A Long Day’s Journey Into Knight

NBA Free Agency is a crap shoot, an endless sunbaked highway littered with the tattered pinstriped suits of General Managers who would’ve sworn they were just one player away from contention. Timo Mozgov for 4 years/$64 Million? “Sure, why not?” says now-deposed LA Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak. For those unfamiliar with Mozzy’s work, please see below.

New York Knicks v Los Angeles Clippers

But our story takes place much earlier. The year is 1997 and the NBA’s most storied franchise has just handed total control of its basketball operations over to future Young Colonial Sanders Impersonator-turned pimp Rick Pitino.

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Pitino’s tenure would prove catastrophic, marred by on and off-court incompetence. Pitino rode into Boston on a wave of collegiate success at Kentucky, frenzying the Cs into a state of temporary insanity, which culminated in a 10-year, $49 Million contract to serve as both coach and Team President.

One of Pitino’s first and most, shall we say, curious decisions as GM was when he, 20 years ago this week, offered a lucrative free agent contract to this man:

                                                                        Travis Knight

For those struggling to process the slammin’ 90s font depicted in the vintage Fleer above, allow me to translate: his name is Travis Knight. It is entirely possible that you have completely forgotten about or never even heard of Travis Knight, so here’s a quick refresher.

In 1996, Knight was drafted in the 1st round of the NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls, after a four-year run at UCONN in which he averaged 6.1 points and 6.0 rebounds per game, leading the Huskies to a Big East Championship his senior season. Well…”leading” is a strong word. But he was definitely there.

The Bulls had hoped to stash Knight in Europe for a year or so, but The Big Husky (his official nickname forevermore, please) would have none of that. Knight was granted a release from the Bulls, allowing him to sign a one-year, league-minimum contract with the Los Angeles Lakers.

During his rookie year in LA, Knight performed…respectably for a league-minimum player. All told, Knight appeared in 71 games, starting 14. He averaged 4.8 points and 4.5 rebounds in 16 minutes-per-game. Somehow, this was enough to earn him 2nd team All Rookie honors.

More importantly, however, Knight’s rookie showing put a big old glaring twinkle in Papa Pitino’s eye. So much so that it prompted Ricky P to make The Big Husky an offer he couldn’t refuse, despite Knight’s efforts to do just that (more on that later).

In one of his first and most prominent acts the Celtics’ lead honcho, Pitino offered Knight a 7-year/$22 Million contract–or $π Million average per season–to ship his big ass back east and suit up for the Celtics. Now, I know that might not seem like a lot by today’s Free Agency boom-time standards; but it represented significant 1997 NBA dollars. Especially when you consider Knight’s previous status as a league-minimum player making just $220,000 in his rookie season.

Remarkably, despite this substantial pay raise and the fact that the Lakers were facing cap issues and could only offer him a one-year deal at a significantly lower salary, Knight agonized quite publicly over the decision. Ultimately, Knight agreed to Pitino’s offer. The juiciest quotes arrive courtesy of the LA Times:

“I really have mixed emotions,” he said. “I should be elated right now, but I’m not. I feel so much loyalty [to the Lakers]. I respect Jerry and Mitch so much and I understand what they say and I believe what they say.

“But you work at something as hard as you can, and then it’s there. The security. That’s the rest of my life, right there.

“I think, without a question, this has been the hardest decision I’ve made in my life. It was much harder than choosing a college. . . . The most difficult thing for me is that my heart and mind were in two different places. It’s just, I don’t know. It’s been tough.”

Shockingly, Knight’s play during his first season in Boston did not reflect that of a $π Million per year man. Knight struggled to acclimate himself, posting just 6.5 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks in 20.3 minutes-per-game. He shot a mere 44.1% from the floor, despite being a 7-footer in an era wherein the bulk of his shots would have come at or very near the rim. Knight appeared in 74 games for the Celtics during his first (and only) season with the team, starting just 21.

While many of his raw counting numbers improved incrementally over his rookie season, they hardly justified the large investment doled out by Pitino. How does Knight’s contract and production compare to that of his fellow 1997 free agents, you ask? Good question. Let’s run the numbers, maybe it isn’t so bad.

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For comparison purposes, a mere days before Knight agreed to his contract, the Charlotte Hornets inked SG David Wesley to an agreement that would pay him $1.8 Million in the coming season. A season in which Wesley would post 13.0 points and 6.5 assists per game. Despite being a SG, Wesley’s 44.3 FG% was actually superior to Knight’s on double the attempts.

“But D Wez” (as he was known during his playing days. Just trust me. You definitely do not need to perform a cursory internet search to corroborate or refute this factoid) “was a SG and Knight was a big man. Not apples to apples”, you might say. Fine.

Since you asked, one of 97’s prized free agent acquisitions was a strapping PF/C by the name of Bison Dele (born Brian Carson Williams. No idea how he arrived at “Bison”. Sounds like there’s a fun story there). That same summer, Dele inked a deal with the Detroit Pistons that would pay him $4.05 Million for the upcoming season. Obviously, this is more (YOU DO THE MATH) than Knight’s contract. But, nonetheless, Dele’s production would far outstrip that of Knight’s, to the tune of 16.2 points, 8.9 rebounds and 51% FG on 13.3 shots per game.

Conclusion: Even if you subscribe to the multiverse theory, it’s difficult to imagine a timeline in which Travis Knight lives up to his contract OR Rick Pitino becomes a competent NBA GM.

In the end, it’s the years/dollar combination that makes this signing so baffling. What on earth led Pitino to 7 years and $22 Million for a league-minimum Center? NBA Live 97 didn’t have Franchise Mode. But if it did, there’s no way your little 32-bit GM would have survived this signing. Your 32-bit owner would have axed you on the spot. Either that or your Sega Saturn would simply have melted into the carpet in its state of frenzied befuddlement.

The only saving grace of this disastrous signing is that Pitino was able to flip Knight and his remaining SIX YEAR CONTRACT back to the Lakers the following season for Tony Battie, who would spend several seasons chasing 30-foot bricks hurled by Antoine Walker (those closest to me know how agonizing it was for me to type this).

While the Knight signing did no permanent damage to the Celtics franchise, it will be forever representative of the short-lived but laughable Rick Pitino era. A bad penny of an NBA footnote, doomed to appear in “Worst Ever”  free agent/GM pieces across the internet always and forever.

As for Knight, he apparently owns and operates a charter fishing business in Nicaragua, as per the World Wide Web. Perhaps there’s a “where are they now?” part two here, where, I head down to Nicaragua on an all-expenses-paid trip to do some hard-hitting investigative journalizm at Knight’s fishing resort? Maybe a reader-generated Kickstarter? Just an idea.

If Rick Pitino can become GM of an NBA franchise, maybe I can score a free fishing trip.

 

NCAA stats per Sports-Reference

NBA stats per Basketball-Reference

 

 

Champion Throwback Jersey Power Rankings: 1997 NBA Draft Edition

“It takes a little more to make a Champion.”  Well, that can be debated.  The screen-printing and, at times, startling lack of detail (pinstripes forgotten, v-necks turned u-neck) of the mid-90’s Champion NBA replica jersey certainly seemed second-class to their authentic counterparts or the flashy incantations Nike and Adidas would roll out in subsequent years.  Maybe that was part of their charm– overqualified tank tops at a $40 price tag, available for just about every player in the league if you knew where to look.

These entry-level coups now seem to carry the panache of a vintage Corvette.  Perhaps due to Champion’s renewed brand power (walk into an Urban Outfitters), perhaps due to our nostalgia for the famous and infamous icons of our childhood, perhaps as an excuse to wear things we owned 20 years ago– Champion jerseys don the backs of the 20’s-30’s crowd from brunch to the beach and carry price tags 2-3x their original value both online and in vintage boutiques.

Let’s take a few minutes to celebrate these mesh miracles while simultaneously slipping into the spirit of NBA Draft season.

I’ve devised a grading scale to evaluate how exaggerated of a head-nod one might receive  in 2017 for rocking a Champion throwback jersey of any 1997 draftee.  A few criteria:

  • We are looking at only the home/away jerseys for the team that opened the 1997-1998 season with the draftee on their roster.  A jersey from any other team  for which a draftee played later in their career or later in the season is ineligible.
  • We consider only the uniform style used by the team during the 1997-1998 season.

The grading scale (1-10 in each field, 10 being the best):

  • Player Intrigue (PI) – Coolness matters.  In-game dunks and other highlight reel fodder, personal style, and a bold persona carry significant weight here.  Tim Duncan is not on this list.  He is the best player from this draft– an all-time great and sure-fire hall of famer, whose game I grew to love over the course of his illustrious career.  None dare call him cool.
  • Obscurity Balance (OB) – This cuts a few ways: both the obscurity of the player and the obscurity of the tenure.  Ideally, we are looking for players not necessarily in forefront of your brain– someone you forgot that you loved.  By the same measure, a second round pick nobody remembers would be a step too far.  A less than obscure player who may have had an often forgotten tenure with their original team can gain back ground on this metric.  Again, balance is key– they should have seen some court time during their tenure.  Tim Duncan would rate poorly in this field, being very not obscure on the same team for 19 years.
  • Uniform Noteworthiness (UN) – 1997 in the NBA had a very unique look to it.  Specifically, many teams scrapped their classic designs for logos apparently made using ClipArt.  Some results were disastrous, but they sure were fun.  High scores go to the adventurous.  Tim Duncan’s jersey in 1997 was not very different from Tim Duncan’s jersey in 2016.

Also, enjoy the virtual pack of basketball cards!

The List:

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10.  Tony Battie – Denver Nuggets (Pick #5)

    19 Points (PI 6/10, OB 8/10, UN 5/10)

Tony stuck around the league for 14 seasons as a role player, collecting boards and swatting shots.  He dressed like a bad investment adviser on draft day, but shows a little more personality in the above picture.  The Nuggets uniforms during this era were painfully dull (especially when compared to their rainbow-city predecessors), but I think you could get a little cred on my block with a Battie throwback.

 

 

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9.   Ron Mercer – Boston Celtics (Pick #6)

    19.5 Points (PI 6/10, OB 7.5/10, UN 6/10)

Mercer was a college star at Kentucky who bounced around the league, party to four trades and member of seven teams in eight seasons.  While no one will twist their neck to check out your Celtics jersey (its legacy still gives it a point above Denver), they might smile if they see the name on the back– particularly those of the Wildcat persuasion.

 

 

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8.  God Shammgod – Washington Wizards (Pick #45)

    20 Points (PI 9/10, OB 4.5/10,  UN 6.5/10)

This one may teeter too far to one side of the obscurity balance for some.  He was a 2nd round pick who played one season in the NBA.  On the other hand, he was a New York city point guard who helped revolutionize the cross-over and his actual birth name was God Shammgod! He went by Shammgod Wells in high school, which is somehow cooler, and had a memorable Elite 8 run with Providence in the 1997 NCAA Tournament.  Though the newly branded Wizards logo meets some of the noteworthy criteria, it was ugly in a boring way– the old school Bullets uniform would have helped the rating.  Closing point: I live in New York and would be shocked if you could wear a God Shammgod jersey for an entire day without someone audibly cheering you.

 

 

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7.  Mo Taylor – Los Angeles Clippers (Pick #14)

    22 Points (PI 8/10, OB 7/10, UN 7/10)

One half of the Taylor-Traylor combination at Michigan (with Robert Traylor) that tipped the scale at more than 550 lbs combined.  As a kid, the duo fascinated me in the same way that Bebop and Rocksteady or Men on a Mission might.  While Traylor seemed on the sloppy side, Mo was a big dude with swag.  As the card reads: “Smooth”. He amassed some empty calories on really awful Clippers teams before contributing on some decent Rockets squads in the mid 00’s.  In light of the Clippers newer bad uniforms, their older bad uniforms seem kind of cool.

 

 

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6.  Adonal Foyle – Golden State Warriors (pick #8) 

    22.5 Points (PI 7.5/10, OB 8/10, UN 7/10)

While the 2017 Warriors embrace their Larry O’Brien trophy, let’s not forget the state of things 20 years ago.  Sandwiched in between the “Run-TMC” and “We Believe” eras was an odd time when a masked, lightning bolt-wielding figure in rather snug body armor represented the Dubs and Latrell Sprewell assaulted his coach.  With this backdrop, Adonal Foyle took the court in Oakland for 10 seasons and blocked an alarming number of shots.  Had he played the qualified amount of minutes (~13,000 played vs 15,000 required, per Basketball Reference), his 6.4% career block percentage would rank 5th all-time, one spot above Dikembe Mutombo.  Blocks are cool and this was an interesting time for one of the NBA’s iconic franchises.  Also, look at that card!

 

 

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5.  Chauncey Billups – Boston Celtics (Pick #3)  

    23 points (PI 8/10, OB 9/10, UN 6/10)

This is an example of the “obscure tenure” metric taking hold.  After being drafted third overall, Mr. Big Shot was traded 51 games into the season.  His title run with Detroit, later success with Denver, and overall swaggy, “no sweat” demeanor make his forgotten run with the C’s a nice career Easter egg.  The zig-zag center hair part absolutely helps, and I’m told has also aided in his candidacy for Cavs GM.

 

 

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4.  Tim Thomas – Philadelphia 76ers (Pick #7)

    23.5 Points (PI 8/10, OB 9/10, UN 6.5/10)

These 76ers jerseys were dogs in the same vein as the Wizards, but Tim had a cool aura about him and his jack-of-all-trades game that may have made him better-suited as a stretch 4 in today’s NBA.  Let’s not bury the lede– that draft suit!

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This has to be the poorest fitting garment this side of the Warrior’s body armor.  I love/hate it more than just about anything.  It’s white with pinstripes and 3 sizes too big for a guy that is 6’10!  Notoriety plays well here.

 

 

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3.  Antonio Daniels – Vancouver Grizzlies (Pick #4)  

    24 Points (PI 7/10, OB 8/10, UN 9/10)

The Vancouver Grizzlies afterlife post Memphis relocation has far eclipsed anything they accomplished as a basketball team while in that market.  The beautiful teal, red, and black color scheme, the giant animated bear, the tribal trimmings– it’s a winner, even though they were far from it.  AD was an intriguing combo guard who spent only one of his thirteen seasons up north.  He generally played like he thought he was much better than he was.  The Griz uniforms are doing the heavy lifting– not sure that there is a player who wouldn’t make the top 5 with his name across the back of one.

 

 

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2.  Derek Anderson – Cleveland Cavaliers (Pick #13)

    24.5 Points (PI 9/10, OB 7.5/10, UN 8/10)

DA checks a lot of “Player Intrigue” boxes– highlight dunker, Jordan brand guy, No Limit Records tattoo, notable Slam Magazine pin-up, shares a name with a quarterback who would later play in the same city…  Add in the splash backboard era Cavs jerseys which hearken back  to a simpler time of fat Shawn Kemp and Bob Sura dunks, back before Lebron complicated things with his wine and gold success, and you have a true Champion.  Well, second place.  And my word, what is he doing to Sherm?

 

 

 

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The Champ:  Tracy McGrady – Toronto Raptors (Pick #9)

    28 Points (PI 9/10, OB 9/10, UN 10/10)

T-Mac’s first Raptors jersey gives you everything you could want in a throwback: A Hall of Fame player when he was still a straight of of high school sensation seeing limited minutes, most notable for highlight reel slams and familiar ties with soon-to-be teammate, Vince Carter.  The jersey speaks for itself– there is a giant cartoon dinosaur dribbling a basketball and claw-mark pinstripes.  The fact that Toronto would simplify the jersey design only two years later adds to its panache.  Looking at the ratings, this was the run away champion and perhaps the best piece of 1997 that can be worn.