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.