There were coaching changes with both my favorite teams this year, the Fighting Illini and the New York Knicks. For the Illini, it was supposed to a rebuilding year around four great freshman, but when sophomore Meyers Leonard and junior Brandon Paul helped beat two ranked teams early in the season, expectations suddenly got a lot higher—expectations that well-respected coach Bruce Weber could not fulfill as the team collapsed during the second half of the season.
It was not much different from the previous year, when Illini point guard Demetri McCamey was being touted as one of the best players in the country and possible second or third pick in the draft, to—the team collapsing in the second half of the season and McCamey going undrafted. In both cases out-of-control ego probably played a significant role in the demise of both teams. Basketball is all about chemistry and once a player starts promoting the concept “it’s all about me,” the chemistry is often corrupted beyond repair. For whatever reason, the emerging stars on the Illini seem to have had problems staying grounded. The best route to good chemistry is having mature players who contain their ego and maintain sympathetic connections with their teammates and coaches.
As far as I’m concerned, a major problem was the unfortunate banning of our historical magical icon, Chief Illini, who I always thought was an honest tribute to our state’s Native heritage, but somehow became a source of tremendous misplaced anxiety. If the new AD would consider bringing back the Chief, it would do wonders for team spirit in my opinion. Only this time around, make sure the Chief is a Native himself and give him and a dozen other Natives free scholarships to show our support for Native culture will you? The Chief’s dance was always one of the most powerful ceremonies in sports, and you don’t want to mess around with those energies or you lose them forever.
Which brings me to Carmelo Anthony and Mike D’Antoni. It’s no surprise D’Antoni did not want to gut his team to bring Melo to Madison Square Garden. That was an owner decision. I thought it was a terrible idea. I envisioned Melo clashing with Amare Stoudemire and just taking over and stagnating the offense, which is pretty much what happened, except it was D’Antoni he clashed with and not Stat. It was painful going to the garden and watching Melo isolation-mode. Melo was running Melo’s offense and not D’Antoni’s at the time. What’s obvious now is Melo never really accepted D’Antoni and why should he? If you knew your coach didn’t vote to bring you on board the team, how committed would you be to playing for him? Behind the scenes it was always a “him-or-me-what’s-it-gonna-be?” situation, something Dolan wanted to sort out after the shortened season was over no doubt. This plan came off the rails, however, when Melo got injured and D’Antoni proved he could win without him, thanks to the emergence of Linsanity. I felt sure at that moment the team would become Lin and D’Antoni’s, but the $65 million man had a big card to play in this game, for he undoubtedly went to Dolan and asked to be traded if D’Antoni’s expiring contract was renewed. Kudos to Mike D’Antoni, a very classy guy, for calling it quits right after this went down. And without this internal soap opera dragging them down, the team responded by playing its best basketball of the season and winning five in a row (so far).
Sports is a spiritual endeavor and spirituality is all about telepathic energy. The key to any great team is their ability to harmonize and share telepathic energy. Melo has a chance to play himself back into super-stardom, and I believe he’s doing his best, but I don’t think anyone expects him to become that franchise player Dolan thought he was buying. And many wonder where the Knicks might be if they’d not made that fateful trade. The thing that most stands-out about Jeremy Lin, however, is his maturity and ability to handle fame. Right now he’s way more famous than Melo, and somewhere down deep, this unexpected development has to concern Melo, even if he doesn’t realize it yet himself. It will certainly be interesting to see how the team chemistry develops from here.
I just hope the Illini can pull it together for next year and find some team leadership under a new coach, and that the Knicks don’t lose another game this season and win their first championship since 1973.