The setting--Madison Square Garden, 1999, game three of a Conference Final series in which The New York Knicks are going head to head with the rival Indiana Pacers.
None of this was supposed to happen. After a lockout-abbreviated season of roster shuffling, injuries, and uninspired play, the post-Patrick Ewing era Knicks just barely limped into the playoffs as the eighth seed in the weaker conference--ostensibly the worst team to survive to the NBA post-season. In a twist of fate, the team gelled at just the right time. They upset the top-ranked Miami Heat in the first round and went on to defeat the Atlanta Hawks handily in round two. And so, they found themselves four games away from their first NBA Finals since 1994, with the potential for their first championship since 1973.
The heel on the glass slipper of this Cinderella story looked ready break against the Pacers, a team with its own championship aspirations. The Knicks won the first game of the series and I started to believe they really could go all the way. But the Pacers beat back New York in game two in what felt like a stark return to reality--a headshot that may not have KOed the metaphorical Knicks prizefighter, but that came in hard enough to leave him in the condition of easy prey.
I watched all of this not from the stands of the Garden, but on TV 250 miles north in Utica, New York, seated in my best friend’s bedroom as we passed a bag of pretzels back and forth, looking up dirty jokes on the Internet during each timeout or break between quarters. I watched game three slip away and resigned myself to the fact that The Knicks had already overachieved and that they wouldn’t go all the way.
But though the Knicks seemed outmatched and outplayed, they hung in. The score never suggested the blowout that the game play might have the casual observer believe was materializing before them.
Five seconds left, the Knicks were down by three. A three-point shot might earn them overtime, but even at 15 I was a jaded enough Knicks fan that I didn’t quite believe.
Larry Johnson, the once-superstar turned journeyman whose accumulated back injuries that demoted him from athletic specimen to spot-shooter, got the ball in the corner. That season, he had devolved to a near-comic character who made a show of folding his arms into an L-shape (“The Big L”) in over-the-top celebration of his own minor accomplishments on the court. He was the guy who, contrary to Allan Houston or Latrell Sprewell, had yet to really deliver a star-caliber moment in 1999.
Larry Johnson got the ball and took his shot from behind the three-point arc. As he leapt, Pacer forward Antonio Davis went up with him, hand outstretched to go for the block. The ref’s whistle blew, calling an (admittedly spurious) foul on Davis, just as Johnson’s shot dropped through the hoop, hitting nothing but net on the way to the gymnasium floor.
The unthinkable had happened. An exceptionally clutch shot and a foul called in favor of the Knicks. Moments later, Johnson drained the free throw that secured The Knicks’ one-point victory.
And in Utica, we leapt, pumping fists in the air, in one those moments of male adolescence when only curse words will do to communicate a certain extremity of emotion, even in the case of joy. For in that New York victory, we, too, were winners. Loyal believers in an underdog squad. When LJ raised “The Big L” in front of the faithful at MSG, they returned the gesture, as did we to the glow of the TV screen, saluting our new hero.
NBA basketball is the only sport I follow with any regularity or verve. There are all manner of reasons for this, but I hold firm that one of the biggest is that perfect storm of circumstances we discovered that night. I fell in love with basketball when my de facto home team made its first run to the Finals in my lifetime in 1994, and grew more impassioned during Michael Jordan’s second act--The Bulls’ dominant fun from 1995-1998, that generated a sublime sports story.
And then were was June 3, 1999, when summer had taken a warm enough hold that I burned through hours of daylight most days shooting baskets against a backdrop of fantasy NBA scenarios in my mind. And it was a Saturday night, when the prospect of overtime didn’t mean choosing between missing the end of the game and being exhausted at school (the latter being the inevitable choice under such circumstances).
Watching that game taught me everything I needed to know about the importance of faith for a fledgling sports fan. That if you keep watching, keep cheering, and nurture even a hint of belief, then something truly inspiring can happen. That four-point play felt like nothing short of a minor miracle.
And so I keep the faith today. Against reason, and perhaps sans some of the passion I could muster sixteen years ago. I remain a fan. I remain a believer.