I’ve got a particular definition of what makes a close friend. It’s not defined by how long you’ve known someone, but by the things you’ve been through with them.
With that said, Melo, you are one of my best friends.
Even just writing that down feels kind of crazy, because like a lot of young players in this league I admired your game from afar while I was coming up.
We both have Brooklyn roots, so you were always on my radar. When I was a freshman in high school, I rocked braids just like yours. I watched you completely dominate the NCAA tournament for the ’Cuse. You were so skilled, so dominant. But what impressed me even more was the style you had to your game. It was one of a kind. You played with this joy and confidence, just killing guys with a smile on your face. It made me dream about playing on the same team as you one day, as outlandish as that seemed back then.
New York is this huge, huge city comprised of people from all over the world, but there are certain things that kind of serve as a connective glue. There are the subways. There are bodegas. There are dollar slices.
And there are the Knicks.
I was raised in a family of Knicks fans. We rode with the team through thick and thin, never missing a single game. A lot of people who live here — people from all different backgrounds — are the same way. There’s a passion for this team that brings out a lot of different emotions from New Yorkers. (And we aren’t all that big on showing our emotions.) But with the Knicks, everything is personal. And if you’re a true New Yorker, you live and die with this team just like you’re a player wearing a uniform.
You know, I still remember the exact day you were traded to New York — that was one of the most exciting days I can remember as a sports fan. My phone just blew up with texts from my friends and family. It was all the same message pretty much.
“WE GOT MELO!”
“MELO COMING HOME!!”
I remember how fired up I was on that day just to have you on my team. Not that I was actually on the roster at that point or anything. Not even close. I was just out of college, bouncing around the D-League. But still, it was like: Melo was in my city, on my team — on the NEW YORK KNICKS — and that was one of the best feelings ever.
I was traded to the Knicks from, of all places, OKC. It was midseason, January 2015, and I was on a 10-day contract.
It was a dream, of course, being in New York and being on the same team as you. But I also knew it would probably all be very temporary. I did everything I could — in every minute of practice and every second of floor time I got — in order to stick around. I was vocal, I was physical and I just tried to play my heart out.
And you noticed.
You didn’t have to — I was a nobody. Guys on 10-days come through all the time. You had no reason or obligation to look at me twice, because I might have been gone the next day anyhow. But you noticed how hard I was working and you encouraged me to keep grinding. Yeah, we both grew up Knicks fans with Brooklyn roots, but that wasn’t why we clicked. It didn’t have to do with skills, either. The reason we identified with one another, I think, was that we both approached the game of basketball in a similar way.
And when I did make it into games with you, knowing how precious those minutes were to me, you didn’t hesitate to include me in the flow of the offense, or to give me a defensive assignment that would allow me to shine. Basically, you put me in the best possible position to succeed.
How do you properly thank a person for that? I’ve been thinking about that a lot the past few days, ever since your trade became official.
Over time, our shared passion for New York, and for this game, blossomed into a special friendship. I always admired you as a player, but after getting to really know you, now I appreciate you even more as a person. You have a lot of qualities that I try to emulate. You’re tough-minded. You don’t shy away from a challenge or from adversity. And despite facing a lot of criticism the past few years — and frankly, dealing with some real bullshit — you never became bitter. You found a way to just smile through it, the same way you do on the court.
You always find a way to just grind and keep going, like any good New Yorker.
There was one thing that happened last season that I’ll never forget: Remember when we were in L.A., and after the game, we were sitting at the back of the team bus cracking jokes? One of our young players — I won’t even put him on blast by giving his name — called you out. He said he could take you one-on-one.
You just nodded with a smile, and you told him, “Alright. If that’s what you want, that’s what you gonna get.”
So the next day, we have a good practice, and at the end I start hyping things up saying, “Alright Mel, what’s up? Watchu gonna do? He called you out!” And you look at me and say, “Come here and watch what I do to this boy.”
Now all the guys kind of line up around the court in anticipation. Everybody’s getting into it and we’re all pretty hyped.
You guys start playing, and from the jump you just put on a clinic. Like you’re pulling out all these unbelievable moves and making shots from wherever you want on the court. It was Hoodie Melo times 10. And the whole time, you had that same grin on your face.
I just stood there grinning too, looking on like a fan — and I am a fan.
At one point you look up at the guy and say, “You know what island you on?”
And he says, “What?”
“A lot of people die on this island right here,” you say. “I don’t think you wanted to come here!”
And then you laugh and shout, “This is Killigan’s Island!”
Then you keep going, just buckets, buckets, buckets. Putting this guy in the blender and reminding him who you are and what you’ve done.
When you finally won, everybody just started cracking up. You were so excited. It was one of those moments that just perfectly showed your relationship with this game. Always smiling and never backing down from a challenge.
I have so many great memories like that. But it was how you reacted when things were not so great that I respect most of all.
There are different kinds of leaders. You aren’t a super vocal guy who’s always giving speeches and ordering people around. That’s not your personality. A lot of your expression occurs on the court. And that’s what made those times you stepped out of your comfort zone to speak out and stick up for your teammates that much more impactful. Those times last season when I was injured and you told me to keep my chin up, and that I was still a really important part of the team — that meant more to me than you’ll ever know. Plenty of people talk the talk about leadership, but you showed me a lot about what it means to actually lead.
Even if that’s not the Melo the media always recognized, it’s the one I’ll always know.
It was really weird going to media day on Monday and not seeing you there. I think that’s when this all really hit me.
I’d been sitting with the news since you called me on Saturday to tell me personally, before it leaked anywhere else. I wouldn’t have wanted to find out about it any other way. And I’m going to say the same thing here that I told you then: I know you’re going to love OKC. I’ve been part of that organization, and I know that everything there is first class.
I’m happy and excited for this opportunity you have in front of you. The rest of the league might not know what to expect out of you, but I absolutely do. I was always thankful for the opportunity to watch you work up close, man, because your greatness was so hard-earned. And that’s exactly what you’re bringing with you to OKC.
With that said, one of my biggest regrets is that I wasn’t able to do more to help you win in New York. I wanted to win here so badly with you — to win here for you. When I re-signed with the Knicks, I had you in mind. I put part of the blame on myself for us not winning more because of the injuries I struggled with. That’s something I’ll have to live with — not giving you all the help on the court that you deserved.
But even though that’s how I truly feel, I know you’d never say that. You don’t make excuses. I’ve always respected that.
I’ve never met anyone who loves New York as much as you do. This is your city. You kept fighting to try to make things work, and even when it seemed like people didn’t want you here, you never let that change your work ethic or your approach to the game. You were always doing good work behind the scenes that not everyone noticed, but we saw it. Just like you told me when I needed to hear it, I’ll tell you: You should leave this place with your chin up. We didn’t accomplish everything we set out to, but you still left an impact on this city. Just like we grew up with Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson, an entire generation of young ballers are going to remember you as the man who led the New York Knicks.
This is all my way of simply saying: Thank you, Melo.
Thank you for being the face of our franchise, and for bringing that New York swag back to the Garden.
Thank you for helping me through tough times and giving so much of yourself as a teammate in ways that nobody will ever know about.
And finally, thank you for being a role model to so many young players who, like me, dreamed of being like you.
Of course, I’m not thanking you because you need it, and certainly not because you asked for it. I’m thanking you because I feel like I need to. I need to as a Brooklyn kid, as a Knicks fan, as a teammate and as a close friend.
I know we’re going to stay close long after basketball is over. I’m looking forward to when we’re old and slow, just watching games together, cracking jokes and maybe even getting a few shots up every now and then.
But in the meantime, it seems kind of perfect that we’re opening the season against each other. You already know that I’m going to get after you. You ain’t putting me on Killigan’s Island. Naaaa B.