Knicks’ “Linsanity” is just a replay of Herd’s 1972 “D’Antoni-mania”

By David Shanet Clark, M.Ed.

Followers of Jeremy Lin’s incredible performances in the NBA this month may not understand that the young Asian American point guard from Harvard is just following in the footsteps of the Knicks’ own head coach Mike D’Antoni. But to Marshall fans, the “Linsanity” is just a predictable repeat of the excitement we saw in Memorial Field House back in the days of the Young Thundering Herd when we were watching a standout point guard named Mike D’Antoni. Marshall fans remember Mike D’Antoni making plays, steals and fast breaks for Marshall from 1970 to 1973, in a style eerily similar to the Knicks’ Jeremy Lin today. In 1972 Marshall Basketball enjoyed probably its best season ever -- with a final record of 23-4 and a #8 national ranking -- while being led by point guard and team captain Mike D’Antoni.  In the 1980s Greg White would lead the Herd with a similar point guard oriented offense, and the Marshall “system” is behind all the international attention the Knicks and Jeremy Lin are receiving now.

 

In January I commented to another sports fan: “D’Antoni has a pretty good team with the Knicks but he isn’t playing his own style of ball that I remember – he needs a point guard who can control the ball, quarterback the offense and run plays like D’Antoni did back in the 1970’s.” A few weeks later “Linsanity” hit Madison Square Garden, the New York media, ESPN, etc., and Mike D’Antoni was back on top of the NBA. With Andre Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony the Knicks had struggled to play even .500 level basketball, and even after D’Antoni signed Tyson Chandler the coach’s job was definitely on the line—it really looked like Marshall’s legendary Mike D’Antoni would leave the Knicks franchise with his brother, assistant coach Dan D’Antoni, at the end of a disappointing (and strike-shortened) season.  But that was before Jeremy Lin stepped in to take the D’Antoni role in the D’Antoni offense. Here was a surprisingly new New York Knicks, with Lin stealing the ball for fast-break lay-ups, controlling the ball at half court, assisting scoring plays with selflessness and especially scoring when he was left open by NBA defenses covering the Knicks’ forwards.  Lin played aggressively, tenaciously, with fast breaks, surprise steals, dramatic threes and powerful arm motions and fakes under the basket. By last Sunday, February 19, Lin was able to lead the Knicks to a 104-97 come-from-behind victory and Lin showed he could match NBA league strongman Dirk Knowitski stride for stride when the Knicks defeated the Dallas Mavs on a nationally broadcast game. New York was on fire for the Knicks, basketball fans were accepting the new Asian phenomenon in the sport, and D’Antoni was breathing easier, careerwise. Of course the Marshall standout from the town of Mullens, West Virginia (it’s up near the headwaters of the Guyandotte River) had excelled in the NBA as a player, dominated the Italian League as a player and coach and then earned a strong reputation as head coach of the Phoenix Suns in the NBA before joining the New York Knicks.

After the Marshall years, Mike D’Antoni was drafted in the second round to the NBA’s Kansas City Kings and also played in the ABA before returning to the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs in 1977. Marshall fans followed his professional playing and coaching in Europe, leading Milan to championships in what must have been a surreal life in Italian professional sports (bench-clearing brawls were common). D’Antoni was the all- time leading scorer for Olimpia Milano and was voted the all-time best point guard in the Italian League. He coached Benetton Treviso and Olimpia Milano, winning five Italian League championships and the 1995 Cup of Europe and the Italian National League title 1996-1997.

Returning to the U.S.A., Mike D’Antoni coached the Denver Nuggets and the San Antonio Spurs in late 1990s before going to the Phoenix Suns as assistant coach and then he was named Phoenix head coach in 2003.  With Steve Nash at point guard, D’Antoni was named Coach of the year 2005, and he achieved a remarkable overall 232-96 winning record as head coach in Phoenix.  Moving to the Knicks in May 2008 and acquiring Amar’e  Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and recently Tyson Chandler, D’Antoni was struggling and facing termination, along with his older brother Dan D’Antoni, his assistant coach (and another legendary Marshall point guard who also wore #10 for the green and white at Memorial Field House). The D’Antoni brothers were on very thin ice, until, with an 8-15 record, they started Jeremy Lin on February 4th. The now famous point guard then led the Knicks to a seven-game winning streak, and five of the wins were without the powerful starters Anthony and Stoudemire.  So the Marshall point guard from Mullens now leads the “Linsanity” from the bench in New York and D’Antoni fans hope the Knicks can now return to their Patrick Ewing-era heights and even NBA championships, on the power of an offense conceived and perfected by the D’Antoni brothers and now executed by Mr. Jeremy Lin in Madison Square Garden.

(D.S. Clark is a Huntington native and former sports information director at WMOQ 92.3 FM in Athens, Ga.)

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