For months, the sportswriters who cover the New York Knicks have been feuding with one another in print. And with the team’s surprising playoff run and organizational chaos in recent weeks, the feuding has only gotten more intense, more bitter. If columnists could be called for fouls for what they put into the newspaper, then the referees would have to call a double technical on Mike Wise of The New York Times and Pete Vecsey of the New York Post .
The 6-foot 4-inch Mr. Wise has been razzing Knicks newcomer Latrell Sprewell all season long, while again and again mourning the departure of ex-Knick power forward Charles Oakley. His bitterness over the addition of Mr. Sprewell and the loss of Mr. Oakley led him to attack former Knicks general manager Ernie Grunfeld, even after he was “demoted” in April. In his May 23 column, Mr. Wise went after Mr. Grunfeld’s character, saying his flaws were related to “his inability to comprehend his own shortcomings.”
Writing in the Post on May 28, Mr. Vecsey fired back, suggesting that Mr. Wise had been manipulated by Knick coach Jeff Van Gundy to “denounce” Mr. Sprewell, backup forward Marcus Camby and backup center Chris Dudley. Mr. Vecsey went on to call Mr. Wise “the class creep from The Times ” and warned darkly: “Wise, of course, is bound to get what’s coming to him. Same goes for Van Gundy.”
In a phone interview, Mr. Wise said of Mr. Vecsey, “When I came to town five years ago, I actually looked up to the guy. He was really the first guy to make the N.B.A. beat a full-time job and probably opened up the door to guys like myself. But the mean-spirited stuff, I just don’t get it. I know passion for this game runs deep in New York and that makes the job all the more enjoyable, but I sleep well. I don’t go home bitter and thinking about what somebody else wrote. I can’t explain why the guy has it out for me, other than maybe he feels like he’s nine points down and he’s too slow to put on a full court press, and maybe he’s got to grab my shirt and get a little elbow in my ribs. Peter is going to break more stories, because he’s been in this business a long time and he knows a lot of people. But when times get tough and he really needs something, tell him to call me.”
Mr. Wise may have become a marked man after breaking the news of Mr. Checketts’ secret meeting with former Chicago Bull coach Phil Jackson on May 23. Five days later, Mr. Vecsey was calling him a creep in print.
Mr. Wise nearly quit the sportswriting game in the early 90′s for a career as a high school teacher. But then, while working for the Sacramento Bee , he got the call from The Times . Since then, he has done some big stories-from this year’s dark, scathing profile of Mr. Sprewell in The New York Times Magazine , to his report of Mr. Checketts’ secret midseason meeting with Mr. Jackson, to his 1997 article on marijuana use in the National Basketball Association, to the news break in 1998 later that Michael Jordan was about to retire. His rivals may be attacking him to keep him off his game; but, more likely, Mr. Wise feels their wrath because of his continued songs of praise to ex-Knicks Mr. Oakley and John Starks and his constant downgrading of their replacements, Mr. Camby and Mr. Sprewell.
Mr. Wise kicked off the season with a series of articles that quoted former Knicks speculating on the new, Oakley-less team. In Mr. Wise’s copy, there was Derek Harper saying, “After a while you have to question Ernie [Grunfeld]. You have to wonder what he’s doing.” Terry Cummings cautioned, “Getting younger and more athletic doesn’t always necessarily mean you’re getting better.” And John Starks concluded, “When you trade away two of your core guys, then you lose something.”
In what seemed like a direct response to Mr. Wise’s columns, Mike Lupica of the Daily News pulled a fiendish trick: He got Mr. Oakley (Mr. Wise’s favorite) to praise Mr. Sprewell (Mr. Wise’s nemesis): “All season long,” wrote Mr. Lupica, “Sprewell had been painted as one of the villains of the Knicks season as if he and Marcus Camby were the opposite of everything Oakley had been with the Knicks. Only now, Oakley looking at this from the outside, said that Sprewell was his kind of player.” He went on to quote Mr. Oakley praising Mr. Sprewell’s “energy and toughness.”
It got so bad that in the Sunday Daily News , screenwriter William Goldman weighed in on The Times ‘ coverage of the Knicks: “There are no words for The Times ,” he wrote. “Mike Wise thinks Charles Oakley likes him.”
One of Mr. Wise’s early season articles was a February profile of Mr. Oakley. Mr. Wise began the piece with a scene of Mr. Oakley’s mother complaining to the reporter that she could no longer receive her son’s games on TV. That was pure Wise, sentiment for the old times and a swipe at new ones. A crying mother. A popular player departed and taking a final, mournful shot at his team: “I don’t know how many of those new guys have playoff experience.… You need eggs to make the cake rise,” Mr. Oakley said in the piece. Later on, Mr. Wise returned to the mother: “Corine, like a lot of people at the Garden, misses seeing Charles in a Knicks uniform. The Knicks will be missing Oakley in other ways, too. For the last decade, Oakley brought his teammates home at least once a year to eat his mother’s cooking. Corine would even alter the menu, making string beans with turkey because Ewing did not like pork.”
As the season progressed, Mr. Wise became particularly adept at setting up the sentimental scene, the old Knick player-Mr. Starks and Mr. Oakley both became part of this particular subgenre of sports column-watching the new team from the sidelines and recalling the heady days of yore.
Only one game into the season, Mr. Wise established the device he would use throughout the remainder of the season. In his article on the Knicks’ opening night, which was also 14-year veteran Buck Williams’ last, though not overtly critical of Mr. Sprewell, Mr. Wise concluded: “Buck’s last night at the Garden. Sprewell’s first. An ending, a beginning and a season of uncertainty ahead.”
An old player, a new player. Old player good. New player bad. He labeled Mr. Camby “rail thin,” “frail,” “soft and unfocused” and Mr. Sprewell “rudderless.” And he called them both “Gen X knuckleheads.”
Mr. Wise’s championing of Mr. Oakley finds its counterpoint in his distaste for Mr. Sprewell. Mr. Wise’s dark and powerful 3,000-word dismemberment of Mr. Sprewell in The Times Magazine was the kind of article that even casual sports fans discussed-the kind of article that ultimately shapes public opinion. “Their goal was a noble one-to transform a good player on a bad team into a great player on a championship team,” he wrote of the Sprewell acquisition. “They never imagined that that player could take a good team and play a major role in turning it into a very bad one.” Mr. Wise argued, “As Knicks fans, players and management have come to understand, there is neither purpose nor symmetry in Sprewell’s game. It’s more of an avant-garde jazz riff, played at high speed and with little discernible logic.”
Two weeks later, on the day the Knicks were to face Miami on the deciding game of their series, Mr. Wise asked Knick fans, “With the season on the line, whom would you rather go with into a deciding game, Oakley and Starks or Camby and Sprewell?” The old guys, he concluded, were better and predicted, “It is why the Knicks will go down hard today.”
We all know what happened with that one.
Nonetheless, Mr. Wise said over the phone: “I really believed at the time they made those deals that they were trading away the heart and soul of their team and in some way that will eventually come to haunt them.”
Mr. Wise got into another scrape over Knick forward Larry Johnson. In the Post , old-school purist Phil Mushnick decried Mr. Johnson’s new habit of putting his arms in the shape of an L after scoring three-pointers. Three days later, Mr. Wise came to Mr. Johnson’s defense, calling him a selfless player who held the team together.
Mr. Grunfeld also felt the sting when, shortly after he got the ax, Mr. Wise wrote that Mr. Grunfeld was hampered by his own insecurities; it closed with a scene of Ms. Grunfeld and his daughter chanting “Pat the Rat” during the 1997 playoffs against Miami Heat coach, and ex-Knick coach, Pat Riley; the scene was apparently meant to show that Mr. Grunfeld and his family didn’t understand how valuable Mr. Riley had been for his career.
Later that month, Mr. Wise advised his readers, don’t make a martyr of Mr. Grunfeld, noting that he “had no relationship to speak of with many of the players”-which is not really in the G.M.’s job description.
To his credit, Mr. Wise never once bailed out of his thesis. On May 31, with his season’s thesis on life support and the Knicks improbably up 1-0 in their Conference Final series with the Indiana Pacers, he wrote a column titled “A New Team That Relies on Veterans.” In that one, he quoted Herb Williams going on about the Market Square Arena and Reggie Miller waxing on about Mr. Ewing. It was familiar territory for Mr. Wise. He complained of Mr. Sprewell’s shot selection and complimented the old veterans-Mr. Ewing, Mr. Houston and Mr. Johnson-for their poise. But for all its transparency, there was something noble in Mr. Wise’s consistency.
Meanwhile, just as he had in the Miami series, Mr. Wise predicted “imminent destruction” awaits the Knicks against Indiana. But Knick fans should take heart: Mr. Wise’s crystal ball is slightly fuzzy.