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Bill Parcells was watching his former receiver, Keyshawn Johnson, doing his show Tuesday morning when a thought struck him about the host’s attire. On the day that his hometown team would face the Knicks in a game shaped by heavy playoff ramifications, Johnson was wearing a Lakers jersey.
“I love Keyshawn, I really do,” Parcells said. “But let’s see if he’s wearing that jersey tomorrow.”
As a lifelong Knicks fan who had attended his first game in the Garden 70 years ago, and who had suffered through the dark years while the Lakers were hanging banner after banner, Parcells had paid enough dues to engage in a little trash talk with the master, Johnson. The former Giants and Jets head coach is invested in the Knicks’ bid to clinch their first playoff berth in eight years, and in Tom Thibodeau’s ability to persuade his players that this was even remotely possible.
Back when preseason oddsmakers had these Knicks going 22-50, Parcells, two-time Super Bowl champ, was on the phone sounding like a believer in a far better record than that. From a distance, he said he’d long admired the work of Thibodeau, whom he’d never met, “because he gets guys to do things,” which is a wonderfully Parcellsian thing to say. And as the 38-30 Knicks were preparing to play the 38-30 Lakers, minus LeBron James, Parcells was talking about the stunning job Thibodeau has done in immediately transforming the Knicks from a hopelessly lost cause into a team that could win a first-round playoff series, and maybe even frighten a heavyweight in Round 2.
“My God,” Parcells said, “this has been like going from the outhouse to the castle.”
He watched from start to finish as the Knicks beat the Clippers on the road the other day, watched them beat Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on an afternoon when Julius Randle scored only 14 points and didn’t make a single 3-point shot.
“The Knicks try to play the right way, you know what I mean?” Parcells said. “They play both ends of the floor, and they’re unselfish. That’s what a team is supposed to be.
“Confidence is born out of demonstrated ability. You’ve got to demonstrate it, and beating the Clippers was a good demonstration right there. That makes you say, ‘Hey, we might have a chance to do something.’ ”
Win or lose in the Staples Center on Tuesday night, the Knicks would return home with a chance to do something that was hard to fathom five months ago. Who could have guessed that the Knicks would be three games ahead of the Celtics with four games to play, or that Randle would be this kind of sweet-shooting All-Star, or that Derrick Rose would be playing like prime Derrick Rose in his second New York act? Who could have guessed that the Knicks — the ultimate gang that couldn’t shoot straight — would stand among the league’s most efficient 3-point-shooting teams?
Who could have guessed that Tom Thibodeau would impose his will on an underwhelming roster as quickly as he did?
“I’m no basketball coach or expert, but you can tell the team responds to him, just by the way they act,” Parcells said. “These guys, they’re just trying to win, and that’s what’s great about it. It’s been so long in New York.”
Much like it was for the Parcells Giants, who, in January 1987, won the franchise’s first championship in 30 years. A high school basketball star, Parcells often played pickup ball with his Wichita State schoolmates and friends, Dave Stallworth and Nate Bowman, members of the Knicks’ first title team in 1970. He said he’s uncomfortable talking publicly about basketball, since he didn’t coach it. “But I like the Knicks and I’m happy with what’s going on there,” Parcells said. “And you can’t help but like what this guy has done.”
This guy. Thibodeau. Parcells and Thibodeau are both tough-guy locals (Big Bill from New Jersey, Thibs from Connecticut) who ended up in dream jobs, coaching pro teams they grew up rooting for. But it was Parcells’s first year with the Jets, not his first year with his boyhood team, the Giants (when he went 3-12-1 and nearly got fired), that most reminds of Thibodeau’s first year with the Knicks. In 1997, right after he left the Patriots, Parcells turned Rich Kotite’s 1-15 Jets into his own 9-7 Jets.
“I don’t want to talk about that,” Parcells said, “because I don’t want to jinx the Knicks. We should’ve been 10-6.”
And in the playoffs, which the Jets missed by a game. That’s OK. All these years later, Bill Parcells’ favorite basketball team and coach are in better postseason shape.
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