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October 31, 2010

Monday, March 21, 2011

Knick Fan 4 Life

Waking up in the middle of the night and staring at a poster. That is the first thing that comes to mind when I think about the origin of my love for the New York Knicks.
A simple poster of Patrick Ewing used to hang in my room. This was one of a few souvenirs my father bought me the first and only time I saw the Knicks play at Madison Square Garden. The year we went was 1991. Unfortunately, David Robinson and the San Antonio Spurs dominated the entire game. Yet there was something to be said about being a Knick fan those days. The team was among the best in the Eastern Conference but you could never consider them with the elite teams. You could never say to another fan: “This is our year.”
The Chicago Bulls were in an elite class all alone. Maybe that is why Knick fans could only dream. Those nights when I would wake up would be results from having nightmares of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.  
The early 90’s were days when watching an entire basketball game seemed so boring. Boys wanted to play wiffle ball and manhunt outside. These were the days when the first Nintendo Entertainment System was flourishing so new units like the Sega Genesis were being built. Between video games inside and boyish fun outside, why would I want to watch the game of the week on NBC? That all changed at the end of the 1993 season when Jordan decided to retire.
Ewing was not alone. He had a strong supporting cast. There was his head coach Pat Riley. Other players on that team included John Starks, Charles Oakley, and Anthony Mason. You talk about a scary team. These guys played hard and they fouled even harder. The team was still in its prime with the brightest outlook since drafting our center from Georgetown. As Knick fans, this meant 1994 would be our year.
New nightmares ruined sleep patterns a year later. Waking up was from a new player and team causing nightmares for Knick fans everywhere. It turned out 1994 was the first of two NBA Championships for Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets. The first came at the expense of the Knicks. Fans of the blue and orange can tell you they did not see that loss coming.
Beating Pippen and what was left of the Bulls in the Eastern Confernece semi-finals was a success. But it took a full seven games. Anyone who thought the Bulls of 1991-1993 were all Jordan should look at that 1994 team. Even without the game’s best player, they went the distance against the favored Knicks. It was as unlikely as Rocky Balboa going the distance against Apollo Creed.
After getting by the Bulls Knick fans everywhere felt a huge sign of relief. Enter Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers. You talk about a rivalry out of nowhere. This was it. The Hoosier state and the mecca of basketball became two teams that shared hate. Rik Smits made so many shots it made Knick fans like me wonder if Larry Bird jumped into another body after retiring. But Miller was the guy nobody in New York liked. This is the guy who put his hands around his own throat toward Spike Lee metaphorically telling every Knick fan their team was destined to choke.  Images of him stealing the inbound pass and dropping another three remain with fans like me to this day. Regardless of how amazing Miller’s performance might have been, the Knicks were still able to get the best of them.
Seeing Ewing stand up on the scorer’s table at the Garden after eliminating the Pacers should not have been his career’s most memorable moment. Had he led the Knicks past the Rockets for the NBA Championship we would remember other images. Instead we remember being up 3-2 and having a chance to win it all. Starks had to have his worst performance, right? As it goes, winning that year was not meant to be.
With half of a decade gone and five more seasons left, Knick fans were still dreaming. If what happened with the Pacers looked ugly another new rivalry turned violent. The Miami Heat had a new coach which made them instant rivals. Riley leaving the Knicks for Miami was a head scratcher. This caused a showering of boos from the blue seats at the Garden his first game back. He was always a front-running coach. He won championships for the Los Angeles Lakers and left for the Knicks when the teams were going in separate directions. He had similar thoughts with the Heat as opposed to a Knick team he must have assumed would soon fade away.  Maybe that was why Knick fans could hate the Heat so quick. They had our coach.
Alonzo Mourning was another Georgetown center who was drafted originally by the Charlotte Hornets. The Heat had a knack for growing nobody and taking guys still in their prime from other clubs. Look at Riley. They also had a veteran point guard in Tim Hardaway. Throw in guys like PJ Brown and Dan Majerle you had a tough team. From 1997 through 2000 these teams waged battles in each postseason. The first came just a year after the Knicks new head coach found his spot.
Jeff Van Gundy was slowly becoming a respected coach around the league. He had these long droopy eyes and always had a Diet Coke on his side of the scorer’s table. He rarely spent any time sitting on the bench during big games. He paced with a cautious optimism at all times. Basketball is a game of runs though so who could blame him for his antics? Even though he didn’t look it, he had a swagger about his team. Ewing was still there but everyone else was gone. Now it was a team with Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell, Marcus Camby, Larry Johnson, Chris Childs, and Charlie Ward. My father always said those days Ward was still the best quarterback in New York. He had been a star at Florida State University but knew he had to stick with basketball to go pro.
This was a new Knick team. But they played like the team played the first part of the decade. Houston had a knack for making big three’s like he was Starks. Camby husteled like Oakley with more offensive ability. Johnson was a tough dude like Mason was and could occasionally nail a clutch shot. Sprewell was a fire cracker with this intensified persona. He was a fan favorite.
The first battle with Miami in 1997 lived to its billing in Game Five. The Knicks were up in the series 3-1 but PJ Brown dropped a Knick after a free throw which caused a bench-clearing brawl. The rule of leaving a bench without being in the game was an instant suspension. The Knicks lost that game and lost the next two after having to play without some of their best players. The same thing happened when they met again a year later. This time the brawl was with the Heat’s game changer in Mourning. At one point Van Gundy was swinging on Mourning’s leg like a new shoe. But the Knicks got them back. A year later, the Knicks tried to break Miami’s hearts again.
In 1999 the Knicks were an underachieving team throughout and stumbled into the playoffs as the eighth seed. The Heat ran away with the number one seed. This meant in the opening five game series the bitter rivals would meet each other. After four games it was tied two games apiece. The fifth and deciding game in Miami was one of the last great games for Knick fans old enough to remember that game. Almost eleven years since that Sunday afternoon in Miami. It looked like the Heat had it won with 30 seconds left. Hardaway went to make a pass at the top of the key when Ward stripped him. Sprewell was there for the loose change. The Knicks called a timeout. Stevie Wonder must have drew the first play since no shots were taken and the Knicks nearly lost the ball. Down by one and less than five seconds to go, Allan Houston drove into the lane and threw up a mini prayer. It bricked off the front of the rim hit the backboard and dropped in. The ball went in like Scott Howard’s last free throw in Teen Wolf. There was still eight-tenths of a second left. The Knicks would win.
Still an eight seed, the Knicks knocked off the Atlanta Hawks the second round to set up a meeting with Miller and the Pacers. In the third game Johnson dropped a three when the Knicks were down as many and got fouled. The view of the Garden going nuts when that happened still gives me butterflies. That was as memorable as Childs running up to Johnson and telling him it meant nothing if he bricked the ensuing free throw. He made it to give the Knicks a 2-1 series lead. New York would go on to win the series in six games to be Eastern Conference Champions for the first time since 1994. Nobody thought 1999 was our year but that team had me believing.
The San Antonio Spurs stood in the way of the Knicks winning the NBA Championship. Unfortunately, it took them just five games to end the dreamy run of the 1998-99 New York Knicks. The first game I went to I saw Robinson and the Spurs beat my team so bad it made me sick. Really. I had that sick feeling again. But it was hard to think those days we would win soon. Our team was getting old.
Since that season, the Knicks made the playoffs three times. This season, in 2010, every Knick fan is dreaming LeBron James will take advantage of his free agency to rescue the Knicks. We need a miracle. We might have had so many of those in the late 90’s that the basketball Gods could not grant our wishes in the 00’s. This is the dawn of a new decade. The first season already gone, we will be okay without a miracle. What Knick fans like me really want is a King.

(written prior to LeBron James signing with the Miami Heat.)

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