NEW YORK >> As one of the NBA’s old men, Tim Duncan has a Madison Square Garden memory that few share.
He played there when the New York Knicks were actually title contenders.
So when he took the floor with the NBA’s other stars for the All-Star Game on Sunday night, he was thinking about the good ol’ days of the last century. But unlike the Knicks, his days kept getting better after Y2K.
“It’s a lot of good memories here,” he said. “Made my first All-Star here, won my first NBA championship here. So a lot of really good memories.”
His San Antonio Spurs beat the Knicks in five games for the 1999 NBA title, a year after he made his All-Star debut as a rookie in 1998, when Kobe Bryant also made his first appearance.
The NBA’s first trip back to New York for All-Star week since ’98 was a smashing success, even before the game. City officials estimated it made a nearly $200 million impact on the city, according to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.
“And as a New Yorker, I’m thrilled to hear that,” he said.
Additionally, the 7.2 overnight rating TNT drew in New York for its All-Star Saturday night coverage was the highest on record for the massive market.
So the league and its partners probably can’t help but think about how good things could be if the Knicks could ever get back to the NBA Finals. The team hasn’t really been close in the last 15 years, with just five playoff appearances and one series win since reaching the 2000 Eastern Conference finals.
Silver, and former Commissioner David Stern before him, dismisses the need for the league to have a strong franchise in New York. Others disagree.
“The league missed that. The league needs that. The league needs New York to be that powerhouse again,” Knicks All-Star Carmelo Anthony said.
The powerhouse is just a punching bag now, with a league-worst 10-43 record. The Knicks have been so bad that they had seven games yanked from national TV, eliminating opportunities that could have been used to build even more interest among a larger audience for All-Star weekend.
The NBA covets its international presence, and New York is a more affordable and convenient trip from overseas than many other league cities. That partly explains the record 534 international media members credentialed for the weekend, more than double last year’s total in New Orleans.
If New York could stage an NBA Finals, some of them would surely return.
Things seemed headed in the right direction when the Knicks acquired Anthony in 2011, bringing a global basketball A-lister to New York for the first time since Patrick Ewing patrolled the paint at Madison Square Garden. Three straight playoff berths followed before the Knicks tumbled back toward the bottom, making Sunday the likely last highlight this season.
Before braving Arctic-like temperatures and rim-swaying winds whipping down Manhattan’s frozen streets to head to the Garden, the NBA celebrated New York and the city’s game during a legends brunch attended by basketball immortals.
Among the players on hand were Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Willis Reed.
Reed, “The Captain,” led the Knicks to the 1970 title and is best remembered for hobbling onto the floor of the “world’s most famous” arena for Game 7 with an injured knee and leading New York to a win over the Los Angeles Lakers.
Reed’s Knicks won again in 1973 but never again. Anthony is still hoping he and team president Phil Jackson, Reed’s old teammate, can get the Knicks back there.
“Everybody would love that,” Reed said. “New York loves basketball, and the energy around the city when the teams are good is different. But every team wants to win a title. That’s not always going to happen. I believe that Phil is going to get our team back to where we once were.”