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Goodbye, Melo, From a Knicks Diehard

He was never transcendent like LeBron, but he ousted Phil Jackson, and that means something to New York fans

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Dear Melo,

So this is it. This is the end. I guess I’m relieved. I was never a fan of your style, with all the jab-stepping and ball-clutching and ISO-up hero-posturing. But you kind of won me over after a while, which is more of a commentary on the Sideshow Bob–stepping-on-rakes way the Knicks go about their business than any evolution in your play. Alas.

You had some great moments in New York. Wins, though; those were elusive — on the court, at least. Your crowning achievements as a Knick are your off-the-court victories. Everyone who challenged you fell before your immaculate stubbornness. I respect it. You defeated Mike D’Antoni and his spread-pick-and-roll offense, leaving Coach Pringles to slink away, a broken man. You forced out Jeremy Lin (much to my eternal chagrin), effectively snuffing Linsanity before the madness had a chance to cleanse the city. You outlasted Donnie Walsh, Glen Grunwald, and, against all odds, the icon, Phil Jackson, with his 11 championship rings. You’re as responsible as anyone for shattering, once and for all, the musty mystique of the triangle offense.

Going eyeball-to-eyeball with Phil Jackson was your Finals. His retreat to Montana was your championship. His tweet showing gnarled feet on a porch rail by a lake was your parade.

On paper — that theoretical realm where Hoodie Melo and Olympic Melo live side-by-side, and where so much of your career played out — you and Phil were always a mismatch. Jackson was a party to legend before forging his own. He was a beloved member of the Knicks’ 1973 title team. He played with Dave DeBusschere, Willis Reed, Dollar Bill Bradley, and Dick Barnett; he was Clyde Frazier’s roommate on the road. All that before becoming the most decorated coach in NBA history.

Sure, he had Jordan and Pippen and then Shaq and Kobe to ride to the mountaintop. But he also had to deal with their towering egos. And only Jackson, it is said, could have held such a volatile collection of alphas together for so long. Only he could call on the triangle offense as an organizing principle and get the greatest players to adhere to it. Only he could imagine such revolutionary motivational techniques as giving people books. What a genius, the legend says. Jackson’s hiring was rightly lauded as the best chance of the James Dolan era to rehabilitate Madison Square Garden’s poisonous culture. It would be leadership by osmosis. His five-year deal was worth $12 million annually. He had the full-throated support of the owner. He was bulletproof. And yet you dunked him into the rim.

The no-trade clause you conned Phil into when you re-signed in 2014 is your Pietà. That was Jackson’s undoing. When you became — as everyone knew you would — an impediment to Jackson’s beloved triangle, there was nothing Phil could do. Trapped in a prison of his own design, unable to deal you, Jackson resorted to trashing you in the media. His buddy and alleged personal blogger Charley Rosen took his shots.

When the Zen Master’s ire shifted to the Latvian messiah Kristaps Porzingis, the damage done to the franchise’s reputation became, at least in the short term, irreparable. Athletes are easy marks for criticism, fair and unfair, tempered and unhinged, from anyone on planet Earth with a cellphone. From the lowliest anonymous message-board shitposter to the president of the United States of America. What player wants to sweat for a team that, against its obvious best interests, so cavalierly airs its internal psychodramas in hopes of damaging its own stars? Certainly not you, Melo.

The war of attrition with Phil is where you finally won me over. You’re not LeBron; so what? You’re a me-first gunner. You don’t play defense. Fine. You ran Lin out on a rail. That was tough, but I’m (not actually) over it. You didn’t deserve to be treated so shabbily. I didn’t want you to come to New York, certainly not at the price the team paid. But that blame, as usual, goes to Madison Square Garden and its incessant and clearly institutional penchant for short-term thinking. The team, in the Dolan era, is run like a cat chasing a laser pointer. None of that is on you. In standing up to Phil Jackson’s imperiousness, you became, like Jeff Van Gundy before you, a kind of New York folk hero.

New Yorkers, you see, are weird. We call New York “The Greatest City in the World,” but we imagine ourselves as underdogs, and the city streets are teeming with Joans of Arc. The city’s swagger — its wounded braggadocio — is the natural outgrowth of how hard it is to live there. The weather (except for two weeks in spring and fall) is trash. The governor of the state and the mayor of the city hate each other, much to the detriment of the citizenry. The subways are crowded and disintegrating. Everything costs too much. And all the while, you can never forget that there are people — from all around the country and all around the world — dedicated to coming to New York City to kill you. That tends to result in a certain fuck-you attitude. Nothing, then, is more romantic to a New Yorker than an underdog waving double-barreled middle fingers at The Man. Even when that underdog is making $26 million a year. Hell, that’s why we loved J.R. Smith, and he wasn’t even doing it on purpose.

Beginnings and endings have a way of overshadowing what came in between. That’s natural, I guess. I was skeptical about your arrival in New York. But, I’ll admit, this got me hyped:

Not Jeremy-Lin-blending-Derek-Fisher-like-a-pina-colada-on-the-way-to-38-points-at-the-Garden hyped, but hyped nonetheless. Sure, you moved from Brooklyn to Baltimore at age 8. Whatever. Andy Warhol was from Pittsburgh. New Yorkers are vain, and you claimed us. I’m a mark like everyone else.

And as I said, you had some great moments. You set the Garden record with a 62-point hot-lava eruption that melted the then–Charlotte Bobcats — 23-of-35 from the field, 10-for-10 from the line, 6-of-11 from 3, 13 rebounds. You averaged 28 points a game in 2012–13, and played most of your minutes at power forward, where your quicks and toughness gave you a cutting edge like a palmed razor blade. That positional shift should have been transformative. But just like everything else with the Knicks, it was a blip, a momentary break through the clouds.

My favorite game of yours was the 43-point outing capped by the game winner against the Chicago Bulls in the dying days of the 2012 season.

Watching this video today is wild. Look at that roster! Tyson Chandler is playing out the string in Phoenix. Jeremy Lin is in Brooklyn. Amar’e Stoudemire is retired. Landry Fields washed out of the league three years ago. Steve Novak hasn’t played a meaningful minute since 2013. J.R. and Shump won a title with the Cavaliers and have been to three straight Finals. Josh Harrellson plays in Tokyo. Jared Jeffries is the GM of an esports team. You were the last man standing.

So long old friend. You're free now

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Now it’s over. You’re free. You waived your no-trade and are off to join the Thunder and Russell Westbrook and Paul George and Sam Presti’s exquisitely designed and daintily perched glasses in what might be Oklahoma City’s final assault on Fortress Warriors. On paper, it’s the best team you’ve ever played on. I wish you luck. You’re going to need it.