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.