Enjoying Knicks-Pacers for what it is

New York Knicks vs. New Jersey Nets, Game 4

The 1994 Knicks were the first NBA basketball team that I can remember caring about. Born in ’82 I was 11 years old during those Playoffs. Minnesota’s team was in its fifth season and won 20 games; this after winning 19 the year before that and 15 the year before that. Kevin Garnett was still in high school, the Wolves were still irrelevant and my increasing interest in basketball — developing mostly at Williams Arena and local high school games that my dad took me to — needed a professional team to latch onto. For reasons I cannot recall, that team became the Knicks.

Derek Harper, the hand-checking, old-school, floor-general point guard, was my favorite player on the team. Again, I’m not sure why that was. His game was effective but — looking back on it, now — boring. His mustache might be considered hipster today but basically just made him look old then. He was old. Having Harper as a favorite player in ’94 would be like singling out Kirk Hinrich or Andre Miller in 2013. But for whatever reason, 11-year old me was a Derek Harper fan.

Patrick Ewing was The Franchise; the perennial All-Star and focal point of Pat Riley’s offense. Ewing, whose game epitomized the slow-down, isolation era that has since led to wise rule changes, would set up shop on the left block. He’d take a half dozen hard dribbles while backing his man down in a way that would invite a good flop in 2013. He’d either turn over his left shoulder for a running hook, or over the right for his patented turnaround fadeaway. He was the offense. He was great.

There were plenty of other characters. John Starks was the enigmatic x-factor. He head-butted Reggie Miller. I think he head-butted Michael Jordan too. He played hard, sometimes lost his cool, sometimes lost consciousness behind the arc, and was never, ever boring. Anthony Mason was a Mack Truck of a point forward with fancy scribbles in his hair. Hubert Davis had the sweetest jumper. Oh, and Charles Oakley was a B.M.F. if there ever was one.

The Knicks beat the Bulls in the second round of the playoffs; a surprisingly-competitive seven-gamer that saw Phil Jackson go home a loser for the first time in four seasons. Missing Michael Jordan mattered, I suppose. One of those games ended in controversy when Scottie Pippen was whistled for fouling Davis on a game-deciding jumper. I don’t think Bulls fans ever got over that one.

But the next round — Knicks versus Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals — is what people remember about the 1994 Playoffs. Probably more than the NBA Finals, even though that series was a rare 7-gamer itself. The ’94 Eastern Conference Finals was Pacers versus Knicks, and one of the most competitive trash-talking exhibitions in the history of televised sports. Reggie Miller versus John Starks. Reggie Miller versus Spike Lee. Reggie Miller versus New York. Reggie Miller versus The World. Dammit, Reggie was incredible that series and — as a child cheering against him — was pretty much the bane of my existence for two weeks.

The Knicks won that series in seven games. I think Reggie cried. I hope he cried, anyway. That’s how I choose to remember it. The next year, in the East Semis, the Pacers got revenge. Ewing missed the running finger roll. It didn’t really matter — neither team was getting in the way of Penny and Shaq in the next round. The whole rivalry of those two series has since been remembered in a 30 for 30 doc, “Winning Time,” which is worth watching even if it’s heavily skewed in Reggie’s favor. (It basically makes Starks out to be a complete chump, which he wasn’t at all.)

Tonight, the Knicks and Pacers play Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals. Like in 1994 and 1995, the winner of the series will probably not win the championship. Miami is resting up and undoubtedly licking their chops at a matchup in which they’ll be heavily favored whether it’s Indiana or New York. So we might as well enjoy tonight and — if necessary — Monday.  It’s Pacers-Knicks, almost 20 years later. I know who I’m cheering for.

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