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Abe Beame is untouchable from the top of the key.
What you’re about to read is the product of the sheer boredom-driven insanity that can be provoked by a sustained period of losing. The Yankees lost to the Red Sox in the playoffs before the Red Sox won a fucking ring. The Jets are a tire fire yet again. Republicans held the Senate and will probably just pile on the horrific conservative Supreme Court Justice disparity. And at the moment the Knicks are terrible. But at least for the Knicks, that’s ok.
We’re still a great player away (and will have a fascinating decision to make in the draft next year), our budding superstar is recovering from a serious injury (take your time Zinger), and we have a great base of talent to build on in the years to come. Still, it makes for pretty boring basketball night in and night out. I watch national games nightly, and it’s fine, but I’m one of those dinosaurs that still root for laundry.
I love the Knicks. And as fun as it is watching Jrue Holiday hand out colonoscopies to opposing ball handlers, the Dame Lillard experience and Carmelo Anthony’s precipitous downfall definitively proving the existence of a vengeful omnipotent God, I miss having a team, my team, that can win any given night playing meaningful games with stakes. So this is like a classic The Shining scenario. I’m an old bored middle aged frustrated writer cooped up in a snow covered dystopian hell about to embark on a crazy mission, only instead of going insane and trying to kill my family before freezing to death I decided to do something mildly less disturbing but probably equally insane.
When Jordan’s Bulls dynasty comes up a common refrain, a knock against their excellence is the lack of great foils. Most often, critics point to their NBA Finals foes. Good but not quite great teams like Magic’s fading Lakers, the Drexler Blazers (and not to go on a rant but this is where Jordan Hardos LOVE telling you the well worn cliche of how he took the Clyde comparisons personally and ruined him forever. Like he’s so great because he was an evil petty dickhead who took personal pleasure in inflicting pain on another person and this is a quality we value in our heroes. And then we wonder why our country is like this), the Kemp/Payton Sonics, the Stockton/Malone Jazz, and the Barkley Suns (my personal pick for the best of this particular Western Conference bunch).
The counterarguments point to these team’s impressive win totals, but I generally agree. They were soft competition. The Bulls were significantly better than their Finals opponents but their Finals opponents don’t include the best team they played en route to championships every postseason.
Between 1989-1996 Jordan (And Pippen’s) Bulls met Ewing’s Knicks in the playoffs six times. They won five series, winning four of their six dynasty titles in seasons they had to go through the Garden. When I think back on those deeply shitty years, the one that has always hurt the most was the Eastern Conference Finals loss in 1993. I still believe for at least that one year, the Knicks were the better team, the best version of themselves. The Knicks had finished with the #1 Seed, a 60 win team three games ahead of the Bulls (including winning three of four games during the regular season) and took care of business with their early home advantage, up 2-0 heading back to Chicago. Of course, the Bulls ran off four straight, making them the first franchise ever to win a best of seven series down 2-0.
They would ultimately win a third straight championship and Jordan would run off into the sunset because he’s a fucking gambling addict and a monster and started engaging in shady behavior that caused the league to step in and lowkey ban him because of personal tragedy he needed baseball to help him work through.
Ewing’s Knicks of the early to mid ’90s were a well coached, disciplined, gritty bunch. They were great at getting under your skin, getting you out of rhythm and out of your comfort zone. Pat Riley was at the peak of his Miami Vice bad guy powers (And the ’92-’93 Coach of the Year). We were absolutely stacked with mean motherfuckers, the team that would’ve won a championship if they played team MMA rather than an organized sport. They didn’t play an articulate, poetic game, they brought the hammer and used it viciously night in and night out. A brand of basketball designed for a city of shlubs and shmucks who love a good underdog with fight in them. At their core was a brilliant giant who revolutionized his position.
An unfairly maligned genius who played with unmatched explosiveness early in his career, then as his body began to betray him aged into a savvy craftsman. Because he never won the ring he so rightly deserved he’s been relegated to history as an also ran but it’s fucking bullshit ascribed to and promoted by Smigelite ring worshiping fuck boys.
At one point before meeting them in the playoffs in 1991-1992 The Knicks had lost 14 straight to the Bulls. But they announced themselves in that series, shocking the Bulls by taking them to Game 7, and yet it never felt like there was a real shot to dethrone the champs. It was too soon (For all but two members of the team, Rolando Blackman and Tony Campbell, no one had ever played in an Eastern Conference Finals Game). 93 remains a tragic loss for Knicks fans. We’d beat Pippen and the Bulls the next season in the classic Pippen doesn’t answer the bell series but the victory wasn’t as sweet without King Michael Joffrey there and in the Finals we couldn’t quite claim the abdicated throne.
The ’93 series felt different. It was just sitting there. Ours for the taking. I haven’t watched the complete games since they were aired live when I was nine so in a fit of masochism I’ve decided to go back. I’m going to watch the entire series and share my moment to moment reflections with you, incredibly patient reader of this independent music blog who has elected to click on a 25 year old detailed recap of a Conference Final that will end in disappointment and misery.
I will try to watch this series as a detached, objective critic, and I will likely fail because in a cursory edit I had to change the word “we” to “The Knicks” about fifteen times before I gave up. My memory and suspicions suggest it will be a snow job. The kind of tapes they won’t air in full on NBA TV because they’re Stern era embarrassments when nothing mattered as much as the league having a transcendent star with a lucrative marketing arm behind him to sell. But who knows, maybe this will ultimately become a very, very random and obscure piece of ephemera proving Jordan’s greatness. If you can sway me, you can sway anyone because I really and truly fucking hate the guy. Maybe as an adult stripped of my life or death desire for my team to win I’ll have to acknowledge the Bulls were the better team and we received the fate we deserved.
So I’m going back to this formative moment of my youth. There have been blips. The flukey trip to the Finals in the strike shortened year in 2000 from the Eight Seed, the beautiful aberration in 2012 I discussed at length a few weeks ago in my breakdown of our sad history of Point Guards. But this was one of the last moment the Knicks were truly relevant contenders. Perhaps this is not the most marketable, ideal read out there this morning but it wasn’t intended to be. This is a therapy session revisiting past trauma, an exercising of ghosts, a commentary track of Ken Burns Civil War by Samuel R. Watkins. And actually, it’s really fucking fun watching old games start to finish and I encourage any other Knicks fans or classic NBA fans to watch the video along with me if you have two hours to kill. So without further ado, Game 1 in The Garden.
0:01: It’s going to be a joy listening to vintage, innocent, pre-weirdo Marv calling these games.
0:16: And it will be equally miserable listening to Jordan’s towel boy Ahmad Rashad. If you look closely you can see a Henson Company puppeteer’s hand up his ass as Ahmad “says” today’s episode is brought to us by the letters M and J.
1:40: Starks opens it up hitting a jumper with his feet on the three point line. Pre-analytics NBA at its finest.
2:26: Sloppy Bulls turnover, the Garden roars. Man did New York love this team.
3:05: Starks gets butchered on a no call, Jordan comes away with the reach in steal. Easily could’ve been two quick fouls on him. Also, Jordan is matched up on Doc to open the game. I always thought his defense was absurdly overrated. Pippen got the hardest matchups every night and Jordan reaped the rewards.
4:26: If you’re not watching along with this I implore you to just check out this foul. Incredible offensive called on Oakley. Early impressions: 90s basketball was so gross.
4:53: Doc Rivers was mad light skinned in the early ’90s.
5:35: Bulls are pressing at half court less than three minutes into the first quarter. Wild.
10:08: Horace Grant with a deep pull up. His inside/outside game was crazy. The saddest thing about Playing for Keeps is how shitty Batman supervillain Jerry Krause treats a criminally undervalued Horace. Doesn’t get near the credit he deserves.
10:35: Ewing was impossible in the post. Too big for the quick guys, too quick for the big guys. And the touch. He could shoot over anyone and rarely missed. I wonder if the Bulls infamous three headed monster was a response to Patrick because he could get you into the bonus quickly.
12:00: People attribute the jackknife fading jumper to Dirk but Ewing was doing that shit in the early 90s.
12:57: LOL at Bill Cartwright’s old dude in the club dress shirt in an interview clip complaining about Shaq and Patrick traveling. I wonder what he makes of James Harden.
13:57: Three Bulls converge on Patrick and he nails a mid post jumper, and one. Savage. The people who can’t appreciate this man’s game have no joy in their lives. I really think people conflate one or two playoff disappointments and his late career form with what was a unique, stellar game.
17:10: The Knicks just missed four consecutive free throws and got called for a three second violation. All the old cranks who complain about this new brand of basketball and talk fondly of the good old days should be forced to sit down and actually watch this game and marvel at how open and fluid it’s become.
17:18: Sick fade, Oak (Haircut, not jumpshot).
18:19: BJ Armstrong just wet a three. I believe that’s the third attempt of the game. First quarter is almost over folks. It’s 19-15.
19:39: Ok, first Jordan superstar play. He’s been pretty cold up to this point. Kind of in and out of the flow of offense. Knicks are great at controlling the paint so he’s been throwing up a bunch of dog shit contested mid range stuff but he just picked the pocket on a lazy outlet pass off a rebound. He jams, not quite on Ewing but close. The guy did have a nose for the ball. Knicks are not taking care of possession, 9th turnover in one quarter.
23:22: MASE IS IN
24:45: DON’T HURT EM GREG ANTHONY
25:04: Woof. Jordan is a killer. Crossed Starks with the same kind of move Iverson used to crack his fucking ankles a generation later.
26:15: Credit where it’s due. Refs called moving pick on the Bulls which doesn’t even exist as a call anymore.
26:30: Patrick’s first quarter line: 13 points, 7 Rebounds, 1 Block. KING
26:44: “Roundball Rock” gives me such a Pavlovian response of unbridled joy. Great call by the Road Trippin crew to make that their theme in the heyday of the podcast.
26:57: Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen, John Thompson, Tom Brokaw and Bill Murray were the courtside celebrities that got closeups coming back from commercial to start the second. Bill Murray offers the cameraman popcorn, the cameraman takes a handful and Murray feigns annoyance at having his popcorn stolen. Great bit.
28:11: Jordan with a clean J over Starks. Not sure what John was supposed to do there.
28:39: Starks returns the favor getting Jordan out of his shoes on a head fake and drilling yet another long two. STAY DOWN MIKE.
31:18: The God Rolando Blackman. Just had an incredible defensive possession on a driving Jordan, forcing him into a spinning fallway that went off back rim. The paint is just completely shut down. I wonder what this team would be like against a modern offense. The interior D is incredible but how would they respond to a super picky team that swings it around on the perimeter?
33:35: Blackman with a steal. How far back does the 3&D wing go? Blackman must be a pretty early prototype.
33:55: First real Pippen sighting. Steal off a no call foul and a short pull-up off the bounce in transition. Hilarious how afraid these dudes are of the paint. Interesting to track how that may or may not change throughout the series.
34:32: Wow, Pippen cookin. Ran the break and pulled up again from similar distance. It’s been somewhat lost to history but Scottie was an alien/unicorn/evolutionary whatever. He gets his props and people often reference needing “A Pippen” to match to Superstar X but he was better than that. He’s actually running the offense right now.
36:48: Holy shit. In 1993 Phil Jackson wrote a play called “Steel Cut Oats” about a typical morning in the Jackson household. It was actually performed on stage in Chicago. Jackson is one of the most compelling figures in Playing for Keeps, a much more human and earthbound portrayal than he typically gets in media. Shame he was sundowning by the time he came to run the Knicks.
39:19: OAK IS ABOUT TO POP OFF IN THIS BITCH. Just got up in Pippen’s shit with a chest bump off the foul, would probably be suspended for the series if he did it today.
40:30: Damn. Some cold shit. Starks kind of brushes Jordan’s face with his outstretched hand, Jordan pulls up and buries a three then rubs his face where Starks made contact and eye fucks him.
41:44: Dikembe Mutombo out here looking like he works in The Firm.
46:24: Welp. There it is. Complete garbage Superstar call. Jordan and 1. I challenge anyone to watch that and call it a legitimate foul.
47:18: I’ll say for many years I’ve denigrated Jordan’s defensive acumen and IMO overblown reputation on D but the guy is an absolute animal in passing lanes. The thing is he cheats a lot, which is something the Zach Lowe’s of the world rip guys like Westbrook for doing, playing for the cheap counting stats, but getting beat and putting more pressure on his team when he guesses wrong. I’d love to seen an analytics breakdown on how this tendency helped or hurt Bulls team D over a large sample size of possessions. But today he’s certainly guessing right. Bulls with nine steals in the first half.
52:42: Pippen has gotta be on a shortlist for the all-time ugliest basketball player.
53:05: Ewing wet on the baseline. I’ll say this for his detractors. He’s had a few moments over the last two quarters but he will disappear for short stretches. We’ll see if it keeps up over the series.
53:38: First Spike sighting courtside. Wasn’t a close up shot, you could just see him aggressively clapping at a ref during an inbound. I wonder if this predates famous national public figure Spike when he was still a menacing Brooklyn-centric agit provocateur?
55:02: Another bullshit ticky tack foul on Starks as Jordan worked across court above the free throw. Something I really hate is when people wonder what Jordan would’ve done if he played at a time when hand checking wasn’t legal. Jordan played at a time when hand checking Jordan wasn’t legal. But it was legal for everyone else.
55:50: Bulls team D is really impressive. #2 in the league behind the Knicks but it doesn’t have that grind out feel the Knicks have in their man to man. It’s very fluid, reactive, instinctive yet coordinated. Wouldn’t be so out of place in the modern NBA.
56:29: Wow. Marv just said Charles Smith came to the Knicks with a reputation for being soft. Nothing like a season with Oak to wipe away that assumption.
56:54: The refs really do not like Oak. If you flop within a quarter mile of the guy they’ll blow the whistle. Such a nice, well mannered, even tempered, non shit talking guy in person. I don’t get it.
59:19: Oh shit! On cue Charles Smith and Pippen get into it after Pippen puts a hard foul on Doc. It actually looks like a clean chase down block by Scottie. Great play.
1:01:42: Doc dislocated his finger on that play, came back out and nailed two free throws. Pretty real. Also it’s hilarious, Marv and Mike Fratello have been riffing for two minutes about how he was playing up his injury and full of shit about being hurt: “I believe Doc was auditioning for a part in Phil Jackson’s next play”. Sick burn, Mike.
1:02:40: Pippen and Charles Smith getting a nice little back and forth going. Smith bangs out in transition, Pippen drills a three. They’re bumping and jawing. Garden is rocking. This is great old school ball. They clearly don’t like each other. In two or three weeks when the season is over they won’t be working out together in LA with someone taping them for House of Highlight clips. Game has been neck and neck throughout, each team trading runs. I love it. BRB gonna throw on my Mase Champion Replica jersey to watch the rest of this.
1:03:27: Doc out here with the $100 move and the 10 cent finish. Vintage Oak, cleaning the glass and putting it back.
1:03:36: Something I totally take for granted is the omnipresent box that gives you the score and time left in the quarter. These days if you’re walking past a bar and you want to get a quick update on the game it takes five seconds, with these broadcasts in the early 90s on NBC you needed little breaks in action for them to flash score and time. It can be disorienting, even sitting down watching a game start to finish if you need to momentarily pause to record your reflections in a Google Doc. Props to the first game producer who made that a staple of their live broadcasts, it makes a huge difference.
1:03:41: I’m crying. Fratello just deadass referred to Doc as Glenn Rivers! I know that’s his real name but IS IT?
1:05:08: People throw the word “hero” around pretty loosely these days so it’s shocking no one has ever used it to describe the job Starks would do on his regular assignment, Michael Jordan. Even games when Mike would go for 50 Starks was just in his jersey bothering him to no end. I really don’t know if I ever saw another one defender as effective on Jordan as Starks was. Really just shut him down on the last possession and forced him into a shitty shot. Starks was generously listed at 6’2, a buck eighty vs. a much larger, stronger opponent who was also a fucking sociopath and fine, a brilliant scorer. And he’s doing this with little to no help. Really impressive mano a mano defense.
1:05:19: Immediately following that possession a clearly frustrated Jordan runs up behind Starks, basically tackles him and steals the ball. Reluctantly, the refs call it late. Starks is hype, pounding the ground knowing he’s got that real estate in Jordan waxed fucking peanut head. This is beautiful, to watch them wilt. A brilliant execution of the Knicks doing what they did best and owning the Bulls even as the game is back and forth. They’re totally playing into our hands. Oh wait I’m supposed to be objective, uh, it’s beautiful watching one team perfectly execute a brilliant strategy against another team that is objectively filled with pieces of shit.
1:05:41: It’s fucking hilarious how in the bag Fratello is for the refs. He hasn’t disagreed with one call no matter how ludicrous and totally not corresponding to the replay it is (unless it’s on Jordan which he sort of but not really quibbles with here). I’m not 100% sure it’s actually Fratello maybe it’s David Stern doing an impression.
1:08:21: Charles Smith just came out to a huge ovation. I’d say up to this point he’s been everywhere doing everything, the difference maker in the game and is just generally a fucking beautiful man. If anyone has a used Size 44 Charles Smith Champion Replica jersey (preference home whites) they’d like to sell me at a ridiculous markup hit me at [email protected].
1:12:28: I can’t stress this enough. This is not homer bitching and whining, the refs really fucking hate Oak. This is like Rasheed levels of resentment.
1:13:26: Fratello just said Phil told him he thought Trent Tucker was going to be a major factor in this series. Sounds like a guy you’d want to hand the keys of your franchise to.
1:14:03: Oh no. I’ve just been informed Trent Tucker was a former Knicks first round lottery pick.
1:25:28: Ugh. NBC flashed a graphic showing 9 of the last ten teams in the East that finished with the best record made it to the NBA Finals. Cruel shit, Marv.
1:27:00: If you want to see what I’m talking about with Starks watch the replay on this Jordan fade away. What more do you want from the man? He’s from fucking Tulsa. He went to Northern Oklahoma, Oklahoma City Community College, AND Oklahoma State over a four year span and went undrafted. Now he’s putting the beats on Michael Jordan in an Eastern Conference Finals game in New York City. HERO SHIT.
1:29:22: I wonder if 12 foot jumpers used to be a more efficient shot? They took a fucking ton of them in this game and Jordan has been off and generally shooting dumb high volume shots but it seems like no one misses. Ewing and Pippen just traded a pair.
1:29:42: Starks is fucking killer. Rises up and buries one right in Jordan’s grill. Knicks up 9. LET’S FUCKING GO BOTH TEAMS BECAUSE I HAVE NO SPECIFIC PREFERENCE IN REGARDS TO WHO SHOULD WIN THIS GAME WHICH WAS PLAYED 25 YEARS AGO AND I ALREADY KNOW THE OUTCOME SO IT WOULD BE SILLY FOR ME TO BE EXCITED AND THESE CAPS ARE NO INDICATION OF MY ACTUAL LEVEL OF EXCITEMENT AT THIS MOMENT.
1:31:06: Mason, who has been pretty quiet up to this point but I’m sure we’ll be discussing at length later in the series, just faked Pippen out of his shoes, took the contact and nailed a mid-range jumper to put us back up nine. For this entire half Phil Jackson has looked like he took a Molly on Shakedown at a Biscuit’s Festival and for the life of him can’t find the grilled cheese tent. The early onset dementia is probably not helping.
1:31:56: Yet another bullshit foul called on Starks. There was literally no contact I think they might’ve actually meant to call the foul on the rim for preventing Jordan from scoring by virtue of its existence. Also this. Just wow.
1:35:40: Ok. Nice defensive play by Jordan, reaches in and swats the ball out of Doc’s hands and off his knee. Would’ve been a foul if it had been the other way around but whatever.
1:36:10: There have been so many fucking illegal defense and 3 Second Violation calls in this game, seemingly all against the Knicks.
1:36:50: Are organs in basketball arenas still a thing? I feel like they aren’t. Way cooler than listening to a ten year old Ludacris instrumental as a team brings the ball up.
1:38:03: Jesus fucking Christ. It’s winning time and Jordan is running all over the court like Michael Myers completely unhinged just hacking at people left and right. Kind of reminds me of the Reggie Miller debacle a few years later. They are just giving him license to do whatever he wants and someone should just snuff him. Foreshadowing the fuckery to come.
1:39:55: After Marv shits on Mase’s free throw shooting he buries two clutch ones. On the other side of the floor YET ANOTHER phantom call on Starks who doesn’t appear to touch Jordan before the Bulls even get into their half court. Jordan bricks the first free throw. BALL DON’T LIE.
1:40:47: Crazy possession. Bulls are diving all over the place, Knicks use up all 24 seconds and with Pippen all over him, Doc miraculously finds Mase under the basket last second for lay-in. Mase went from invisible to front and center in a hurry. He scored the last seven points.
1:47:21: Game over. Knicks win. Hannah Storm is doing the post game interview with Starks. I think he’s closer to her than he was guarding Jordan. Potentially trying to smash?
1:48:38: The secondary interview is Doc and Ahmad. It’s crazy how apparent it is that Doc is going to end up being a coach. Starks sounds punch drunk and talks in tight, nonsensical sports cliches. Doc is sharp, incisive and likeable. The latter quality is one I will probably never use to describe him ever again.
Final Thoughts: Bad omens abound despite the favorable outcome. The Knicks as a team shot an incredibly efficient 55% to the Bulls 43% and just eked out a win. Patrick’s final line looked good and he was dominant early but ended up playing too passive throughout. It was the wings, Starks and Smith, and a late push from Mase that brought it home. Will be interesting to see if the refs keep gunning for Oak in the manner they are but arguably it’s Mase’s dynamic offensive skill set that gives the Knicks a better shot at taking advantage of the Bulls manic trap defense. They are extremely fortunate to win given how poorly they took care of the ball and no offense but you can’t rely on Starks squatting and taking a shit on Michael Jordan four out of seven games.
For the Bulls, Jordan was a punk ass bitch who got his ass locked down by an undrafted undersized shooting guard from Oklahoma and he laid an egg in the Garden in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals so fuck him.
But it was a truly great, tense, exciting game start to finish and besides grimacing at ancient strategy and anachronistic rules here and there, a pleasure to watch. Tune in Next time where we’ll be back in New York 25 years ago for Game 2. What could possibly go wrong?