NEW YORK -- When the New York Knicks entered the season off impressive exhibition wins, many started jumping on their bandwagon, ready to proclaim a recently mediocre franchise as a potential NBA contender and new coach Pat Riley as its latest savior.
But when the Knicks started the regular season with defeats in Orlando and Miami, the joy ride was over, the bandwagon was emptied and the second-guessing began. The tabloids and talk shows here asked the same, impatient question: What's wrong with the Knicks?
Since then, the Knicks have gone 9-3, including a five-game winning streak extended by yesterday's 103-96 win over the Detroit Pistons.
"I think some people jumped to conclusions based on predictions," Riley said recently. "But as bad as it gets in New York, I don't think they've ever taken a player and hung him by his thumbs in Times Square."
Or a coach, for that matter. But Knicks fans are a fickle bunch, alternately praising and burying a player in the same breath. Consider one such fan at Madison Square Garden during the team's home opener.
After point guard Mark Jackson missed badly on his first two shots, the man was standing up from his 50th-row seat and yelling, "You stink, Jackson," or a New York version of the same remark. That Jackson couldn't hear his comment didn't deter the guy from venting his frustration.
But when Jackson led the Knicks on a burst in the third quarter, the same fan was in ecstasy, extolling the virtues of a rediscovered hero. Yelling "You're the man, Mark," he and other Knicks fans seem to forget the first two games and a sluggish first two quarters that night.
Jackson, as important as he remains to this team in its hopes of returning to the playoffs, isn't the man. Patrick Ewing, their All-Star center, might not really be the man, either -- despite the recent contract extension that made him sports' highest-paid team player at $5.5 million per year -- given that the Knicks have won more than 50 games only once in his six seasons.
Actually, it's the three most significant newcomers to this nearly made-over team -- Riley, forward Xavier McDaniel and first-round draft choice Greg Anthony, the point guard from Nevada-Las Vegas -- who are likely to make the biggest impact of all.
When the Knicks brought Riley out of the television studio and back to the court last spring, it gave one of the league's glamour franchises a high-profile coach. The perception of Riley had become style over substance, but his record of coaching a great team to great heights wasn't to be discounted.
"I think coming from the background he came from was great in terms of acceptance," said veteran forward Kiki Vandeweghe, who had played for three coaches in his first three seasons with the Knicks. "The players really want to make it work. We're all going in the same direction, that's the biggest thing."
In the short time he's been with the Knicks, Riley has shown that his laid-back image was a bit overblown. The public sees the 46-year-old coach as a guy with his double-breasted Armanis, mousse-slicked hair and "Showtime" offense, but they don't see the brutal, 2 1/2 -hour practices, the bleary-eyed film sessions and unshaven, glazed-over look the day after the early-season Florida disaster.
This is a chance for Riley to show he was more than the button-pusher that many believed him to be at the end of his nine-season, four-championship run with the Lakers, whom he quit in 1990. After a year as an in-studio analyst for NBC, Riley seems comfortable on, or at least near, Broadway.
His team doesn't have nearly the talent the Lakers did, and he might have significantly more pressure.
"It's a different challenge," said Riley, who reportedly signed a six-year deal worth an estimated $1.2 million a year. "That [his career with the Lakers] was a very special time. I had been there a long time, and I knew everything about the organization. Here, everything is new."
It's not only Riley, the sixth Knicks coach in the past six seasons. Or the team, which has six new players after last season's 39-43 disappointment. Dave Checketts, the team's president, was hired March 1. It was Checketts, 35, who promoted Ernie Grunfeld, a former player and assistant coach, to player personnel director in April.
It's also a $22 million face lift for the Garden, which comes with new colored seats (no more blue seats) and chorus line (the City Dancers) and disco scoreboard. But there is one noticeable link to the Knicks' glorious past: Former coach Red Holzman, who was mostly playing tennis in Long Island, was brought back as a consultant and was featured with Riley on the cover of the team's press guide.
"When we wanted to build tradition in Utah [where Checketts was general manager], we hung up Pete Maravich's uniform number," said Checketts, laughing at the fact that Maravich played a half-season there during his 5 1/2 seasons with the Jazz. "This was a place with a lot of tradition. But there are no quick fixes in the NBA."