GREENBURGH, N.Y. (AP) -Protecting a lead in the final minute of a scrimmage Friday, a group of role players kicked the ball out to the newcomer for an open 3-pointer. Allan Houston buried the shot, just as he had so many times for the New York Knicks.
``He could still shoot the ball,'' Knicks coach Isiah Thomas said. ``He's probably one of the top 10 best shooters to ever play in our sport. So he'll be able to shoot the ball when he's 60 years old.''
But to pull off a comeback at age 36, Houston has to do more than that. He must prove he can run, jump and do all the other things that not long ago were too painful because of chronic sore knees.
Houston began that process Friday, taking part in his first practice for the team he spent nine seasons with - on the same floor where he announced his retirement two years ago.
``Usually I believe that professional athletes retire because they no longer have the desire or there's no longer desire for them to be part of whatever situation they are in,'' Houston said. ``That wasn't the case for me when I retired. It was health.''
Houston no longer wears No. 20 - Jared Jeffries has that now - and there is noticeable gray in his hair. But he showed the shooting stroke was still the same, knocking down two of the three shots he attempted in the time the media were permitted to watch.
And he says the pain is gone. A spiritual person, Houston said he started to feel better about a year after he walked away following rest and prayer.
``You've got to believe something,'' Houston said. ``Obviously people are going to state facts about the condition of your knee, but miracles happen every day. There's just some things you don't explain.''
Though Houston says he has the desire to play, the question is if the Knicks really have desire for him.
New York already has 15 players under contract, the maximum allowed, and would still have to find room for rookie Demetris Nichols. So the last thing the Knicks seem to need is another player - especially a rusty one with health concerns.
But Houston had a good Knicks career - he's fourth on the team's scoring list - and that earned him a spot in camp, 10 days after it started.
``If he was a 36-year-old guy named Joe Smith with the injuries that he's had, I never would have had him in camp,'' Thomas said. ``But the fact that he's Allan Houston, he's played for this organization and I know him personally, he's deserving of this chance and this opportunity, and I'm giving it to him.''
Houston and Thomas were teammates for a year with the Detroit Pistons in 1993-94, and both acknowledged this is a tricky situation. Thomas doesn't seem thrilled to have Houston around, offering no real praise outside of his shooting ability.
``I feel like this is a tough spot that I'm in for him,'' Houston said. ``These guys have worked their butts off for two weeks and then here I come and say I want to play again. And so for me, hopefully I can make it worth him and the team allowing me to do this. That's all I can do at this point.''
There's no guarantee Houston will stick with the Knicks, and Thomas wouldn't even guarantee he'd play in the next exhibition game Wednesday at Boston. Houston said Thomas was honest with him when they talked before Houston signed with the team Wednesday.
``I have to be able to legitimately be able to contribute, and Isiah and the rest of this team has to know that I'm helping, not that I'm just here,'' Houston said.
``If I'm not productive enough to help, then I don't need to be one of those 15. They don't deserve it.''
And if he doesn't make the team, Houston seemed against trying to play for another one that might have more use for him.
Houston added he expects no special treatment, and Thomas said he won't get it.
``Only what you do on the floor gives you clout,'' Thomas said.
Notes: Center Eddy Curry, sidelined by a right shoulder injury, shot on the side and said there's a ``realistic'' chance of making his exhibition debut at Boston. ... Thomas all but guaranteed Fred Jones, acquired with Zach Randolph in the trade with Portland, would remain with the team.

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