NEWS

Watching a Loss to the Cavs, but Seeing a Bright Future for the Knicks


“LeBron is right up there with Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant — you name it,” he said. “This is what players like LeBron love to do, and there’s almost nothing you can do when he does that.”

Born in Selma, Ala., in 1937, but reared socially in New York, and athletically in Harlem’s Rucker Park, Ramsey has befriended his fair share of N.B.A. stars. He could tell you about attending Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic speech in Washington with Wilt Chamberlain in 1963. He palled around with Willis Reed during the Knicks’ glory days in the early 1970s and later became a team broadcaster and community relations mainstay.

Long before that, in the fall of 1959, Ramsey played for the Knicks as a rugged 6-4 small forward out of New York University, averaging 11.4 points and 6.7 rebounds in 22.9 minutes a game off the bench over a seven-game stretch aborted by a culture of unofficial quotas.

As the story was once told to me by Fuzzy Levane, who was the coach then, he got a call from the owner, Ned Irish, informing him that four African-American players on the roster amounted to one too many. Ray Felix, Johnny Green and Willie Naulls stayed. Ramsey wound up in Syracuse, where he injured his knee and drifted, like many a deserving black athlete of the time, into obscurity.

Here he sat Monday night, watching a post-Carmelo Anthony era Knicks team ride a 29-13 second-quarter wave behind a Latvian giant (Porzingis), a rookie point guard from France (Frank Ntilikina) and a Turkish center (Enes Kanter).

“It’s amazing what this league has become,” Ramsey said, agreeing that it would have been impossible in his day to imagine such social and economic borders crashed. And while the Knicks of the great melting pot of New York were among the last teams to go global, better very late than never.

In the Anthony era, the Knicks could never stand up to James, because their leading man was — socially at least — more wingman than antagonist. So it was fascinating to watch the Monday subplot that grew out of James’s recent silly swipe at the Knicks for drafting Ntilikina over Dallas’s Dennis Smith Jr.

Photo

Cal Ramsey, 80, at Madison Square Garden for the Knicks-Cavaliers game on Monday. “I live for these nights in this place,” he said.

Credit
Bedel Sagat/The New York Times

It perhaps precipitated a late first-quarter elbow-and-shoving skirmish between two players separated chronologically by more than 13 years along with an ocean of professional experience. Ntilikina didn’t back down and proceeded to demonstrate what the Knicks saw in him, tormenting the Cavs with his long arms and fast hands.

Four of his six steals came in a second quarter that had Ramsey, along with the rest of a capacity crowd, thinking James’s future should be as a team owner, not its director of player personnel.

“What I really like about Frank is that he’s got long arms, great defensively, and he’s a good playmaker,” said Ramsey, who could, better than most, note the similarities in size and poker-faced style to Walt Frazier, the renowned Knicks broadcaster and playing legend.

Comparing those two is as premature as recent forecasts of the 7-7 Cavaliers’ imminent demise. But don’t blame Ramsey, the last of a precious generation of Garden regulars, for embodying the die-hard.

“I live for these nights in this place,” he said.

His health issues began last summer when he fell out of bed, hit his head on a table and needed 25 stitches to close the wound. In the hospital, tests revealed trouble with his heart, a trace of cancer, a gall bladder problem.

Surgery was scheduled, but Ramsey pleaded with doctors to let him out so he could attend an annual awards dinner he holds in conjunction with a teenage scholarship fund-raiser he has presided over for years.

“Went back in after the dinner, had two surgeries the next day,” he said. “They went in and took everything out, gave me a clean bill of health.”

The legs that carried Ramsey around Rucker Park and into the early N.B.A. don’t cooperate much anymore. The body is what it is. But the mind is sharp. The eyes are clear. They see a future growing around the so-called unicorn nicknamed K.P.

“Kristaps is 7-3, shooting 25-foot jumpers, and the stronger he gets and the more he can post up, he’s going to be impossible to guard — you almost can’t guard him right now,” Ramsey said.

A player for all positions, James did, even deflecting a couple of Porzingis’s fourth-quarter shots and effectively harassing him in his new midrange comfort zone.

And in a building booing him at every turn, James had the last word, the triumphant smirk. Ramsey did not begrudge him. He relishes the iconic talents, but also knows that late next month, James will be 33. Term limits may not exist for a king. But age limits are a fact of athletic life.

Speaking for a long-suffering fan base, Ramsey promised to tough it out with the Knicks, to accept the growing pains of a promising rebuild.

“I’m still weak after the surgeries,” he said, adding that even getting to his seat wasn’t easy. “But you do what you got to do.”

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