The Transition Bucket That Shone Through The Dark
12:43 PM EST on November 18, 2021
Welcome to Infinite Replay, a recurring feature about the plays we can’t stop seeing over and over and over again.
Many people give over the most passionate years of their lives to grand causes: revolutions, paintings, families, trysts, wars, novels. Until proven otherwise I'll remain concerned that mine went to the Isiah Thomas-era Knicks. Nobody loves a sports team like a 12-to-17-year-old; the ones that keep on loving them that way into their adult years generally become sad, apprehended by stadium security, or both. So I am grateful those years are over for me, that I can now view present Knicks dysfunction at least half-arm's length, even if I do rue the fact that my years of peak emotional investment in a sports franchise overlapped perfectly with its stewardship by a man who failed on every imaginable level—basketball coaching, roster construction, human decency.
Given how many hours I spent watching the games, sifting through box scores and staring at Mardy Collins season splits, my mental records of this time are curiously smudged. What happened in those years? What did the basketball even look like? I'm not sure. I remember my homework and video games way more clearly. Sure, in idle moments, I am sometimes assailed by the Guys of my accursed past, and can discern their silhouettes: the first-round selection of Renaldo Balkman, the waistline of Zach Randolph, the contract of Jerome James, the ever-presence of Jared Jeffries. But most of this era lives in my mind as total darkness. Which is not altogether unexpected: Madison Square Garden in those years was a black hole, devoid of hope or possibility. Many players, winding down respectable enough careers, disappeared fully into it. (Stephon Marbury came out the other side of the wormhole and emerged happy, in China, years later.) Some players young and vigorous enough to escape its awful gravity went on to decent careers afterwards. So maybe it's not so weird that my memory of those Knicks years is itself shapeless tarry horror.
A few beams of light managed to poke their way out of the black hole, which I do remember and cherish. By this I mean a handful of specific plays, because the Thomas-era Knicks measured by any unit any longer than a single possession were guaranteed to depress you. Among the few sunny spots I remember David Lee slipping the screen and tipping in the inbounds pass with 0.1 seconds on the clock. I remember Marbury's doofy pirouette pass to a not-particularly-open Tim Thomas who did the actually impressive part by tossing it in over his shoulder. I remember Eddy Curry, at the end of regulation, swishing a three from the right corner to send the team to an overtime win—the second, and final, three-point attempt of his career. (Both makes.)
There is one play I remember most, though. It's January 2008, the Knicks are 8-24, and I am lying supine on a sofa-ottoman setup, staring up at a midseason performance from another doomed squad at the tail of the Isiah Thomas era, though I didn't know it at the time. This particular Knicks roster, like the others, had done nothing to earn my zealous attention. It repudiated it, at every turn, marrying the league's 29th defense to its 24th offense and daring you to watch. But on this day they happened to be visiting the similarly despondent Chicago Bulls, and for Eddy Curry it was homecoming, a much warmer one than his scoreless appearance there the previous month. He'd done damage in the paint in the second quarter. He was not the only former Bull now wearing blue-and-orange, because there was Jamal Crawford, who, with a minute to go in the first half, flew down the floor in transition. David Lee, the sole source of consistency in this era, laboring towards his ritual double-double, grabbed a rebound and kicked it ahead. It landed in the hands of Crawford, who sized up Kirk Hinrich on the fast break, took two dribbles, and erased him.
By this point I understood that Crawford wasn't the best basketball player, but seemed in some sense destined to play it, and deserved some superlative of his own: most languid wraith, capable of floating to any spot on the court, past any defender, at his own unhurried tempo. I'd been awed by lots of his tricks, but this play was almost too confusing for me to appreciate at first blush. I was too mystified to be impressed. Most great separation moves I had seen, against genuine defense, required at least a bit of follow-up work to banish the pesky defender from the play for good—a shoulder nudge, a protective off-arm to fend off the swipe, a tactical butt bump. No matter how deceptively that ball got yo-yoed around, there was still some skin-to-skin contact, some bodily acknowledgement that another body was being passed by. Crawford skipped all that entirely. There was a hello, but no goodbye. A dribble, a swirl of something—what exactly?—and Hinrich was left literally snatching at a patch of Chicago air. The move made his presence irrelevant.
Unable to comprehend Crawford's legerdemain in real time, and still stumped by the replay, I found the clip on YouTube, opening up a rich and ongoing era of poring over heavily pixelated basketball moves on that site. Mid-sprint, Crawford had decelerated, gone behind-the-back to his left hand, picked up his dribble and, while taking a jump stop towards the hoop, snatched the ball back around to his right side, over Kirk's clutches. My own coordination hadn't even been sufficient to make the eighth-grade basketball team, so copying Crawford's shake-and-bake was out of the question; deciphering it on my desktop screen was all the challenge I needed, and a welcome respite from watching actual Knicks games. Hinrich was then a great on-ball defender. But anyone would've gotten got by Crawford in full flow, intent on proving that, for a hooper of the very purest ball skills, any movement can be chained to another, any permutation is possible—whatever feels right in the moment. In my time I've burnt ten thousand invisible Kirk Hinrichs, miming this move in hallways and sidewalks.
It made me feel a little better to learn that even Jamal Crawford didn't understand the shake-and-bake either, the first time he tried it. It just emerged on its own accord. As he explained to Darius Miles a few months ago on a podcast, Crawford debuted this move as a 16-year-old kid playing in a pro-am game against a very aggressive grown-up defender. He'd had to consult a trusted eyewitness afterwards. "So I do the move, and I go over here, and he goes way over there, and the crowd goes crazy. I go back and ask my mom—Mom, what'd I do? She was there, she was like, I don't know." Eventually he did piece it together. "So I kind of broke it down and was like, Oh, I can do that anytime. It's crazy to see players now do things like that. Because you don't know at the time that that move is going to outlive you. I was the only person in the video game that could do the move—that was allowed to do the move," he said.
The Knicks won that game against the Bulls, 105-100. They'd end the season 23-59, and Isiah Thomas was expunged. (As of 2021, he still believes the Eddy Curry trade was good.) Just 11 games into the next season, Crawford escaped the Knicks, and made his way onto much happier terrain: seven more teams, three Sixth Man of the Year awards (including one at age 36), lots of cumulative scoring accolades, and a sure place as the most telegenic microwave bucket-getter of his time. This was all good to see from afar: that Crawford, a source of contagious joy for so many basketball fans, could have survived a workplace as toxic as those Knicks and gone onto a pleasant 20-year career; that individual ingenuity could cut the acrid taste of collective dysfunction; that one play could deliver a flash of entertainment during an era of institutional anti-entertainment. I wound up with a live memory that persists in my mind among so many suppressed or submerged ones. For sitting through all that dreck, I got a Jamal Crawford transition bucket. I'm not saying it's a good tradeoff for whole years of your life, but it's something.