As the Knicks prepare for their summer free-agent chase, it’s worth revisiting a bit of history.
Allan Houston was 25 years old and coming off his rookie contract with the Detroit Pistons when he entered free agency in the summer of 1996, with no intention of leaving the only NBA home he’d known.
After growing up in Kentucky and playing for his father at the University of Tennessee, he was comfortable in Detroit. In a star-studded free-agent class, he was recruited for the first time in his life. The plan was to use the potential opportunity to change teams and his own visits simply to push the Pistons to pay him what he thought he deserved.
And then he got on a private plane with Patrick Ewing in the seat next to him.
By the time the plane landed, Houston had changed his mind. He left behind the path he thought his career was on and decided to try to help Ewing win a championship, signing a seven-year, $55 million deal. He never got the ring, but he did reach an NBA Finals and a pair of conference finals.
“I think for me, what initially sold me is that everyone wants to be valued, validated, especially when you’re trying to make your mark,” Houston said Thursday after participating in the T.J. Martell Foundation’s 2nd Annual New York Classic Fishing Tournament. “And so that’s one thing. I felt like the organization truly felt like, ‘Allan, you’re a big part of us getting to the championship level.’
“The second thing for me was that’s what you want — the biggest stage as an athlete that anyone can ever dream to play on is being in New York. For me, it was never about, it wasn’t so much the challenge as it was just the opportunity to play at the top, to be at the top. That’s what I think every athlete, you dream about — to be at the top. So those two things [are what] I think about.”
The Knicks have the most salary-cap space in the NBA right now and have set their sights on the prizes of this free- agent class. Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker head a group that could change the fortunes even of a team as deep in the cellar as the Knicks, who finished with a league-worst 17-65 record this season.
While there is little doubt that players such as Durant could fit anywhere on the court, there is a question of how he would handle New York, the pressures and expectations that come in the largest media market in the league, and being tasked with turning around a franchise that has been steeped in dysfunction for decades.
Houston, who serves as a special assistant to general manager Scott Perry, said he expects the recruiting to be headed up by Perry, team president Steve Mills and coach David Fizdale. But he experienced the move himself and said he would contribute anything he could to the process.
While the Knicks pulled out all of the stops in his recruitment — which mattered to him, given that he’d never been recruited before — he doesn’t think the flashy presentations will make the difference.
“I don’t think players need the show as much,” Houston said. “I think you know what New York brings to you as an athlete . . . Like they said, really, truly, it is true, if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. What I do know is that whatever you think about before you get to New York, whatever you think it would be like, whatever you think that experience would be like, it’s going to be more. That’s what I do know. You can never anticipate what it’s really like until you actually do it.
“It’s on both sides, the good and the bad. But I would say on the high on the good side, no matter what you dreamed or imagined, it’s going to be more than that. And that you just don’t know what to expect. It’s like becoming a husband or father; you can only anticipate it. But when you experience it, it’s going to be more.”
Before free agency begins on July 1, the Knicks have a more pressing matter at hand — the NBA Draft Lottery on Tuesday night in Chicago. The Draft Combine will follow, with all of the top prospects — including Zion Williamson and Ja Morant — expected to be on hand for meetings with teams and medical testing, leaving the scrimmages to the players a level below.
Houston will be in Chicago for the lottery, serving as the Knicks’ representative in the back room watching the actual ping-pong ball selection. Ewing, who was drafted by the Knicks in 1985 after they won the lottery, will serve as the Knicks’ representative on the dais.