A year to the day earlier, New York had opened its heart to Julius Randle for the first time. Oh, he couldn’t hear any of it, of course: Madison Square Garden was still bereft of customers, and the atmosphere was downright depressing. Empty gyms are fine when you’re on the make on the AAU circuit.
Less so when you’re trying out the extent of your NBA bona fides.
“It’s so unfortunate our fans can’t be a part of this,” Randle said on the evening of Jan. 6, 2021, not long after the Knicks finished off what would turn out to be one of their signature wins of a 42-win season, a thrilling 112-100 come-from-behind victory over the Utah Jazz, bound for a 52-20 season and No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
The Knicks were only eight games into their season but already Randle had shown that he was going to make that season special. He scored 30 points, grabbed 16 rebounds, added seven assists and actually inspired a genuine smile out of Tom Thibodeau.
“Just another night at the office for Julius,” Thibs said then.
Randle, for his part, talked extensively about how difficult it was to play in one of basketball’s loudest houses with the mute button on. The Knicks actually fell behind the Jazz by 18 points late in the second quarter before outscoring them 78-48 the rest of the way — all of it in the eerie quiet of an empty gym.
“I know the Garden would be rocking,” Randle said. “That’s what we all signed up for.”
A year later, the Knicks are scuffling. Randle’s game has been up-and-down, and all of his struggles have been viewed by crowded houses, judged against the backdrop of his historic season. A year later, instead of pining for the sound of the Garden, this is what Randle said Wednesday, on the eve of the Knicks’ Garden date with the Celtics:
“Really don’t give a [big-time bleep] what anybody has to say, to be honest. I’m out there playing. Nobody knows the game out there better than I do, compared to what everybody has to say. So I really don’t give a [JV bleep]. I just go out there and play.”
Now, it’s possible Randle could be talking in part about media criticism. There has been some of that, but hardly a blowtorch of blowback. Much of the media chiding comes in the form of wondering — to cite an example from your humble narrator’s own keyboard — if maybe Obi Toppin might not warrant a few extra minutes than he’s gotten, which would naturally correspond with reducing Randle’s workload.
You didn’t read a lot of that last year. But that’s hardly a rip.
No, the criticism he’s talking about is probably the more visceral kind. Once fans were allowed back into the Garden last year, they immediately showered Randle — the whole team, really — with a loud and extended hug, which included MVP chants for Randle and extended right up until the Hawks chased them out of the playoffs in five games.
This time around, as the Knicks — and Randle — have suffered through pockets of deep inconsistency, the Garden still has its audible cues — and they sound an awful lot like booing. Now being booed at the Garden isn’t necessarily a permanent thing — Patrick Ewing got booed there at the start of his career, and so did Clyde Frazier toward the end — but it’s still hard to hear when they’re aimed at you.
When you add in the trickle of social media trolls who posted some awful things when Randle wound up in health and safety protocols …
Yeah. This is what they sign up for, too, when they play in New York.
Randle is wise to shrug this off if he can. The rules here really are quite simple. If he strings together a bunch of games like the one he had the other night against Indiana in his return — 30 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, one of those “just another nights at the office” Thibodeau referenced last year — the mood will swing, quickly and loudly. New York has a short memory and Knicks fans, especially, want to embrace the positive.
He’s right. Go out there and play.
And, preferably, play better.