The Victor Wembanaya World Tour hit the World’s Greatest Arena last night, as his San Antonio Spurs paid their only visit to Madison Square Garden to take on the Knicks. With ESPN fully represented, including 90-year-old (and 80s-era Knicks coach) Hubie Brown as Mike Breen’s (aka the Knicks’ longtime voice, closing in on legend Marv Albert’s tenure) broadcasting partner, the expectations and anticipation were white-hot.
As THE ATHLETIC’s trio of Alex Andrejev, James Jackson and Joe Vardon reported in a lengthy article that was the de facto New York Times sports section preview, Wemby had the opportunity and the spotlight to take his place among other generationally transformational superstars who used the Mecca as a springboard for their fledgling NBA careers. It’s worth a full read, if for no other reason that it points out how successful so many of them were, even against Knicks teams that were considerably better than the current version, which entered last night’s showdown dead even with the Spurs, both 3-4 in this nascent 2023-24 season. But inasmuch as the Spurs had won a mere 22 games in the entire 2022-23 season, and Wembanaya had electrified crowds in Phoenix the week before with back-to-back stellar performances and wins against the perceptually superior Suns, their 3-4 was considered considerably more successful.
Which is why what unfolded last night was, in a word, surprising, as the ASSOCIATED PRESS’ Brian Mahoney reported:
The No. 1 draft pick’s first game at the famed arena was one of the worst of his young career, as he managed just one basket in the first three quarters of the New York Knicks’ 126-105 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday night.
The 7-foot-3 Wembanyama missed his first seven shots and had more airballs (2) than field goals through three quarters, when the Knicks led by as much as 30 points. He was in danger of failing to reach double figures for the first time before scoring eight points in the fourth to finish with 14 on 4-for-14 shooting.
The No. 1 overall pick, who came in leading NBA rookies with 19.4 points per game, grabbed nine rebounds but missed all four 3-point attempts. He got some nice cheers beforehand and then late in the game, but also some jeers during it.
The partisan Garden crowd reveled in this, largely because a majority of them have endored losing and bad performances far longer than most Spurs fans have. This is a franchise only a decade removed from a 15-year run that saw them win the league title five times, the first of which just happened to be in 1999 during a strike-shortened season that somehow saw the Knicks pull off a miraculous post-season run from the Eastern Conference eight seed to earn a shot. One could almost understand what went through their minds when this transpired late in the game, as Mahoney described:
The lead ballooned to 99-70 when (Immanuel) Quickley stole the ball from Wembanyama and fed Isaiah Hartenstein for a dunk. Moments later there were chants of “Overrated! Overrated!” after the frustrated youngster took a swipe at Quickley after he was fouled.
Being shown up by a Garden fan favorite like Quickley, who came off the bench to score 19 points last night and had previously, as Mahoney also reported, shown Wembanyama up at both ends of the court, resonated. But to Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, the guy behind the bench for those titles, jubliation may have been a bit premature.
“You have a 19-year-old rookie who is just learning about the NBA. Of course it’s a learning experience,” …Popovich said.
And as Brown, who’s seen even more basketball than has Popovich, related to THE WALL STREET JOURNAL’s Robert O’Connell, Wembanyama is unlike almost anyone or anything else he’s ever seen.
“I think of Bill Russell, I think of [Hakeem] Olajuwon, Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar],” Brown said in a recent interview, and continued a partial list of the giants who lived up to gigantic expectations: Wilt Chamberlain, Moses Malone, Shaquille O’Neal. “You heard it,” Brown said of the once-in-a-lifetime label. “But you never heard it about a player who was 7-foot-4, who can dribble like a guard and make 3-pointers.”
And to Popovich, all but set to retire after last season’s horrid .268 winning percentage, the arrival of Wembanyama has rejuvenated him. And at a mere 74 years of age, he’s practically a spring chicken compared to Hubie.
In other words, they’re separated in age by only a couple of years more than Wembanyama has been alive.
So his Garden debut didn’t go quite as well as some of the other legends’. Then again, none of them are quite like Wembanyama in size, stature or upside.
There will be future games. Probably different results. And I, for one, hope both Pops and Hubie are there to see plenty of them first-hand. I know I’ll be watching, too.