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