It was August 1973 when Mets chairman Donald M. Grant addressed his floundering team with a speech to keep them playing hard through September, despite being 12 games under .500 with 44 games to go and seemingly out of the pennant race.
It was in that meeting Tug McGraw, the rambunctious closer, jumped to his feet and shouted the now famous rally cry, “Ya gotta believe!”
On Wednesday after practice, following perhaps the most despondent performance of the season the night before against the Dallas Mavericks, Carmelo Anthony employed the phrase to his 5-22 Knicks team that is 6.5 games out of a playoff spot with 55 games to go.
“You gotta believe,” Melo said. “I’ve never been a quitter my whole life. It’s something you gotta believe in, that it will happen.”
That “it” Melo speaks of is in reference to better times ahead for a team that has lost half of its games by 5 points or less or in overtime. Not to mention a team that saw all five starters — wholly ineffective — replaced just minutes into the game Tuesday night against the Mavericks at The Garden.
Derek Fisher, who in 18 seasons as a player experienced losing just twice (two seasons in Golden State), seems confounded by the fragility of his team and the lack of competitive desire that, regardless of the situation, is at the root of the best professional athletes. It’s something Fisher, a tough competitor as a player, just can’t comprehend.
“You need to give yourself a chance to win,” Fisher said, “and [Tuesday night] we didn’t do that right from the start.”
A week after Phil Jackson identified a “loser’s mentality” within the team, Fisher talked about the continued effort being made to “break down the mindset of what we can’t do and continue to remind these guys that we’re repeatedly in the same situations.”
Melo this season has routinely implied something he sees around him: a collective lack of belief in the team and confidence in themselves. That is the result of the system providing open shots but players unable to hit them. That is the result of defensive breakdowns that come off of a lack of communication, recognition or sacrifice.
And then there’s the ‘e’ word: effort. It comes and goes like Tim Hardaway Jr.’s shooting touch.
That part seems to perplex Fisher the most. While he is often criticized for seeming stoic on the sidelines (fans love to see a ranting, raving, chair-throwing fit by a coach to mirror the anger in the stands), there have been several moments where Fisher has called quick timeouts — usually early in the third quarter — to bark at his team.
Fisher assured anyone wondering about his emotion that he has “plenty of it” and said he is learning as a coach when it’s appropriate and when it’s best to “not go to the well” too often.
“Emotions during the game are already high enough, often times that’s when you see confrontations between players and coaches,” he said. “There are ways to be confrontational and let guys know how you feel without being angry and out of control.”
That doesn’t mean Fisher will always remain calm, cool and collected. Remember, during his playing career, Fisher would get into it with Jackson in huddles. And don’t forget he once famously fought Kobe Bryant in practice.
This is an emotional, competitive man. He’s still learning his way as a coach.
“As time goes on,” he added, “the longer I’m here the more you’ll see.”
Meanwhile, after 27 games, has Melo seen enough to second-guess his decision to return to the Knicks and invest in this rebuild? As the Knicks headed for Chicago to play the Bulls on Thursday, he was reminded of the opportunity he could have taken if he signed with the Bulls, who are 15-9 and in fourth place in the East, and asked if he now wonders ‘what if’?
“No, if I start doing that, saying ‘What if’, and second-guessing myself, and questioning myself, it won’t be right,” he said. “For me, mentally, it wouldn’t be right. I would not allow myself to sway towards asking myself ‘What if’.”
OK so instead of looking back at the decision made, with the 5-22 start, does he find himself at times already looking ahead to next year with a roster rebuilt with salary cap space and a first round pick?
“You think about that,” Melo admitted. “It’s only right that you think about that. But I don’t try to put too much thought into what’s going to happen. We still have about 50 games left in the season.”
You gotta believe things will get better then.
- JR Smith didn’t make the trip with the team to Chicago, which means he will sit out a fourth straight game dealing with a painful plantar fascia injury. Fisher said the decision was made to keep Smith back in New York to try to “accelerate the healing process as much as we can.” The Knicks play back-to-back afternoon games this weekend, starting with a 1 p.m. tip-off Saturday at The Garden against the Suns and a 3:30 p.m. start against the Raptors in Toronto on Sunday.
- With the NBA Trade Season officially here, I will be keeping a very close eye on the Phoenix Suns. They are 13-14 in the West, in the ninth spot, with the now-healthy Thunder breathing down their neck. They also have a logjam at the point guard position with Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas and a need for wings and bigs. Would Bledsoe or Dragic be a fit in the Triangle?
- What a tough year for NBA rookies. After Jabari Parker’s season-ending ACL injury, that makes three of the first seven picks out for the season, including Parker (second overall), Joel Embiid (third) and Julius Randle (seventh). Right now seven of the first 11 picks in the draft are out with injuries, with Aaron Gordon (foot), Marcus Smart (Achilles), Noah Vonleh (back) and Doug McDermott (knee) added to the list.
- Keep in mind, too, the Knicks rookie Cleanthony Early (second round) is also out with a knee injury. He is slowly working his way back but isn’t yet ready to practice.
- Remember, after tonight’s broadcast of the Knicks and Bulls on TNT, switch over to MSG Network for NYK Extra with me, Wally Szczerbiak and Bill Pidto!