Judge David Johnson presents this unique three-part review, looking at the three guys who affected him the most as a burgeoning and long-suffering fan of the New York Knicks: Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Michael Jordan.
1992. I am but a short, squat, awkward high school freshman. Not much going on. Studying like crazy for my chemistry Regents exam (a standardized test in New York). Playing the heck out of my Sega Genesis. Working to bounce back from a scoreless season on my church basketball team. And then, suddenly, I'm sucked into something that will profoundly affect my life for the next ten years or so: I become a rabid fan of the New York Knicks.
I came to be a fan by chance. Some of my church basketball teammates were hooting and hollering about how the Knicks had a legitimate shot at stunning the world and dethroning the champion Chicago Bulls, led by that crusher of dreams, Michael Jordan. The Knicks, under brand-new coach Pat Riley, the slicked-hair import from the West Coast who rejuvenated the once-hapless Knicks (1991 record: 39-43) and molded the team into a bruising Eastern Conference powerhouse, were at the threshold of something magical.
After pushing His Airness and company to a Game 7 winner-take-all, the Knicks eventually succumbed on the Bulls' home floor. It was a heartbreaker, but suddenly the once-storied franchise had a serious future ahead of it, led by the dominant play of its big man, Patrick Ewing. I decided to buckle up and wholly throw myself onto the bandwagon, bracing myself for whatever the future would hold.
The Evidence, Part One—Patrick Ewing: Standing Tall
Warner Bros. has repackaged this 1993 profile of Patrick Ewing and released it as part of its NBA Hardwood Classics series. Right out of the starting gate, this DVD has a glaring element working against it: its age. Though there is plenty to present about Ewing pre-1993, all the really interesting stuff arguably happened later: the continuation of the Bulls-Knicks rivalry, Pat Riley's departure, followed by the bitter feud that erupted with the Miami Heat, then the two trips to the NBA finals.
But let's take a look at the program we've got. Patrick Ewing would become one of the grandest sports figures in Big Apple history. From the moment commissioner David Stern announced that New York had the first overall pick in the 1985 NBA draft on, Ewing's career in NYC would be a twisting road of speed bumps and glory. Patrick Ewing: Standing Tall tracks Ewing from his childhood in Jamaica to his first exposure to the game of basketball to his dominance as the "Hoya Destroya" and finally to his pitted path of NBA superstardom. The program features interviews with sports writers, teammates, coaches, friends, and Ewing himself to paint a picture of the big man. And it doesn't shy away from some of the more dismal portions of his life.
For example, as a high schooler, Ewing was often berated by game crowds and jeered with racist remarks (though one anecdote struck me as funny: a teammate recalls that some geniuses from a rival school hoisted a poster that said: "Ewing, You Can't Read"—think about that one for a moment). Ewing would go on to enjoy stunning success playing for John Thompson and his Georgetown Hoyas, even though a young Michael Jordan found it prudent to screw him over in the NCAA final. His arrival in New York was met with cries of "savior!," but when his rookie season proved to be a losing one for the team, many of the fans turned on him. When Riley came on board, things suddenly got interesting, and the documentary takes us to the 1992-1993 Eastern Conference finals, where Ewing would once again face off with the hated Chicago Bulls.
The 1992-1993 season brought Pat Riley Coach of the Year honors, 60 wins, and the Knicks' league-wide reputation for being merciless defenders. The addition of power lifter Anthony Mason, sleeper star John Starks, Derek Harper, and Charles Smith to the core of Ewing and enforcer Charles Oakley elevated the Knicks to the tops of the Atlantic Division: A showdown with Jordan and the Bulls was inevitable, and everyone anxiously awaited it.
By then, I was completely engrossed. Luckily, our basic cable package featured the MSG Network, the official station for Madison Square Garden, and I was able to watch any and all Knicks games I could stomach. In fact, the Knicks virus had spread through my family, and my parents soon got into it—my mother especially, who would get so worked up during nail-biter games that I feared another missed free throw by Oakley would push her over the edge and she'd open fire.
Despite the awesome success of the regular season, all paths led through the United Center in Chicago. And the Easter Conference Finals brought Jordan and Ewing face to face again, in front of a national audience. By that time, I was engaged in a brutal war of words with my Bull fan high school friends. The trash talk would reach such a combative tone that close relationships were very nearly annihilated. The worst part would be talking some righteous trash all day, suffering through a Knicks loss, and then slinking into homeroom with my tail between my legs, gearing up to endure some potent verbal abuse.
Oh, those Bulls fans! Life was easy for them. They had frickin' Michael Jordan, the greatest player to ever play the game. He beat us in 1992, 1993, and 1996, when His Airness came out of his 43rd retirement. He was the insurmountable wall and the bane of the existence of all die-hard Knicks fans around the globe and, most notably, in the little blue house in Utica, NY.
The Evidence, Part Two—Michael Jordan: His Airness
Another installment in the NBA Hardwood Classics series, this profile of Michael Jordan was made in 1999 and, unlike the Ewing disc, benefits from this choice; whereas Ewing's disc cut out the most memorable of his moments, this feature made it out prior to Jordan's third return to the NBA, as a member of the Washington Wizards, and the lame events that played out afterward. But let us not dwell on those times and focus on what this documentary offers us.
Michael Jordan: His Airness offers an overview of Jordan's life and career, starting with anecdotes of his childhood and interviews with his family members (his older brother used to beat him all the time at basketball). Jordan would go on to the University of North Carolina and make a name for himself as a clutch player, single-handedly winning the NCAA championship against a then-vaunted Georgetown Hoyas team, and giving his friend and future rival Patrick Ewing a dose of anguish that he would grow used to in the future. And then from his rookie year in the NBA on, it's all gravy. No other player in recent pro ball history has enjoyed the success of Jordan, as he won time and time again, setting scoring records and basically inventing things to do in midair.
Thankfully, this disc offers a lot of footage of Jordan's amazing aerial prowess, as well as his most memorable performances (e.g., 63 points against Bird and the Celtics, his improbable shooting spree against the Trailblazers). Really, the only downer the filmmakers could drum up was his loss to the Orlando Magic during his first season back as the newly unretired number 45 (which, I have to add with wanton glee, was great to see). But there's a happy ending, as the feature ends with Jordan's second retirement after his insane performance and game-winning shot against the Utah Jazz in the NBA finals, while tormented by the flu. Jordan fans will enjoy this DVD (and enjoy the fact that the follies His Airness committed as a president and player for the Washington Wizards had not happened yet).
Two days before the 1993-1994 season, Michael Jordan retired from the NBA. At last! The gates had suddenly opened up, offering hope and opening a visible path for my beloved Knicks to finally attain their first championship in over twenty years! Pat Riley had by now orchestrated a flawless defensive juggernaut in the New York Knicks, who would hold opponents to low scoring numbers while bludgeoning them nightly with physical play and trash talk galore.
It was easy going to school those days, proudly adorned in my Knicks knockoff Starter jacket (all the rage back then; you could own a heavy coat displaying the logo of your favorite team for a mere $56,000) and lapping up the unease my Bulls-loving peers now had to deal with, sans number 23.
Playoff time rolled around finally, and I was on edge. While the Knicks were the heavy favorites in the East, they still had to get through the still-potent Bulls and a powerhouse Indiana Pacers team. Oh, those game nights were fraught with tension. I had no appetite. I couldn't stay still. And during the barn burners, I couldn't even watch. Each bedtime would find me pleading with the Almighty to bestow His blessings on the Knicks and carry them to championship glory.
A hard-fought series finally lifted the Knicks beyond the Bulls, and the Pacers were next in line to be battled. Perennial NY villain Reggie Miller gave it his best, but the Knicks triumphed, and a date with the Houston Rockets awaited. The only thing standing between Patrick Ewing and his first NBA title was Hakeem Olajuwon.
The Evidence, Part Three—Hakeem Olajuwon: Hakeem the Dream
Our final entry for the NBA Hardwood Classics series, Hakeem's DVD is a remastered release of a program originally released in 1995. It really looks like Patrick Ewing got the short end of the stick here with his release dates. Both Jordan's and Olajuwon's features included all the best stuff from their careers.
Like the other two programs, this presents Hakeem's story as a timeline, starting us off with his childhood in Nigeria. Hakeem was an able athlete in pretty much every sport except for basketball, but when he finally took the game on he excelled. So much so that he journeyed to America to play for the Houston Cougars, the NCAA team that would become renowned for its "Phi Slamma Jamma" nickname. Led by Hakeem, the Houston team would go on to tear up the college hoops world, running and dunking like their team waters were laced with PCP. The onslaught stopped when Houston lost in the finals to—you guessed it—Patrick Ewing and the Georgetown Hoyas.
Hakeem would go on to be the number one overall draft choice in the NBA (the years Jordan was selected number three—ha ha, Sam Bowie!) and roll into a now-stoked Houston. But Hakeem's pro career would be an uneven one; while he would excel at the scoring end—Hakeem was one of the most agile big men in the history of the game—his teams never seemed to get better, and The Dream would consistently bear media scrutiny: Was he a selfish player?
The feature dwells on the pivotal moment in Hakeem's life, when he found Islam and eventually relaxed. He believed that if God wanted him to win an NBA title, then it would happen. The 1993-1994 season offered Hakeem his window. And after a tumultuous post-season, specifically against Charles Barkley's Phoenix Suns, Olajuwon came face to face with his old nemesis from college hoops days: Patrick Ewing.
The Rockets and the Knicks slugged it out for seven games, where, eventually, Hakeem would take the ring on his home court and Ewing would slink off the court amid the confetti and fanfare.
And so the window was closed on that leg of my Knicks faith journey. The team would undergo some dramatic transformations, develop new, fiercer rivals (the Miami Heat, now led by Pat "The Rat" Riley), and make it the NBA Finals once more, only to be put down by a dominant San Antonio Spurs. But after that crushing loss to Houston, and with Michael Jordan returning in full force to secure three more consecutive titles, Ewing's shot at a title faded faster than his patented turnaround baseline jumper.
Today finds me a casual fan of the Knicks, as they consistently struggle in sub-mediocrity through the seasons, making me wistful for the days long gone. The days when I would gather with my family, decked out in every piece of Knicks regalia at my disposal, eating Little Caesar's pizza, crafting the eloquent splashes of trash talk I would berate my friends with at the school the next day, and thinking, game after game, that maybe—just maybe—this was the Knicks' year.
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