By Ben Horney, Knicks Fan Since '94
A season that had started like a dream was in danger of turning into a nightmare. Having lost four straight, the Knicks headed into Utah to play the Jazz on March 18, their division lead over the Nets whittled down to one game. To make matters worse, their stars were dropping like a Raymond Felton floater. Already without Amar'e Stoudemire due to injury, the brutal west coast road trip had claimed Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler too, leaving the Knicks woefully shorthanded.
Even the end of their bench couldn't escape injury -- shortly before the Knicks tipped off in Utah, word broke that X-rays had revealed the presence of bone spurs in Kurt Thomas's 40-year-old right foot. There were rumors that his season was over. Even though Thomas was officially listed as questionable, the oldest player in the NBA dressed and prepared to play.
As it turned out, the game against the Jazz would be Thomas's final game of the season -- and it was the perfect microcosm of the player he's been throughout his 18-year career.
A lumbering and (at times) limping Thomas trudged his way through nearly 27 minutes that night, the most minutes he'd played in almost two years, since he was a member of the Chicago Bulls. For the Knicks in Utah, Thomas was more than just an extra body with six fouls to give -- his gritty, gutsy performance set the tone for the entire team.
With his arms outstretched, his head on a swivel and his face locked in that classic, menacing glare, Thomas controlled the paint and anchored the Knicks defense down low. He helped hold a young, talented Jazz front line featuring Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors to 28 total points, 14 less than the trio combined to average for the season. Jefferson, whom Thomas defended directly for much of the game, was especially ineffective -- he scored just 10 points on 4-of-13 (31%) from the field, far below his season averages of 18 points and 49% shooting.
Despite visible discomfort and an increasing lurch to his step, Thomas actually improved as the game went on, coming up with huge plays on both ends of the floor throughout the second half. First, with the score tied at 60 and under two minutes to go in the third, he swatted a Jefferson layup attempt, which led to a Raymond Felton-to-J.R. Smith fast break alley-oop that put the Knicks up two.
"The old pro asserting himself," Walt Clyde Frazier said on the MSG broadcast.
"Boy, Kurt Thomas's defense is just superb," Mike Breen agreed.
Then, early in the fourth, Thomas received a pass at the top of the key, pump-faked his defender and sank the 18-foot jumper to give the Knicks a 68-63 lead. A few plays later, Thomas blocked yet another Jazz shot attempt and was so fired up as he ran down the floor that he nearly received a taunting technical. With less than five minutes remaining, Thomas picked, rolled and converted a layup, giving the Knicks an eight point lead, their largest of the night.
When the buzzer sounded, the Knicks had won, 90-83. And besides ending their stretch of losing, the victory helped jump-start the historic 13-game win streak they would use to claim their first division title in 19 years.
While Thomas's stat line seemed relatively unremarkable -- 6 points on 3-for-5 shooting, 3 rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 assists -- his impact was immeasurable.
"His numbers don't come close to saying what he's done tonight," Breen remarked as the final seconds ticked off the clock. "Thomas was absolutely marvelous."
Thomas's inspired play surprised even his teammates.
"Kurt was a true warrior," Smith said. "To fight through what he's been feeling all week and do that kind of job on the defensive end and make shots, they don't make that breed no more."
And even though other Knicks had more traditionally impressive stats (20 points for Smith, 19 for Felton), Thomas earned the ultimate praise from his coach.
"He hadn't played 26 minutes maybe all year and we didn't even know if he was going to play tonight," Coach Mike Woodson said. "It was a total team effort but Kurt deserved the game ball tonight."
An MRI would later reveal what the X-ray hadn't. It was more than mere bone spurs, Thomas's foot was broken. The injury shelved him for the season, and recent reports claim that Thomas is still uncertain whether he'll ever play again in the NBA. Whether or not he retires though, Thomas can rest assured that because of his leadership -- not only on that night in Utah but throughout his career -- he'll always be a Knick.
Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images