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November 27, 2017

Celebrity, Furniture, And Making Your Own Supper

The Knicks organization helps its young stars adjust to a brave new world.

Frank Ntilikina, 19 years old and on the fast track to stardom. "New York is changing my life," he says. (Photo: Dave Saffran/MSG Photos)

The speeded-up life of 19-year-old Frank Ntilikina took hold last June when the Knicks, in the first round of the NBA Draft, lifted him away from almost everything he knew — the apartment in Strasbourg, France, where he lived with his mother and two older brothers, and the basketball mentors who had nurtured him since he was a boy.

His routine was simple, a path through the city’s medieval streets, from home to school to his team’s gym. Here, Ntilikina (ni-LEE-kin-ə), 6-foot-5 with an improbable 7-foot wingspan, had learned to fly, quietly, at his own pace.

Now, as a core piece of a blossoming Knicks team, his raw talents and court sense are plain to see, and Madison Square Garden fans have adopted him as a new favored son. But sudden celebrity is a strange space. He and a number of his fledgling teammates have been thrust into the world of social media and sports talk commotion. They are on their own for the first time and dealing with the pressure to succeed in New York, a city that has withered seasoned pros.

“I love it, yes,” said Ntilikina. “But everything is different. It’s a process.”

Survival in the NBA is not a guaranteed thing. It plays out under bright lights and inevitably comes with anxiety.  The Knicks organization is at the vanguard of an approach that views each player as a whole person and not merely the one working on his jump shot. The grooming of the young Knicks unfolds in soft conversations about how to deal with the stresses day by day, a step at a time. With everything coming at them at breakneck velocity, the goal is to somehow slow it all down.


No Longer Sheltered

The main man for this role is Craig Robinson, whose calling card is perspective. He was hired this summer with a directive to help these young men acclimate to an unnatural existence, or as he says, “dealing with celebrity before they learn how to be celebrities.” Officially, he is vice president of player development for both the Knicks and the club’s G League Westchester team, but he prefers to see the task as human development.

“This job is about coaching, teaching, empathy, seeing everything going on in the environment that could have an effect on these guys,” he says. “As an organization, we are working to be responsive to each player’s needs.”

Including Ntilikina, the Knicks have eight players 25 and under. Kristaps Porzingis, also European and a flourishing star, is just 22. As foreigners, the two face obstacles, but the American-born players do as well. They are no longer sheltered by high school and college coaches who are there to monitor every part of their lives, from the time they wake up to their practices, to their classes and how and when they study.


One point guard handing off to another. The veteran, Jarrett Jack, is always close by to let the young prodigy know that “age doesn’t matter.” (Photo: Dave Saffran/MSG Photos)

Damyean Dotson and Ntilikina live down the street from one another in White Plains, where many of the younger Knicks, by design, also live. For the first time, they are buying furniture and managing on their own. Dotson is slowly mastering cooking pork chops, watches plenty of game footage, and otherwise watches TV. (He can’t get enough of Impractical Jokers.)  Luke Kornet, also living in White Plains, has a two-way contract between New York and Westchester. A former standout at Vanderbilt, he devotes hours to flexibility exercises, including stretching and foam rolling.

“Your day is so structured in college,” he said. “I think that what really starts to separate people at this level is what you’re doing in your off time.”

Standing court side following a recent practice, Ntilikina sounded like an old soul. The first two weeks away from his family were trying before he “settled in.” He is a young man with an easy smile, and he nearly laughed at his own words.

“I know this is just the beginning,” he said.

Like many of the young players, he has turned to the team’s oldest player, Jarrett Jack, who at 34 is a wellspring of basketball smarts and calm. Jack is in his 13th NBA season and with his 9th team. The key to basketball success is slowing down mentally while somehow maintaining speed and quickness, an idea, he says, that can extend to other parts of a player’s life.


Questions, And More Questions

“You can get knowledge from reading a book, but if you have someone that can guide you and interpret some of the pages, that puts you ahead,” he said. “I can be like their Cliffs Notes.”

Each rookie takes a three-day seminar as part of the NBA Transition Program. It includes counseling on everything from finances to forming healthy relationships, to looking down the road to a career after the NBA. But at that point, in the middle of summer, the change to a big new life still feels theoretical. Once training camp and the season begin, the experience becomes real.


His coaches and teammates agree that Ntilikina is a ready and willing student. (Photo: Dave Saffran/MSG Photos)

While the Knicks staff, including head coach Jeff Hornacek, are certainly mindful of the off-court demands, it falls to Robinson to give the changeover to the NBA life keen attention. He draws upon his own brand of wisdom built through a full and diversified career. A star forward at Princeton, later a head coach at Brown University and at Oregon State, he found success in banking before returning to basketball. He is also the brother of former First Lady Michelle Obama.

A patient ear is the main requirement for his job. The young players come to him with all sorts of questions.

“What is corporate America like?” he says. “Or what gift should I get for my girlfriend? Or what was it like to have a relative in the White House?”

“They’re young adults, but you must remember they’re also other people’s children,” he said.

The veteran, Jack, reminds Ntilikina that some things just can’t be rushed. He played against Ray Allen in his first preseason game and against another NBA great, Kevin Garnett, in his first regular season game. “My whole first year, I was nervous all the time,” said Jack.

“I tell the young guys that,” he said. “I tell them, one day you’ll be past this.”



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