If you're looking for a team to write about, you could do worse than the 2006-07 New York Knicks. (After the fact, I mean. Covering them every day sounds like it was a nightmare.) Personality conflicts, on-court clashes, behind-the-scenes drama and sexual harassment in the workplace -- they had it all.
So John J. Buro, a Brooklyn-born sportswriter weaned on the Knicks' 1970 and 1973 NBA championship teams, had plenty of good stuff to pick through for "Open Court: A Year with the New York Knicks," his e-book-only account of perhaps the most miserable span in team history.
While its subtitle promises a year with the Knicks, "Open Court" recounts events stretching from Oct. 2, 2006, through mid-May 2008. That timeframe covers the end of the ill-fated Larry Brown experiment, which was followed by the grim manifest destiny of Isiah Thomas slouching toward the coaching box.
Then there were Stephon Marbury's(notes) $15 kicks and his last season as a legit NBA point guard. Plus his subsequent senses-shattering meltdown, which began in earnest with his bizarre July 2007 interview on WNBC's "Mike'd Up," and Thomas' persistent blinders-on belief that star-crossed Eddy Curry(notes) could be a franchise big.
Don't forget the wince-worthy notion that Steph and a past-his-prime Steve Francis(notes) (imported at the expense of Penny Hardaway's expiring contract and the rights to a young, cheap Trevor Ariza(notes)) could evoke memories of the Rolls Royce Backcourt. Or the abysmal Renaldo Balkman(notes)/Mardy Collins draft. Or the franchise's sixth- and seventh-straight sub-.500 seasons.
Oh, there was also the Anucha Browne Sanders sexual harassment suit, with Madison Square Garden's $11.5 million black-eye settlement serving as the cherry on top of headlines about truck parties, whether or not it's cool to call women b-----s and a coach having to start a point guard because the player's "got so much [crap] on him, and he knows it."
Yet even with such rich source material, "Open Court" falls short. A book about a team and franchise this dysfunctional, set on the world's grandest stage, should burst at the seams with absurdity, comedy and brilliance (unintentional or otherwise). Instead, it just leaves the reader wanting.
Part of the reason for that is the book's construction. Similar season-long projects from years past — Halberstam's "The Breaks of the Game," for instance, or McCallum's "Seven Seconds or Less" — provided invaluable insights into players and coaches, gleaned from hours spent digging into lives, psyches, relationships and routines. That up-close-and-personal reporting allowed those authors to craft detailed portraits of their subjects, giving readers a more nuanced understanding of the people behind the teams.
"Open Court" operates differently, replaying the 2006-07 season "through 85 game summaries," plus the occasional profile and sidebar to add color. (The '06-'07 run is divided into four detailed segments, each about 40 pages long, with the '07-'08 campaign and run-up to the '08 Draft handled in four shorter epilogues and postscript pieces.) The story mostly takes place on the court, which was where this particular collection of Knicks was least interesting. As a result, the book reads like a straightforward chronicle of what happened that year rather than an attempt to explain why it did — more like an encyclopedia entry than the philosophical, psychosocial examination needed to pin down this team.
While informative, the approach leaves something to be desired. Sure, you might learn some new facts about Thomas, Marbury, Curry, et. al., but you won't connect to them; it's unlikely you'll come away from "Open Court" feeling like you know or understand them any better than you did before.
The day-by-day, game-story-heavy approach fails to compensate for a fundamental flaw that Buro admits in the book's prologue: While he "witnessed nearly 80 games" from November 2006" through the summer of '08, he didn't travel with the Knicks at all. It's hard to kill Buro for that — he was covering the team for small local outlets (like The Wave, a weekly community paper based in the Rockaways) that probably couldn't afford to detail a reporter for 41 road games — but it puts the book in a major hole from Jump Street. We know the author had major limits on both his time with and exposure to the players, making it less likely that we'll get the kind of nitty-gritty inside info that we've come to expect from reporters who spend every day with the team.
But that doesn't mean the book has to suck. Distance can unveil new angles, enabling an author to present different perspectives for readers to consider — this is part of the reason that fine folks like you visit blogs like Ball Don't Lie. (The other part? "Mathematicized.") In the hands of a talented writer who knows how to take 'em, those angles can yield revelations as valuable as anything to come out of a "Guess what happened on the team plane?" anecdote.
Unfortunately, Buro (author of two previous books: the 2002 baseball novel "Bite of the Shark" and the 2006 newsroom thriller "Deliver Us from Evil) isn't that writer. Even if you set aside the type of violations that'll bother writing nerds — avalanches of unnecessary commas, often-awkward sentence structures, etc. — Buro just misuses a lot of words and phrases. It seems like there's a sloppy, disjointing mistake every couple of pages. For example:
• Opposing coaches damn the Knicks' roster with "feint praise";
• Yao Ming(notes) is labeled "a secular talent," rather than a "singular" one (though it's possible Buro was wondering whether Yao exists in a state separate from religion -- this was a discussion topic on the ClutchFans board back in '04);
• A crowd breathes a "collective sign of relief";
• Marbury is "accessed a charge" after a drive to the basket;
On top of that, he doesn't give us those unique takes and angles. Throughout "Open Court," Buro pushes the formulaic storyline of "one team's struggles to regain its credibility," casting Thomas' Knicks as the scrappy, misunderstood underdogs trying to rise above even as everyone works to drag them down. Problem is, that just wasn't real.
That team cost $120 million and lost 49 games, and the guy calling the plays put the whole thing together. Fans and observers knew that building around Marbury and Curry, giving away draft picks like Halloween candy and obliterating financial flexibility until the Mayan end times was a bad idea. The media wrote negative stories about that team because, even though it contended for the eighth seed in a terrible Eastern Conference, that team was awful.
It's one thing to find honor and nobility in an unsuccessful struggle; it's another to repeatedly overstate the heart, hustle and soul of a poorly constructed squad. Buro too often skews toward the latter, choosing to don rose-colored glasses and stand in opposition to the "cynics" that called a loser by its name. The tactic undercuts "Open Court," and what could have been a valuable lesson in nation-building gone sour is reduced to a history textbook that good teachers regard skeptically.