After yet another disappointing, early-season loss, Jalen Brunson stood at his locker, ready to speak with the media in Milwaukee.
As the point guard turned around, straight-faced as usual following the Knicks’ fourth defeat in six games, he donned a homemade T-shirt, all black and with white lettering on it, that appeared as if it were straight off the Vistaprint presses.
Across Brunson’s chest read a familiar idiom: The magic is in the work.
“This is a Sandra Brunson production,” Brunson said, referencing his mother, who stamped the family’s longtime motto onto the crewneck. Of course, “The magic is in the work” is not a Brunson family original.
Anyone who knows Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau has a Pavlovian relationship with that expression. Those 19 letters form his favorite saying. Find anyone who has been around the coach, mention that the magic is in the work and prepare for that person either to quip about Thibodeau or to go into an impression of a man who has dedicated his life to basketball.
Years ago, Brunson’s father, Rick, who played for Thibodeau when he was a player and when Thibodeau was an assistant coach with the Knicks in the 1990s, had ripped the parlance for himself. He and Sandra have repeated it to Jalen for two and a half decades. Rick is somewhat of a Thibodeau loyalist. He played for him in New York, where the two grew close. He was an assistant for Thibodeau in the head coach’s first stop in Chicago, his second in Minnesota and now his third in New York.
Rick would take his son to the office during those years. Thibodeau remembers back in the 1990s when Jalen was not just too small for stardom but too small for grade school and would show up to Knicks practices with ready-made impressions of the team’s top players. He did Latrell Sprewell, Allan Houston, Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson.
“He had it spot-on,” Thibodeau said. “He was, like, 6 (years old) and he had all their moves down.”
Thibodeau could never have known then that he would eventually become the head coach of that franchise. Even less so, he could not have predicted that Rick’s son would be the leader of his squad — and, as of Thursday, would officially become an NBA All-Star for the first time in his career.
No one in the clique could have guessed the engineer of that team, one that would shatter a seemingly never-ending stretch of Knicks-induced depression among its fan base, would be Rick Brunson’s at-the-time agent, Leon Rose, who would eventually work his way up at CAA, which also represents Thibodeau, to run the agency’s basketball division before the Knicks would hire him away to become their team president in 2020.
After Jalen signed with the Knicks two years ago, he provided a one-word response as to why: “Family.” He didn’t just hope to work for his father; Rose was there, too. He wanted to play for Thibodeau, the hyper-intense basketball addict he’d known since he was too young to remember. And it’s not like the Knicks had swiped away someone who was just as coveted everywhere else.
Brunson’s former team, the Dallas Mavericks, had chosen not to offer him an extension that would have been approximately half of the $104 million he eventually signed with the Knicks, a contract that was widely critiqued as an overpay. Today, it’s one of the NBA’s most team-friendly deals.
This has not been the trajectory of a typical All-Star. Brunson was a three-year collegiate constant, a second-round pick who didn’t play much as a rookie and who didn’t regularly start until his fourth professional season. He’s shorter than his peers, can barely dunk and is more obsessive about pivots than he is about crossovers.
Of all the parallel universes in existence, this is the only one where Brunson becomes an All-Star with this team in this city playing for this team president and this coach while also becoming the face of an organizational turnaround. And yet, it’s happening.
When the NBA announced the All-Star reserves Thursday, two Knicks popped up: Julius Randle, who is now an All-Star for the third time in four seasons, and Brunson, who made it for the first time.
Randle’s emergence is unconventional, as well. The Los Angeles Lakers selected him in the 2014 lottery but let him walk in free agency once his first NBA contract expired. He signed a one-year, bet-on-himself contract with the New Orleans Pelicans, who let him go after that season, too. After a chase for Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant ended with the two stars heading to the Brooklyn Nets, the Knicks turned to Randle, handing him a shorter-term deal for less money.
No one could have guessed that four and a half years later, a New York basketball team would capture the heart of the city behind its two All-Stars — and neither of them would be Durant or Irving.
“The thing that’s special is they’re self-made,” Thibodeau said. “It wasn’t given to them, and they’ve earned it. We’re proud of them.”
This was never supposed to happen. And yet, we’re watching the same events transpire night after night.
The Knicks are 32-17 on the season, winners of nine consecutive games. It’s as if they have chosen to stop losing. They are 15-2 since Jan. 1. Each night, someone new gets hurt, and it doesn’t seem to matter. Mitchell Robinson underwent ankle surgery in December, but the team has held up with Isaiah Hartenstein proving he’s first-string caliber since. And of late, the roster is falling apart.
Randle dislocated his shoulder less than a week ago. He missed his first game Monday. That same night, OG Anunoby had to sit because of inflammation in his elbow. He hasn’t played in the three games since. A day later, Quentin Grimes took a hit to the knee, which is now sprained, sidelining him.
The Knicks were missing four rotation players Thursday night. Thibodeau is breaking the laws of time, running his favorites for 59 minutes in regulation games. And yet, they just keep winning.
They wrecked the Charlotte Hornets on Monday, destroyed the respectable Utah Jazz the following evening and roared back from down 15 to top the ever-exciting Indiana Pacers 109-105 on Thursday.
Somehow, the Knicks, a team more associated with squalor than ballers for the past 23 years, are a half-game out of second place in the Eastern Conference. And it’s difficult to look anywhere but at Brunson.
Thursday’s performance was his masterpiece: a 40-point showing against a defense that threw anything it could at him. With the Knicks short-handed, the Pacers double-teamed him from the start. They were physical with Brunson as Brunson normally is with whomever he’s competing against — enough so that near the end of the game, Brunson took a smack to the face and collapsed to the floor only for whistles to be swallowed.
On the next play, Brunson scored an and-1, giving New York a one-point lead with under two minutes to go.
“One A, 1B, it doesn’t matter. The dude is an All-Star. He’s (having) an MVP-caliber season right now,” Donte DiVincenzo said. “He should be the player of the month this month. What else can I say? The dude’s doing everything he possibly can for us to win games. It’s not easy right now with Julius going down, OG going down, Mitch not being here. Everything’s been thrown against us and he’s still willing us to win games.”
Brunson is now averaging 27.1 points, a career-high, to go with 6.4 assists on the season. On Thursday, he had his fifth 40-point game over the Knicks’ first 49 games. He’s gone for 30-plus 19 times. Of the 534 players who have scored a point so far this season, only three, a trio of MVP candidates, have totaled more than Brunson: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Dončić.
This story, this career was meant to occur only in dreams.
If Rose hadn’t come to the Knicks, if he hadn’t hired Thibodeau immediately upon his arrival, if Thibodeau hadn’t become close with Rick 25 years ago, if Rick hadn’t been a lifelong Rose loyalist, if Rick’s and Rose’s kids hadn’t been so close for so long that Rose’s son, Sam, hadn’t grown up to become Jalen’s agent, this player with this background probably does not become an All-Star for this team.
But, somehow, it happened. Brunson has become one of the NBA’s least likely All-Stars, only the 21st second-round pick to make an All-Star Game since the league implemented a two-round draft in 1989. And somehow, the Knicks have followed in his stead.
They’ve acquired his best friends from Villanova: DiVincenzo, Josh Hart and Ryan Arcidiacono. Somehow, all those players have turned into no-brainer roster additions. Somehow, they were able to add Anunoby, who is the personification of this group’s new identity: hard-nosed, defensive-minded and team-oriented.
It starts at the top.
The Knicks have gone out of their way to sign Thibodeau-minded players: Ones who care about defense first, ones who will dive into the stands with three minutes to go in a 20-point game. But it helps when your best player plays that way, too.
“When your All-Star and your leader does it, it sets the standard,” Hart said. “But that’s something that each of us take pride in.”
In a league where some teams create rules discouraging players from diving for balls in practice scrimmages just because they can’t risk a leading performer injuring himself, Brunson takes charges in practice. He is one of two guys on the team, along with Arcidiacono, who does it. He leads the NBA in offensive fouls drawn. He is a star who carries himself like a role player, probably because he wasn’t supposed to be much above that.
He was not supposed to go for 40 this often. He was not supposed to be the one whom Knicks fans stayed late for just so they could lose their voices.
After the win over the Pacers on Thursday, MSG’s Alan Hahn approached Brunson for the typical postgame, on-court interview, the audio of which is played throughout the arena as well as on television. Of course, this was not your usual game.
Brunson had just gone for 40 points against a defense that was swarming him. He’d officially made All-Star only hours earlier. The 20,000 in attendance were the rowdiest of any group that had filled up Madison Square Garden so far this season. When the Knicks are rolling, and the fan base knows it, these games turn into another kind of event.
Most of those masses didn’t leave once the game ended. Instead, they waited for Brunson to begin his interview. Hahn asked about the night, about Brunson finally sneaking onto an All-Star team after he bore the label of the token snub a season ago. But even with the mic turned up, you could barely hear Hahn over the thousands who remained in the arena screeching “MVP!” chants.
Brunson, who’s not known for his public displays of emotion, choked up. He couldn’t bring himself to talk.
“It was cool the whole experience, how we won, obviously what happened before the game,” Brunson said. “You always work for certain moments but you never know how to react once they happen. It was special.”
That moment was not just about Thursday night — not just about a team that’s played like the best in the NBA for a month or a player who has reinvigorated a formerly woeful franchise and improbably vaulted into the land of the elite. There’s no questioning it: the Knicks’ constant hunt for an All-NBA performer, a topic ever since Rose took over the front office four years ago, needs to be reframed. This is definitively not a hunt for a star; it’s a hunt for another star.
No one could have seen this coming, except for maybe a person or three who has known Brunson since he was pre-K.
“There’s always been naysayers,” Thibodeau said. “And he always proves them wrong.”
(Photo of Jalen Brunson: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)