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Saturday, January 28, 2023

Contemplating the once unthinkable – The Denver Post

Time has generated a different perspective about New York. An appreciation. A regret. Maybe even a yearning for a reunion in free agency.

“I miss this place a lot,” Kristaps Porzingis said.

For three special seasons, Porzingis was the next megastar in the media’s capital. The Latvian had the city at his feet, looking up at 7 feet and three inches to his blonde crewcut. Porzingis had the recipe — the personality, the innocence, the spectacular dunks and rejections, the nickname “Unicorn,” the sense that his capabilities are beyond the scope of what we’ve previously witnessed.

But then Porzingis became the enemy within the same Madison Square Garden walls that made him a superhero, and his star faded quickly amid injuries and an underwhelming stint with the Mavericks.

“I went to Dallas, it didn’t work out the way I envisioned in Dallas, so that was a bit of a tough moment for me after New York,” Porzingis said. “New York obviously set the standard so high. Playing here, getting so much support from the fans, and so much love from the fans.

“It was insane, now when I think about it. When I’m older.”

Porzingis wants to mend fences. Re-establish a positive connection with the fanbase that provided the greatest thrills of his NBA career. Nobody enjoys being hated.

Fast approaching the four-year anniversary of the messy divorce, Porzingis wants to come clean — acknowledge his faults and vulnerability during a chaotic time with the Knicks. He was a 23-year-old blindly listening to advisers, adopting a slash and burn approach like skipping his exit meeting when dialogue was probably the better tact.

Then Porzingis was told to stay silent about his grievances, and he foolishly posted on Instagram, “The truth will come out.” There was no follow up.

“I did some dumb cryptic tweets and stuff. What was I. …the whole process was just a mess,” Porzingis said. “I didn’t like the way it ended. That wasn’t how I wanted it to end, if it did end. I tried to stay myself the whole time. Not do anything. Not say anything. If I did say anything, it would’ve been right after I was traded. Now it’s too late.”

Of course, the Knicks were far from blameless. Beyond the losing — beyond the dysfunction fueled by Phil Jackson’s Cold War with Carmelo Anthony — Porzingis was handed four coaches in his four years with the Knicks.

They were the NBA’s worst team, a full-fledged embarrassment under David Fizdale, when Porzingis didn’t play in 2018. And after the trade, the Knicks launched a PR smear campaign to paint Porzingis and his brother as hostile dissidents worthy of admonishment.

It was highly effective.

Porzingis endured screeching vitriol from Knicks fans during his first game as an opponent in 2019, the most vociferous targeted crowd attack on a single player in my days covering the franchise. The reactions to Trae Young were tame in comparison. Porzingis’ villain status persisted through the pandemic, but the volume noticeably decreased with each appearance at MSG.

Although he was booed during Wednesday’s game — when Porzingis put up 22 points in the Wizards victory — he recognized more support. There were kids wearing his old No. 6 Knicks jersey, asking Porzingis to come back to New York.

From five days earlier, when the Knicks played in Washington, a video emerged of a fan shouting at Porzingis to sign with the Knicks. Truth is, Porzingis didn’t hear the request. But his smile made it seem like Porzingis was at least intrigued.

“Now I think fans are easing up on me and realizing it was what it was in that moment. I was young. I was traded. Of course, I was hurt,” Porzingis said. “That’s why I put some dumb tweets out there. I think people are starting to forgive me now and we’re moving past that.”

That’s good for everybody involved. Knicks fans, Porzingis, the organization that has refused to acknowledge he once wore the uniform. Even now, with Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson making All-Star cases, no player since Porzingis has generated the same collective enthusiasm and adulation. It feels like the fans are waiting for the bottom to fall out with Randle, whereas they were anticipating the boundless heights with Porzingis.

In less than six months, Porzingis, 27, who switched representation in the offseason to power agent Jeff Schwartz, will contemplate his $36 million player option. If he makes the smart financial decision and rejects it for unrestricted free agency, what about a Knicks reunion? Should the Knicks target a rim-protecting 3-point specialist if he becomes available via trade? These were unthinkable questions not too long ago, but sometimes the grass isn’t always greener.

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