New York Knicks

Once a Knick, always a Knick: David Lee and Nate Robinson get reflective

For former Knicks David Lee and Nate Robinson, a return to their old home couldn’t have come at a better time, as things are finally looking up.

“I had six steals.”

Nate Robinson sat sixteen floors up from Seventh Avenue, in an office building adjoined to the arena he once called home. Behind him is a pop-a-shot basketball game, probably the only hoop in the world Robinson looks oversized standing next to that isn’t made by Nerf.

Nearly a decade had passed since the night we were talking about, but Robinson remembered it like it was yesterday. This was despite his having moved around just a bit since then, suiting up for no less than 14 teams — 10 in the NBA, one each in the Israeli league, Venezuelan league, and G-League, and of course, the BIG3. He was set to play in Lebanon next year but is looking for something a bit closer to home instead. Robinson is fast becoming the Ricky Henderson of basketball, short on stats but high in singularity. He is not planning on calling it quits anytime soon.

Can you blame him? There’s never been another Nate Robinson and there’s never going to be another Nate Robinson. On one night in Los Angeles nearly a decade ago, he proved it, becoming the only man in league history to accumulate 33 points, 15 assists, nine rebounds and five steals in one game.

Or so I thought.

“I’m telling you, I had six steals…they robbed me that game.”

Basketball-Reference be damned; I’m going with the source. Six steals it is.

Like that February 2009 night against the Clippers, Robinson has a lot of memories about the eleven years he played in the NBA, many of them spent in high stakes environments. He saw the court in Game 7 of an NBA Finals, went toe to toe with LeBron James in the playoffs and emerged victorious, and of course, set a Cy Young-esq record by winning three Slam Dunk Championships (he still looks like he could go out and win a fourth). Sideshow or not, he came up big when he needed to.

Then there were the years when the stakes weren’t quite so high — when the season was over before Christmas, and the only question was who would survive the inevitable upheaval that followed. Such was Robinson’s life as a member of the New York Knicks.

The last of his dunk contest wins was also the last moment he would ever wear a Knicks uniform. New York traded him to Boston less than a week later, one of many times the franchise would shuffle the deck chairs on a ship that sank more often and more ignominiously than any in the league this century.

The move to send Nate the Great from NBA purgatory to NBA nirvana was far less heralded than another transaction, one the organization made just five months later involving the man selected nine spots after Robinson in the 2005 NBA Draft. That was David Lee, who suited up as the first Knick All-Star in nearly a decade the day after Robinson won his final dunk crown. That July, Lee was sent to Golden State in a sign-and-trade completed in conjunction with the arrival of Amare Stoudemire. Fans were meant to believe that Lee’s departure was in the service of bigger and better things. That didn’t turn out to be the case — not for the Knicks anyway.

Lee, retired for over a year now as he prepares for a wedding with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, sat a few feet from Robinson as we talked about Knicks teams past and present courtesy of Mountain Dew Ice (Nate prefers the Cherry flavor). It was opening night at MSG, and both former Knicks agreed that this was a team the fans should be excited about.

This, of course, is nothing new. New Yorkers have heard former players pass through before and pay lip service to whatever direction the team is heading at that particular moment. It has always rung hollow — sentiments of ex-lovers who are being kind to the significant other they dumped but are too kind to inflict unnecessary hurt feelings.

This time, though, things appear to be different.

It has nothing to do with the fact that, a few hours after my visit with Lee and Robinson, the Knicks won their home-opener in convincing fashion. New York was playing the Atlanta Hawks sans two starters, a fact that only further cemented their status as the league’s resident quad-A team. Sure, David Fizdale’s group played a level of full-court defense not oft seen from the home squad since the late nineties. They also racked up 49 points in a second quarter which saw several talented but flawed Knicks look like the best versions of themselves. That included Tim Hardaway Jr. and Enes Kanter, the nominal “best” (in exaggerated air quotes) players on the current roster. Neither figures to be to be around for the long haul.

No, the reason Lee and Robinson’s optimism can be taken to heart is because, for the first time in a long time, the people calling the shots from those offices high above the World’s Most Famous Arena have realized a very simple truth: if the house isn’t in order, nothing else matters. If it is, the possibilities are endless. To say that things have come a long way over the last fifteen months is an understatement.

Pick almost any point in time over the eighteen years prior to Steve Mills’ ascension to the Knicks presidency and Scott Perry’s subsequent arrival and you’ll see a franchise in varying stages of disarray. Sometimes it was just normal untidiness — a player being unexpectedly benched or a trade that was doomed to fail — while other times it was as if a hurricane had passed through the joint.

The lowlights are well documented, and David Lee remembers them well. He came aboard just as the gale force winds were starting to pick up steam. He recalled what it was like to come into a situation that was on the verge of breaking apart at the seams.

“We had all this chaos going on off the court and a host of characters on the team and all you can really do…” he trailed off, recalling a conversation he and Robinson had a short while earlier. “I said ‘Nate, what was your mindset,’ because I know mine was ‘what is going on around here?”

When I mentioned that he was one spot behind Eddy Curry on the Knicks all-time field goal percentage leaderboard, the mere mention of his former teammate’s name elicited a chuckle. It wasn’t mean-spirited, but more in the way you’d laugh thinking about a college buddy who ended up in the middle of every good story. “You couldn’t make some of this stuff up. It was a cast of characters.”

According to Lee, the only thing he could do at the time was put his head down, keep his mouth shut, and play hard — exactly the reason fans still remember his presence on the team fondly despite all the losses and chicanery that floated around him.

The same goes for Robinson, who recited the “Once a Knick, Always a Knick” mantra that has remained meaningful through the years despite the on-court product. “[David and me] just brought the toughness that the fans see in the players they’ve labeled as Gods – Larry Johnson, Latrell Sprewell, Allan Houston, Patrick Ewing, John Starks…the greats that came before us.”

The fact that players like Robinson and Lee still get a hero’s welcome of their own any time they return to the Garden is telling. These are two men who never appeared in a playoff game for the Knicks, whose highest highs arguably came during that All-Star weekend in 2010. Yet the love they’re shown to this day is a testament to how deeply the city yearns for a winner.

Lee, despite everything that went on around him during his time here, maintains that there’s nowhere else he’d rather have started his career. Listening to him, it’s easy to see why Mills and Perry think that if they simply continue to make sound, competent decisions, people around the league — including a certain former MVP playing for the team Lee won a championship with — will take notice.

Says Lee, “eventually the Knicks are going to get this thing really cooking, and we’re going to say, ‘what a road it was to lead up to this.”

Next: Jeremy Lin has lived a basketball lifetime

Few have traveled that road and been welcomed back with open arms. David Lee and Nate Robinson can say they have. They know how bad things got at their worst. Now they’re hoping to be around to see the Garden at its best…rocking in April, May, and maybe one day, even June.

The house is finally in order. For a franchise that hasn’t always had many steps in the right direction, that alone counts as significant progress.

If Scott Perry and Steve Mills have their way, it will just be the beginning.

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