News

The Return of Big Al and the Knicks

It's just like the old days. There's a full house here in Veterans' Memorial Coliseum and the crowd's roaring.

Surely you remember how it used to be on nights like this, don't you?
Al Bianchi would be the one doing the shouting on the Phoenix Suns bench next to John MacLeod. Bianchi would be waving his clipboard and imploring Larry Nance, Walter Davis, Paul Westphal, and Truck Robinson to just hang in there on defense.

That's all changed.
MacLeod's in Dallas. Nance, the magical leaper, moved to Cleveland. Davis is firing them up from outside for Denver. Westphal and Robinson? They're retired and are down there coaching from the Suns bench themselves.

And Bianchi . . . well, he's the biggest success story of them all. . . . Bianchi's back in New York as the general manager of the New York Knicks, and maybe they're the most improved team in the league.

But just for tonight, Bianchi's back in town, and he's sitting in the front row of the press box, about thirty rows up into the lower stands.

It's a game between Bianchi's Knicks and Jerry Colangelo's Phoenix Suns. You knew it had to be something special for both of them.

They go back a long way, Bianchi and Colangelo. When Bianchi broke into coaching with the Chicago Bulls back in the 1960's, Colangelo started at the same time as a ticket salesman for the club.

Colangelo was the guy who hung around the bosses in the front office. Bianchi was an assistant to Johnny Kerr on the bench.

One day in training camp, I asked Kerr why he picked Bianchi to be his assistant.

"Al's as tough as they come," Kerr said. "He made it in this league as a third guard ten straight years. Unless you played in this league, you couldn't know how physically tough and determined you have to be to accomplish that."

It was a different game in those days. The Bulls played in the old Chicago Amphitheatre in the stockyards, and you could smell the cows. They considered it a big night when they drew 5,000 fans.

In time, both Kerr and Bianchi came to Phoenix and worked for Colangelo. In time, Colangelo let both go. That's really not that big a deal. It's the nature of the game. The boss stays. Everyone else moves on.

Kerr's back in Chicago where he's doing fine as a color man for the Bulls' broadcasts.

But Bianchi's a different case. He came to Phoenix after coaching the Virginia Squires in the old American Basketball Association. He was Julius Erving's first pro coach.

"They compare Michael Jordan to the Doctor," Bianchi says. "Jordan's the most exciting player of our day. But the Doctor was special. People forget he was just as fast as Jordan and three inches taller. He was absolutely unstoppable in the beginning."

Getting let go out here in Phoenix after so many years had to hurt. But Bianchi never complained. He just got even. The miracle is that he's better off now than he ever was here. But coming back here like this with a great team led by Patrick Ewing and Mark Jackson must have set Bianchi's cup to overflowing.

For Bianchi, the visit to Phoenix was a return to a place where he'd spent a big chunk of his adult life. He still owns a home in the Biltmore area and a travel agency that bears his name. He'd arranged for passes for his grown children who still live here and they were perched in various parts of the arena.

"I love being back in New York," Bianchi was saying. "For me, it's like being alive again."

Bianchi was like a college student just back from his first semester. He wanted to let you know, in a subtle way, that he was getting along just fine.

"I live on 66th Street in Manhattan," Bianchi said.
"What about the muggers?" I ask.
"Why would they bother me?" he asks. "I grew up on Long Island.

"New York is my home town. And sometimes, when I come back in from a road trip, I have the cab driver take me through the old neighborhood where I grew up."

"What's it like now?"
"Gone," Bianchi says, "the neighborhood's all gone."
This is a game that will go down to the last seconds before a decision.

And for Bianchi it has to be a vindication. Colangelo, sitting a dozen seats away, hung him out to dry, and now Bianchi is back in town as boss of one of the best operations in pro ball. This is the stuff of daydreams.

Bianchi's hands move constantly. He squeezes them nervously. Sometimes, he balls them into fists and pounds them on the table in front of him with satisfaction when the Knicks make a good play. Other times, he opens his fingers wide and holds his hands high in consternation.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tom Fitzpatrick