David Lee, with perspective, on the New York sports media
David Lee, the embodiment of what might of been for the New York Knicks, stood in the visiting locker room at Madison Square Garden on Friday night. And a media horde, tired of covering what the actual 2013-14 Knicks are, pressed him to take a trip back to the summer of 2010 and reimagine what happened since.
Lee, for those unfamiliar, was the best player on a bad Knicks team late last decade, back when nobody cared about them other than the precious few diehards. For the rest of the fanbase, it was more about patiently waiting for the summer of LeBron James, and hoping desperately that when given the opportunity, the best player in the world would choose to come to New York.
In an effort to lure James, the Knicks couldn't add talent but only subtract it, ridding themselves of the horrid contracts signed by Isiah Thomas in time to have the salary-cap room for James and other stars.
Part of that effort meant signing Amar'e Stoudemire, whose knees sufficiently worried other teams to the point that no one else offered him a five-year deal, and trading Lee, who played the same position as Stoudemire. The idea was James would want to play with a star: Stoudemire was supposed to be one, while Lee wasn't.
Four years later, the Knicks are an utter travesty on the court. Stoudemire's knees have kept him out for much of the past three seasons, while greatly limiting him whenever he does play. And Lee has continued to play at a high level next to a real star, Steph Curry, for a Golden State team that made a playoff run last year, and looks poised to do so again this year.
Still, it was quite possible to conclude, listening to Lee in the locker room, that he actually missed New York and its harsh media glare, which he handled as elegantly while he was here as few stars have in recent years.
Marc Berman, a Knicks beat writer for the Post, asked Lee why he thought a Knicks team that won 54 games last year was so awful this year.
"Tell you what," Lee said. "There's a real fine line between winning and losing in the N.B.A. And I know it's been a tough season. Even talking to some of the employees around here, they say 'Man, I wish things were better.' And I've been through seasons like that here, and in Golden State. It's a very fine line."
Berman followed up by asking Lee if he thinks about how his life would have been different if he'd managed to stay in New York.
"You know, who knows? But the most important thing is, I'm real happy where I am right now," Lee answered. "We've got a lot of good things going on in Golden State. We've got unbelieveable team chemistry, and great chemistry with the coaches. A very good, still young team, though I'm getting old, and still, a lot of potential. And hopefully, we'll make the most of it this year."
Lee managed to deflect another similar query, but couldn't stifle a giggle when Berman then asked if Lee thought the Knicks had undervalued him.
"I love Berman," Lee said to the rest of us, and then to him, "I missed you, man."
"I mean, they knew what they had, but maybe didn't."
Lee turned back to the years of training at Madison Square Garden, which served him well in avoiding controversy. Safe to say, few other Knicks have done so as well in the Age of Dolan.
"I appreciate that," Lee said. "The decisions were made, and at that time, as we know, there was a focus on, to make an attempt to get LeBron James. And that was very widely publicized, and they did everything in their power to make that push. And I don't hold any grudges, or anything like that. What happened has happened.
"I've told you this before. I don't look back with any negative thoughts about my career in New York. Really, I wish we could've won more games. That's about all I look back and wish we could've done. We had a lot of pieces, and they were traded away towards that ultimate push."
Lee has been part of plenty of changes in Golden State, too--he noted to me that he and Curry were the only two remaining Warriors from his first season there--but they've all seemed to work. So another reporter asked Lee to diagnose what's gone wrong for the Knicks.
Lee, now grinning widely, said, "You know what I think, I think if I had that answer, if a lot of people had that answer, they'd be successful GMs. You can't always put your finger on it."
The AP's Brian Mahoney, another MSG regular, asked Lee when players know if a team "has it or doesn't have it."
"Great questions," Lee said, almost marveling. (It seemed fair to wonder how often he drew a crowd of 20 reporters at home.)
"That's a great question. It's tough to put your finger on it. Last year, I just knew that we just had it. We'd have games, coming down the stretch, close, and we just knew we were gonna win the game."
His final answer, to a question about how tough the media is when you lose consistently in New York, spoke directly to both the experience he had here, and where the Knicks are now.
"Yeah, New York," he started, laughing quietly to himself. "New York, I think, is the greatest place to play in the world when you're winning. And it might be one of the worst to play in when you're losing. No matter what the sport, whether you're a Yankee or a Knick."
But Lee couldn't help pointing out the level of engagement, either.
"You can never fault the people in New York, whether the media or fans, for not being educated about basketball, or interested, that's for sure. They satisfy those two categories. I know it's got to be hard for those guys right now."
With that, the Warriors' media relations employee ended the official interview. Lee stuck around to chat a while longer. I walked up to my press seat, climbing the escalators behind a kid wearing a custom-made Knicks jersey, the back reading "JAMES 6".
Then Lee's Warriors went out and destroyed the Knicks, 126-103. Lee scored ten points. Amar'e Stoudemire didn't play, due to a sore left knee.