Lazio Steps In

In the days after a wistful Rudolph Giuliani dropped out of the race for the U.S. Senate, and as the boyish, ebullient Rick Lazio popped up on six Sunday morning TV shows, New Yorkers couldn’t help but be impressed with the new contender’s energy. But once the novelty wears off, the serious question remains: Can he do it? Can Mr. Lazio, an obscure Republican legislator from Suffolk County, win against a woman with world-famous name recognition, a $9 million war chest and 24-hour informal advice from a campaign team that twice elected a president? The answer is Yes.

True, Rick Lazio does not have the accomplishments or the gravitas of Rudy Giuliani, but he also doesn’t have the Mayor’s history of making people furious. And at 42, Mr. Lazio still has a record that easily outshines that of Mrs. Clinton, who has no record, except as a collaborator in her husband’s slippery political survival. Mr. Lazio has assumed the underdog status, not a bad place from which to begin. Indeed, Hillary already comes across as something of a stale incumbent who is disliked by a large proportion of the electorate. This fact will now perhaps become the defining subtext of the race, rarely spoken of, but always there.

When Mr. Giuliani withdrew, Mrs. Clinton lost her best asset: the anti-Rudy voter. This voter sees the Mayor as a bizarre, Machiavellian bully. The anti-Rudy voter was balanced by the anti-Hillary voter, who sees Mrs. Clinton as a bizarre, Machiavellian bully. Now only the anti-Hillary voters remain, throwing off the balance. Left without the polarizing Mr. Giuliani, Mrs. Clinton becomes the lightning rod of the race. Since she has no record, but only rhetoric, she will find it difficult to make the race about anything other than her own ambition and her long and controversial association with Bill Clinton. She proudly tells anyone who will listen that she has visited all of New York State’s 62 counties, which might qualify her as a terrific travel agent but hardly seems like the stuff out of which senators are made. And chances are good that upstate voters will take to Mr. Lazio, where they might have been wary of Mr. Giuliani’s affiliation with New York City.

New Yorkers value hard work, and Mr. Lazio has earned his spot in this race. He did not coast in, as Mrs. Clinton did, on celebrity. He grew up locally, as the son of an auto-parts shop owner on Long Island; in campaign speeches he can put his 42 years of state residence up against Mrs. Clinton’s five months. Mr. Lazio has served four terms in the House of Representatives, preparing for the next logical step, the Senate. And it will not hurt him that his status as a Catholic matches up with the state’s largest voting block.

Finally, if an obscure Republican legislator from Peekskill could topple Mario Cuomo, a New York legend, in 1994, it doesn’t take much imagination to foresee Mr. Lazio prevailing against Hillary Clinton, an out-of-towner, in 2000.

The Knicks Step Up

Brightening an otherwise dull, damp spring, the Knicks pulled off one of the great comebacks in their storied history by dispatching the hated Miami Heat in a thrilling seven-game series that ended with an 83-82 win on May 21. The Knicks seemed ready for an early summer on May 19, when the Heat, leading the series 3 games to 2, took a commanding 15-point lead at half time in Game 6. The New Yorkers, however, were not so eager to concede victory to the man who ran out on them years ago, Miami coach Pat Riley. They battled back doggedly to win Game 6 by a basket, and, in Game 7, repeatedly wiped out Miami leads before locking up the series with a Patrick Ewing basket in the closing seconds.

The Knicks seemingly had a new hero, or two or three, in every game, a tribute to coach Jeff Van Gundy and the team’s unselfish nature. Mr. Ewing heard the catcalls of fair-weather fans and commentators who complained that he was stalling the team’s offense; he and his teammates shrugged off such carping and took care of business.

They are a great deal of fun to watch, these Knicks: There’s Mr. Ewing, a proud veteran determined to win his first National Basketball Association title; Latrell Sprewell, whose heart and skill define this team; Charlie Ward, an unlikely hero against the Heat; and Chris Childs, who came up big in Game 7. They will be a formidable threat to the Indiana Pacers in what promises to be a memorable Eastern Conference final.

Still, as good as the Knicks are, a fan with even a short memory can’t help but reflect on the great teams of the past and wonder when and why legends have disappeared. While this year’s Los Angeles Lakers are the odds-on favorite to win the N.B.A. title after a terrific regular season, they can’t compare to the Lakers teams that Mr. Riley coached, the Lakers of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy. Or the Lakers of Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain. And the Knicks of the 1990′s, two-time finalists, are no match for the Knicks of Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley and Dave DeBusschere. And, needless to say, none of the teams still in the running for this year’s crown can compete with the Boston Celtics of Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Danny Ainge, or, of course, the immortal Chicago Bulls of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

Is it only nostalgia that makes the teams of the past look so good this year? Or is basketball missing something, a once-in-a-lifetime star, or a great team built for the ages? A close look at today’s teams suggests the latter.

Will we ever again see teams like the old Celtics, the old Lakers, the old Knicks or the recent Bulls? Right now, it doesn’t seem likely. But hope does indeed spring eternal, and not just for baseball fans.