Trust, and the Process

As Knick fans wake up this morning still drunk from the tantalization of what almost was in their sort-of-home-opener Friday night, I’d like to share a bit of personal news.

Yesterday morning, I was officially awarded a Certificate of Completion of Probation by my Principal; aka, I got tenure. This is my fifth year teaching, which means I’ve now lasted longer in the classroom than I did in the courtroom. If I’m still there a year from now (and judging by the current state of the sports journalism industry, I will be!), I’ll have made it longer than half the teachers who work in urban settings in this country.

This isn’t surprising, because teaching is really, really hard, but not in the ways you think it’s going to be really, really hard, which is part of why it’s really, really hard.

The act of teaching, actually, is quite simple. There’s a million good lesson plans available on the internet, and the kids, by and large, are good kids. They want to learn. Teachers want to teach. Given those basic tenets, the system should work.

Of course, in case you haven’t heard, the whole institution is only getting worse, and a lot of that has to do with teacher burnout. The reason teachers burn out isn’t because they aren’t prepared for tough days and noisy classrooms, but because struggling learners often manifest themselves in ways you wouldn’t expect.

For me, when I first walked into a classroom as a special education teacher, I expected to spend a lot of my time sitting with kids, one on one or in small groups, and working through the tedious task of imparting knowledge upon young minds who had more trouble learning or retaining information that others.

That’s been part of my job, but not nearly as big a part as standing with a smile on my face as some kid or another basically tells me to go fuck myself, even if it’s not in as many words (although it has certainly been in as many words on occasion). That’s what teaching really is: having the people you’re trying to help tell you to go fuck yourself, and realizing it’s coming from a place of frustration, not of disdain.

But of course most teachers don’t see it this way. They see the kid they’re trying to work with sneak a look at their phone, or roll their eyes, or make fart noises the moment they look away, or chuck a pencil at the board three feet from their head (all of this has happened to me in the last week).

I thought about this last night when I was on Knicks Fan TV listening to callers voice their frustrations about a Knicks team that was up three in the fourth and couldn’t find a way to score even one point in the last 3:41.

Don’t get me wrong: I get it. I was every bit as frustrated, knowing full well that, no, Julius Randle posting up Jarrett Allen was not going to end well, and that Kyrie’s 2016 Finals replay 3-pointer was going down the before he even went into his shooting form.

When you see things like that, the fact that this is a team with nine new players and eight first, second or third year pros doesn’t enter into your mind. Instead, you’re thinking “Randle’s selfish,” or “Fiz is an idiot,” or “Why hasn’t Knox taken a shot in the fourth,” or “How is Trier not in the game,” or “Why isn’t the ball in Barrett’s hands on every possession,” or a host of other complaints, because that’s the thing right in front of your face, like a kid telling me to go fuck myself. If you aren’t annoyed, you aren’t human.

The worst part is that fixing these missteps seems obvious. The ease with which you or I can scream at a television and say “that’s not going to work” and then be absolutely right colors our ability to stop and think about how normal this all is for a brand new team, and for a coach still learning how to navigate a locker room with a lot of strong personalities. Just like staying calm in the face of an angry student is a lot easier said than done, so is telling your two self-proclaimed team leaders that, no, you shouldn’t be taking the biggest shots at the end of a huge game, and instead be deferring to two players whose collective age is under 40.

That’s why, when Fiz keeps talking about trust in these postgame pressers, he’s not completely full of shit.

We have grit. Now we’ve just got to put it together with consistent play and trust

David Fizdale

He could also be talking about himself. Fiz needs to trust that removing Randle late from a game like last night won’t risk losing him forever a whole three days into his Knicks career.

If he’d benched him or Morris for, say, Trier, how would that have gone over? What about demanding that the ball swing to the hotter hand in Knox? My guess is “not well.” He knows the players need to develop that trust on their own. Just like the 2010 Miami Heat team he was a part of that started 9-8 had to learn on their own that hero ball doesn’t work, this (far less talented) Knicks team has to realize that sharing is, indeed, caring.

Most offseason pundits don’t think they’ll ever get there. They look at the past tendencies of players like Randle and Morris and Portis and Trier and DSJ and doubt this team is ever going to be unselfish enough to make it work. They might be right.

And yet, there they were, ahead in the fourth quarter, on the road, in two games vs playoff teams from last year who each got better in the offseason. You need to be doing something right to even be in that position, which needs to be accounted for when looking at this team’s performance thus far.

For all of their late offensive woes, Fizdale had a team of mediocre to subpar defenders holding Brooklyn to four points over an eight-minute stretch of the fourth quarter. It wasn’t fool’s gold either; the Knicks were flying around like a real, honest-to-goodness NBA defense. It was cool to see.

So as the Knicks enter tonight trying to win their actual home opener, keep in mind the ways in which this team is going to struggle may not be the ways you thought, and that those issues may take longer to get fixed than you think. Just like teaching, it’s all part of a process that may not make perfect sense.

The key is staying with it. Calling for the coach’s head after his 84th game makes about as much sense as saying a teacher with a little more than a year of experience should be fired for poor classroom management. This process often takes years, and in the past 20 years, with the exception of Mike D’Antoni, no Knicks coach has gotten more than two to work out the kinks.

Maybe Fiz doesn’t get more than that, and maybe he shouldn’t. But let’s hold off on those conclusions, just for a few weeks at least. In other words: let’s have a little trust ourselves.

Even though it’s hard.

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