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.

And all the time that his hands move, Bianchi never stops talking softly to the players on the floor who, of course, have no way of hearing him.

"How do you like working in Madison Square Garden?"
"It's unbelievable," he said. "You know, we put tickets on sale last week, and people showed up at midnight to start waiting in line for them."

"Where do you sit during the home games?"
"I don't sit. I roam. There's a tunnel that comes from my office directly to the stand. I can watch from my office. I can go stand in an aisle. I catch an empty seat. I go to the press row. I watch from all over the place."

"Are the New York writers on you yet?"
Bianchi grins.
"Of course they are," he says. "But if you work in New York, you have to expect that."

The lead keeps changing hands. First, the Suns lead. Then, New York comes back and moves ahead.

It's late in the fourth quarter and the Suns are coming back strong.
Suddenly, Bianchi pushes back his chair and stands up.
"I can't take it anymore," Bianchi says. "I gotta walk around. I gotta look at it from different spots."

No wonder there's pressure.
Bianchi's responsible for meeting all those big salaries. I wonder how it strikes him? After all, the highest salary he ever made in the NBA was $35,000 a year.

In contrast, the players on both teams make unbelievable money by normal standards.

Earlier on this day, Bianchi had signed Jackson, his star point guard, to a multi-year contract. That was actually his real reason for being in town.

Figure what it cost to put the Knicks on the floor. They pay Patrick Ewing $3 million a year. Charles Oakley, one of the league's best rebounders, gets $1 million; Sidney Green, who is unpredictable, gets $775,000, but he once grabbed 31 rebounds in a single game. Jackson had been getting $275,000 a year, but the contract he signed earlier in the day puts him at better than $1.25 million a year.

The Suns' salaries are healthy, too.
Tom Chambers gets $1.8 million and scores a lot; Armon Gilliam gets $900,000 and sometimes evaporates in crucial situations; Eddie Johnson gets $675,000 for coming off the bench and not missing. Kevin Johnson is paid $532,000 and is so good he's underpaid by these standards. Jeff Hornacek gets $260,000 and is often the difference between winning and losing.

The game goes to the last seconds. The finish could have been predicted from the pay charts.

Mark West of the Suns, who is six feet ten, goes up for an inside shot and is fouled by Ewing, who stands seven feet high.

West, who makes $412,000 a year, misses two straight free throws with the score tied and the game on the line.

But Chambers miraculously bats West's second missed shot back into the basket with his left hand. The Suns win, and Chambers brings his point total to a game high of 36 points.

I go down to the dressing rooms.
Rick Pitino, the Knicks' coach, knows how to lose.
"We gave it everything we had," Pitino says. "But you never get the call on the road. You just have to go on to tomorrow night in the next town."

Ewing makes a normal-size chair look like something from a child's doll house. He has ice packs on both knees.

"They had us up by seven and we fought back," Ewing says. "We took the lead by five, but they came back."

Ewing sighs. He looks truly sad.
"We made the right plays at the right time, but, unfortunately, it didn't work out," he says. "We played well enough to win. We just didn't get the bounce at the end."

Over in the Suns' dressing room a television man is trying to get Cotton Fitzsimmons to attack the Suns' critics.

Fitzsimmons laughs. He's much too smart for this game.
"I just hope the critics come aboard," Fitzsimmons says. "Hey, I don't blame them. There's been four years of losing and unexciting basketball. I can't criticize them for not coming when there was nothing exciting to see."

He talks about Kevin Johnson, the play-maker, who could be the most important player on the team. Fitzsimmons calls him "K.J." So does everyone else.

"Best little man in the league, as far as I'm concerned," Fitzsimmons says. "I don't think I'd trade him for anybody. Sure, there are other great ones around. There's John Stockton at Utah. There's Magic Johnson with the Lakers. There's Mark Price at Cleveland and, of course, Jackson with the Knicks.

"But at this stage in his career, K.J. is the perfect guy for the Suns. He's as quick as anybody in the league, and he makes us exciting. We need that. We put an exciting team on that floor every night and the fans will come back."

I leave the Suns' locker room. I run into Bianchi again. He's standing in front of the Knicks' dressing room staring straight ahead. He doesn't seem particularly unhappy.

"Tough to win on the road," Bianchi says. "We get them in the Garden and it'll be a different story.

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Tom Fitzpatrick