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The Return of Big Al and the Knicks

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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.

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Tom Fitzpatrick