Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.
So there was Kristaps Porzingis, having concluded another OMG-inducing tour de force of coordination not normally possible among 87-inch-tall humans, kibitizing with reporters in the Knicks locker room late Monday night.
He was dressed in all black, except for red socks, and with some sort of garish-but-cool red dinner jacket in his locker, a bit deflated in the wake of a 104-97 loss to the Mavericks but otherwise the master of his domain.
Oh, forgot to mention one thing:
He was doing his kibitzing in fluent Spanish, having concluded his first interview session in fluent English. He also speaks Russian and his native language, one part of his portfolio as the Most Interesting Latvian in the World.
Having last encountered Porzingis on media day back in late September and subsequently read, heard and watched him inspire an improbable rise in New York basketball optimism, it was time to see what all this was about in person.
What it is about is a freakishly athletic man for his height, with freakish poise for a 20-year-old to go with it, and a franchise that has gone from hopeless to hopeful in short order. Did I say “short” order? Sorry. Make that tall order.
Monday was another milestone in the Education of KP. Everyone was focused on how he would do against the Mavericks’ 37-year-old future Hall of Famer, Dirk Nowitzki, a 17-year veteran whom Porzingis long has admired.
Everyone got their answer during a late flurry en route to Porzingis scoring 28 points on 13-for-18 shooting as the Knicks nearly overcame a 23-point deficit.
With his team trailing by 10 and two minutes left, he hit two three-point shots, blocked a shot and grabbed a key rebound, giving a crowd that had been mostly quiet all night reason to get excited.
By which I mean reason to get excited about Monday night in particular, and reason to get excited about the next decade in general.
The big story line entering the evening was Porzingis’ encounter with Nowitzki, whose 25 points were second only in the game to the 28 for his fellow European.
“It was fun,” Porzingis said of encountering Nowitzki for the first time, both on the court and off. He called the night a “lesson” for him.
What can the rookie pick up from the old pro?
“He’s not the most athletic, he’s not the fastest guy on the court, but somehow he always gets his shot off,” Porzingis said. “He’s just so smart. You watch him play, how he tricks the opposite player. He’s walking around and out of nowhere there’s a screen for him and he gets an open shot.
“Those kinds of things obviously come with experience, but those are the things I can learn from.”
When it was over Nowitzki gave him a quick hug. Porzingis said Nowitzki encouraged him to keep working and to stay focused. That does not seem as if it will be a problem, at least in the short term.
Someone relayed to Porzingis that Nowitzki had said in the visiting locker room that the new guy is “way ahead of the curve” compared to when Nowitzki was 20.
Porzingis had to ask what that phrase meant, because as excellent as his English is, he does get tripped up by the occasional idiom.
Upon being filled in, he said, “That’s what he sees in me. Obviously he’s showing some respect to me. It just shows me that maybe I have the potential to one day be as great as he is.
“I just have to keep working and hopefully I can be as good as he thinks I can be.”
After one last wowing of the home crowd, Porzingis was off to Utah, Sacramento and Portland for the first western swing of his young career. There’s a whole new section of the country to impress, and more lessons to learn.