Bill Clinton was celebrating his 16th day in the White House, presumably without Monica Lewinsky. The national debt stood at $4,173,289,000,000. George W. Bush was the managing general partner of the Texas Rangers. And Congress was debating gays in the military.
The date was February 4, 1993, and that was the last time—until this week—that the Knicks officially failed to sell out Madison Square Garden. And right at that moment, things were as good as they’d ever been in New York-area basketball. It was also the beginning of the end.
You remember. Pat Riley was patrolling the sidelines in his Armani suits, and Charles Oakley was his Luca Brasi. Anthony Mason and John Starks had been rescued from the CBA and the checkout line, respectively, and were playing at near All Star levels. And Patrick Ewing seemed ready to fulfill his destiny as the franchise’s savior, with Spike Lee and Woody Allen there to see it all. The ‘Bocks were on their way to winning 60 games, earning the best record in the Eastern Conference and home-court advantage against the arch-rival Bulls.
On the other side of the river, things were almost equally rosy. Chuck Daly was sporting his Italian silks—and his two rings—on the New Jersey Nets bench. Derrick Coleman had yet to whoop-de-damn-do, and Kenny Anderson seemed like a mink-free Walt Frazier. Drazen Petrovic was on his way to being named to third-team All-NBA, and even Chris Morris looked like a player. New Jersey was on a 50-win pace. It was good. Too good.
On February 28, the Knicks and Nets faced off, and John Starks pulled a Jack Tatum on Kenny Anderson. How significant was this play? Conspiracy theorist/Net fan Jeff Cicirelli makes the following argument on his Web site: “Many people believe that a slick road caused [Petrovic’s] death, but I, however, have a different theory. I call it the John Starks Theory. If Starks hadn’t taken a cheap shot against Kenny Anderson, breaking his wrist, the Nets would have finished higher up in the Eastern Conference. With a better seed in the playoffs, the Nets would have advanced a round, and Draz would still be in the country on June 7, 1993, instead of on the Autobahn.” Buy in or not, but without Petrovic, Daly lost interest, Coleman and Anderson lost focus, and the Nets just lost. And lost and lost and lost. The names are familiar to every Net fan: Rex Walters. John Calipari. Yinka Dare. Ed O’Bannon.
And if you believe in karma, the Knick payback came soon after. They won the first two games of the conference finals against the Bulls, with John Starks going baseline for a left-handed in-your-face jam against His Airness, memories of which no doubt prompted Jordan’s baseball retirement the following fall. But in Game Five, down by a point, powerless forward Charles Smith got the ball in the paint and went up for a layup and got blocked. And blocked. And blocked. And blocked. No whistle, no win, no championship.
Do we need to talk about how it’s gone since? Reggie Miller pouring in eight points in 16 seconds. Starks going two for 18 in Game Seven against the Rockets. Don Nelson. The Knicks-Miami WWF match. Chris Childs. Tim Duncan’s hook shot. Travis Knight. Charlie Ward’s attempts at brokering peace in the Middle East. Antonio McDyess’s knee. Shandon Anderson.
But it’s over now. And with the sellout streak gone the way of Luc Longley, it’s a new day in New York basketball. Maybe the Nets can get out from under the curse of Dr. J. (although they ought to buy Jason Kidd a four-wheel-drive vehicle, just in case). And maybe the Knicks can finally make moves designed to win basketball games. Or maybe at least you can score a ticket when the Kings come to town.