THEY'RE living the dream, three rookie Rangers and three rookie Knicks, each taking a bite out of the Big Apple.
To have a six-pack of Rooks in the City - the Knicks' Channing Frye, David Lee and Nate Robinson and the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist, Petr Prucha and Fedor Tyutin - breaking in at the same time is rare as they venture out from the world's most famous arena, Madison Square Garden, to see the world's greatest city.
Though the Knicks' season has been a nightmare, they All Love NY. From flying to the Top of the Rock in a light-show space shuttle elevator ("This is like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," Lee says in wonder) to visiting ethnic restaurants in the outer boroughs, the rookies are learning what makes the city so unique.
"Playing in New York is a dream come true," says Lundqvist, the goalie from Are, Sweden, who spends a lot of his downtime in SoHo. "I love it. I think we all feel that way. The first couple weeks was tough because you didn't know if you would make the team or where you're going to live, but now, you get to know the city."
"It's just like you see in the movies," offers Tyutin, who hails from Izhevsk, Russia. "A lot of big buildings, yellow cabs and people."
The teams' training facilities are located in Tarrytown. Lundqvist, 23, Tyutin, 22, Lee, 22, and Robinson, 21, live in White Plains while Frye, 22, resides in Greenwich. Only Prucha, 23, lives in the city.
"I was preparing for everything, and everything is here," explains Prucha, the winger from Chrudim, Czech Rep., who eight days ago suffered a sprained right knee that will sideline him for up to a month. Prucha admits his understanding of English is limited, which isn't all bad.
Teammates say the ladies love the forward with the fast wrists and fast smile, so I ask him what it's like to be single and living and playing in New York. Prucha beams and shouts, "Great!"
Prucha may be the perfect date. "A good listener," he says, and then explains through a translator, "I don't understand what they're saying. I just smile and shake my head and say 'yes.' They love that."
None of the players is married. Lundqvist and Tyutin each have a steady girlfriend. Part of the allure of the city is meeting different people. The three Rangers are really no different than three young successful businessmen, experiencing the city through anonymity.
"That's good because in our home countries, we were all recognized wherever we went," Lundqvist says. "It always felt like someone was watching you."
FOR the struggling Knicks, life is never anonymous. "I think the city would be more fun if we were doing a little better," Frye admits.
In the wacky world of the Knicks, Lee and Robinson, who were untouchable only a few weeks ago, could find themselves traded soon. Giving up on young talent would be another mistake by this ballclub. Anyone traded away would miss New York.
Frye and Lee have become good friends, and often go to dinner with Frye's business manager, Joe Williams. Tao and Peter Luger Steakhouse are favorite stops. "Just give me the big, old steak," Frye says. BLT Steak and Nobu are also on the menu. Robinson favors Mr. Chow's and loves it when veterans pick up the tab.
"We just sit around and talk about guy stuff," Frye explains of a night out after a game. "Make sure to say we're single and looking," he adds.
When you're 6-11 and 6-9, there's nowhere to hide. "When I'm with them, people look right past me," says the 5-9 Robinson.
Explains Lee, "When the season first started and I'd be out with Channing, fans would be all over him and nobody would be talking to me, but it's changed a little bit now."
The schedule is hectic and Larry Brown, knowing how far the Knicks have to go, fits as much practice time into the season as possible. When you are a rookie, optional practice means you'd better be the first one there.
When they do have a rare day off to roll, it's an interesting experience. Frye moved to Phoenix when he was seven and starred at Arizona. Lee is from St. Louis and is a University of Florida graduate. They are learning about New York women.
"They're aggressive; they got a little bit of an attitude," Frye says, before hustling back to play defense, and adding, "but that's good."
Notes Lee, "The girls up here, it seems everyone's got a story. It's not just, 'I'm going to school.' It's, 'Well, I'm a model and an actress and a waitress.'"
Frye laughs and says, "A model, an actress, a waitress and a car mechanic." He's on a roll now and Lee is nodding his head with every word.
"They also make their living," Frye says, "selling books on the side, babysitting and they have a penguin-breeding farm in Alaska."
TEAMMATES joke that Frye is Brown's adopted son. They also note he has the worst sense of direction on the team, other than when going to the basket.
"We're heading to White Plains one day," Lee says, incredulous, "and Channing asks me, 'Are we going north to the city?'"
The Rangers' Lundqvist can relate to Frye. "Driving around here is tough," he says. "The first couple weeks, I was lost all the time."
Robinson, who became a Seattle leaping legend during his career at the University of Washington, spends much of his time off with his 16-month-old son, Nahmier. "He's one," Robinson says proudly. "Yeah, one going on 12," Lee adds, noting the child has the same energy as his animated father. "He's all over the place."
The rooks are amazed by the energy of Times Square. "There's no other place like it in the country," Lee says. "Maybe Las Vegas."
"Even Vegas around two o'clock in the morning isn't as busy as here," Frye says. "It's always busy in Times Square, not that we've been out at two in the morning. That's what we hear."
"I just can't believe the amount of people that are there," says Lee, who owns a degree in business and is looking forward to checking out Wall Street.
They love the nooks and crannies of the city, too. Frye's uncle lives in Brooklyn and told him about one corner deli that Frye recently visited. "I walk in and I think it's going to be just a deli, nasty, but I go down three flights of stairs and it's unbelievable. We're really into good food and you'll see a Brazilian restaurant and then you'll see a French restaurant, then you'll see another restaurant you never heard of and you say, 'Wow,' it's almost overwhelming.'"
Part of being young and a professional athlete in New York is getting to know other athletes. Frye and Lee have become friends with the Nets' Richard Jefferson. "He knows where to go," Lee explains.
Frye is a video-game freak and was at Jefferson's Tribeca loft one day when Jefferson introduced him to the No. 1 Halo player in the world. "He was ridiculous," Frye says. "We'd play and I'd be dead like four times in no time."
Lee is friends with Giants quarterback Eli Manning and Mets third baseman David Wright while Frye has gotten to know Giants star defensive end Michael Strahan.
Says Lee of Manning: "The day we won that Phoenix game in triple overtime, he was nice enough to call me that night and said, 'Congratulations on playing well and tell Channing the same thing.' Which says a lot about him. That just shows about New York sports and how the teams support one another."
Lee and Frye are becoming Rangers fans while Robinson admits: "The only thing I know about hockey is the Mighty Ducks." The rookie Rangers enjoy going to Knick games and Prucha says he can't wait to see Yankee Stadium.
NEW York is the land of take out, even take-out tattoos. Puppet the tattoo artist makes house calls and for $300, Robinson, who can soar, recently got a set of wings on his back. "It looks great," says Robinson, who will show off those wings at the dunk contest during NBA All-Star weekend next week.
Music is a big part of the city. "There are so many different kinds of clubs," Lundqvist says, as Prucha nods in agreement. "It depends of the company you have that night, if you have friends here."
Being Garden employees gets them a great seat at a concert, too. "I really like U2," Lee says, "and I got the chance to see them and it was awesome."
For Lundqvist, a quiet SoHo cafe with a slice of chocolate cake is the place to be. "The atmosphere there reminds me of Sweden," he says. "It's relaxed."
Lundqvist experiences the city on different levels. That comes naturally; his father works in tourism in Sweden. The son recently played the part of tour guide for his parents.
"They were here like 20 years ago, so they were excited to come back," Lundqvist says. "I took my parents to Broadway to see 'Mama Mia.' I went to see 'Rent' a couple weeks ago."
One of the advantages of being in New York is the incredible choice of restaurants. Prucha prefers goulash and dumplings from Czechoslovakian restaurants while Tyutin dines at different Russian restaurants, including Russian Samovar. "It's like being home," he says.
Frye is the biggest eater of the rookies. "I eat a lot more often than the other guys do," he admits.
Notes Robinson, "I eat like a bird; I eat snacks."
"Nate, he's always got like five candy bars on him," Lee reveals with a laugh. "Any time you need a snack, just go see Nate. During games he has Snickers bars in his socks."
The rookies do shop, but bling-bling is not their style. "All three of us are pretty conservative with money," Lee says.
"I'm probably the cheapest," Robinson offers, and then pointing to Lee, adds, "This guy right here is a genius."
That is said in reference to Lee's poker playing ability. On trips, he's lightened some teammates' wallets. As Lee rattles off the names of Knick veterans he's posted up, he says, "You can't feel bad for them because all them have about $50 million."
Unlike the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, though, Lee does not frequent any late-night poker parlors. But he says he would gladly sit down with A-Rod, who owns a $252-million contract, in a friendly game. "That's another guy I wouldn't mind taking money from," he says confidently.
Robinson, who knows bold, smiles and says, "I got my money on David Lee."
Hey, it's a big city out there, these rookies have to stick together.
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