NEW YORK -- In between handshakes and hugs with celebrities who couldn’t hold a candle to him, Magic Johnson offered two words that summed up the night at the old basketball building on 33rd Street.
"It’s back," Magic said.
Beneath the stands at halftime, the old Laker lavished praise on the arena and the people occupying it. I’ll spare you Magic’s quotes touting Amar’e Stoudemire as the leading candidate for MVP, because he’s always been given to hyperbole. But there was never any mistaking his grasp of the big moment.
These next four weeks are a big moment for the Knicks.
They beat the Heat minus Chris Bosh Thursday night, finishing them off 93-88 with a gritty closeout at home in front of a celebrity-studded crowd. They beat the Dynamic Duo who turned them down last summer on a night when Stoudemire -- the star who willingly embraced the challenges and potential of this franchise -- became the first Knicks player voted to the All-Star Game since Patrick Ewing in 1997. And yet it all seemed like an afterthought, or an appetizer.
Ever since the noise began in September that Carmelo Anthony wanted out of Denver, Magic knew what it was about. Anthony had watched his good friends LeBron James and Dwyane Wade orchestrate a modern-day Bird-Magic union, and he wanted -- no, needed -- to follow their lead.
"I think a lot of guys are looking and saying, 'I want to have a better opportunity to win,'" Magic said. "When LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Bosh hooked up, I think he looked at that and said, 'If that’s the new trend, then I want to follow that trend.' Because the Celtics started it and became champions. The Lakers got [Pau] Gasol to hook up with Kobe. And he said, 'How can I now get with somebody or get with an organization that can put me with somebody?'"
After the Summer of LeBron, so many people have confused this Winter of Carmelo as the Knicks’ pursuit of him. It has been the other way around, thanks to Stoudemire, who has embraced the role not only of resurrecting a franchise but luring another star to share the burden.
"I think everybody sees him with Amar’e, if they can pull it off," Magic said. "It’s a natural because you’ve got the small and you’ve got the power. Amare’s playing amazing right now. I’ve just been having a great time watching him just flourish. Even in Phoenix, he was playing good but not to this level. He’s taken it to a whole other level. So it would be a natural for him to hook up with Amar’e, no question about it."
In the visiting locker room before the game, James didn’t deny reports that he told Anthony at his wedding back in July that if he wanted to have a chance to compete with Miami and Boston, he better go to New York with Stoudemire. That was never the only option, because as Magic put it, "If he does go to New Jersey and they got a deal signed, he would attract somebody."
The Nuggets believe the Nets come back to the table before the Feb. 24 trade deadline after owner Mikhail Prokhorov pulled the plug on a potential deal last week. But a member of Anthony’s inner circle reiterated Thursday night that he doesn’t see that happening. The ball is right where it’s been since the summer: in Denver’s court.
The Anthony confidant, speaking on condition of anonymity, moved the needle ever so slightly on what the next move might be. Despite the belief that Anthony personally hasn’t closed the door on re-signing in Denver, the person said Thursday night that Anthony’s advisors have been absolutely consistent since the summer in telling Denver executives that he won’t. The Nuggets have a choice, the person said: Trade him or watch him sign with the Knicks as a free agent after the anticipated lockout.
"I think he’s going to end up here," Magic said under the stands at Madison Square Garden. "I think that he really wants to be here. And you know, when you want to be somewhere and you know you’re going to be a free agent, you’re going to make that happen."
It is Denver’s prerogative to hope the Nets come back to the table with Derrick Favors and multiple first-round picks, even if they lack the willingness to roll over at every one of the Nuggets’ demands to give them more and take more of their bad contracts in return. But it is also on the Nuggets to calculate how hard Anthony is willing to push to get what he wants. And what he wants, in some bizarre confluence of colliding agendas and egos, was on full display Thursday night at the Garden.
He wants what LeBron and Wade have, the fusing of individual talent for which there is no substitute in today’s NBA. And he wants it in the place that LeBron and Wade turned down -- but the place Stoudemire embraced. Stoudemire is the magnet, the star who made the first move in this high-stakes game of superstar musical chairs. Which brings us back, once again, to Anthony’s wedding -- and why that gathering of A-list NBA talent wasn’t the most important meeting that has occurred during this Anthony saga.
After the Nuggets played the Heat in Denver on Jan. 13, a nationally televised game with Anthony in the grips of this firestorm, Anthony spent a long time speaking privately with James and Wade. The conversation went on so long, sources said, that the Heat’s team bus was held up. Exactly what they talked about has remained private, but it’s not hard to figure out. They all share the same agents with Creative Artists Agency, and Anthony wants what CAA got for them.
Anthony’s situation is more complicated, because the money doesn’t come as easily with his decision as it did with LeBron’s and Wade’s. But the other pieces -- the star teammate and the venue -- can be had if Anthony plays this the right way.
But just three days after that superstar summit in Denver, Anthony was blindsided by reports that a trade to New Jersey had accelerated to the point where the Nuggets had granted them permission to speak with him. This was news to him, because the news was wrong; permission didn’t come until 24 hours later. But the damage was done. Anthony balked at committing to a meeting, and two days later, Prokhorov put a stop to the Nets’ pursuit.
"I believe that, at the end of the day, he has to do what’s best for himself and his family," James said. "I think everything else will take care of itself. I think Carmelo has to be happy with whatever decision he makes. Whether he stays in Denver or he’s traded, hopefully he can be happy and let the game of basketball take care of itself."
Easy for him to say. Anthony yearns to be able to speak those words of advice to the next star looking to get a piece of the LeBron-Wade model. He should have his answer within the next four weeks.