A Knick You Knew
Today we take a break from offseason analysis to debut a new series. Plus, final thoughts on Ewing vs Frazier.
Good morning! I hope you’ve been enjoying the week’s worth of thoughts about the approaching offseason. I’ll have much more on New York’s summer possibilities coming soon, including tomorrow with the top questions for the offseason, and moving forward with team by team analysis across the NBA for possible trade & free agent fits for the Knicks.
Today though, we take a brief break from current Knicks analysis to debut a new series that I’ll be running periodically throughout the summer, courtesy of KFS contributor Ray Marcano. Ray last chimed in here over the All-Star break with a timely look back at an under-appreciated team in Knicks history, and this series, “A Knick You Knew,” will continue by looking at some more notable names that time has forgotten.
A Knick You Knew: Slavko Vranes
by Ray Marcano
Who, you might say? Why, Slavko Vranes, the tallest player in New York Knick history. If you don’t remember him, you’re not alone.
The Knicks drafted Vranes No. 39 in the second round of the 2003 NBA draft in a year they added beef to the roster. But that beef was more like eye of round than fillet. That was the year of the disastrous Mike Sweetney pick in round one (No. 9), followed by two towering but unimposing imports --- Poland’s Maciej Lampe and Vranes.
Say this about Vranes, he’s a beast --- 7-foot-6, 250 pounds. Various basketball websites list his height as 7’4 or 7’5, but Vranes insisted to Newsday that he’s 7’6. Talk about big:
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the Knicks front office suffered from pink eye. How could they not see how bad those picks were?
The New York Times could. Here’s what the former reporter Harvey Araton said about Vranes:
“Vranes, who is 7-5 and, based on his poor athleticism and utter lack of discernible basketball skill, might as well be 5-5, or Frédéric Weis. Calling him a project may be the euphemistic approach.”
But the Knicks brought Vranes to summer league, where he showed an amazing lack of basketball acumen. In the one bit of information I could find about summer league (in the NYT story), Vranes played eight minutes in one game with no rebounds and four fouls. While he displayed a nice touch on offense, he was as soft as the Pillsbury doughboy on defense.
Still, Vranes was enthusiastic.
"The game is interesting here," Vranes told the Times in 2003. "The players are much more physical. They come in and hit you, and I'm trying to learn the plays, where to be and what to do, while I am being hit. But I am here and I am ready for work."
Vranes was under contract with his team in Serbia and Montenegro, Buducnost, so the Knicks bought him out. Media reports say they paid $350,000, the most they could pay.
The Knicks wanted Lampe and Vranes with the team, even it meant sitting at the end of the bench under the theory they would learn more in New York than they could by playing overseas.
So on July 16, 2003, the Knicks signed Vranes to a multi-year deal.
The plan started well enough, meaning Vranes didn’t play at all when the season started. But you could say that of the Knicks, too; that they didn’t play at all. They started the season 10-18. Coming on the heels of two-straight seasons in which the team missed the playoffs, James Dolan had enough. He fired GM Scott Layden on December 23, 2003, and replaced him with (egads!!) Isiah Thomas.
Not that we need a reminder of the disaster that was the 2003 draft, but ……
Thomas didn’t waste time. He waived Vranes on December 26 (Merry Christmas Slavko!) and he became a free agent on December 30.
The Portland Trail Blazer claimed Vranes on January 5, and on January 8 he got into a game. His line: 3 minutes, took one shot and didn’t make it, and picked up a foul.
That was it for Vranes. The Trailblazers waived him on January 15, and he never played in the NBA again.
He did, however, continue a solid career in Europe, playing for a variety of teams until the 2017-18 season. Now 39, he doesn’t appear to have played pro ball for the last four years.
Still, he has a Knicks legacy --- the tallest player to ever wear the uniform.
Bronx native Ray Marcano has been an award-winning journalist for over 40 years, many of which have been spent with the Dayton Daily News. He is a Fulbright fellow and the former president of the Society of Professional Journalists, the largest journalism organization in the United States, as well as a visiting professor at Wright State University.
Thanks so much for his initial contribution in what will be a continuing series this summer!
Greatest Knick Ever Reactions
Thanks so much to everyone who reached out with thoughts about the top two on my #NYK75. The final choice between Ewing an Frazier sparked a healthy amount of debate, including in response to a Twitter poll that was thisclose after nearly 2800 votes:
While I ultimately went with Ewing in something akin to a coin flip, I found it notable that a number of people who have been around long enough to see both men play live reached out and respectfully went in the opposite direction. To conclude today’s newsletter, I’ve included a few of those responses. Did I get the top spot wrong? Read on and you be the judge.
First up, Paul Samuels writes:
I have very much enjoyed your ranking of the greatest Knicks of all time, and mostly agree with your rankings. But since it’s so much fun to discuss and disagree about who was the greatest Knick of all time, I thought I would let you know what a couple of us old timers (meaning my older brother and I), who were around for the incredible excitement and amazing experience of watching what might have been the best basketball team of all time, the 1970’s championship Knicks, think about it.
For us, the greatest Knick of all time was Clyde Frazier without a doubt. Your description of his career is right on target: amazing talent, consummate team player, could do everything and did in the biggest moments. No question that Patrick Ewing was a terrific player for a long time, while Willis might have been the best if he stayed healthy longer. You are right that Clyde had much better teammates than Ewing did. But for us, the key difference was that Clyde – like Willis -- was unselfish and, most important, made their teammates better. My brother and I were both in college in the Boston area and were able to go to games 1, 3 and 5 of the epic Knicks-Celtics 1973 Eastern Conference Finals in the old Boston Garden (our seats were so high up we were literally above the lights, but we got in!). As you wrote, Frazier was the best player in that series which was chock full of great starts: Clyde scored over 20 points in all 7 games against a great defensive team, led the Knicks in scoring and assists, and in the crucial Game 7, led the Knicks to victory in hostile Boston Garden (the one game there my brother and I couldn’t get tickets for). It was the first time the Celtics ever lost a 7 game series.
Like Magic Johnson in a later era, Clyde could take on whatever role the team needed, and was of course an integral part of the Knicks’ only 2 NBA championships. Ewing was not the most selfish player in the world but he wasn’t close to the least selfish either. He often tried to do too much, forced shots, didn’t look to pass and, as a result, was less and less effective as the Knicks got deeper into the playoffs and the competition got stiffer. Ewing, unlike Clyde, didn’t make his teammates better. And, as you pointed out, in his best chance to lead the Knicks to their 3rd championship, he was thoroughly outplayed by Hakeem Olajuwon. All of that, with Clyde always rising to the biggest occasions while Ewing didn’t, makes it an easy call for us that Clyde was the greatest Knick ever.
Next up, DBN123 chimes in:
Being old enough to watch both players in their prime, I’d agree that the choice is very close. However, I’d give Frazier the edge for two reasons: First, to me, it’s all about titles. Two to zero. And next is clutch performances. In 1969, in Game 7 of the Finals, with no Willis Reed (their best player when healthy), Frazier goes off for 36 points and 19 assists and the Knicks win their first title. In 1994, Ewing goes for 17 points and 10 rebounds in Game 7 of the Finals, and the Knicks lose. Now I don’t pick Frazier over Ewing because of one game. I pick Frazier over Ewing because those championship games represent the fact that Frazier was generally a more clutch player than Ewing. It’s close, but for my money, if I want one player in a tough game, it’s Frazier.
Next we have some lofty Clyde praise from Glenn, who writes:
I’m old enough to have been around to witness the glory days of the 60’s and 70’s. Clyde was the only sports figure in my life that I can truly say I idolized. You mentioned how those Knicks must have captivated the city, and I can confirm that 100 percent. It was a truly magical run! And just because those teams did win championships, I do favor Clyde as the #1 choice on your list. I respect your opinion and it’s certainly a tough call, but Clyde definitely gets my vote.
Finally, here’s Jeff with what might be the most convincing one of all:
I am old enough to have been a Knick fanatic in the late 60's and early 70's. I loved our Ewing run, and I long for another great Knicks team to watch, but Clyde is number 1 in my book. No numbers needed. When watching the Knicks with Clyde, I fully expected that whenever the Knicks needed something, anything, Clyde would deliver. When I watched the Ewing Knicks, I always watched with dread, knowing that Ewing would likely fall just short of being great. It was not the play of the players around him; it was the play of Ewing himself. It’s the same feeling I get when Julius gets the ball in key moments and you know he's going to dribble straight into a pile of defenders and bobble the possession away. Ewing was no Clyde...just my 2 cents.
And with that, we put it to bed. It’s been a fun journey, and like I wrote a few days ago, I’ll have an announcement soon on how you’ll be able to get all 75 write-ups, plus some other thoughts and analysis of Knicks history from me.