Sunday, June 11, 2006

4.23.88: Steppo's Last Stand

I have something of a cursed history as a sports fan. Sure, I reluctantly support the Yankees, who've won 6 championships in my lifetime, but beyond that, my teams have zero. And even my Yankee-rooting career has a few smears across its face. As soon as Steve Kemp joined the team in 1983, he became my official favorite Yankee. Within a month, he had destroyed his shoulder, and consequently his swing, following a collision on a popup. Then that September, as he was already staring down the words "free agent bust," injury joined insult once again: Kemp's eye socket was shattered by a batting practice line drive off the bat of Lousy Omar Moreno. It should be noted that my two previous official favorite Yankees suffered even worse fates: Mickey Rivers was shipped to Texas late in the disastrous '79 season, and Thurman Munson was killed in a plane crash the very next day.

The Chargers were my football team: fun to watch, but sure to fold in the end. Some great memories with Fouts and Winslow and Joiner and JJ and Wes and Chuck and li'l James Brooks. But no championship.

Whatever about about all that; the New York Knicks are my deepest sports relationship, and my most painful. Every season, the MSG brass trots out a new team, and every year they lose. And even the good teams are forced to endure comparisons to the champions of '70 and '73, who are written and spoken about as if they had won ten titles instead of two. To an entire generation of New Yorkers and New York sportswriters, those teams symbolized all that is right about our city: teamwork, equality, racial harmony, intelligence, selflessness, grit, sacrifice, guts and a little bit of cockiness. Bradley, Debusschere, Reed, Monroe, Barnett, Frazier, all those cats probably still get free steak dinners anyplace in town any night of the week (save poor DeBusschere, R.I.P.). And fair or not, every team since is a failure in comparison.

The first team I watched seriously was the '83-'84 edition. I joined in about halfway through the season and I think I watched every game through their Game 7 Eastern Conference semifinal loss to eventual champ Boston. It was a thrilling year and things were looking even better for next season.

Then a bunch of crap happened. Cartwright broke his foot and missed like 2 years. Truck Robinson stalled on the interstate and had to be towed to the junkyard. Darrell Walker failed to develop. Louis Orr was diagnosed with Bulimia. Pat Cummings showed up in town and promptly committed the first of his 1742 traveling violations, still a franchise record. Marvin Webster got Hepatitises A thru F. Ray Williams went up to Boston, played about 28 minutes and quickly diappeared from basketball forever. The '84-'85 season was pretty much a complete disaster, but I kept watching, loss after loss after loss, for one reason: Bernard King. Despite the fact that he was the only player on the team capable of putting the ball in the basket, and was double- and triple-teamed nightly as a result, he kept pouring it in from every conceivable angle. He was averaging almost 33 a game despite being banged up and beleaguered when finally it caught up with him on night in March.

It was a meaningless late-season game against the Kings. Reggie "I banged Juanita" Theus and his potent gheri curl had a breakaway and Bernard was the only man back to challenge. He went up, fouled Theus, and collapsed to the court in pain. ACL, blammo. We'll never know for sure if Bernard lost his footing after slipping on some of Theus's activator, but I for one have never forgiven ol' Reggie.

The Knicks played 11 more games that season and lost them all, but my hopes shot up that May when they won the draft rights to Pat Ewing in the famous "frozen envelope" lottery. Of course, Bernard and Cartwright failed to make it back from injury, Ewing missed 30-odd games with injuries of his own, and so the '85-'86 season consisted of a few glimmers of hope (Gerald Wilkins) in between hundreds of Pat Cummings traveling violations. But I still watched every game, and I even somehow found a way to care about those awful teams. I remember writing an angry letter to Magic Johnson after he yelled at the refs during a close Lakers win over the Knicks in L.A.

Digging through some old high school junk recently, I came across a piece of looseleaf paper from around that time. In it, I had written down my hopeful Knicks lineup for the '86-'87 season, which looked something like this:

1st unit:

SF: King
PF: Cartwright
C: Ewing
SG: Wilkins
PG: Sparrow

2nd unit:
SF: K. Walker
PF: Cummings
C: ?
SG: T. Tucker
PG: D. Walker

It never really materialized. King only played the last 6 games of the season (I went to his comeback game against Milwaukee at the Garden. It was MetLife Knicks cap night and we lost by about 30). Cartwright and Ewing each played about 60 games, but the Twin Towers thing didn't really work. Ewing missed like the last 20 games with injuries, meaning he never once set foot on the court with Bernard. Kenny Walker just kinda failed. Another disaster of of a season. So in my first full three years as a fan, I watched approximately 240 of their 246 games, and I saw maybe 64 wins.

Then I went away to Madison, Wisconsin for college. I tried to put my Knicks misery behind me, which should have been easy because they were only on TV about four times during the '87-'88 season. It seems that being free from my watching eyes was good for the Knicks. Pitino took over, Mark Jackson was drafted. Ewing's knees made it through the year, as did Cartwright's foot. Johnny Newman showed up and started dunking on people. After a terrible start, the team turned it around and headed into the last day of the season in a four way battle for the final two playoff spots with the Bullets, Sixers and Pacers.

Of course, I couldn't watch any of the games, so I had my father record them and mail me tapes. That way I couldn't jinx them. Of course, watching a game like this one a week (or 18 years) after it was played takes away some of the thrill factor.

The Bullets had already clinched a spot by beating the Hawks, and the Sixers had lost to fall out of contention, so tonight's game between the Pacers and Knicks became a win and in, lose and out game for both teams. Drama!

OK, that was the longest set-up in the history of HS & SS. On to the game.

We pick up the action at the start of the second quarter, for some reason.

Your announcers are Marv Albert and John Andariese.

The first thing I noticed about this game is that it didn't really have the sense of desperation you'd expect, considering the stakes. Both teams used their regular old rotations and ran their regular old plays and it generally felt like a regular old game. One dude even checked into the game while smoking a cigarette.

Oh hell, let's go to the numerical list right away here.

1) Wayman Tisdale shot almost every time he got the ball, and he couldn't go right. He wasn't particularly tall or athletic, and he wasn't a deadeye shooter. Yet somehow nobody could stop him. I guess he just had a knack. Still, plunk Tisdale '88 into today's NBA and he's averaging about 7 ppg.

2) Your guest-host for this episode: Herb Williams. Please note that the H is silent.

3) Jack Ramsay was coaching the Pacers and he already looked like he was about 70. He also failed to run plays for Chuck Person and Herb. Person in particular barely seemed to be out there.

4) Also receiving limited minutes: Pacers rookie Reggie Miller. He and Mark Jackson would later become best friends and team up to form the most annoying backcourt in NBA history.

5) Sidney Green: stinky and overpaid. Would fit in perfectly with Knicks '06.

6) Vern Fleming had a kind of unorthodox game but he knew what he was doing. He had those nice Hornacek-style runners that always seemed to drop. Couldn't shoot beyond 13 feet, though.

7) Flat-top/rise watch: Kenny Walker, Wayman Tisdale, Gerald Wilkins.

8) Bill Cartwright played some effective if ugly minutes in his final regular season game as a Knick. He also got into it a couple times with Pacers backup C Stuart Gray, mostly due to Cartwright's stray elbows.

9) Sneaker Watch: Nike Air Force II's. And Mark Jackson had some sweet Air Revolutions.

10) Speaking of Jackson, he was awesome back then. He wasn't even doughy or unbearable yet. For a rookie, he had incredible poise. Everyone on the team looked to him at the big moments.

Do you remember that a few times at St. John's, and at least once with the Knicks I think, he bounced himself an alley-oop and dunked it on a breakaway? It happened.

11) Dunk of the game: Kenny Walker on Steve Stipanovich. Walker had a pretty good night, and the truth is we'd all have fond memories of him if he'd been the 5th pick in the second round instead of the 5th pick in the first. But he wasn't. Awesome hair, too.

12) Ewing was huge. He had the running hook going. That was really his greatest move. Too bad as the years went by, he used it less and less. I guess his knees could no longer sustain that kind of forceful movement.

13) J. New was still finding his way. He may not have even been J. New yet.

14) Gerald Wilkins was the second best scorer on the Knicks. His nickname was "Dougie" as in "Doug E. Fresh". That actually seemed cool at the time, but then again so did Philip Michael Thomas.

15) Pat Cummings had one of the most useless and unsightly bodies in NBA history, sort of like a Tyrannosaurus with a pot belly, and he had pretty much been left behind in Pitino's system.

My dad told me a story once about the very last time he (my dad, not Pat Cummings) tried to play basketball. It was at the McBurney YMCA in around 1960. My pop had been a standout high school player in Chicago in the mid-40's. Then he went to war, went to college, went to grad school, and pretty well lost touch with basketball.

Feeling wistful this fine 1960 day, he went over to the Y and joined a game. It was all younger guys, and my pop could immediately tell he didn't belong. He was laboring and nobody was passing him the ball. The jump shot had come along in the years between my pop's day and this day, and he felt like a relic out there. Finally, he slipped and fell and his shoe came flying off. He scrambled to his feet, grabbed the shoe, and began trying to put it back on. The canvas had actually torn, all the way down the side of the shoe.

"Just a second, guys," he said, fumbling with it.

"Um..that's OK. Let's call it a day," came the reply from one of the young guys. And with that, they walked off the court, leaving my father alone on a YMCA basketball court with a broken shoe and a bruised ego. He was 34, younger then than I am now, but time had kicked his ass.

The reason I bring it up is that I can see the same thing happening to Pat Cummings. It may have already happened prior to 4.23.88.

Still, he came in and banged around a bit and made a few key shots.

16) OK, the time has come. Let's talk Steppo. I think his career is rather poignant for a number of reasons.

a) The Pacers got Stipanovich as the consolation prize in the Ralph Sampson lottery, meaning he was a disappointment before he even unsnapped his first pair of Pacers warmups.

b) He was a decent center: good passer, pretty good shooter, serviceable rebounder. Played hard. But nobody on the team seemed to be looking for him in this game. He looked lonely.

c) I remember he got in a fistfight with Ewing during the first or second pre-season game of Ewing's rookie year. He basically tackled Ewing for no reason. Maybe he had a thing against number one overall draft picks. BJL or somebody else with a Times Select account, feel free to post the text of this story in the comments section.

d) Even though his name was "Stipanovich", his nickname was "Steppo". Pretty weak nickname. Was it supposed to rhyme with "Zeppo"? Wouldn't "Stippopotamus" have been catchier?

e) When he first came into the league, he had the late-70's flop-top hair that made him look a little like the kid who played Alice's son Tommy on the cosmically depressing sitcom Alice. But by 4.23.88 he had adopted a more contemporary butt-cut which he was rocking along with an accounts payable-style moustache. Strong.

e) He apparently had a really fucked up knee, and you could see him struggling a little bit in this game with his mobility. Still, at the end of the game, the ball found its way into Steppo's hands. With the season on the line, he made a decision to go hard to the basket, and as he took it into the paint there appeared to be a lot of contact. No call, and his potentially game-tying finger roll didn't even draw iron. Knicks win, into the playoffs for the first of what would eventually be 14 straight seasons. Pacers out. Stipanovich, poor bastard, never played another minute in the NBA. Five seasons and out, forced to retire due to the bad knee, which was so messed-up the doctors said they had nothing to compare it to. I wonder if this old news item had anything to do with it:

Some 25 years ago, a Missouri big man, Steve Stipanovich, told police that an intruder came into his apartment and shot him in the leg. Then he 'fessed up and admitted he'd shot himself playing with a gun.

For the rest of his career, student sections on the road greeted Stipanovich with cap guns.

Whatever the case, Steppo's career makes for a sad story. It's especially weird considering that Clark Kellogg, the franchise's number one pick the year before Steppo, was also forced to retire due to chronic knee problems after five seasons. I wonder if there was something wrong with their floor.

e) Here's a somewhat un-recent follow-up on Steppo if you're interested.

f) I guess a lot of us have regrets and spend a lot of time mired in the past, especially where the glory days of the NBA are concerned, and in Stipanovich's case you can't really blame him. So I close with this quote from Steppo himself:

''The players were big, they were good and there was a lot of teamwork. I'm just old-fashioned. When I played, the socks were high and the shorts were short. I'm not saying it was better, but it was definitely different.''

Friday, April 07, 2006

2.29.84: Extinct Bird

This was a fine regular season game from early 1984, Knicks at Boston. When I watch these old battles, I am usually doing two things: enjoying the game and constantly evaluating the players of that era against the players of today. Cross-era sports comparison: it's an obsession for me.

Truly, the game has changed so much in these last twenty years that comparisons are kinda pointless. First of all, as BJL and Kissel have reminded me, steroids changed basketball just as dramatically as they did baseball, but nobody seems to care. At some point in the mid-90's, the average NBA physique went from long and lean (Sidney Moncrief) to buff and swollen (Tim Hardaway). Plus the game itself changed. Defense improved by gigantic leaps. Carrying the ball became legal. The hop-step travel was suddenly not a travel. Plus, dudes got three happy over the years. In 1984, the average team made 49 three pointers all year, compared to 459 last year. I can't think of a statistical change that large in any sport over such a short period since...maybe the forward pass became part of football?

Whatever about all that, I have long conceded that the only way to compare players is against their peers, the players of their own era that they played against. In other words, if Bob Pettit was among the top players in 1962, then weight-trained, modern-skill-enhanced Bob Pettit would be similarly dominant today.

So when I watch Larry Bird play in 1984, I should assume that a modern version of Larry Bird would be killing modern players in the NBA. But that's just a cop-out, isn't it? A more interesting question is, if you took doughy, pasty, slow-ass 1984 Larry Bird and plucked him out of his era and plopped him, unmodified, into the current NBA, would he succeed? If so, to what degree?

That was the question I had on the back of my mind as I watched this game. If you took '84 Bird and put him in the Pistons lineup in the '05 Finals, repacing Tayshaun Prince, who's a slightly better than average 2005 basketball player, what would be the net effect?

Making my study slightly more challenging and far more stupid, I was using only one game to reach my conclusion.

The verdict: doughy white Bird would have been enough to give the Pistons the 2005 title. He would be an all-star today, but not the best player in the league.

This wasn't his best game, but it was probably representative of a typical night for him, which was actually more useful. My findings:

1) Dudes gave Bird way too much room to shoot. That was true in general of 1984 NBA ball, tons, TONS, of open 15-footers. The game was wide open and defense was something that your good defensive players played. Everybody else kind of waved their arms around and shuffled their feet and tried not to foul. It was better that way. Bird had kind of an off-shooting game, made a bunch, missed a bunch, but what impressed me was his ability to get his shot off. Very smooth, very easy, and since he didn't really elevate too much, it allowed him to throw some devastating head fakes.
2) Speaking of fakes, Bird came around the FT line on a curl n the 4th quarter, took a pass, and faked a jumper. Two Knicks -- King and Cartwright -- had followed him around the pick and they both bought the fake and went flying. Bird took a dribble into the lane, drawing another defender (his 3rd) and then went up in the air as if to shoot before dumping it off to McHale for a layup. One of the best plays I've ever seen. Brilliant.
3) Bird, massive, slightly racist cliché though it may be to say it, was a tremendous below-the-rim rebounder. He was actually pretty strong (at least compared to Louis Orr) and he had great hands. He also pursued every rebound with gusto. Very impressed by his rebounding.
4) His passing was tremendous. Not just his assists, but his ability to spread the ball around and draw people to him before kicking it to the open man. His impact on the rest of the team was huge. It all started with him.
5) His D wasn't so good.
6) Overall, he was a unique player. One of my favorite underrated superheroes was Wonderman (D. Lee disagrees, but whatevs). In addition to being able to fly and possessing superhuman strenth, Wonderman saw the world in slow motion, allowing him to react with otherworldly quickness in situations that called for it. I always thought that was cool, and watching Larry Bird play reminded me of Wonderman. Through some special gift, he was able to slow the game down to the exact speed he wanted it, the speed at which he was the best player on the court. I bet he could do it today, too.

Other notes on this contest, which the Knicks won by like 4 points.
1) Eric Fernsten: In February of 1984, I had only been watching basketball for a couple of months, but I already recognized the humor and pathos of the pasty white dude with no talent. Eric Fernsten was a great example. And check out this cliché-ridden racist banter between your announcers Marv Albert and Butch Beard:
Butch: And Marv, he's not only a crowd favorite here, he's become a crowd favorite in New York. People like to come out and see Eric Fernsten do his thing. I even like to see him do his thing.
(What exactly was his "thing"? Scoring 1 of his 2.6 points per game? Grabbing 1 of his 2.7 rebounds? It's not like dude was coming off the bench and pumping in eight straight jumpers or dunking from the free throw line. He came in, stood around, then sat down. How could anyone like seeing that? Maybe there was an Eric Fernsten Dance that I have forgotten. That would have been worth watching.)
Marv: He plays smart basketball.
(You didn't just say that, did you Marv? Please take it back. I'd actually say Bernard King, scoring 26 ppg and shooting 57%, plays smart basketball. Eric Fernsten? What does he do that's so smart? I guess he doesn't come in and jack up five straight forty footers for the hell of it. What a wily player.)
Butch: He does. He does. he really does. He gives you 100 percent, he gets the most out of hs ability, and that's all you can ask for.
(Wow, Butch, you are the absolute master of the meaningless cliché. I can't really argue that he didn't get the most out of his ability, but I might be able to argue that he had no ability. That would have been a more interesting statement, wouldn't it, Butch? "Eric Fernsten gets the most out of his ability, which isn't saying a hell of a lot?")

No offense to Eric Fernsten, who seems like a perfectly nice guy. I hope he has gone on to find success. I just have a strong suspicion that there were plenty of black dudes out there who deserved an NBA roster spot more than he did, and I think he became a "fan favorite" based on skin color alone, which isn't right.

2) I enjoyed seeing Hubie Brown talking shit with some obnoxious Celtics fans behind the Knicks bench. I enjoyed it even more because they were dressed like leprechauns.

3) Bernard was completely unstoppable again in this game. He had scientifically broken the game down to its simplest level, and nobody had a clue what to do with him. He was the co-host for this episode of "Knicks 101" and he analyzed his own game eloquently. One thing he mentioned: he tried never to use more than one or two dribbles, because after that the secondary man can come strip the ball away. What an efficient approach. Too bad he couldn't dispense this advice while Greg Anthony was still playing.

4) Trent Tucker played 9 years in nyc and made no impact at all, save for a couple of lucky heaves. Has that ever happened before? A guy is a really high draft pick (#6 overall in Tucker's case), he turns out to be pretty much a bust, yet he stays with that team for NINE years? I guess it's a testament to Tucker's good attitude and beautiful outside shot.

5) People in 1984 were ridiculously ugly, every crowd cutaway was like a freakshow. Yuck.

6) This game featured Marv Albert saying, "Grunfeld putting the move on Wedman..." That seems funny to me for some reason.

7) McHale was deadly. Tremendous all-around player.

8) At one point in the 4th quater of this close game, the Knicks lineup was: Tucker, Grunfeld, Fernsten, Marvin Webster and Darrell Walker. That lineup would finish 6th in the Ivy League today.

9) Overall, the game was much more fun then. Teams pushed the ball at every opportunity. The Celts kept trying that baseball pass after a made basket thing. And guys got open shots and made them. What a concept.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

4.20.83: prehistory

As much as I hate my generation's lazy tendency to identify itself through its pop culture moments, the truth is that those trends, movies, clothes, songs, and of course television shows are probably the most real connection there is between all of us. Sure, it's depressing, but in 1981, you were playing "Adventure" on your Atari 2600. On May 19th, 1982, you were watching "Silver Spoons." At some point in there you owned a Seruchi jacket.

And for a lot of us, pro basketball was born during the 1983-84 season. Some would say Magic and Bird's faceoff in the '79 NCAA final set the stage, and I guess it did, but it wasn't until the '84 NBA Finals that they faced each other in an NBA playoff game. That series went 7 and launched a new era of popularity for the league.

Coincidentally or maybe not, my friends and I started tuning in to the NBA for real during the '83-'84 season, and that's when we started playing. For about 2 5 10 20 years there, watching and playing basketball completely took over my life.

So tonight's matchup, Game 1 of the '83 first round playoffs between the Knicks and Nets, was fascinating to me because it happened in the time before basketball existed for me. Prior to '83-'84, I probably watched four basketball games my entire life. I don't know why, I just never got into it.

The game itself was never all that close; the Knicks were up by about ten points the whole way. But that didn't stop me from enjoying the hell out of it.


1. Bernard was unstoppable in this game, finishing with 40 points and probably shooting like 16-20 or something like that. This game thoroughly convinced me that Bernard would be as much of an offensive force today as he was then. He was an incredibly well-rounded scorer and he was hurting the Nets from all over the court. His poor li'l brother Albert was guarding him and he looked scared. He had reason to be, too. Bernard was a breathtaking player in the open floor. Lightning fast, creative, and powerful. He had a fierce two handed dunk on a two on one break that was all business. He impressed me in this game by diving to the floor like three times, making incredible saves to keep possessions alive. I also like that he was a recovering alcoholic while all this was happening.

2. Mike Gminski was a funny lookin' white dude with a funny-lookin' blow-dried helmet of hair, but he could score. The G-Hook came out a few times in this game. He hadn't grown his beard yet, though.

3. Paul Westphal started for the Knicks and made several good plays, but I don't think he took a single shot. At least not in the condensed version of the game.

4. Your announcers: Steve Albert (catchphrases: "Stops, pops, and it drops" and "Scoop to the hoop") and Bill Raftery. For some reason, Raftery's mic was completely shot on this tape. You can hear Albert OK, but Raf sounds like he's in a foxhole being shelled by the Germans. I wonder if that's how it sounded live, too. My favorite Steve Albert moment: when Louis Orr shot a jumper from the corner and Albert said, "Louis Orr from Orrville."

5. One game and a few memories aren't really enough to go on, but I'll go ahead and say that Mike O'Koren was a terrible player. What did he bring?

6. One of the coolest, most innovative things about Hubie Brown was the way he instituted a 2nd unit of reserves that would all enter the game together. It really took off with Darrell Walker's arrival the next year, but you could see it here a little. The great thing about it was that it gave the bench players a real identity, a sense of purpose. When they came in they were fresh and hungry and they would immediately start playing pressure D. Those minutes, when the second string was in, may have been the most exciting part of the game. I dunno why more teams haven't done this over the years.

7. Rory Sparrow (again your co-host for this episode) had the game of his life: 22 points, good game management, and even a real nice dunk on the break. As much as I liked him, I always considered Sparrow one of those barely adequate guards who was inevitably left open by a double team and sometimes made the shot and sometimes didn't. He appeared to be wearing slightly dirty sneakers in this game. On-screen factoid about Sparrow: his teammates nicknamed him "Sasquatch" b/c of his big feet.

8. Buck Williams was a ferocious interior player and another guy who I think would be just as good in today's league as he was then.

9. The Nets were coached by some guy named Bill Blair. Why, you ask? Because Larry Brown had quit the team with 6 games left in the regular season to go take the Kansas job. What the fuckety fuck? What a dickweed. How do you abandon a playoff team to go take another job like that, especially knowing that the college season was already done and KU could have waited?

10. Michael Ray Richardson was kind of a non-factor overall in this game, although he did have a couple of sweet plays. I wonder if he was on the coke. It's kind of cool that half the NBA was on coke back then. Better than steroids, anyway.

11. Marvin Webster - dude must have been eight feet tall. And kinda mugly looking.

12. Bill Cartwright had at least two great, uncharacteristic blocks that led to fast breaks. He was just as awkward as I remember him. But effective.

13. Darryl Dawkins had two monster dunks.

14. 1983 must have been the year of the beard -- everybody (except Gminski) had one, at least in the crowd. Ugly, scraggly, 1983 beards.

15. The Nets gave significant minutes to a guy named Foots Walker.

16. Ernie Grunfeld, whose body was just not meant to play basketball, had a real good night.

17. Truck Robinson was kind of done at this point. Seeing him reminded me of a story from high school, though. A kid in my homeroom who wasn't even a basketball fan asked me if I had ever heard of Truck and I said of course. The kid said that he used to babysit for Truck and that Truck had an insane and depraved porno collection. Before there was Matsui, there was Truck.

18. The graphics on this show are truly appalling -- when I get my new mac I will whip something up and send it to them for free so they can replace the ones they have now.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

4.6.87 & 4.14.93: call it a comeback, or two

This week MSG, probably in response to a big ratings boost courtesy of this blog, has decided to run 2 episodes of "Knicks 101" instead of 1. Which means I will be watching 2 episodes instead of 1. MSG, you could rebroadcast the entire '86-'87 (24-58) season and I'd suck down every minute like it was one big banana milkshake.

But I cannot and will not watch your crummy '05-'06 edition. Nothing personal, I swear. I have no anger towards them. They're just bad in a way that to me is intergalactically depressing. All that money. All those problems.

Let's get on to the games. The first game, chronologically by original game date, is the Knicks-Sixers contest from 4.6.87. Oddly, sadly really, I HAVE THIS GAME ON A VHS TAPE FROM ITS ORIGINAL AIRDATE.

The significance of this game is that it was Dr. J's last game ever at MSG. Now I hate it, hate it, hate it when people refer to anything from the world of sports or pop culture as "important," but I am going to go ahead and say this: Julius Winfield Erving III was one of the most important basketball players of all time. Maybe THE most important.

There were other guys who did it first, sure, and maybe there've been lots of guys since who did it better, but nobody did it the way he did it when he did it. Dr. J singlehandedly brought the game into the modern era. If you want proof, go back and watch some of his highlights from the 70's. He was a man among boys and a true artist soaring above a league of clock-punching pick and rollers.

His move against the Lakers in the 1980 finals is way better than Jordan's nifty but seriously overrated dipsy do against the Lakers in '91. Hopefully everyone knows this so I don't have to explain why.

And what do you make of this?

Jesus. That looks like a cartoon. The dimensions of the photo can't even contain his afro. I think Lonnie Shelton retired immediately following that play.

So this game, this otherwise meaningless game from the end of the lost '86-'87 season, was New York's chance to show some respect to one of their own. Doc was from Long Island and was also a Rucker fixture in the wild summers of the 70's. One of my favorite Dr. J stories was about a game at Rucker where an opponent undercut him. The next time Doc got the ball on the break, that opponent was back on defense to challenge the shot. Doc dunked on his arm and broke the guy's wrist in the process. "It was at that point," Doc said, "that I realized Damn, I'm nasty."

4.6.87 was an emotional game, as it should have been. The fans were going nuts for Doc; they understood. The NBA was just getting to the point where they were smart enough to give a retiring star of Erving's magnitude a victory lap around the league. In each city, the fans would turn out and cheer him and the team would give him some sort of stupid gift. Even when it was ridiculous, it was kind of nice. This was a typical scene:

Predictably, the Knicks botched the ceremony in such spectacular fashion that I might not believe it if I hadn't seen it again today.

First of all, they gave Erving a trip to Australia that they announced by presenting him with a baby kangaroo. Then a giant aspirin supposedly signed by every NBA player (although it looked like it only had like 30 signatures on it). Then, and here's the good part, they brought out a series of famous "doctors" to send him off into the sunset. The roster:
-DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy) - wtf?
-Dr. Joyce Brothers - wtff?*
-Dr. Ruth Westheimer - wtfff?**
-Doc from Snow White - wtffff?***
-Dr. Frank Field - isyn****

The game itself was exciting, the Knicks came back from 24 down to win, the greatest comeback in franchise history. Observations:

1) This was a tremendous game for Kenny Walker. He was scoring and jumping and he had one of the greatest blocks I've ever seen (on Steve Colter).
2) Steve Colter. That's all I need to say about that.
3) Rory Sparrow was the co-host for this game, and he remains an appealing, sweet man twenty years down the road. He was also Deion's favorite Knick for some reason.
4) The on-screen factoids are getting good (although they look terrible). One of tonight's mentioned the video game "Dr. J and Larry Bird go one one one." I loved that game. Deion had it on the computer at his dad's office. Remember how you could break the backboard? I also remember reading at the time how the game designers had spent countless hours with both players, studying their moves so they could incorporate them into the game. Please.
5) I don't want to get into a whole era vs. era discussion, but I think it's safe to say that the bad players then were MUCH worse than the bad players now. Today, the NBDL and the overseas leagues are chock full of really good players, guys who were big stars at major colleges but just aren't quite good enough to make the NBA. Then, the CBA was full of plankton, and the Knicks were the hungriest whale in the league. Listen to these names: McNealy.***** Cavenall. Bannister. Cofield. Thornton. Now try to remember any of them ever doing anything that demonstrated a measurable basketball skill. You can't.
6) Erving gave a great speech at halftime, despite being awkwardly flanked by Dr. Frank Field and DeForest Kelley (wearing a stethoscope!).
7) Sneaker watch: Converse Weapons, Nike Air Force II's, and Avia 830's. In my life, I've owned multiple pairs of each. To tell you the truth, they all look kinda good to me now.
8) This game featured about ten great dunks, several by Walker and a couple of fierce ones from Roy Hinson. I thought he'd amount to more, but I guess the knees caught up to him.
9) You hear all the time that Barkley wasn't really 6'6" as listed but was actually closer to 6'4". I never really believed it but then tonight I saw him standing next to Gerald Wilkins and he was definitely a couple inches smaller. Wow. What a specimen. About 280 gravity-defying pounds, and in short shorts he was a sight to behold -- I haven't seen that much flesh jiggle that dangerously underneath so little fabric since I saw Hookers at the Point on HBO a couple of years ago. Still, an amazing and entertaining player. He finished this game with 27 points and 22 rebounds.
10) John Andariese on Kenny Walker attempting to shoot free throws when Barkley had actually fouled Bill Cartwright and not Walker: "Walker definitely felt something. Maybe it was Barkley's breath." This was a follow-up to an earlier discussion between Andariese and Marv Albert in which they said that Jawann Oldham had been very intimidated by Barkley's physical play, particularly his breath.
11) Jake O'Donnell worked the game. I miss Jake.
12) At 37, Dr. J was still one of the most athletic guys on the court. He was sort of basketball's answer to Nolan Ryan, a physical marvel who refused to give in to age. He never became a three point shooter, he never became a 15 minute a night guy. He did switch to guard but he would still flush it in your grill if you gave him a seam. Here's a fascinating 1976 interview with Doc. You're welcome.

That's about it. A fine entry on MSG's part. And now on to game 2, from 4.14.93, Knicks-Charlotte. Another great Knicks comeback. Just some observations on this one:
1) Every time Starks checks in I am filled with anticipation the same way I am when Christopher Walken walks on screen in a movie. You know you are about to see something. It might be good, it might be terrible, but it will be memorable.
2) Greg Anthony had a few good moments but for the most part reminded me how much I hated him. He was pounding the ball incessantly, and at one point he attempted to break the press with a behind the back dribble between two defenders. Turnover. Knucklehead.
3) Of all the players in this game, only one remains active, and interestingly it's the guy with the life-threatening disease: Alonzo Mourning. He was really a robust young player then and tremendously intense.
4) Ro Blackman was pretty much toast, although he did have a good game with like 12 points, almost all of it on wide open jumpers. I never really saw him much when he was at his best. In this game, against the backdrop of the steroid-inflated 90's Knicks front line, he was definitely a man out of time with his saggy boddy and shorts and his funny haircut. Still, I liked him a lot and I wish we had gotten him three years before we did.
5) Mason was breaking the press in this game. Remember when we all first learned that he had a handle? At first it was just a novelty, a cool sight to see a tank like that spinnning and putting it between his legs, etc. But eventually, it became an important feature of his game.
6) Marv was testy all game, it makes you wonder if he was on the receiving end of some angry hotel sex earlier that day. Or if one of his ladies had called to cancel on him. Or if his panties were too tight.
7) Larry Johnson looked like the second coming. Much better than everyone else. Between him and Mourning and Gill and Bogues, they looked set for the next twelve years. But things often don't happen the way they should.
8) Sidney Green was so bad you wonder how he could ever have been a schoolyard legend in NYC.
9) An aging Gminski briefly considered going after Oak following a flagrant foul, then wisely reconsidered.
10) Allan Bristow was a whiny bitch on the sidelines and he had a constant scowl that seemed to say, "I have no idea what I'm doing, but maybe if I look angry enough nobody will bother me about it."

Keep 'em coming, MSG!

* wtff = what the fucking fuck
** wtfff = what the fucking fuckety fuck
*** wtffff = what the fuck fucking fuckety fuck
**** isyn = i shit you not
***** BJL thinks McNealy was the first-ever NBA player on steroids.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

6.3.94: Committed

I will say this for whoever is selecting the games for "Knicks 101" -- they know what the hell they're doing. All gems. Tonight was Game 6 (not Game 7 as I had originally thought) of the '94 Eastern Conference Finals between the Knicks and Pacers. Maybe the most enjoyable Knicks game of my viewing lifetime.

For one thing, I loved that Knicks team with an intensity that I haven't felt for a sports team since. I honestly thought of all the players (and even Riley) as my family. I'd go for days feeling angry at Oakley for his carelessness with the ball, then I'd want to hug him when he came through with one of those beastly 20 rebound efforts where he seemed to be playing harder than the other nine men on the court combined. I'd curse Ewing's greasy hands, then cheer him when he took over both ends of the court during a furious Knicks 4th quarter comeback. Mason was like the petulant little brother who you couldn't stay mad at. And John Starks is my favorite athlete of all time.

The other reason I was so thrilled to see MSG showing this game was that it took me right back to '94. I had been back in NYC for less than a year, and I was loving it. That summer was nights at Babyland and 7B with cW and D. Lee and various other friends old and new. OJ was on the loose. The Rangers and Knicks were both surging to the doorstep of their respective championships. The city was alive. I was living on Sackett between Court and Smith and not knowing how good I had it, as always.

This was one of the many thrilling Knicks-Pacers playoff games of that era. The series had been tied at 2 games a piece, and the Knicks were in control in Game 5, when suddenly the whole Reggie Miller-Spike Lee thing happened. Reggie had 25 points in the 4th quarter and the Knicks choked the game away, forcing them to win Game 6 in Indiana to keep their season alive. They responded with one of their most controlled yet emotional efforts of the year, winning 98-91 and sending it back to NY.

1) I have tried several times with limited success to verbalize my feelings for John Starks. If you need to know how I can still love a guy who went 2-18 in the biggest game of his life and often acted like a rotten child on the court, just pop this game in. There's Good John and there's Bad John. This game was Good John from start to finish. He was in another gear for every minute of the game. Playing in one of the league's most hostile buildings in front of fans who would have certainly killed him if they thought they could get away with it, he played nearly flawless ball. He came out and hit his first 5 three point attempts. He was setting up teammates and stealing the ball. He was scrapping and sprinting and dominating. The best play, one I had forgotten, came in the 3rd quarter with the Pacers beginning to come back. Starks tore out on a 2 on 1 break with Charles Smith filling the left lane and Rik Smits defending in the middle. Starks fed Smith the ball at the exact right moment, and any other 6'10" human would have flown in for an emphatic two handed cram. But Smith went in hard and then finished supersoft, as only he could, and Smits got a piece of the shot and corralled the rebound. Starks never quit though. He slapped hard (upwards, like you're taught, one of the few official basketball techniques I've ever actually learned and implemented into my own game) at the ball and jarred it loose, but Smits recovered. Off balance and falling out of bounds, Smits tried to fire an outlet pass but Starks leaped up and deflected it. He then recovered it and went straight up off two feet and flushed it. Huge monetum play. We also forget that throughout those '94 playoffs Starks was playing with a brace on his knee from a mid-season injury and he was never really 100%. I always thought Starks looked at the NBA like the kid in the candy store. He had come so far to get there that he wanted to experience everything he could while he was on the court, lest someone take it all away. That's why he had so much trouble harnessing himself and showing good judgment. He was thrilled and nervous and his heart was pumping like GWB at a spelling bee. On the rare occasions when he was able to slow himself down and play with precision, he was a treat to watch. This was one of those occasions. I remember after the game, D. Lee saying, "He was so good I wanted to send him money."
2) Ewing: watching him now without the burden of all those expectations, knowing his ultimate failure, it is easier to understand and appreciate him as a player. It also makes you wish that the Knicks (and Ewing himself) had understood it then. The guy was a fierce defensive rebounder, a great shooter, and he bought into the Riley system with everything he had. Watching him rotate on D, knowing he had those chronic knees, was actually touching. I hate to say "warrior" but that's what he was. Too bad we all needed him to be more. To be The Man. Which he could never quite be for more than a game at a time. Still, he was a hell of a player. An off night in this game offensively, but he was 9 for 9 at the line and he was playing with fire.
3) I remember all the Spike Lee hoopla after Game 5. The media sure loves a scapegoat. Every time the Pacers made a run in Game 6, they would cut away to a shot of Spike courtside, with a humbled look on his face. Even though I knew it was the team's fault that they lost Game 5, I couldn't help being pissed at Spike, too. Why'd he have to get Reggie all mad like that?
4) Marv Albert was in the zone for the whole game. His pitch and rhythm fluctuated perfectly with the game itself. His partner Matt Goukas was a stiff though. Like an even blander version of Snapper Jones.
5) Derek Harper was one of the few great veteran pickups the Knicks have made over the years. He was a confident, smooth, physical guard and I felt completely comfortable with him running the team.
6) Mason was awful in this game, shaky as hell, and this was coming off two games when he played extended minutes and finished with a total of 0 field goals. Nobody remembers stuff like that.
7) Oakley was playing hurt but he was throwing himself around fearlessly as always. He even got in Ewing's face at one point.
8) Riley and Larry Brown were young and handsome.
9) Charles Smith was even more of a disaster than you remember.

The game gets a ten, and even the little on-screen factoids were pretty decent. Like the one reminding us that Mason was attending all the Rangers playoff games during their Stanley Cup run. Old Timer Statement Alert: the players all seemed like men then. Grown men. Dudes like Vern Fleming and LaSalle Thompson. Now most everybody seems like spoiled kids. I also wonder from time to time if teams like the 90's Knicks (and the 90's Pacers, for that matter) ruined the game with their extremely physical defense. I will say this game was among the roughest I've ever seen. Lots of uncalled contact both ways. It was intense. The Knicks were swarming and playing with anger. And it was entertaining. But maybe in the long run that style helped screw things up, I dunno. I still miss those days. And I see no noticeable difference physically or in skill between players then and now.

I was really getting into the game, and then, with like three minutes left and Reggie on the line with a chance to tie, MSG CUT AWAY TO THE STEVE FRANCIS PRESS CONFERENCE AND NEVER CAME BACK! So I missed the thrilling finish. As a network, if MSG ever wanted to put in stark(s) detail how far the franchise has fallen, this was the moment when they pulled it off. From a likable and scrappy team on the verge of a championship (that, albeit, never came) to an almost comical collection of overpriced underachievers who will absolutely kill any hope of the franchise achieving respectability in the next five years, all played out for us on TV courtesy of MSG brass. How depressing.

Has a GM ever made more out-and-out ludicrous moves in a row than Isiah? It's like he's collecting long term contracts for a reason. Maybe he has the whole salary cap situation backwards. Somebody better explain it to him before he goes out and signs Allan Houston for another three years.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

1.5.85: A lousy team and a coach named Brown

Last week I mentioned that I had stumbled across a Knicks game from 1984 on MSG Network. MSG has a series called "Knicks 101" which is basically just edited-down-for-time old Knicks broadcasts. First of all, it's a terrible show name. What the fuck? Shouldn't this name be used for the show where the teenagers enlist the help of Knicks scrubs to teach kids basketball fundamentals? Yes. Whatever, my second thought is that screening, editing and coming up with little on-screen factoids for this series is the job I was meant to perform since I came tumbling out of the womb. I just need to find out who's doing it now and take them out big time. Because frankly they ain't doing that good a job. The factoids are ugly and for the most part uninteresting. MSG, I can do better. I would like to make a lot of money, though. Is that cool?

Anyway, I have added "Knicks 101" to my DVR list, and tonight I came home to discover that the Magic Box had a game from 1.5.85 all cued up and ready for me to watch. It was Michael Jordan's second game in NYC (not the first one where he ripped the ball from Ernie Grunfeld and did that flying cradle dunk). Here are my observations:

1. Jim Karvellas was excellent on play-by-play again tonight -- he really observed the game well, caught lots of little things. I will say that the game was much easier to follow then, too, but I don't exactly know why. Maybe it was just slower. Karvellas and Butch Beard each called Michael Jordan "Sky Jordan," which was pretty hilarious. The way it went down was that Karvellas said, "What a play by Sky Jordan." Then like five minutes later Butch Beard is like, "What a play by Sky Jordan. Had to make sure we got that nickname right." This even though MJ was wearing Air Jordans.
2. Jordan had a semi-quiet 40, although he pretty much took over in the 4th quarter. He was so much faster, stronger, more coordinated, more fundamentally sound and just cooler looking than all the other players, it was like watching a man from the future dropped into the past. Like that old Scottie Pippen ad. There were like ten times during the game when the announcers were forced to admit they were seeing things they'd never seen before. He was that much better than everybody else. By the end of the game the Knicks were sending like three guys at a time at him, and each guy had a desperate and embarrassed look on his face.
3. It was also cool to see Hubie Brown pleading with the refs to call Jordan for palming the ball. It must have been tough for an old purist like Hubie to watch the game change right in front of his face like that. Especially because he was right -- the guy was flagrantly breaking the rules and nobody did anything about it. I bet he stopped worrying about it by the end of that season. Or at least by now.
4. Orlando Woolridge was on fire. Although Bernard put the game away with a jumper in his face with like 20 seconds left.
5. Darrell Walker dribbled the ball off his foot and it smacked the ballboy in the face, knocking him over.
6. The NBA three point shot was five years old then, and it was for the most part a strange and mysterious beast. The Knicks hit three in this game and the announcers were talking about what a huge number that was. In fact, I just looked it up: the entire team hit 51 on the season, an average of .62 per game.
7. There was indeed a moment when Ron Cavenall and Ken "The Animal" Bannister were occupying the two inside rebounding positions as Chicago shot free throws. That's like seeing Ben Franklin and George Washington sitting down together at an old wooden table, smoking Philly Blunts and playing Crazy Eights. Something you knew was historically possible but you never thought you'd see with your own eyes.
8. Jawann Oldham was playing with the Bulls then. Karvellas hinted that the Knicks were looking to pick him up, which eventually proved accurate. Unfortunately. Karvellas also astutely observed after Oldham misfired badly on a hook shot, "Wow, what a brick. He almost broke the basket."

4.22.84: in '84 he'll be a little faster

I was walking through the office today and as I passed the little TV lounge area on the 2nd floor, I noticed that one of my co-workers was eating his dinner in front of the TV.

What was he watching? You ask. Or maybe you don't care. I'll tell you anyway.

He was watching Game 3 of the 1984 Eastern conference playoffs between the Knicks and the Pistons. No, not the famous Isiah 16-in-94 performance, that was Game 5. This was game 3, at the Garden. Also significant because it was the first NBA game I ever attended.

We had all gone crazy for basketball that year, and I remember being down in Florida visiting my grandma when my dad called from NY and told me he had gotten us two tickets to Game 3. I was delirious with the news. They had just played Game 1, I remember, in Detroit. Bernard King scored 36 in a Knicks win. It would be his lowest scoring game of the series.

The game we attended was one of the five most exciting sporting events I've seen in person*, a good game that the Knicks won. Bernard was Bernard. I think he got 46. The place was nuts. We ate popcorn, I drank coke, we waved our hands in the air with little regard to the possible consequences. From that night on I have been a basketball freak.

It was cool to see it again today for a number of reasons. One, since I was at the game I never got a chance to see it on TV. Two, the game itself was entertaining. Three, it's always fun looking back at events from your own lifetime and being amazed that you lived in an era as primitive as that. It seems impossible.

1) I would guess that the average player then was 30 pounds lighter than they are now.
2) In addition to the Wham!-like short shorts and skinny bodies, the players just looked kind of unrefined. Like a guy missed an open layup, and defensively nobody seemed to be able to prevent the other team from getting wide open 15 footers. And when a guy made an open 15 footer, it was exciting! You could hear the crowd get fired up.
3) That said, the game was wide open. You got a rebound, you pitched it out. You needed a basket, you gave it to Bernard. It would be interesting to see Bernard playing today. He seemed completely unstoppable then, a force of nature. Every time they threw him the ball, he rose and shot and scored. For like a twenty month period, he sort of mastered the game of basketball from an offensive standpoint. Would he still be dominant today?
4) Tripucka, unfortunate coif and all, could really score. A pretty solid offensive player, and he had a big game that night. As my co-worker who was watching the game today said when I told him I remembered Tripucka was hot that night, "Yeah, he's already got 25 and it's just the end of the third quarter." I am not sure whether the guy knew the game he was watching was 22 years old or if he thought it was live. Not wanting to ruin his fun, I eventually walked away.
5) I was never a huge Jim Karvellas fan, but looking back, he was a good announcer with a great voice and a nice feel for the changing rhythms of the game. Butch Beard, however, still stinks 22 years later.
6) The TV cameras at MSG used to basically be at court level. While this was occasionally problematic because players would be blocked from your view by other players, it was actually a much more interesting way to watch the game. You got a real sense for how fast everything was, how tall the players were, how high they were jumping, etc. And since the cameras were so close to the action, the players were bigger and you could see way more detail. They should bring that shit back.

Thank you.

* In no order:
1) 10.17.03: Grady's Last Stand (scroll down)
2) 7.4.83: Dave Righetti no-hitter
3) 2.19.87: Molloy Naismith scores like 72 against Stuyvesant
4) 6.5.99: The Larry Johnson 4-point play game (made better by the fact that we SNUCK INTO THE GAME WITH THE HELP OF A CROOKED USHER! And then temporarily got chosen to participate in a halftime shooting contest, which resulted in some quick backpedaling when they asked to see our ticket stubs!)
5) 4.23.84: Bernard gets 46 in my first taste of live basketball