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.''