Abe Beame hustled Spike Lee out of his season tickets.
A lot of this exercise has been about challenging my own memories and assumptions of how this series played out, of the strengths and weaknesses of these players I grew up loving (or hating), of how popular narrative compares to the minute by minute building of that narrative and its subsequent legacy. Most of my time and attention has been focused on Michael Jordan, my long time tormenter and the subject of much of my wrath and contrarian energy in bar arguments over the years. But I think for this edition’s preamble it’s time to discuss and analyze the legacy of his foe and my hero, Patrick Ewing.
I’m going to use Bill Simmons, the most prominent and vocal critic of Ewing’s, in his savage Book of Basketball ranking as a stand in for the conventional wisdom surrounding Patrick’s career outside the tri-state area. On his way to ranking Ewing as the 40th greatest player of all time (Nothing to sniff at, but it would be much lower now and by my estimation he has several lesser players ranked ahead of him), Simmons has this to say about Patrick: “He had some legitimate weaknesses-horrendous hands, shaky at crunch time, dubious rebounder, awful passer out of double-teams, couldn’t make his teammates better-and he lacked a fan friendly game that wouldn’t exactly be remembered fondly.”
A few things to adress up front as a response. The Ewing Theory is a major component in Simmons’ mythology. It’s the equivalent of Biff Tannen’s sports betting hot streak in Back to the Future 2. For those not familiar, the idea is the removal of a big name, overrated player taking up too much oxygen on a team will have the counterintuitive effect on said team which will flourish from addition by subtraction. The observation made Simmons a quasi-legend during the eight seed Knicks’ miraculous run to the Finals in the strike shortened, weird 99 season when we got stomped by the Spurs. Ewing went down and the Knicks caught fire. But the point beyond being from Boston is I’ve always felt he has a lot tied up in the ultimate dismissal and relegation to minor status of Ewing and his place in the all-time pantheon, which is somewhat understandable.
My impressions, just watching this series, there’s a lot to quibble with in his less than scientific critique of Patrick’s game. So the hands thing. It’s something I suspect Simmons cribbed from my (And Simmons’) personal God and hero David Halberstam’s early aughts exorciation from ESPN’s Page 2 which mostly revolves around Ewing’s failings as a passer. Halberstam used this idea of Ewing’s bad passing as a metaphor for Ewing’s inability to adapt to a modern and more fluid game.
Let’s start with counting stats. Ewing averaged a career 1.9 assists per game, which is not great, but include his excruciating end of career stretch where he was basically an immobile block of meat and averaged less than 1.5 assists per game for his last five seasons. In his prime Ewing’s assist stats were consistently better than average for big men, usually top 5. The year the Knicks made the Finals in 1994, he averaged 2.7 which placed him tied for fifth with Shaq behind Vlade, Hakeem, David Robinson and Christian Laettner. This is to say Ewing’s game was a product of the times. We remember Hakeem and the Admiral as heady, sweet passing facilitators out of the post but most seasons they would average an assist or two at best ahead of Patrick, who was head and shoulders above most other players at his position.
Then there’s the eye test. Throughout this series so far I’ve watched Patrick in a common position, doubled in the post facing a pretty ravenous Bulls press. Ewing is calm and collected under pressure. He pivots back with his back arm aloft, palming the ball and takes advantage of his elevated sitelines and wind sock arms to watch movement on the court and pass off with a deft flick of the wrist. Much of this bears out in the games I’ve watched statistically. He had four assists in Game 1, five assists in Game 2, and four assists in Game 3. My point is in the right system, and system is a crucial point I’ll return to, he had the raw materials to be a great passer and would be at times.
Then there’s the rebounding thing. I think this is legitimately garbage. Ewing was a monster capable of 20 plus in games, but something I’ve never seen discussed is he shared a front court with two other equally ferocious rebounders in Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason, not to mention Charles Smith during this era. The Knicks were regularly an elite rebounding team, and while Ewing lead the charge in team rebounds he had two other players to defer to every night which ultimately affected his totals. I don’t know what specific arguments you’d make to say he’s a bad rebounder but he didn’t look like one and the numbers don’t bare it out.
And finally there’s the tragedy of Patrick Ewing: He was a man out of his time. Watching him in college you can see an Amare Stoudamire prototype, a offensive and defensive atomic bomb in the paint at a Jesuit school who led his team to the NCAA Finals three years in a row, going 1-3 and losing the other two championship games by a combined three points. As a pro Ewing came into his prime at a moment when his body started breaking down, and the post dominant ground and pound style became antiquated. He also predated a time when his silky jumper would’ve made him an ideal stretch 5. One wonders what a young Patrick Ewing would look like today had he been privy to Deandre Ayton’s education.
There’s one other thing that bugs me in both Simmons and Halberstam’s dismissal of Patrick. In his discussion of Ewing, Simmons only seems interested in prosecuting Patrick as an individual. The run of mid 90s success is dismissed as Riley coming in and salvaging Ewing’s career with a brand of thugball that masked Ewing’s deficiencies. It’s an interesting feint in the midst of a book whose central thesis is the key to basketball being the sacrifice of the individual for the good of the team. You could counter this revisionism by arguing Ewing sacrificed what was a superstar role to feature as a large cog in a hard nosed defensive and efficient offensive machine that was one of the most successful franchises in basketball throughout the 90s.
Simmons points to 1990 as Ewing’s peak year, and it was from a statistical standpoint. It was also one of his highest usage % seasons at 31.1. But the Knicks won 45 games. In the playoffs that year the Knicks got a vision of what a Ewing centric offense looked like. He took over a best of five series with the Celtics and powered the Knicks to a stunning upset Simmons even tips his cap to before the Knicks bow to the eventual champion Pistons in the second round.
The next year the Knicks made a bizarre random coaching change early in the season. They underachieved and were swept by the Bulls in the first round. Riley became the Knicks coach after that. It’s no coincidence that Ewing’s point totals dropped during the Knick’s run of elite play under Riley. The most important stat is in 90-91 the Knicks won 39 games. The next four years they’d win 51, 60, 57 and 55. To discount the best player on the team’s ability to shift his game in the middle of his prime and win at this elite level, both in the regular season and the postseason, is criminal negligence.
Using rings as the ultimate assessment of worth just seems stupid and arbitrary and flawed. And indeed, Jordan created a kind of psychosis in sports fans both diehard and casual that has made us all stupider. There was a time when there was room to appreciate the greatness of a guy like Jerry West without having to ding him for his abysmal record in the Finals. Sports fans once had more nuance and appreciation for the qualities of the league’s best players without resorting to a conversation ending rote tally. I wonder what would’ve happened had Starks hit that final three ball in Game 6, 1994. We see what it did for Dirk.
Patrick Ewing, perhaps because of his hero status in the number one basketball crazed media market in the country, has received an unfair share of backlash and ire at the hands of national basketball reporters and columnists determined to take him down a peg. If Patrick Ewing had come into the league 20 years earlier or 20 years later he might be in our top 20 conversations right now. As it was, he was still pretty fucking great bro.
0:46: This video includes the pre-game intros. It is absolutely incredible that Pippen emerged from Central Arkansas to become one of the top 50 players of all time. Starks, of course nowhere as gifted or historic outside of the tri-state area was similarly unheralded. It’s a shame that sense of discovery is largely gone from the basketball prospect industrial complex that now dominates the domestic game. For the magic we now have to look to foreign backwaters where you can still find a Giannis in the rough, or ironically, in solid college guys who stay longer than a single season. I don’t know why the second round of the draft at this point isn’t exclusively foreign freaks with question marks and upperclassmen.
1:27: Hot take: The Bulls logo sucks. Why the bulls? Is Illinois a big Bull state or something? Why can’t every team have a relatable and obvious moniker like the Knickerbockers?
1:35: Ahmad is back. Kill me. You’ll never believe this but he was in the Bulls locker room and the swagger has returned. Ahmad immediately makes an excuse for Jordan’s shitty shooting night in Game 3 saying he has a knot on his wrist. BJ makes a comment to the effect that the Bulls didn’t just talk about executing, they actually did it in Game 3. I guess he watched a different game because the Bulls did not win that game as much as the Knicks took a dump right in the middle of it.
2:30: Oak describes the Knicks style of play as “Power Ball”, which I love.
4:51: Foul on the God Charles Smith for breathing on Cartwright. Received 0 emails regarding my Replica Charles Smith jersey, shame on you internet. Also, Bill Cartwright has the most punchable face this side of Reggie Miller.
5:06: Also his free throw form is fucking ridiculous. Did Cartwright recommend his shooting coach to Markelle Fultz?
5:29: Bulls right back into the press. Their use of the press continues to be the most interesting thing about this series to me.
5:45: Jordan and Pippen trap Starks who is clearly fouled on his attempt to pass out but it’s called a turnover out of bounds on the Knicks. Fratello proceeds to call Jordan the best defensive player in the league and Pippen, “Maybe the second or third best” which is hilarious on so many levels.
5:48: NBC does these funny barn door wipes after replays back into the action which are super early 90s.
6:08: Doc with an absolutely filthy first step. What if House of Highlights existed in 93?
7:00: Wow. They just dead ass called another phantom foul on Smith. Basically out of the first half before it even starts. They go to Mase off the bench and the crowd responds with furious boos. Chicago is a garbage city.
7:42: PATRICK DON’T HURT EM.
7:55: For the love of God go to the time stamp. Mase just picked up a loose ball off an offense rebound scrum and hit Patrick on the baseline with an absolutely incredible dime for a jam. Lionel Messi shit.
8:40: Wow. I’ve been waiting for the red flag, Stern illuminati game and maybe this will be it. They just T’d up Patrick because he had some thoughts on yet another fucking stupid off ball foul. And holy shit what a foul. Ewing is simply standing still establish position in the paint, Cartwright runs into him and spins off planting an elbow and the foul is on Patrick. If you never get to read this it’s because I threw my laptop against the fucking wall.
9:21: The first sequence off the Tech results in the first Bulls field goal and a tangible shift in momentum/emotion in the building. God fucking damnit.
10:17: Patrick was such a freak. Check the handle he puts on Cartwright to get into the lane and draw a foul.
11:06: Wow. The Knicks team FT% thus far in the series: 62.5%, 68.4%, 62.5%. I think if that happened in a playoff series today Skip Bayless would commit seppuku live on FS1.
12:03: Oh boy. Jordan cookin.
12:50: They left in commercials as well, this Ford pick up truck commercial could either be for Irish Spring or a soft core special on HBO after midnight. Would love to see the Mad Men episode where they cooked this one up.
14:38: This Mister Robinson Nike ad is lit, and for some reason with the bounce and squeak percussion reminded me of this one:
(Also, fuck man Jada tore a Reebok basketball commercial down in a Santana Moss jersey).
15:20: Riley has an interesting aside about the Knicks being able to apply and maintain pressure on the ball, not have their defense beat by Bulls ball movement. The perimeter was pretty open in Game 3 but the fast twitch whistles and Bulls’ transition offense made it tough to trap as hard as I’m sure the Knicks would’ve liked to.
15:51: They actually called an offensive foul on the Bulls. Specifically Pippen!
17:43: Patrick just pimping out Cartwright with a hopping silky and one floater thing that the English language doesn’t even allow me to properly articulate. I don’t understand how anyone could not love this dude.
18:25: Props to Horace Grant. Bulls were wildly outmatched on the glass offensive and defensive in this series but he’s a pitbull right now. The absence of Charles Smith is being felt. Grant has three offensive rebounds in the first quarter. He had three total in the last three games.
18:40: It’s insane how effective the Bulls trap was. If a team was able to get away with this in a playoff series today the NBA Twitterati would lose their collective shit. Even when it doesn’t result in a turnover or some other obvious shitty play it cuffs the Knicks to a reduced clock as they try to get into their half court. I really fault Reilly for not being an aggressor and making the Bulls pay to play. This particular play ends with a lay-in for Oak which happens on occasion by nature with a full court press but it hasn’t happened nearly enough for the Knicks thus far.
23:19: There a commercial for a funny Wild Things precursor looking television movie called South Beach. Remember when networks used to produce and air their own movies? No? Just me?
24:43: When did Jeff Van Gundy lose his hair? Was he born with a receding hairline? Also I can only assume Zach Lowe is scrolling through this right now, the people need more JVG on The Lowe Post.
25:58: Starks cookin.
26:42: Marv just described Starks and Jordan as, “Not the best of friends.” Starks doesn’t get enough credit for serving as Jordan’s great foil/nemesis. They were beautiful enemies.
27:17: NBC is channel 5 in Chicago. Very weird and unnatural.
28:54: Great slugfest developing between Jordan and Starks.
29:56: 33-29 Bulls through one quarter. That clip does not portend well for the Knicks.
30:28: Watching these early 90s commercials makes me understand Naomi Klein a little better. So aggressively white and bizzare. This is a weird complement but commercials have come a long way in 25 years.
31:55: And on that note props to this stupid ass Ford Escort commercial. Think I just saw the first person of color that’s been in an ad since the game started.
32:35: Ok this is really strange. They just took an aside to Iso in close on this fat camera dude who looks related to the Mario Brothers whose sole job for the day is to follow Starks and only Starks with his camera. I gotta say I’m weirdly impressed with this national broadcast for being so specific and inside, we’re getting process for how the Bulls are studying how to contend with Starks. I can’t think of an instance where that might happen with modern coverage.
33:08: Here are some players that were key pieces of a championship winning team in 1993: Stacey King, Trent Tucker, BJ Armstrong, Scott Williams, John Paxson. I’m sure the takeaway from this for most is how great Jordan was but mine is how fucking weird the 90s were.
34:30: Knicks just had a Keystone Cops sequence where they miraculously finished with a lay in. As good as Doc has been in stretches he’s erratic. Really wonder how Derek Harper might’ve performed in the lineup.
35:48: They keep showing ads for the Western Conference Finals between the Sonics and Suns. Part of me wishes that I gave a shit about that series so I could relitigate that but it would mean I grew up in Arizona or Washington. Also why the fuck doesn’t Seattle have a basketball team. Oklahoma City has an NBA team? Still? Really?
38:26: Jordan is on the bench right now so I looked up his plus minus. Jordan lead the league in 92-93 with 9.48, well below his career high in 88-89 of 12.56 which would stand as a record for an incredible 19 years before it was broken by, who else, LeBron with 12.99. If you want a real mind blower, the new and what I can only imagine will be the all time, unbreakable 56 game streakish freak stat is in 2016-17, Russell Westbrook had a completely insane, brain exploding 15.55!!!!!!
43:29: Awesome tidbit: As a means of prepping for the Bulls press the Knicks were practicing 6-5, kind of the equivalent of running with a weighted vest. Brilliant strategy.
44:26: Pippen is impossible.
47:12: I can only imagine predating The Michael Jordan Steakhouse there was apparently a gigantic shitty sport bar in Chicago called Michael Jordan. According to reliable unbiased source Ahmad Rashad there were four hour waits the weekend of this series. Oak apparently fucking went there and said he had a great time????? OAAAAAKKKKKK?????!!!!!! Just a friendly reminder Chicago sucks.
52:14: Paxson has what I’ll call a Hitler adjacent side part.
53:55: Oak hit with a tech. Man did refs ever hate Oak.
56:07: KFC Hickory Wings were lit. And apparently sponsored a heavyweight fight between George Foreman and Tommy Morrison???? 90s!
58:49: Riley is super pissed at Mase and is getting up in his jersey in a timeout. Pat Riley is a fucking badass. Mase looks like he’s doing everything in his power not to toss Riley into the 15th row.
59:53: Smith just nailed a 14ish footer. It’s crazy how important he was to the team’s structure and flow. You can see why against the Bulls. They want to do their swarm trap and with an average shooting Small Forward it’s effective, but Smith provides an essential release valve when he has it going. No coincidence he played 11 minutes in the Game 3 blowout.
1:16:21: Charles Smith is not fair.
1:17:11: If you were curious Doc Rivers’ idol is a guy named Bob “Butterbean” Love. To be fair, Butterbean is a pretty incredible nickname.
1:19:30: This Bulls team is so good at sucking you in and making you play their game, even as the Knicks get the occasional stop and make a play or two in transition it’s like watching a horror movie unfold because they just absolutely should not be playing this style right now.
1:21:40: Almost identical steals on opposite sides of the floor back to back. Jordan gets a reach in steal then Doc follows with one. You’ll never believe who got the foul called. Also this picture of Doc besides himself at the call is a great preview of what his coaching style would become over the course of the next 25 years:
1:22:03: Wow. You know it’s a bad call when Mike Fratello is going against Jordan and the refs and siding with the Knicks. On replay it was a legitimately horrific call. Doc’s fourth foul taking him out of the game, Bulls get to the line on the foul and an easy bucket taken from the Knicks at a pivotal moment of the third quarter. Criminal.
1:23:00: Ok. Here we go. Wheels are coming off the bus. Knicks beat the press next possession, Oak makes a beautiful pass to Starks on the baseline who goes up as Pippen is sliding under him, Starks lays it in, and they wave the basket off. Offensive foul. Starks runs down the floor and has to be restrained by his entire team to prevent a tech. I have to go outside and walk around the block in the middle of December to stop myself from breaking my computer and waking up my kids. If you’re keeping track at home that’s two consecutive baskets taken from the Knicks at a crucial juncture in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
1:23:38: And of course, next play, Jordan drills a three on Starks who is playing a step or two off, probably in fear of another frivolous foul call because it would drive him to murder. Riley calls a Time Out. Bulls up 11, you just witnessed an 8 point swing.
1:27:07: You gotta feel for Starks. Jordan gets called for hooking Ewing on a screen on the previous Knicks possession so he comes down pissed, determined to score. Jordan cuts to the rim and Starks heads him off beautifully, forcing him to pick up his dribble at the elbow. He passes off, immediately runs behind the arc and launched off a catch a shoot that comes right back to him. Just has enough separation to drill it.
1:27:35: It’s really just descending into absolute fucking chaos. Bodies are flying all over the place and every call is for Chicago. I’m surprised the NBA hasn’t moved to block this from YouYube.
1:28:15: Foul on Oak. Oak to the bench, Jordan to the line. NBC isn’t replaying any controversial calls, it’s all crisp cutaway to Jordan hitting open jumpers. The Bulls are up 12. Who knows if it can get any worse but this was the stretch that lost the game for the Knicks and I can’t point to any one thing they did wrong the entire sequence.
1:29:17: And in spite of that beautiful feed from Starks to Ewing, Charles gets an offensive rebound and foul off the miss. This team had so much fight and resilience it’s incredible.
1:33:57: Jesus fucking Christ. Trent Tucker tracks down a rebound, he gets trapped, tried to call timeout as Mase pressures for the ball and instead the ref calls a foul and sends him to the line. If it seems like I’m slowly losing my mind watching this game you’re observant.
1:35:07: It’s nothing short of a miracle Knicks are heading into the Fourth only down 8. That was truly the quarter from hell. Jordan has 45 btw.
1:37:02: Man. In spite of the refs conspiring in a shadowy cabal to hand the Bulls this game, Jordan is fucking cooking. 48 points, 5-6 from 3, insane efficiency even with high volume in a huge spot. I’m starting to realize a lot of my anger towards him stems from how he was officiated and how he was jocked by media and fans, not how he played.
1:39:09: The Miller Genuine Moment this game was Jordan dropping 63 on the Celtics in the playoffs in 86. That’s pretty insane. The Bulls also LOST that game in double OT. What would we say if that happened today? At the moment he’s 17/26 with 50 points. Nuts.
1:41:05: Wow. Ewing just picked Stacey King’s pocket as he attempted to face up in the post. Did someone say he had bad hands?
1:44:10: Once again I would urge anyone reading through this to go to this spot in the video and see the pass Ewing just served on a platter across the paint to Mase. Should’ve drawn a foul but didn’t, but just this crisp beautiful look from a 7 foot tall 1993 big man with knee and back problems who allegedly had bad hands. Remarkable.
1:46:35: I wish William Goldman would’ve written a screenplay based on the career of John Starks that was a mix between the Book of Job and A Serious Man about a kid growing up in Oklahoma who achieves incredible things in basketball on the biggest and brightest stage only to come to the NBA and despite being relentless, thankless hero throughout his career sees all his best efforts go for naught. Grant just pulled a WWF heel move and hip checked the fuck out of Starks results in a slip and slide belly flop down the court for Starks while the refs weren’t looking, no call.
1:48:46: Knicks down 6, Bulls running out the clock with Jordan forced to the bench in foul trouble. BJ Armstrong beset by defenders on all sides, pushes out a limp dick floating jumper, rolls around the entire basket and drops. Winning and losing is a fucking knife’s edge, it’s the folly of the Gods.
1:49:49: So to be fair, down the stretch as a gift from God Jordan has to go sit and the Knicks proceed to fucking piss away consecutive possessions with the game right there to at least get to even. We’re in classic Winning Time territory right now.
1:51:05: Paxson looks like a Duke Lacrosse player.
1:51:58: Just an absolutely nothing shooting foul called on Oak in a huge spot. It really sucks the league couldn’t trust the Bulls to win these games on their own. A real fair matchup would’ve been so much more fun and interesting than this Kangaroo Court officiating.
1:53:04: Also these Knicks offensive possessions are insane. They’re just rolling over. Is Melo out there somewhere or something?
1:55:13: Ewing finally strikes back with a jab step J but they squandered the whole Jordan rest and the clock it took to get here. Really frustrating missed opportunity.
1:57:39: Knicks finally get it down to 4, Pippen hits an insane, fading, falling And 1.
2:00:10: Rolando Blackman just checked in for the first time. How did he not play this entire game? Strange decision by Riley.
2:05:07: Bulls 101-92. As usual first team to 100 wins.
2:11:32: Game over, Bulls win. BJ and Horace are talking to Ahmad because Jordan is on some strange media freeze out? I guess because he’s mad they reported he went to Atlantic City the night before Game 2 when allegations of his extreme gambling debts were swirling? Anyways, I wonder where they plug BJ in at night that dude is weird as fuck.
Final Thoughts: So Jordan scores more than anyone ever has against the Knicks in a playoff game but we hung around throughout, there was a stretch of wildly suspect officiating that didn’t decide the game but at the very least helped tilt it. The good news is the Bulls merely did what they were supposed to do. Now it’s back to New York where the Knicks have won 27 in a row with the series tied. What could possibly go wrong?