|Both Deron Williams and Carmelo Anthony shine in their first head-to-head matchup of the year. (US Presswire)|
NEW YORK -- Billy King had already left All-Star weekend in Los Angeles back in 2011 when he found out that his nearly year-long pursuit of Carmelo Anthony was over. Back in New York, King got a call late on that Sunday night that the Knicks had won. Anthony would be heading East, but to Manhattan -- not to the Nets.
It was the first shot fired in what maybe, someday, would become a rivalry between two teams in the country's biggest city, separated by six miles and a body of water. Brooklyn was still an undefined vision, a hope for King and the Nets at that point. The team was moving from New Jersey one way or another, but King knew he had to get an All-Star for the journey. And he was crushed that night when the phone rang and he learned that it was Knicks 1, Nets 0 in the battle for New York.
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"I was down," King recalled Monday night, after the Nets won what felt like the first episode in what will be a venomous, compelling rivalry with a 96-89 victory over the Knicks in Brooklyn. "But I got up the next morning, went to the office, and I was thinking on it. And then Kevin O'Connor made the call."
O'Connor was the longtime general manager of the Utah Jazz, and he'd called King under the guise of saying he was sorry his colleague had lost out in the Melo sweepstakes. The small talk didn't last long.
"He said, 'Sorry,' and I said, 'Yeah,'" King said. "And then I threw a deal at him."
King and O'Connor had been in touch throughout the Nets' pursuit of Anthony, a winding, eventful conquest that included the Nets' Russian billionaire owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, stunningly and coldly proclaiming in a televised news conference a month before the trade deadline that he was ending trade talks with Denver for the All-Star forward because the deal was becoming "too expensive."
The truth was that King and Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri were simply taking a 20-second timeout, and that King thought he still had a chance all the way up to the point when he received that All-Star weekend phone call that Anthony was headed to the rival Knicks.
The deal for Williams that King threw at O'Connor that day was bigger than the one they ended up consummating, out of nowhere, two days later. O'Connor knew what King was offering the Nuggets for Anthony, and while Williams had not publicly demanded a trade, O'Connor sensed that things were going in the wrong direction in his plan to retain Williams when he eventually became a free agent in July 2012.
"He said, 'I can't do that,'" King said. "'I can't put this guy in, and I can't put that guy in. But I can put Deron in.' And so then he said, 'I'll call you back.' That gave me hope."
On Feb. 23, two days after the Knicks landed Anthony and a day before the trade deadline, the Jazz and Nets stunned the league with the announcement that Williams was heading to New Jersey for a package of players and picks similar to what King had been trying to give Denver for Anthony. And it was immediately clear that, as long as King could assemble enough pieces around Williams and persuade him to join the Nets in Brooklyn, the sting of losing Anthony to the Knicks would be short-lived.
Based on what we saw Monday night, the rivalry that resulted from these two superstars' intersecting journeys across the country will last a lot longer.
"Why not?" said Anthony, who had 35 points Monday night but missed a 16-foot leaner that would've broken an 84-84 tie with 4.9 seconds left in regulation. "They're across the bridge. They're here in Brooklyn; we're in the city. We're in the same division. We'll see them four times a year. I guess you could say this started something."
Something that really started two All-Star weekends ago, when Anthony knew he was getting traded to one of the teams in New York and Williams had no idea he was going anywhere.
"I never imagined that," Anthony said. "I was getting traded, but D-Will didn't know what situation he was in and that happened at the last moment. But I never envisioned this. I could see this going on for a long time, though."
The Knicks and Nets are tied atop the Atlantic Division at 9-4, something Williams had to admit was the high point of his Nets experience thus far. After a dreadful season-and-a-half in New Jersey, Williams gave the Nets the All-Star foundation they needed to make Brooklyn a real home -- a real challenge to the Knicks, who have run unopposed in the city's basketball consciousness for too long.
"This is what they envisioned here," said Williams, who had 16 points and a mesmerizing array of 14 assists, which was the same number the entire Knicks team had. "This was a playoff atmosphere."
With ample star power on both sides, with plenty of orange-clad Knicks fans at Barclays Center to shower Anthony with "M-V-P" chants while the home crowd serenaded them with chants of, "Brook-lyn," it was the start of something, for sure.
"I think it's going to get better as it goes on," Williams said, "and more heated as it goes on."
And as long as it does, it can always be traced back to the unlikely sequence of events that unfolded in February 2011, when Anthony was going to wind up with one of the New York teams and Williams almost certainly was going to be traded to the other.
You see, O'Connor's call to King once the Knicks landed Anthony was only partly out of concern for his fellow GM. Williams already was getting antsy about his impending free agency, which was still 16 months away. Williams had inquired about the possibility of a deal that would unite him with Amar'e Stoudemire on the Knicks, a move that would've formed one of the deadliest pick-and-roll tandems in NBA history -- a deal that was closer to happening than Willams knew at the time.
As O'Connor received reports that his star point guard was using All-Star weekend in L.A. as his own personal job fair, the Jazz GM came to the realization that he'd have to move him and get assets in return while he could. O'Connor was not going to play Cleveland to LeBron James' exodus this time. He wasn't going to be victimized by the next superstar hostage crisis -- the kind of player movement that no one expected the new CBA to fix. Chaos, it turns out, is good for business.
"He knew what I was offering because we had talked through the Carmelo thing," King said. "And I think in the back of his mind, he's thinking either the Knicks or Nets are going to lose out. And they're both offering a lot, so he can go to one of them and say, 'I've got an All-Star.' But Deron didn't demand publicly and [O'Connor] didn't go out publicly and say anything."
It all happened so quietly, which is how the best NBA trades always get done -- even now, in the 24-second Twitter-driven basketball news cycle. It wasn't the first or the last time King would be involved in the pursuit of a franchise-shaping star in his quest to make the Nets relevant and competitive when they eventually moved to Brooklyn.
Everybody knew about Anthony, and later, Dwight Howard. But King said one of the first calls he made when he got the Nets job was to New Orleans about another superstar point guard -- a point guard named Chris Paul.
"I got the job and I knew there was probably going to be a chance," King said. "I knew there was the potential for three guys to be available. I made a run at Chris, they said no right away, and then I made the run at Carmelo. I figured if I got him then I could go after Deron as a free agent. Really, I was getting Carmelo to get Deron.
"For us, if I had gotten Carmelo, I already had Brook Lopez," King said. "So I still would've needed a point guard. If I was getting Deron and I had Brook, then I could build around them. Once I had Deron and I had Brook -- even though I went after Dwight -- I knew that if you had a point guard and a big man, you could build around that easy."
If the Nuggets had caved earlier in the Anthony talks and sent him to Brooklyn instead? Oh, what might have been. Given the timeline and the interconnected priorities of everyone involved, you can bet all the Junior's Cheesecake in existence that O'Connor's post-All-Star phone call would've been to the Knicks instead of the Nets. The stars and roles -- Melo in his native borough of Brooklyn playing for the Nets, Williams unleashing his playmaking artistry for the Knicks -- would've been reversed.
"Unbelievable," Melo said of the playoff intensity and vibe at Barclays for this, the first step in what promises to be a long, heated journey. "To step back from this and take my Knicks uniform off and be a Brooklyn kid again, to see that and be a part of that atmosphere, there's nothing like it over here."
He should get used to it. He'll be back. In fact, if not for a couple of twists of NBA superstar fate, Anthony might've been here Monday night with something other than "New York" emblazoned across his chest.