the job done.”

So far, Thibodeau is getting the job done.

Rose’s vision of bringing back the Knicks’ old glory is starting to come to life. Just like how Kinsella’s “Field of Dreams” has brought back to life Shoeless Jackson and his baseball team.

Rivers can see it. Pinson has seen this play out before. Quickley is feeling it. The national media has taken notice.

If you build the culture, the wins and stars will come to Leon Rose’s “Knicks of Dreams.”

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

20 names in New York sports that made 2020 tolerable

In 2020, we learned just how small sports were on the grand scale. Even so, these New Yorkers brought hope and joy to the beleaguered area.

Ah, 2020…we knew ye too well.

“Auld Lang Syne” will hit a little differently this New Year’s Eve, as the country and the world entire prepares to bid farewell to one of the most brutal 366-day cycles in recent memory. The year even took away sports at one point in time, which might’ve almost been seen as a merciful act considering the modern endeavors of New York sports. Metropolitan athletics have consistently fallen far short of their inflated expectations. Save for the New York Islanders’ surprise trip to the NHL’s Eastern Conference finals, each of New York’s teams either endured early postseason exits or missed out entirely.

Yet, there were several names in the sports world, before and after the period of pause and reflection, that gave the metropolitan area hope in this brutal season. ESM bids farewell with 20 legends…

Josh Allen

So brutal were metropolitan affiars this season that we had to turn to our friends in Western New York. But, unless you’re a Jets who has two annual meetings with Allen to dread for the foreseeable future, it’s hard not to appreciate what Allen has done for the Bills’ franchise, defying draft day expectations out of Wyoming and playing a vital role in ending their 17-year playoff drought and turning them into Super Bowl contenders. Entering Sunday’s regular season final against Miami (1 p.m. ET, CBS), Allen has broken Jim Kelly’s record for most touchdown passes in a single season of Bills football (34) and is within striking distance of Drew Bledsoe’s yardage record of the same variety. Allen has also taken home six Offensive Player of the Week Awards in his career (four this season), second only to the ten earned by the aforementioned Kelly.

Mathew Barzal

As the New York Islanders go through a period of both transition and prosperity…being one of the rare metropolitan teams to experience postseason success in 2020…Barzal has evolved into a face of the franchise, taking over from the Toronto-based John Tavares. Appropriately, it was Barzal that informed the hockey world that the Islanders were going to be a problem in the bubble, scoring the game-winning goal in the their 2-1 win over Washington in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal round, a tally that gave the Islanders a 3-0 lead in the series. Ironically, Barzal’s moment of glory came in Tavares’ current stomping grounds of Scotiabank Arena.

Mekhi Becton

The New York Jets have a lot of questions to answer once the calendar officially flips. But Becton, the Jets’ first-round choice (11th overall) out of Louisville is crossing one need off their offseason shopping list. Called upon to protect Sam Darnold’s blindside, Becton has become one of the most dominant young blockers in football, ranking at or near the top of several analytical rookie lists. The Jets aren’t quite sure who their quarterback is going come next September. They do know, however, that Becton will be serving as his security.

James Bradberry

Formerly under general manager Dave Gettleman’s watch in Carolina, Bradberry came to New York with relatively little fanfare. He has since gone on to become one of the biggest reasons why the Giants have a shot at anotherwise inexplicable playoff spot. Bradberry has done his part to make sure that Big Blue is at least well represented in the SportsCenter Top 10, making several acrobatic interceptions that led to his first Pro Bowl nomination.

Steve Cohen

A lot of adjustment was required to make it through 2020, but the Mets remained their same disappointing selves, tying with the defending champion Washington Nationals for last place in the NL East. But, thanks to new owner Cohen, there’s legitimate hope in the organization for the first time in ages. The Great Neck-born hedge fund manager has immediately endeared himself to fans with promises to use his surplus budget in free agency (which manifested early with the signing of James McCann), his willingness to clean house shortly after his arduous purchase was completed, and his lighthearted interactions with supporters on Twitter.

Gerrit Cole

The shortened seasons denied Yankees fans the full Cole experience in the early going, but it’s safe to say the newly minted $324 million man lived up to the hype. He saved the best for last, earning a 1.00 ERA over four starts in September and later struck out 13 without a walk in the Yankees’ Wild Card Series win over Cleveland. Such a feat had been accomplished since Tom Seaver’s endeavor in the 1973 NLCS.

Stefon Diggs

The trade for Diggs feels like it happened years ago, as do all the tweets and thoughtpieces that claim the Bills gave up too much for the former Minnesota Viking. But the Minneapolis Miracle worker has made the four-pick exchange worth it, even erasing the fact that the Bills missed out on rookie sensation Justin Jefferson. Like Allen, Diggs is rewriting the Bills’ record book, breaking Eric Moulds’ former marks for single-season for receptions (120) and yardage (1,459). Both of tallies lead the NFL entering the final week of the regular season.

Kevin Durant

Brooklyn Nets fans received a bit of a special Christmas gift this year, as they were finally treated to Kevin Durant’s debut in black and white. Teamed up with Kyrie Irving, the ten-time All-Star hasn’t lost a step, putting 28.3 points and 5.8 rebounds over his first four games. Durant apparently saved the best for first, torching his former compatriots from Golden State for 22 points on opening night before scoring 29 in a Christmas win over Boston.

Sabrina Ionescu

The draft lottery has turned into a cruel custom for the blue and orange hardwood representatives in New York, but the Liberty hit the jackpot with the drafting of Ionescu in April. The city didn’t get the full Ionescu treatment in her rookie season, with an ankle injury limiting her metropolitan antics to three games. But the Oregon alumna is on pace to be a true face of women’s sports in the area, with her jersey sales ranking fourth in the WNBA this season. Ionescu gave her new Brooklyn fanbase something to be excited about before fate stepped in, scoring 33 points in only her second career contest.

Kyrie Irving

Irving’s 2020 heroics likewise required patience. He partook in only 20 games during the shortened 2019-20 campaign (none of them during the Nets’ endeavor in Disney World) but managed to drop 54 points (on 19-of-23 shooting from the field) in a January win over Chicago. Irving likewise emerged as one of the most vocal voices in social change alongside his basketball brothers and sisters. He was more than willing to carry on his basketball antics on the court once he was ready to get rolling again, torching the Celtics for 37 points on Christmas.

Jazmine Jones

Perhaps no one defined the 2020 New York Liberty sense of resiliency and development better than Jones. Bookending the first round of the 2020 WNBA Draft with Ionescu, Jones took full advantage of relatively consequence-free basketball, making herself essential when the Liberty’s plethora of veterans potentially return in 2021. The Louisville alumna took over point guard duties after Ionescu went down, resuming a role she last played during her high school days at Florida A&M University’s Developmental Research School. She put up 10.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 1.4 steals per game, earning a spot on the league’s official all-rookie team.

Brock Nelson

Signer of a six-year deal to remain an Islander before the season started, Nelson became one of the team’s most reliable and clutch performers during their run to the conference finals. He scored three game-winning goals and finished second on the team in postseason points with 18.

New York Guardians Defense

The second attempt at XFL feels like an endeavor from years ago, but briefly took over the February calendar with a slate that wound up lasting five games. It allowed MetLife Stadium to enjoy at least some form of victorious football, as the local Guardians won each of their two games at the venue. Their defense was particularly strong, as Cavon Walker led the league in sacks (4.5) and six different defenders earned at least one interception.

Artemi Panarin

If there was ever a year to not take risks, 2020 was certainly at, or at least near, the top of the list. Despite Panarin’s many talents, many saw the Rangers’ seven-year, $81.5 million deal with the former Blue Jacket (a smaller price tag after Panarin spurned the Islanders) as too much dedication to a single player. But Panarin lived up to the massive deal, finishing off the shortened season with a career-best 95 points (good for a third-place tie on the NHL ledger).

Logan Ryan

As a Rutgers alum, New Jersey native, and the man who took Tom Brady’s final New England throw back for a touchdown, Ryan seemed destined for a metropolitan collaboration. The Giants took the plunge shortly before the season began, and Ryan has rewarded them with a strong showing that has included good coverage, 91 tackles, and an interception that clinched the season sweep against Washington (which will come up big if the two sides tie for the NFC lead after Sunday). It has been an emotional season for Ryan, whose wife Ashley endured an ectopic pregnancy. Ryan later inked a three-year deal to stay with the Giants on Christmas Day.

Kailen Sheridan

The National Women’s Soccer League was the first North American team sports league to make its return this summer, staging its annual Challenge Cup festivities in Utah. Sky Blue FC, their debut season at Red Bull Arena pushed back due to obvious reasons, had struggled in recent years but put on a strong showing with a fourth-place finish. Sheridan was the driving force behind the effort, winning the tournament’s Golden Glove award to the tune of three shutouts. Sky Blue also had a respectable showing in the NWSL’s fall showcase, earning a matching fourth-place mark.

Tom Thibodeau

Wishing someone association with the James Dolan-owned sounds like a punishment one would avoid giving their worst enemy…at least their worst hardwood enemy. Thibodeau, however, returns to the ranks of head coaching to face what’s his toughest challenge yet. But, unlike his predecessors, it appears Thibodeau has a plan for the Knicks moving forward, seeking to change the culture and build a team-centered atmosphere. So far, it’s played in the Knicks’ favor. The team has played competitively in the infantile stages of the season, sitting at 2-2 after the first four games (including a dominant win over Giannis Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee). They’ll have chance to end the season on the right note on Friday night against Toronto (7:30 p.m. ET, MSG).

Semyon Varlamov

The jokes against Islander goaltending officially ended, or were at least put on hold, through Varlamov’s efforts. He came up with several big saves during the playoff trek and was one of only six goalies inside the Canada bubbles to record multiple shutouts. His 2.14 goals against average was also fourth amongst goalies with at least 10 playoff starts.

Quinnen Williams

Williams retook control of the narrative surrounding his career, as many felt he was destined to be a bust after struggling in his rookie season (and with Pro Bowler Josh Allen going shortly after him). But Williams responded with a stellar sophomore season, leading all interior defensive linemen in both traditional and analytical categories as one of the most consistent backfield invaders in the league.

Mika Zibanejad

Zibanejad is perhaps responsible for the most dominant one-man effort of the 2020 sports season, tallying a jaw-dropping five goals, including the overtime winner in a March win over the Capitals. The yield from one of the biggest robberies in New York sports memory (the biggest loss being Derick Brassard to Ottawa in the trade), Zibanejad again put up his best numbers despite a shutdown, scoring 41 goals (fifth in the league) in 57 games.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags