Go ahead and give Julius Randle a pass, just this one time. He handed New York a precious gift last year, manna from basketball heaven, so how about we return the favor and call it even?
He made a mistake Thursday night, a big one. Randle declared himself the last man in the city who thought the thumbs-down gesture from Javier Baez, Francisco Lindor and Kevin Pillar was a great summertime idea, and then doubled down by confirming he was telling the Garden crowd to “shut the f–k up.”
Friday night, Randle apologized without saying he was apologizing. He said he was sorry without using the word “sorry.” He posted an Instagram message to the fans that read, in part:
“I understand that my actions also represent the league, this organization, and this city, and that I should have handled things last night differently and expressed myself with more professionalism and more appropriate language in the heat of the moment. My comment was an example of how sometimes you say things you regret to people you love, even if it came from a place of passion and deep love.”
That should be good enough for everyone to make this a case-closed proposition. Unlike Baez, who had been in town for 15 minutes, Randle had established sweat equity here.
Entering the 2020-21 season, the Knicks had been 182 games under .500 over the previous six years. They had served up one spit-show after another to their customers for the better part of two decades, making it all but impossible for the free-agent likes of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to sign up, and leaving the consolation prize, Randle, to pick up the pieces.
And did he ever pick them up. Randle needed coach Tom Thibodeau’s help, no question, and Thibs’ work last year will never be forgotten. But Thibodeau wasn’t the one on the court earning the league’s Most Improved Player Award and winning a spot next to LeBron James as a forward on the All-NBA second team. Thibobeau wasn’t the one who averaged 24.1 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 6.0 assists while making the fans delirious with the possibilities — after they were allowed back in the building — and leading the Knicks to a 41-31 record and a most improbable playoff berth.
Randle did all of that single-handedly, in the middle of a pandemic, lifting a beaten-down city with a clinic on how to play the city game with extreme fire. He is an emotional player for a reason — he’s not as gifted as James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and KD. If Randle doesn’t play with spirited aggression, he’ll get pancaked by the best bigs in the game.
But that emotion will occasionally manifest itself in an unfortunate response, as it did in an otherwise thrilling buzzer-beating victory over the Celtics. New Yorkers were booing in the second quarter because they’ve never liked watching Boston teams outplay theirs, and because Randle and friends have spent most of this season disconnected from the magic of last year. Coming off a positive COVID-19 test, a two-game absence and a remarkable 30-point, 16-rebound performance against Indiana in his return (after traveling from his Dallas home), a defiant Randle decided to punch back.
He scored on a fourth-quarter banker, then gave the cheering crowd a very decisive thumbs down, complete with more than a half-dozen downward jabs. Randle had profanely claimed the day before that he didn’t care what anyone (presumably fans and media members) said or thought about his game. Clearly he wasn’t telling the truth.
Everyone cares about what people say and think of their work, particularly when those thoughts and words are unkind. Randle is a highly compensated public figure, and his fame and fortune come with a price. His bad days at the office aren’t like an everyman’s bad days at the office. Randle’s are broadcast live and on a relentless loop of TV and internet lowlights to millions upon millions around the globe.
Nobody forced him to accept those terms when he agreed to his $117 million extension. But at day’s end, Randle’s celebrity status doesn’t make him any less human. One season after sharing something special with the locals, he has been hearing from fans and columnists (including yours truly) that Obi Toppin deserves more minutes. He has been assailed on social media by dissatisfied fans and by vile trolls suggesting his COVID-19 diagnosis was actually a good development for the team. He received that diagnosis while with his family in Oklahoma City, where he was preparing to play a game and to celebrate New Year’s Eve.
Randle’s been dealing with a ton, most notably with a shot that isn’t falling like it did last year. His wife and young son are always sitting courtside, and Lord knows what they sometimes hear from the crowd. Life in the big city was tough enough before the coronavirus started squeezing all the pressure points in people’s relationships with family members, friends, colleagues and their favorite sports teams. Randle’s relationship with his adopted town got squeezed and squeezed and squeezed, and he finally popped off.
Hey, if anyone can relate to a person telling another to go “F off,” it’s a New Yorker. Why do you think Knicks superfan John McEnroe, a first-ballot Hall of Famer in the arena of explosively emotional New Yorkers, gets cheered every time he’s shown on the Garden jumbotron?
Randle made it clear Friday night that he went off because he cares so much about his work, and about the unmitigated joy it once inspired. Monday night at the Garden, the fans should cheer him during introductions and let him know his blood, sweat and tears have earned him a free pass.
This time. Not the next time.