It's media day at the New York Knicks massive training center in Tarrytown, New York. Local and national reporters gather with notebooks and tape recorders before a stage set up in the middle of the gym. At stage left is Jonathan Supranowitz, the team's Vice President of Public Relations.
Supranowitz has slicked back hair and a trim goatee. He is not only here to serve as emcee, but is also standing ready to cut the proceedings off at the knee should a player say something destined to land on back-pages in triple-digit font. But as usual in Knicks Land, Supranowitz is guarding against threats that don't really exist. This is media day, after all. If the event registers on your NBA radar at all, it's in a giddily celebratory "Yay, basketball is back!" kind of way.
But these are the Knicks, and they do things differently. While their failures on the court over the last 14 seasons have been writ large, what's somewhat less known is that the Knicks have crafted one of the most (if not the most) stringent, draconian media policies in the NBA.
A member of the PR office is required to be present for any and all interviews and is tasked with sending transcriptions up the chain of command, purportedly all the way to owner James Dolan himself. There are stories (yes, many of them coming from the Knicks' own personal bête noire, Frank Isola of the Daily News) about systematic, codified "repression," with reporters being followed around the arena, and "enemies lists" that are distributed to the players at the beginning of each season.
I spoke with Howard Beck, who covered the team for the New York Times and is now a national columnist for Bleacher Report, and he said, "Over the years they have been so overprotective, so paranoid, so controlling."
"It doesn't matter who the person was, coach, GM, star player, whomever… they managed it to the extent that it would be, 'Okay. Press Conference starts. Ask your questions. Time's up. See you later, folks.' And that was it," he says. "You would have an easier time getting a ten minute one-on-one with Derrick Rose than you would have with Toney Douglas."
Another reporter that covers the Knicks characterized the fundamental mistrust of the media as emanating from Dolan, and that said paranoia informs everyone else's view throughout the organization, affecting things in ways you would barely believe.
Or as Mike Vaccaro said in an extensive 2007 article for the Observer: "It's the gulag."
The Knicks' media policies have gotten to be such a problem that the Pro Basketball Writers Association (PBWA) actually petitioned the NBA to institute a rule requiring executives to make a certain number of media appearances, similar to those that that govern the players.
Of course, any plans on the part of the league office to enact "The Knicks Rule" were scuttled once Phil Jackson was hired. Beyond whatever mystical recipes he might be concocting to resurrect the team as a whole, it was also hoped by reporters that he'd free them from the gulag. During his introduction this past March, he said outright, "I want to develop relationships with people here."
While all the beat reporters that I spoke to said there's been no official change to the team's policy, in the scant few months that he's been in charge, Jackson has already spoken on the record more times than his predecessors did in the last three years total. Media members all encouraged by recent events, and are uniformly convinced that despite Dolan's paranoia, Jackson will speak when he wants to, to whom he wants to, for as long as his heart desires, and no set of guidelines or wristwatch-pointing by a nervous flunky is going to change that.
On Monday, I asked Supranowitz directly if there had been any actual alterations or even requests to modify the media policy. He declined to comment.
Still, during this past Friday's pre-media day day, instead of just whisking everybody away and shutting the doors, head coach Derek Fisher stayed and continued talking, not necessarily to feed someone a juicy quote, but to start the process of building relationships and developing a sense of trust.
That may seem rudimentary, but for the Knicks to let Derek Fisher—as adept a crafter of media-friendly words as you'll find in the league— be himself, speak for himself, and end conversations on his own terms, is a massive step forward.
As a point of contrast, last year's media day was incredibly tense. GM Glen Grunwald had been sacked without warning four days prior. There were actual questions to be asked, and the air was thick with worry. I very much got the sense that, "They keep score," as Frank Isola told me. "It's either you're with us, or you're against us."
On Monday, however, it was different. Yes, there were still functionaries trailing players and cutting them off somewhat arbitrarily, but they seemed less like hyperactive, panicky helicopter parents. It was as if the entire organization was allowing itself to breathe a little bit.
Now, part of this overabundance of chill vibes may be a result of the reduced or non-existent expectations for the team itself. But there was also space to kid around, like when J.R. Smith (that scamp) and Jason Smith alternately snuck behind one another to stick a finger in each other's ears during their time on stage. Andrea Bargnani spent a good chunk of time chatting animatedly with a couple of emissaries from the Italian press, and he seemed relaxed and even kind of excited. Though my Italian is pretty rusty, I believe he described the triangle offense as being based on "passing and a generosity of spirit." At one point, Cole Aldrich goofily bounded into a corner with his arms swinging back and forth, grinning while perched on a too-small barstool, and waiting for the next guy to ask him about his pick-and-roll defense.
— charlie widdoes (@charliewiddoes) September 29, 2014
And that was it, really. Things were pretty normal and, frankly, kind of dull, but normal and dull is a major step up in Tarrytown, as is having a group of players who seem genuinely pleased at the prospect of playing together, even if they struggle coming out of the gate. Perhaps this is the impact of Phil Jackson, as he doles out little tidbits of his Eastern-ish Philosophy and generally acts like a wise, caring dad. There will be time enough to poke holes in the best-laid plans of mice and Zen. but so far, Dolan has yet to renege on his promise to give Jackson complete autonomy.
"Readers and fans want to hear from the folks that run the team. They want to know that they're accountable. That they're thinking about how to improve things. They want to know what's behind decisions," Beck said. "And yeah, you as a team are basically telling your fansthat you don't give a crap about their concerns or needs if you never let the folks in charge speak."
It may seem counterintuitive or even a bit sad and desperate, but sometimes the bullshit is reassuring, if only to indicate that the team is capable of bullshitting well. That's a sign of organizational competence.
And when Iman Shumpert says, "I'm only 24 and I'm playing in New York so I don't have anything to be mad about… I just attack each and every day with a smile," you can believe that it's true, or at least be happy that you're allowed to believe it. The smile is right there in front of you.